Category Archives: Game Industry

The 150th CMP Round-Table and the Evergreens of MMO Discussion

For the illustrious 150th anniversary of their CMP podcast Roger and Brian invited a bunch of guests to discuss such trivial topics as hardcore vs. casual, sandbox vs. themepark, free-to-play and crowdfunding. It was a unique experience for me to join a podcast together with so many fellow bloggers and a pleasure to personally talk to some of my new MMO blogosphere buddies. Naturally, we never finished and could have gone on forever discussing substantial and divisive topics such as these.

Knights_of_the_Round_Table_001

A while ago I started compiling what I call the list of “big MMO Evergreens” as far as those topics go that have been the greatest cause of passionate debate (and strife) among lovers of the genre since forever. No doubt, they will be keeping us busy decades from now. Typically, these are questions that do not have one definite answer but boil down to personal preferences and opposing camps with an equally strong wish to well, enjoy the games they’re playing. I’m not always up for heated debate but then, I also believe it’s polarizing issues that are most interesting because they teach us the most about ourselves and others. I have always blogged for myself and a big part of that journey is defined by personal growth, formal and otherwise. Returning to posts I’ve written more than two years ago is often a bad idea. As for the greatest changes in my views, they have been brought upon by listening to you – to other gamers, being touched or educated by what they had to say. Of course a lot of that is timing too, maybe all of it is.

So, we should be thankful for the casual vs. hardcore debates, the holy trinity role discussions or never-ending payment model gripes; they make sure we’ll never run out of opportunities to butt some heads and more importantly, test our views and empathize with other people’s positions if nothing else. Advancing age, or rather time and opportunity to meet someone different from us, become quite the hindrance to extreme opinions (not to mistake for strong opinions). That’s why I also love to travel – international blogging is travelling in many ways and requires a similar attitude.

Where I am right now

As a personal summary of the evergreen topics we brushed in the 150th CMP episode and as reflection of where I am right now, I’ll make a few generalized statements until such a time as I feel they require revision on this here blog!

  • All future MMOs, whether subscription based, F2P or B2P, should come with a free trial/guest month (or free first 20 levels) at launch, so players can try the new game before making final purchasing decisions.
  • Sandboxes and themeparks may exist at either end of the casual-hardcore spectrum. Many sandboxes are as casual or hardcore as players make them (and as game design allows) but it’s probably also true that the big majority of not-so imaginative competetive players prefer linear games with defined progression aka themeparks. “Winning a sandbox” is a great deal more work than winning a themepark.
  • I can’t be the MMO player I was 10 years ago when WoW came out. There is a sacred magic to early MMO gaming that cannot be reproduced, no matter our longing and despite the best design efforts. Maybe it’s time we gave up the search for a “second home” and accepted new games for what they are – which is not our first MMO. We’ve grown older and better at everything at the price of blissful collective naïveté.
  • Crowdfunding is scary when it encourages every vocal player and their distant cousin to think they just bought their share of “co-developer rights”.

The future is welcome to change my views on any or all of these matters at hand. I can’t wait.

SOE and the All-you-can-eat MMO Buffet. Are we afraid yet?

It’s almost old news now, SOE and their single-subscription plans for all players. You can head over to Wilhelm’s for a roundup of what that means and why they’re doing it and check the other, related blogger links there. I am of course with Bhagpuss when it comes to feeling rather outraged about the whole Pro7Sat-deal for European players. If you’ve sorta grown up with those TV channels, it fills you with all kinds of dread thinking of them as MMO publishers, all other issues of this arrangement aside. I’ve been bewildered about this for a while now. First time I heard about it, I thought they were pulling my leg.

Syp explained today how the single-sub is really a “big win-win situation for both the studio and its customers” and a move towards rewarding brand loyalty. I can see how cross-financing more and less struggling products makes sense and why friends of SOE games might feel this way. After all, what’s cooler than getting more games for a single subscription, right?

For now. I just can’t help but puzzle over all the included implications for this genre that’s made for longterm, dedicated play. A genre that’s not the most suitable for switching games constantly – a thing that gets incentivized by the way sub bonuses will affect all of SOE’s involved products at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong; this is essentially not much different from free-to-play MMO gaming. You could say that you’re paying a sub for one game and get the rest for free. A single-sub MMO buffet doesn’t “destroy” player commitment any more than free-to-play does, any more than any payment model can. I have never believed in subs being great or in fact genuine tools of facilitating player commitment. I don’t believe they decide over how, when and why MMO players leave a title. Great games keep players. Great games create great communities that keep players. It’s all connected in one direction for me.

soes

Another thing this frontrunner of all-access MMO deals is doing, is inspiring wild industry speculations on what we can expect from here. It’s a no-brainer that other companies will follow suit; certainly other giants such as Blizzard or NCSoft have their own, big enough game palettes to offer. There will be a point in time where business analysts with a very large clip-board will have proven beyond doubt that, in these times of plentiful micro transactions, the pros of single-sub buffets outweigh the cons (such as losing multi-subbers) by far. Once you have access to more games and are actively encouraged to play them in combination, that opens up all types of new avenues of getting hooked and spending money with that one sub payed on top of everything else. As Tesh rightly pointed out on Twitter, it’s opening the floodgates to MMO meta-gaming and cross-overs, too – and we haven’t even properly begun to explore those. Frankly, I am scared to explore them. I do not appreciate those Steam trading cards at all.

But one can almost feel it now: a ripple in the fabric of the MMO market as we knew it. I can’t shake the gloomy feeling that SOE has just rung the bell for an entirely new era of MMO development – or opened a particularly disgusting cans of worms, depending on your viewpoint. One sub to rule them all and in the darkness bind them?

At this time and considering existing games, there may be clear upsides to this model. However, what it may cause in the long run and what types of new games it might inspire to be developed….especially for the traditionalists among us…..

