08 April 2012

This Just In: Easter Edition

Darn auto-post settings.  Well no, you know how the old saying goes, "Garbage in, garbage out."  Next time check the DATE before you "set it and forget it."  Thankfully I noticed shortly after the post failed to show up, so here you go.  A slightly late version of your Sunday news and links.

A Mass (Effect) Rewrite?

Bioware had announced previously that they were going to respond to fan "feedback" and address the highly controversial ending to Mass Effect 3.  Well this past week details began to emerge in terms of what exactly this would entail.  Bioware emphasizes that this additional content will not change the ending per say, but simply provide "clarity and context" to the ending that was already written for the game.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have not played ME3 as yet, but I did complete the other two games.  But I've been so "spoiled" by this point, that there isn't much left to the imagination in terms of the ending.  I may not have first hand experience, but I've seen and heard pretty much everything there is to see or hear in this case.  I understand the outcry, but I'm not going to "nerd rage" over it.

It does invite an interesting discussion about artistic integrity.  Video games are somewhat unique as an artistic medium in that they are easier to alter than most.  You can't really change a painting, or a book, or a movie (well, unless you're George Lucas) but a game is much more malleable.  With the "wave" of a patch you can change an ending, insert (or delete) a major character, or rewrite the entire plot.  Whether we agreed with it or not, Bioware presented us with the conclusion of their artistic vision for the franchise, and it is their franchise.  Are they not entitled to write the story as they see fit?  If we don't like it, well that's the risk you take in the marketplace.  Again, just ask George Lucas about Han shooting first.  Star Wars is his vision.  Mass Effect is Bioware's.  Just my two cents.

Would the real Star Wars: The Old Republic Please Stand Up

While I left the galaxy far, far away already, I have been keeping tabs on the continuing development of SW:TOR.  At PAX East this past weekend it was announced that the long awaited 1.2 patch will finally be released next week.  In the opinion of this gamer, 1.2 is almost a misnomer.  It really should be considered either 1.0 or 2.0 in a sense.  When you look at the "laundry list" of additions, changes, and modifications in this patch, it says to me that this is the game SW:TOR should have been at launch.  I am not going to revisit my list of gripes with the game in this point, but needless to say if SW:TOR had launched with all this 1.2 content in place, I would likely still be playing it today.

I do still have some game time remaining on my initial subscription, so I may patch it up and see what things are like.  I never wanted to see this game fail, despite how critical I have become of it after the fact.  That is mostly due to personal disappointment.  I had hoped that SW:TOR could be my "home" for many years just as World of Warcraft had been, but alas that was not to be.  Maybe this patch will change that.

Guild Wars 2 Pre-Orders to Begin April 10th

I suppose this news is technically a bit older than a week, but since I had no news post last week, it still fits.  ArenaNet finally announced April 10th as the date that pre-orders for the long awaited Guild Wars 2 will begin.  And it was as if millions of fanbois suddenly cried out in joy.  GW2 has been in development so long that for a while it almost lapsed into the realm of "vaporware."  ANet was already talking about GW2 when I was still playing the original Guild Wars in 2005.  But it looks like this long and winding road is finally nearing its conclusion as they are now ready to start asking for your money.

My thoughts on the game itself remain divided.  I am not among the devoted followers who believe GW2 is the answer to all their MMO prayers.  But it still feels like a solid title and will be a valuable contribution to the overall MMO market.  As I said in my posts last week, it is important to support the games we feel strongly about, and so while I do not agree with the fanbois on GW2's potential, I hope they support it as vigorously after its release as they have prior to it.  More large, successful games will be a good thing for the genre overall.

04 April 2012

Lifetime Subscriptions and MMO Business Models

Yesterday I talked about my decision to purchase a lifetime subscription to Funcom's The Secret World and it seems that this topic has generated quite a bit of discussion both on my blog and around the MMO community as a whole.  So I thought I would make a follow up post today on the issue of lifetime subs and MMO business models in general.  I've talked about some of these issues before, mostly in the context of "free-to-play" or "freemium" games, but the concept of the lifetime sub has not received much attention.  I think it is absolutely a discussion worth having because as much as we talk about the mechanics of the games themselves such as combat, crafting, PvP, etc., when you are talking about MMO's, the payment model is as vital a "mechanic" as anything that is actually happening within the game itself. 