I am afraid to even consider.

Deliberating TESO

The beginning of a new year is a time for predictions good and bad. Gamers look forward to their most wanted launches of the year in enthusiastic or more reluctant anticipation. As for mainstream media, it’s an opportunity to be sensationalist and snide because nothing brings more hits than condemning yet-to-be-released titles or already revealing the GOTYs of 2014 in January. January.

I have no MMO predictions to share for 2014 and even if I did, I’d like to keep them positive. Whatever feeling one might have about upcoming AAA-titles, 2014 will be a year of new releases – of buzz and growth and lots of discussion. The genre is moving forward or at the very least, it’s moving and new games will infuse our conversations. For this reason, 2014 is already the better year for MMOs in my book than 2013 ever was. There’s no real failure for this genre as long as new games keep coming out. Once they stop being developed that’s when we’re in trouble.

sadponie

What do you mean, no more MMOs? [belen02 @ deviantart.com]

Condemning TESO – A brief Chronology

So, what happened? A few days ago in good old Kotaku stunt manner, a member of said news site declared publicly on twitter that The Elder Scrolls Online “apparently has a price tag of $200 million”, only to delete the tweet soon after because it’s bad journalism to make claims without any fact to back them up. However, that’s exactly how effective internet rumors start and that brief tweet was enough to set the gaming community completely ablaze over a simple, uncorroborated figure.

As if that wasn’t silly enough, Zenimax’ own Matt Firor then added more fuel to the fire by making very unfortunate, sarcastic remarks on how TESO could never ever have cost nearly that much because hey, look at our game – it’s crap! (just to paraphrase mildly). Now, I do somewhat appreciate the obvious eyeroll from Firor but it wasn’t the greatest way to address the budget question and infuse trust and enthusiasm in your anxious player base.

After all of that commotion had already spawned myriads of sub-tweets, message board threads and blog posts, Forbes (yes, they do video game journalism) ventured forth to declare TESO the “Greatest Videogame Disaster of 2014” two days ago. The article is essentially a summary of old news and concerns long debated among MMO players, but since the rest of the world needs time to catch up with us, it has gone viral not least thanks to its sensationalist headline.

All the while, I am scratching my head a little over what exactly has caused some of the vocal TESO malady in the wake of this budget rumor. Mainly, I have three questions regarding the most popular concerns (in the Forbes article and elsewhere) that I just can’t seem to figure out:

1) What does $200 millions even mean?
Maybe the person holding authority over efficient MMO budgeting could please come forth and enlighten the rest of us what TESO at its current state should legitimately have cost. Of course nobody knows similar figures for AAA-ventures Wildstar or Everquest Next and it seems the best course of action to make sure your numbers never get out lest you not be met with omg-SWTOR-hysteria. By the way, wasn’t it $300 millions for SWTOR? Or $500? If you really want to bore google, you can find them all. In truth, I’ve never found an MMO player nor videogame journalist who had an inkling of all the costs related to a particular MMO development (they tend not be public!) but now that we know (not) that TESO cost 200 MILLIONS….that changes everything!

2) How is it news that this is “just a Skyrim Online”?
It’s been clear from the beginning that an ES MMO wasn’t going to re-invent the genre wheel. When TESO was finally officially confirmed in 2012, the game had been in development for several years, which also means prior to Skyrim’s success and during an era of still solid WoW rulership. You can bet a franchise as traditional as Elder Scrolls dipping their first toe into MMO territory, was going to keep things conservative under these circumstances. There is also the ES fanbase to consider which doesn’t necessarily consist of online players. So yes, of course an ES MMO will essentially boil down to something like “Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim Online”. What else would it be? One doesn’t turn to TESO for big MMO innovations in 2014. Duh?

skymmo3) Nobody ever wanted an ES MMO. Really?
Considering TESO’s imminent launch this April 2014, it’s not only a grossly cynical statement that nobody ever wanted an Elder Scrolls MMO, it is also simply untrue. For every new installment be it Oblivion, Morrowind or Skyrim, fans have debated and fervently hypothesized up and down social networks how awesome an online Elder Scrolls or at least coop function for Skyrim could have been. I myself addressed this topic after Skyrim on this blog, preferring a coop option to the MMO. Of course TESO was already being developed then but the general MMO discussion for Elder Scrolls games is a thing among gamers and an old thing at that. To say the developers has no legitimate reason to believe such a project might be of interest to their fans, as the Forbes article has done, is bogus. If anything, that interest has increased over the last few years.

From where I personally stand nothing has changed in terms of looking forward to TESO this 2014. I trust all the beta testers who have told me that it’s essentially “just Skyrim Online” and all those who have mixed feelings about the game’s polish or long-term appeal. It’s more or less what I am expecting. Of course, there is the subscription concern and a free-to-play switch is probably in the books for TESO as is the case for so many MMOs nowadays.

No doubt, TESO is going to be the traditionalist among 2014 MMO releases and it will need to charm franchise fans. Pre-condemning the title for these reasons however, seems rather oblivious to the fact that many players still like traditional MMOs and that we’re living in times where switching to free-to-play is not a failure but proven business model. Either way, I’ll be playing TESO with or without a sub and I will make final judgements after all the big contenders of 2014 have had their fair shot. For now, my MMO sky is still lit with promise and lots of opportunity!

masky

Holding a torch for MMOs until proven otherwise.

Tunes of Magic VII: Listmas Edition – Greatest Videogame Soundtracks of 2013

With Xmas almost here, I have one more promise to fulfill which is celebrating a year of beautiful soundtracks. 2013 has brought me many a new tune to delight in and of course as Battle Bard, it is my sacred duty to share rather than keep them all to myself.

While we are all listing across the blogosphere, I officially dedicate this post to happy #listmas – a fun blogger initiative started by Murf vs. Internet bringing all the blogosphere lists together over the holidays. There is still time to join for that!

Videogame Soundtracks of the Year

I will add that not all of these games were released in 2013 and at least one of them is actually still in the future(!) Some have had their soundtracks released later or then they have come to me late. My year of videogame music is therefore truly my year although there are mostly 2013 releases among them.

1. Dust – An Elysian Tail (2013)
My GOTYs tend to be games that also come with a brilliant soundtrack. Dust AET is such a title and there are no VGM aficionados who haven’t shed a tear over the beautiful music created by Hyperduck Soundworks this year. My favorite tracks are Falana and Cirromon Caverns.

2. Don’t Starve (2013)
Another GOTY, Don’t Starve’s soundtrack echoes every bit the quirky, playful and creepy “Nightmare before Christmas”-style of the game. This OST by Vince de Vera and Jason Garner is a lot of fun and despite its generally shorter tracks, not to be missed. My favorites are the Main Title and Work To Be Done.

3. World of Goo (2008)
WoG is a special little game with a spooky and magical soundtrack, that opens the door to childhood memories such as Beetlejuice or King Arthur for me. The best part? The complete OST has been made available for free by composer Kyle Gabler so what are you waiting for? Personal favorites: Rain Rain Windy Windy and Are You Coming Home, Love Mom.

4. The Legend of Zelda – A Link between Worlds (2013)
Possibly my favorite game on the 3DS, ALBW comes with a splendid soundtrack full of familiar Zelda cues. My favorite tracks include Dark Palace Maze, Swamp Palace, Lorule Castle and the good old acid flashback that is the Lost Woods.

5. Animal Crossing New Leaf (2013)
The second best handheld title I played this year, it was lovely to dive back into the world of Animal Crossing with New Leaf. This franchise is loaded with a unique charm and quirkiness, accompanied by a wonderfully diverse soundtrack. Every hour of the day plays a different tune in animal town, so I have too many favorites to count (although I am partial to 7PM, 11PM and the Main Streets) . Check them out for yourself!

6. Phoenix Wright – Dual Destinies (2013)
Ambivalent about some of the characters and dialogue in DD, the game has produced many memorable and high tension tracks such as Announce the Truth, Logic Trinity, Last Promotion, Cross Examination and Court Begins. Fans of the typical Japanese anime flavor will love this.

7. Professor Layton – Miracle Mask (2012)
Although the Azran Legacy has only come out this November, I love the more haunting tracks from its predecessor, Miracle Mask; Puzzles Abound and Illusion are definitely among my top sparkly tunes of the year!

8.  Final Fantasy – A Realm Reborn (2013)
Moving away from indie games and handheld titles, FF:ARR delivered some of the most beautiful music as far as MMO releases go in 2013. While the game wasn’t quite reborn for me personally, I will listen to beautiful tracks such as Ul’dah at Night or Sacred Bonds for a long time to come. Now if only SE added the ARR-OST to their store.

9. Wildstar (2014)
While the Battle Bards have already paid homage to Wildstar and Jeff Kurtenacker this year, we have no doubt much to look forward to as far as its complete OST release is concerned. WS is all about thematic fusion and I especially love the Character Customization or Highland Vista themes.

10. Lime Odyssey (unreleased?)
A lesser known MMO title that cannot quite make it to launch, my thanks go to @Soltanis for providing me with a link to the music of Lime Odyssey by legendary composer Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross). It’s a sad thing when great soundtracks are tied to unfortunate launches, never making it to a wider audience. Tracks such as Bluecoral Town and many of the beautifully uplifting BGMs deserve to be heard by a wider audience.

11. DOTA 2 (2013)
Not surprisingly, DOTA 2 has some glorious and epic music composed by none less than Jason Hayes, former lead composer for WoW and WCIII, as well as Tim Larkin (Portal). There is much to love here despite shorter length . My favorite tracks would be Laning 1 (and many tracks of a similar name), World Map and many a Main Menu theme.

12. Various Bits & Bobs
Some OSTs don’t warrant purchasing the entire album but leave a mark in our memory nonetheless, thanks to an outstanding title or two. For completeness sake, I’ll mention them here in no particular order, in case you’d like to browse further from there:

13. Lucky number thirteen: Chrono Trigger Symphony
Saving the best for last, my special bonus recommendation for you are both albums of the amazing Chrono Trigger Symphony by Blake Robinson’s Synthetic Orchestra. Die-hard CT fan or not, there is not much that comes close in terms of quality and stellar orchestration in the world of VG OSTs. A third album is in the works – until then, you have Yearnings of the Wind, The Trial , Frog’s Theme and sooooo many more to keep you company. Do not miss this!

wv

With that, I really hope I included my most important picks for 2013 in this post. I’ve a feeling I forgot something but hey, it’s a start right? I included links to official distribution pages in the titles where I know them but you will still need to browse youtube here and there to find out more. Videogame OSTs do still not receive the attention they deserve from some publishers or even developers, which is a sad affair for fans worldwide waiting to purchase the soundtrack and support composers. However, we can spread the word, let the artists know how much we appreciate them and bring as many players (and potential music lovers) onboard as possible. Here’s to another great year of VG music and hopefully much goodness to share in 2014! Happy Holidays all!

Defining Good Value and Price Limits for your Games

The other night when listening to the latest GameOn episode #30 with Chris (he’s back!), Adam aka Ferrel and Liore (who has permanently joined the podcast!), the hosts made an interesting comment that got me thinking about the long way we have come in terms of general affordability of games and our willingness to pay for them. As for what piqued my interest, this is how the conversation went down [00:16:40 onward]:

Chris: …’cuz there is no game out there that is going to live up to a ten thousand dollar investment, or even one thousand. I would seriously doubt that.
Adam: I don’t even wanna spend sixty dollars on a game.
Chris: Yeah right? Right. With these days, I go to this website [name] because sixty dollars is too much. Pretty much any brand new game I get, if it’s over forty-eight dollars, I’ll wait a little while.