I Find Your Lack of Faith... Disturbing

As I mentioned yesterday, my primary concern with games that offer lifetime subs is that it demonstrates a lack of confidence in the product.  If you think your game is good, why would you offer people a way to not have to pay for it after a given amount of time?  This is why I would be shocked if we ever saw World of Warcraft adopt a "freemium" model or something like a lifetime sub.  Blizzard is absolutely confident in their product and are sure people will continue to pay to play it over time.  To offer a lifetime sub is essentially giving up long term profits in exchange for more money up front.  Assuming TSW continues for more than a year, Funcom will not be making a dime off of me unless they can encourage me to make purchases from their online store, which I can tell you right now is going to be a hard sell.  I have never purchased additional services from an MMO except for account services in WoW.  I am not the kind of person who will shell out real money for a fancy mount or a spiffy looking jacket.

Another "flaw" in lifetime subs to me is that you are losing money from the people most likely to support you over the long term.  Rohan made this point in the comments and I absolutely agree.  Think about it, who is most likely to invest that kind of money up front in an MMO?  Your biggest fans.  Your best supporters.  But also think about this, who is most likely to stay subscribed to your game over the long term and continue to provide those monthly fees?  Again, your biggest fans.  A casual player of your game is not going to be enticed by the prospect of a lifetime sub in the first place.  He may buy the box.  He may sub a month or two.  But the concept of dropping $200-300 up front is not going to interest them.  So in a sense, you are almost "leaving money on the table" by giving your biggest supporters a way to stop supporting you after a given amount of time.  Yes I know, the cash shop is supposed to be the "answer" here as well, but that leads to another issue that TSW seems to have.

Double Dipping is a Party Foul!

Funcom announced many months ago that TSW would be a subscription game but feature a cash shop as well, so this is not a "new" concept.  But it is a valid criticism of the game to consider this to be "double dipping."  In their defense, Funcom argues that only "cosmetic" items will be offered through the store and no actual gameplay benefits.  The information released with the pre-order announcement leaves this somewhat ambiguous.  Among the pre-order packages are experience boosting potions and improved weapons.  Will these be available for purchase through the store?  Or are they package benefits only?  At this point we cannot be certain, but it is worth pointing out that many other MMO's that offered pre-order benefits later offered those same benefits for purchase through their websites or in-game stores.  So it would be a valid concern to say that at some point, gameplay advantages could be had through TSW's cash shop.

As a major supporter of subscription based payment models, this idea really concerns me.  I truly believe that if you are going to charge a subscription, the developer is obligated to do two things.  First, you need to have the ability to participate in all the content in the game.  Nothing should be blocked to you without having to pay more.  Now don't confuse this with guaranteed access to the content itself.  I have no problem with "elite" content like hard mode raids, rated PvP, etc.  And by no means is a developer obligated to give you an easy path to that content.  What I am saying is that nothing should be inaccessible to you due to any kind of "pay barrier" if you are already paying a subscription.  The second thing the developer is obligated to do if they are charging a sub is ensure that every paying player is on equal footing in terms capabilities.  What I mean by this is, a player should not be able to purchase additional "power" if a sub is in effect.  My sub should guarantee me the same capabilities as every other player.  Again, what I do with those capabilities is dependent on me, not the developer.  But another player's ability to pay more should not give them an advantage over me in a subscription based environment. 

It feels like Funcom is trying to dip into every possible revenue stream here and in doing so, they are going to turn off people in each category.  Subscription supporters will look at the cash shop and be turned off.  Free-to-play supporters will look at the subscription and be turned off.  And the lifetime sub option is setting themselves up for problems a year or so down the road when their biggest supporters are no longer paying into the system.  It seems that this hybrid payment solution is leading to one inevitable conclusion... a conversion to a "freemium" model within a year to two years.

Are You Out of Your Vulcan Mind?!

So if I am so negative on lifetime subs, and if I can already see the writing on the wall of a "freemium" conversion down the road, why am I still comfortable with having paid what I did and get a lifetime sub to TSW?  I will confess, I don't have a logical argument here.  As I said in yesterday's post, it is somewhat of a leap of faith.  I feel like my investment will pay off.  Do I expect TSW to be hugely successful?  No.  Do I expect it to be successful enough to "pay back" my investment?  Yes.  Do I think it will be a fun game and a good use of my entertainment dollars?  Yes.  Could I be dead wrong?  Absolutely.  And if I am, you will not hear me coming back here and blasting Funcom and bemoaning my decision.  I made a choice and I am ready to deal with the consequences of that choice.  As I have mentioned in many posts, we are talking about games.  We have to play what is fun for us.  If TSW is fun, then every dollar I have spent will be justified, regardless of the critical feedback or what the "experts" think of it.