I remember the times when I paid an average 120 bucks for my console RPGs. While PC games were always cheaper, as kids we would usually pay around at least 100$ for console modules, in the late 80ies and early 90ies. Naturally, it took months to save up for new games and both our anticipation and appreciation was accordingly high. Those were different times altogether as far as single game value went. There’s no such thing as scarcity to make you aware of what things are worth – or could be.

modules

quake.ingame.de

Today, I would of course concur with Chris and Adam. 60 dollars for a game is something to think over. I don’t actually recall when I paid that much for a new title ever since moving on to PC gaming and videogames becoming generally more mainstream and thus cheaper, and it’s not even that I avoided them on purpose. The most expensive games I’ve bought (digitally) were possibly Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite right after launch although “expensive” is a very relative term; I don’t consider 40-65$ for a full-package title with 20+ (in Skyrim’s case more like 80+) hours worth of game time expensive. Also, my budget for games is a different matter than it was twenty years ago.

This is of course where our notion of good value (or biggest bang for the buck) comes in and generally, it’s fair to say that with a growing supply our expectations of videogames have drastically increased. As Liore also mentions later on the podcast, the expectation of things like Steam sales further influences player purchases. Now, when are we still willing to pay more than the usual 5-20$ on Steam for single games and how do we determine that value? And how do we determine the absolute limit of an acceptable price? Is there any?

Personally, I detect a variety of factors influencing my investment decisions for games: reputation / trust in an existing brand, genre expectations, overall preview impressions, word of mouth, total game time, extras – they all play a part. As far as hard limits go, I wouldn’t pay several thousand dollars for any game (alpha/beta access for that matter) upfront; even if I had that type of small change, there is no one game with enough value that could justify such a price to me, certainly no non-MMO. After playing WoW for 6 years, I must have paid around 1000$ in installments and subscriptions. All that said, the prospect of playing a game like Skyrim with Omni and Occulus Rift hardware is highly appealing. If this is the future of gaming, wouldn’t I be willing to pay for that? I know I would.

Skyrim-v7

How do we determine that sketchy variable that is value when purchasing new games and how much weight is given to qualitative (for ex. gameplay innovation) vs. quantitative factors (for ex. overall play time) respecitvely? Can a rewarding and fun one-hour indie platformer offer the same or more value than the average Mario game on console? If not, how do we break down value proportionally to arrive at a “justified price”?

Is there any time when you still want to buy a video game right after launch, no matter the higher price? [random question]

Judging from many heated pricing debates on forums and message boards that I’ve seen, there is clearly no consensus among gamers about these matters. It is very interesting to hear anyone talking about 60$ being “too much for any game” though, considering I just had a dinner last night that cost more. In the end, games are experiences to me and even in 2014, I will still be very willing to pay good money for well, the good ones.

Off the Chest – Rant Edition: Ballroom MMOs, The Emperor’s new Indie and Fantasy Games

otc

Am I gonna rant. I can’t say I’ve been particularly amused where some recent developments in the game industry are concerned. In fact, I detect a backward trend – of faux values or faulty conclusions, especially where game journalism is concerned, a celebration of pretentiousness and a hype of the trivial that makes me wonder when we stopped asking games for everything in order to receive something, preferably better.

Ever, Jane – Bringing Women’s Fantasies to Video Games

If there’s one thing I personally like to do less than having to read one more Jane Austen novel in my life, it’s playing a Jane Austen MMO. To be perfectly clear here: I’ve no issue with players excited for new, non-combative MMO concepts nor the developers of EJ for that matter. I am incredulous that kickstarter was funded but whatever floats your boat. If ballroom dances replace “epic raids” for you and gossip is a preferable form of combat, why not knock yourself out in a romanticized historical period setting where women were worth less than silver cutlery – yes why not? That prospect is about as exciting and empowering to me as root canal treatment but what has really kicked off this whole EJ-rant is the subtle assumption that this particular game is somehow for women. Or as was stated so wonderfully in a recent interview title on MMORPG.com: Ever, Jane – Bringing Women’s Fantasies to Video Games!

gossipis

Whoever is responsible for that wording on one of the most popular MMO gaming sites today, needs to seriously check themselves. I gotta say, it’s a depressing time for female gamers when the MMO worlds we are seeking out ignore us completely or make us a mere afterthought – and the ones we don’t wish to be part of are supposedly MADE for us! Oh the lofty art of gossip, such a womanly skill indeed!

Indiemania – Because nostalgia fills in all the gaps! NOT.

In April 2012 Jim Sterling of Gamefront asked the provocative but very reasonable question of whether we are being too generous to indie games. One year and a half later, after having had some of the best times with stellar titles such as Don’t Starve and Dust: AET this 2013, as well as some of the most incredulous laughs since Atari multigame packs (ou…ya), I echo his sentiment. The unabashed praise that some indie games have received of late by game journos for doing one thing right (thank god for commenters) as opposed to the top level criticism received by full-package, all-around polished titles such as Bioshock Infinite or Assassin’s Creed IV BF, is nothing short of a baffling double standard – not to mention unjust towards anyone involved in creating latter games. For some reason it’s become a very personal, almost unacceptable matter to sternly criticize indie developers. Yet, with big labels it’s still “anything goes” because no real people and livelihoods are involved there.

As Rampant Coyote recently pointed out, what makes the indie “revolution” so great is the liberation, the literal independence from investors, publishers and distributors due to the chance for smaller venues to get noticed in a sea of big fish –

The whole “revolution” and term “indie” was really about a back-door way to set ourselves apart from the guys spending millions of dollars on TV ads, so that gamers *might* take look off the beaten path once in a while and see what we were doing. To the people (especially the press) who weren’t really paying attention, sure – it’s a revolution. Or maybe just a revelation. They turn the corner from their thoroughfare and say, “Holy crap, when did all THIS stuff get built?” and don’t realize it’s all been there forever. [Rampant Coyote]

What indie absolutely isn’t, is a commendation of any kind; an assurance of quality or innovation or worse, an excuse for laziness and mediocrity. Naturally, the successes of titles such as Braid have created a bubble, encouraged an unmanageable flood of cheap copies and lazy attempts at retro homage to a point where ugly pixel graphics and 8bit bleeps are associated with being subversive, deviant or new wave. As someone who actually doesn’t consider retro new wave because I‘ve been to original retro, I’ve endured original retro, let me say this: there is no inherent virtue in pixel graphics. None.

sbss

Superbrothers Sword & Sorcery

Now, some games make the retro look their own; they take it a step further, creating something beautiful or unique. These games are rare. They stand out from the crowd and justify simplicity. They don’t look retro because they “were rushed” or “didn’t have the manpower” or “funds”. They still deliver a package. One of my favorite games this year was created by one guy – it features the most polished 12-hours gameplay experience, retro and contemporary indie homages alike, a deep story with loveable characters, secrets to discover and an off-the-charts soundtrack. You’ll hear no one-man indie excuses from Dean Dodrill.

I have no indie love for indie’s sake. I’ve no love for games that get slack for reason XY when others don’t – that’s not how I perceive my role as a gamer. I’ve no love for game journalists celebrating the emperor’s new clothes in a rush of undifferentiated or artsy hype, at no one’s service but their own. I’ve no love for developers trying to get a free pass for pushing my nostalgia buttons –

We should all strive to look past the smoke and mirrors of modern indie developers, to see which ones are passing off shitty games as indie darlings by pulling on our nostalgic heartstrings. We ought to tell an emotionally engaging art game from one that’s just making indirect references to the “human condition” in order to look smarter than it is. [source]

I am not interested in asking less of games. I still want games to get better in every way possible. And I hope this has something outrageously good going for it, because it sure as hell doesn’t look that way. We can have the morals and the story, as well as the package? Sorry I even asked! (GOTY of 2014: PONG!)

Seriously, there’s no such thing as enough (good) fantasy MMOs

This last argument isn’t so much a rant as a disagreement really and an evergreen at that. The lovely Mike Foster over at Massively recently ventured forth to state that we have had enough fantasy MMOs already – to which I had to respectfully disagree on twitter:

syltweet

Now I do get the genre fatigue, I really do but let’s remember correlation. If players are tired of dead horses such as ever being the hero, the holy trinity, traditional questing and foreseeable ends, then that’s an issue of gameplay first and foremost: of mechanics, of writing, of balance and overall lack of imagination. Which is rather ironic given the setting. We should absolutely ask for more.

However, kill ten rats is still kill ten rats in a zombie or space shooter MMO. Personally, I can’t wait to play more fantasy MMOs in the future with dragons and shameless magic of which there can’t ever be enough. I also hope they’ll do new things, show us new twists while playing differently, daring to use their unique fantasy on the fantasy. If you got the setting down, surely you can start focusing elsewhere?

And if everything fails, I can still go ballroom dancing in Ever, Jane. I wonder if I can bring my retro flamethrower.

The MMO blogosphere is here to stay – if you want it to

I’m not sure exactly what caused the recent stir of blogging-death related posts these past two weeks, or if it’s even a thing. Bloggers tend to magnify issues by joining in to comment or just muse on a matter. It doesn’t really mean everyone’s worried. That “golden age of MMO blogging”-theme has been spooking around ever since Cataclysm latest. So, let me just get this out of the way: I am not worried. It just so happens there’s a few more voices on this you shouldn’t miss.

Recently three more MMO bloggers, namely Jeromai, Azuriel and Jewel, have joined the debate and made some excellent points each on why things are starting to sound very doomy-gloomy and largely disproportional in some cases. Let me recite one of my favorite lines in this context: “…I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it”. Let’s not overdo it with the next generation and social media anxiety – you don’t wanna start sounding like your grandparents, do you? So, let’s highlight just a few tiny bits from the links above –

There are I few issues I think that are maybe giving this impression. Firstly is that some of the old cranky dinosaurs of the blogging world have been retiring in recent years, some that were part of those early communities. [Jewel]

Do you know what the upcoming generation’s great crime is? They have a choice, whereas we did not. Do you think the New Blogger Initiative failure rate of 73% is a new phenomenon? It is not. In fact, I was pretty surprised the number that survived was that high. Blogging is hard. [Azuriel]

Some grew up and got older and prioritized other things to do with their time than write blog posts – like start a family, begin a new job, play non-MMO games, continue playing MMOs but not bother to chronicle or document it. – The others, well, they haven’t gone anywhere. [Jeromai]

I don’t know about you but I think it would have been incredibly boring to just have one primary game most were talking about. Now we have multiple opinions about a variety of subjects spawned on by new experiences and it is an exciting time to be a part of. [Jewel]

Things aren’t worse; things are different. To some, maybe different is worse. In which case, you probably chose the wrong genre of game to write about in the first place. [Azuriel]

In short, if you want a blogging community, it behooves you to form your own. Go visit and bookmark your favorite sites to read and leave a comment here and there. Develop your own circle and fellowship. [Jeromai]

About everything that I believe about this current, colorful and diverse age of MMO blogging (and what makes a community for that matter) is covered in these three articles. As Shintar points out elsewhere in context of MMO players crying for community in games, there is something comparatively weird about beweeping a collective that you are still part of. Don’t want blogging / the MMO blogosphere to die? Keep writing!