And speaking of dollars, again as a community if we truly want change, we can't be afraid to "waste" our money on something new.  That is part of the reason I am still comfortable with my decision even if it does not pay off in the long term.  I think MMO's have stagnated.  RIFT and TERA and WoW and SW:TOR and all the other "big budget" MMO's of recent years are essentially all the same.  They are all good, but like ten different flavors of chocolate ice cream, they have become tedious.  The market needs to change, and to do that, different kinds of games need to be embraced.  I am not suggesting that TSW is THE game that will bring about this change.  It is simply the game I have chosen to support in this regard.  We all have different opinions about the kinds of games we want to support and the kinds of change we are looking for.  But regardless of our individual tastes, nothing will change if no one is willing to take a risk.  My $250 is not going to "change the world" of MMO's, but it is the small part I can do.

I would encourage you all to do the same, for whatever you want to see in the future of MMO's, whether that is a game like TSW, or Guild Wars 2, or whatever other game has caught your eye.  Take a risk.  Encourage developers to take a risk.  Otherwise we only have ourselves to blame when the market continues to give us the same rehashed concepts year after year.

03 April 2012

A Secret Leap of Faith

Today Funcom finally threw open the doors on the pre-order for their upcoming MMO, The Secret World.  This is something I had been waiting for for quite a while now as I have known for months that I am going to play this game, so pre-ordering was pretty much a foregone conclusion.  However in looking at the pre-order packages, I came to a conclusion that I had not anticipated, and one that is likely going to land me in a bit of hot water with my significant other.  Among the pre-order options was a lifetime subscription

Lifetime subs are not a phenomenon that I have commented on much in this blog.  None of the games that I have played (with the exception of Star Trek: Online) have offered it as an option, so the issue has never come up in the context of the games I have been playing.  Suffice to say that I am pretty negative on lifetime subs and view games that offer it somewhat warily.  To me, it expresses a lack of confidence in your product that you can encourage people to continue to pay per month to continue to access it.  Now that I think about it, Star Wars: The Old Republic would have been the perfect candidate for a lifetime sub.  There is a total lack of repeatable content to encourage one to stay subscribed over a period of time, but the storylines are compelling and every time they add new story content, you could hop back in and continue it.

But that point aside, I have always been suspicious of lifetime subs.  So why was it that when I saw that option presented for TSW that I immediately jumped on it?  Well, as I have commented on before, if we as gamers and MMO enthusiasts want to truly see change in the genre, we have to be willing to embrace and support something different when we see it.  So long as we talk about how we want change, yet continue to mindlessly pay our monthly subs to World of Warcraft, nothing will change.  Developers and publishers go where the money is.  So we need to change where the money is going.  That is part of the reason I am doing this.  I want to support what TSW is trying to do.  I want to support classless character systems.  I want to support a game setting other than the usual fantasy world full of elves and half-naked women.  So I am putting my money where my mouth is on the issue.

Another reason is admittedly a leap of faith.  I am intrigued by the concept of being able to play an MMO over the long term without having to worry about the monthly fee.  It is paid for, done, and finished.  Of course this requires the game to be successful enough to continue to operate over the long term and return the investment I have already made in it.  As a former player of Tabula Rasa, I know there are no guarantees on this score.  A game here today could very easily be gone tomorrow.  But Funcom is already running two other MMO's, and while the launches of both Anarchy Online and Age of Conan were among the worst in MMO history, since I did not personally experience either of those games, I am willing to give Funcom the benefit of the doubt and hope that they learned valuable lessons from those games, lessons that they will now incorporate into the launch and continued support of TSW.  So yes, admittedly a leap of faith, but one I have chosen to make.

One final point is that this somewhat "frees" me up to potentially dabble in other MMO's as they come down the line without having to carry multiple subscriptions.  So if I feel the "itch" to putz in RIFT again, or give TERA a try, I can do so without doubling down on my expenses.  This is admittedly a minor point as I don't really have the spare time to play multiple MMO's, but it is a small benefit.  I am the kind of person that always wants to get the most for my money.  Carrying multiple subs just feels wasteful, and would probably pressure me to spend more time online than I actually can afford to in order to "get my money's worth" from all the sub fees that I am playing.  The lifetime sub won't put that kind of pressure on me. 

So now my sights are even more firmly set on June 19th and the launch of TSW.  I will continue to enjoy my time in RIFT during the meantime.  My cleric just hit the level cap today and it felt good to slap on all that gear I have been stockpiling.  I have a long ways to go towards my goal of multiple raid capable gear sets, but I am enjoying the challenge.  Look for another update on that towards the end of the week.

01 April 2012

This Just In: April Fool's Edition

So the joke is...

... yeah, I got nothing.  I wasn't planning a post today.  I'm hoping there are some cool April Fool's jokes today and I can comment on them tomorrow.  But for today, just kick back, relax, and don't get pranked!  See everyone tomorrow.