[…]I wrote elsewhere that I personally favor today’s diversity among bloggers. and even if MMO blogging becomes smaller, that doesn’t have to be worse, either. do we need 100% growth for growth’s sake? or could it be that the blogosphere grows closer together that way, making for better discussions at times? all things pros and cons.

This was always a niche and as you said too, blog ‘failure rates’ were always high. maybe the biggest contribution to this topic from our side is to not stop blogging just because we believe others stop blogging. ;) my personal blogosphere corner is only marginally smaller than ever. [Syl]

My blogroll has shed a few feathers in the last three years, mostly due to retiring WoW bloggers who either felt like WoW was dying or realized that they had no more to say about it. Now I can’t guess what other bloggers want from their blogosphere; I can only point out what it is I am looking for. For me, it’s always been about exchange – about the hot cross-blog debates, about shared topics, about great discussions (you guys are awesome!). I don’t require a hundred other bloggers or commenters per topic for this, in fact that would be very hard to manage (although you can bet I would try and reply to every comment). The great majority of my visitors per day are silent readers, as I am sure they are for all blogs. As far as reciprocal relationships go, I can maybe keep track of dialogues between 30 or so different people. Does it matter how many more exist besides that? Were MMO bloggers ever so much more than a tiny niche, really?

If we keep with the numbers, blogs are about being read first and foremost. Any more visible connection is the amazing icing on the cake that keeps so many of us going. And I don’t detect a decline of general interest or visitors on this or any of the other active, general MMO blogs on my blogroll. No more than is warranted by annual summer- and release low, anyway. I’ve started dabbling with youtube more recently (and it’s really just for fun) and I’m having the greatest time with the Battle Bards podcast. More social creative media are awesome in combination with blogging. As for twitter, I’m sorry I didn’t join sooner. It has made MMO blogging that much more personal.

Here to stay

There is room here for everybody. There is a community you can carve out for yourself and reach out to. There is an audience for every type of blogger. The same was true ten years ago – only, there was actually a lot less MMO audience around than there is today. As for WoW’s hayday well, fewer blogs on the same topic mean better chances for newer bloggers to get noticed.

The community is you. It’s us. If we keep writing, connecting and acknowledging each other, it’s us who decide what happens to the MMO blogosphere in the future. And it’s also the only way of telling aspiring bloggers than this is still very much a venture worth pursuing. Well, I think it is.

Happy weekend to all you MMO bloggers, readers and commenters out there. Here’s a silly picture of a cat for you! It’s Friday after all!

Badass is the new Sexy! That Female Armor Blargh

In context of the dinosaur-debate that is female armor and character representation in videogames, there have been several tumblrs I’ve been wanting to share with you for a while now. However, as these things go, something always came up and so I didn’t – so in case all these links are old news to you, I apologize. They’re really good though!

It’s no secret that I enjoy armor in MMOs and playing around with cosmetics. I’m a sucker for immersion in games and when it comes to my avatars, I treat them as virtual representations of myself. I also have a very clear idea of what’s proper armor in combat-centric games and MMOs are that. I’m happy to suspend disbelief where dragons and fireballs are concerned, but if you were to try convince me that my female fighter is fine with bare stomach and thighs (while her male counterparts are not), you’re going to have a very hard time.

Alas, that is my personal view. I realize that some people (women included) are quite happy with the way things are and never mind the boob and ass flaunting that is often part of the ‘female aesthetic’ in videogames. That’s good for you. Me, I like some serious armor on my chars that serves my personal escapism and power fantasies (as it usually does for male characters) rather than to delight others, usually male gamers. All I ask for is variety, especially in genres with customization sliders. That said, I draw a big line between what’s attractive and what is blunt objectification/sexualization of female characters. I too, like my characters to look good. I just don’t like them to be all about their nekidness and sexual availability – that perpetual stereotype.

“Badass is the new sexy” – Three links that make it visual so you can’t claim otherwise

 1) The Hawkeye Initiative
Quite often when you try to make the point about how female and male character representation in video games differ, you’ll face issues explaining the concept of skewed gender equivalence or “why male body proportions and gear serve power fantasies and female ones do not” – not seldomly when talking to men uneducated on the subject. This is also popularly known as the “…but what about the menz??”- debate. Lucky for us, The Hawkeye Initiative has taken this exact subject to heart not too long ago, showing audiences just how exactly male characters in game and comic culture would have to look and be presented like (body language, oh my) in order to create “sexy equilibrium” between genders. I know a fair amount of men gamers; I can say for certain none of them would be thrilled if all their male character choices in games looked like a doe-eyed batman in transparent thighs. Do I need say more?

2) Repair her Armor
I would very much like to believe that if you were to browse all the amazing female armor over at Repair her Armor, such as illustrated on this Guild Wars 2 concept art sheet, you would nod in agreement that this is some good-looking and adequate gear you’d have your female toons wear in a heartbeat. Page after page does this newly started project illustrate just how easily and effectively female armor could be adjusted and brought on par with male models, while looking every inch as shiny and aesthetically pleasing as before.

Of course, none of the “amended” armor on this website is the real one – just like that concept art sheet wasn’t. So, here I raise my question: who does truly think the fixed armor versions are worse / less attractive than their originals while being a lot less skimpy? Who indeed?

armorz

3) Badass Lady Armor
The Badass Lady Armor gallery is a project I started myself and that simply collects various game-related (mostly MMOs with some fantasy card- and boardgames in the mix) female armor I think looks fabulous. Criteria to be met are similar to the well-known Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor tumblr, although that one serves much wider a focus and also includes real life shots. I’ve always had an extensive videogame concept and fan art database on my personal PC, so this is an attempt at bringing together women’s armor I’d love to wear in MMOs.

And yes, boob plate is still represented in an overwhelming majority of all these pictures (as opposed to this); but I’d say this is a pretty stellar array of high quality images that was quite a journey to collect. Believe me when I say these picks are a stark minority among all MMO fan and concept art out there. However, I was still able to beat my goal of getting a 100 pictures to pass the test (also in terms of body language which spoils at least two thirds of all otherwise passable images), so yay for more badass armor in videogames! Let nobody claim more realistic female armor can’t also be good-looking or similar nonsense. Now if only developers / designers caught up with this soon!

Free-to-Play vs. Gambling

The Kleps kicked the never quite dead F2p-debate back to life this last Monday, and another interesting series of posts (Rohan, Tobold, Rowan, Telwyn) emerged as a result. With Rift now also F2P and upcoming titles like Wildstar or TESO having not yet disclosed payment options, many gamers are wondering who will ever be bold enough again to dare the subscription. Personally, I seem to care more for debating principles than the answers to these questions. If Zenimax Online want me to pay a sub for TESO, I will. If not – well, either way I’ll raid the shop.

ccp

Blogging buddy Liore and I go way back when it comes to discussing F2P back and forth on our blogs, so it was only a matter of time until we’d put on our boxing gloves and get into the ring together. No really, it was my great pleasure to finally have a personal chat this past week as guest on the delightful Cat Context Podcast (our exchange starting around 31 mins), with both Liore and co-host Ellyndrial speaking for the F2P skeptics. We tackled many of the core issues and realized that we disagree mostly on details rather than what matters most to us in MMOs. No surprises there.

That’s not where the discussion ended though – no, this is a persistent one. Belghast went forth and shared this interesting follow-up on his F2P “conversion”, sharing his past experiences with EQ2 going free to play (which then also spawned another reply from Liore here). I am always looking for personal recaps like this; what’s changing for you when an MMO switches to F2P? What tangible consequences does it have that possibly impact on you negatively?

Random drops vs. gambling

In an exchange with Ellyndrial on the podcast, I mentioned that I do not believe random lockboxes (for which keys can be bought via ingame shops like in GW2) or lottery tickets can be compared to real world gambling, the way it happens in casinos for example. The basic assumption being that cash shops may cause players to lose control of their spending, getting addicted to a luck-based system looking to relieve them of their money. To be clear, I absolutely feel casino gambling needs to be regulated – I do however not believe that lockboxes dropping in MMOs follow the same psychological pattern or harbor the same potential for addiction. Not claiming professional expertise on the subject (and those who do may come forth please), I see some distinct differences between the two activities.

Interestingly enough I happened to watch a documentary recently on David Choe, graffiti artist and facebook millionaire, also pathological gambler, which added to my inner monologue. Choe made his first million gambling in Las Vegas before turning 30 years old. That first milestone was preceded by years of a vagabond lifestyle, being notoriously broke and loosing vast amounts of money at the gambling table. Self-proclaimed gambling addict, Choe had this to say about his “fever” (paraphrased): I always felt I was winning, even when I lost everything. I won most of my games, only to go and lose everything on the last one.

There’s a devious quality to gambling in the sense that it continuously conveys feelings of both success and control to its victims. Gambling is a game of many stages, there is a progression to the gambler’s journey in which he feels that he is learning, improving and even winning. Winning is a big part in that quest for more, raising the stakes and then “gambling it all away” in one fatal loss (endorphins and adrenaline = powerful drugs). All of these elements are essential to developing addiction (biological dispositions aside) – the sense of control/strategizing (poker pros will tell you that the game is 90% nerves), reassuring mini-successes, progression of risk and potential winnings.

Virtual lockboxes do not share any of these psychological hooks. They’re completely random, there is usually no influencing outcome, improving one’s own performance or “getting closer” involved. It is therefore not nearly as motivating to spend endless cash on keys because there is no “game” aspect. Which doesn’t mean somebody might not spend ludicrous amounts of cash on the off chance of epic pixel – but to speak of addiction or danger to a wider audience feels off in this scenario. That person is likely after a very specific drop and generally there’s nothing wrong with spending money (or time) on something luck-based in games. We do this all the time?

There’s more to this though, even if we assumed a way simpler analogy such as a slot machine with very random outcome (I do not know how many people get ruined by this rather than card games). A big difference between gambling and pixel-hunting is that gambler’s play for money. The Faculty of Economics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland (ya, I live here so that’s my resource), recently revealed intriguing study results on the development of “altruism” in children. Test results were based on children’s social sharing behavior between ages 3-6. The perplexing part: while children, especially older ones and therefore already more socialized, were happy to share candy equally with peers, results changed dramatically once money was substituted. Children would either change the ratio in which money was shared or share none of it. This lead the leading researcher to assume that children learn the social and economical significance of money early on. He then elaborated on why humans react differently to money than to any other type of resource: money is a tricky currency because money is abstract. Money isn’t so much goods as it is potential; to give money away is to give away opportunities and power that we cannot control or estimate. We can imagine few things anyone could do with candy – but money, money holds as many plans as there are people.

Gamblers gamble for money and when they gamble for money, they gamble for plans and dreams. For one person it might just be a dream of winning or wealth, for another the resolution to very imminent and dire life circumstances. Not only that – gamblers gamble with money for money. When I spend coin on the slot machine, there’s a very clear, calculated ratio/equation between input and output. I’ll make a mental note à la “if I put in 10$ and win 100$, that is ten times more” or “if I lose, that’s still only 10% of my potential winnings”. That makes it seem alright and in some cases probably adds fuel to a perilous journey.

gw2shop

Again, lock boxes / lottery tickets hold neither abstract appeal nor absolute value in MMOs. Usually players hope to get a very specific drop, most likely an epic item or rare pet or similar. How much that reward is truly “worth” is impossible to measure (unless sellable – but this is not the chosen avenue of gold farmers) and therefore also cannot be equated to how much money was spent in order to get it. Sparkle ponies may be worth 10 keys to one player and 50 to another. Add to this considerations of “what other mounts are there in the game I could go for instead?” and meta-currency systems that also allow ingame currency to be converted in some cases, and you’ll see how much that differs from casino gambling or even real life lottery.

Wrapping up

To return to the topic of F2P, I believe it is very important to continuously question and observe the practices developers and publishers engage in to make systems more profitable. I’m very critical of pay-to-win in MMOs and shy away from games mentioning their cash shop at every occasion. I also agree with Liore that F2P only works because of micro-transactions and therefore needs to try draw players in. To me, that is a legitimate cause – without anyone spending money in a F2P game, there is no game. I have faith in players managing their own money and knowing what they want though. What matters to me is how cash shops are implemented, what kind of wares they offer and how their presence impacts on gameplay and overall immersion. We’ve recently experienced just how much of a difference the audience can make in this business and it remains our job to keep both an open mind but also open eyes to changes in this industry and how they may affect us.

At the present stage where F2P is still being adopted and shaped into a better model for western MMOs, I’m personally not seeing signs of a pay-to-win culture developing the way we know it from East-Asia (Gamasutra has an interesting clarification on this, check it out!), nor do I find items for sale that would significantly impact on player economy or endgame (just to name two examples of what’s popularly deemed unacceptable) in the F2Ps I am personally playing. Cash shop items remain optional and practices transparent – if not without inherent advantages, triggers and temptation, especially where cosmetics are concerned. If that’s where we’ll stay with upcoming MMO titles, hopefully offering more hybrid models à la LOTRO, I am completely okay with F2P.

Happy weekend everybody, with or without virtual shinies.

Off the Chest: E3 console wars, more GW2 events and Rift going F2P

otc

Summer has finally found its way to my place which is why this week was generally dedicated to sudden-heat-lethargy and watching E3 streams until late, late into the night. Morning really. And how much fun that was when my entire twitterverse was watching the big Sony reveal this last Tuesday “together” – booing (who cares about the PS Vita?), cheering and mostly snickering for good reason.

E3: Revival of the Console Wars

It wasn’t hard to leverage on Microsoft’s recent lapses in regard to their Xbox ONE policies and general marketing angle, but Sony literally crushed their direct competitor at this year’s E3 in the notable absence of a Nintendo conference, leaving out nothing and taking shameless stabs at what the vocal public conceived as MS’ greatest transgressions. Sharing and always-online DRM issues aside, MS seemed to try appeal to a surprisingly limited demography and didn’t blow anyone away hoping for at least some diversity in terms of game leads in upcoming launch titles – an oversight that led Spinks to coin the term “XBrone”. E3 female protagonist spotlights: MS: zero / Sony: two.

transistor

Transistor, feat. Squalla Leonheart

Sony started their two-hour press conference stating how their target audience were video gamers first and foremost. From there, everything was a well-orchestrated and calculated effort of showing why the PS4 was the more appealing (and affordable) product for a wider gaming audience – men, women, casuals, hardcores, offliners, onliners, indie game lovers. And that last point makes a lot of sense; who in their right mind would leave the rising indie game market to platforms like Steam without a fight?

Sony delivered a political masterpiece at this E3, quick and not so subtle. Yet, as pointed out in this interesting article on buzzfeed, some of the fanboyism stirred by the console staredown feels gravely out of proportion. It bears reading the fine-print in Sony’s press conference. The PS4 isn’t marketed the way it is because they’re trying to win the BFF contest. In the end, we’re dealing with companies looking to maximize profits or as the article states “Sony versus Microsoft is not good versus evil. It’s money versus money”. To believe the XBox ONE is “done” at this point would be naive as we’re only standing at the beginning of a years-to-come battle for market shares. All the while, Nintendo is smiling because they’re likely going to “win” again anyway.

All that said, if I was to buy a next-generation console, it would most definitely be the PS4. As a commenter at buzzfeed observed, the PS4 is positioning itself as a diverse platform with a spirit for art and smaller projects (need I say Journey?) while being more inclusive to mature titles. Also: Square-Enix and Last Guardian hoping!

GW2 goes Dragon Bash

ArenaNet continue their ludicrous speed of releasing new mini-content and sadly also their penchant for inconsistent quality. Between wacky Halloween and a rather sobering Lost Shores event, the great Living Story and back-to-more-Karkas Darksun Cove update, I find myself presented with a lot more of the same at Dragon Bash and horribly mislead by what sounded like such an exciting new addition to the game. More mighty dragons to shoot down from the sky  – more massive outdoor content? YES please! No?

This leads me to formulate the following GW2 events formula: a ton of achievements which can be finished in one or two days, more slightly frustrating arena-based minigames, random drops of something in a box, oh and back items and weapon skins! I can barely restrain myself. Also, dragon piñatas – now where have I heard that before?

dragonbash

Yeah, maybe not!

Rift entering the F2P scene

Trion have officially given their free-to-play debut this June 12th and much will yet be discussed about how well they’ve made the switch, implemented ingame shops and most importantly, just how much (or how) that changes the general direction of the game – because that was going so well before. Positive as I remain on this matter, I’d like to think that not all that much will change for Telara as we’ve also seen with other MMOs going F2P half-way through in the past (as opposed to MMOs actually designed around the concept).

Belghast is one of the first to comment on his “new” Rift experiences and a rather enthusiastic early adopter by the looks. No doubt there are right and wrong ways to realize F2P in MMOs and as someone who wants to see games like Rift survive rather than disappear from the face of the market, I hope more people will follow in his general footsteps.