Thursday, June 16, 2011

Subscription based games getting greedy with additional fees/services

MMOs have enjoyed a great advantage over other types PC games during the last decade. As piracy became easier and sales numbers started to fall, game developers started to put less emphasis on the PC market. A lot of game studios decided to pay licensing fees to the major consoles and the aisle at Best Buy for PC games shrunk. However, if you look at that last aisle of PC games you'll notice that a good portion of the remaining ones belong to either the FPS or MMO genre. Both genres depend on rich multi-player environments to supplement the main game play and this keeps players engaged. Traditionally, MMOs was the only genre that charged monthly for this feature, but first person shooters are starting to change as they chase a "service" model.

Activision has been in the gaming news a lot because of their plan to add a subscription service onto the Call of Duty franchise. They don't have the complete list of neat features you get compared to the normal version yet, but they seem to be following in Blizzard's footsteps. Namely, a lot of mobile applications that give you access to stats and parts of the game while offline. Call of Duty may not have an auction house, but I'm sure Activision can find something similarly vital that would benefit from mobile access. I'm not exactly a fan of this model, but it does seem to be in vogue with content companies lately. Hulu even uses it to sell their Hulu Plus subscription service.

So why are game companies so in love with switching everything over to a service model? Cause it's much more profitable. I'll give you an example. Most cable providers offer phone service which they try to sneak into cable television packages. In general it costs about 30$ a month to use. However, anyone with some Internet know-how could use an alternative voip product like Google Voice, Skype, or hell even Magic Jack and pay considerably less. However, cable companies are the gate keepers in this scenario and this gives them a lot of power to push/advertise their service. It's like how EverQuest used to bug you to buy stuff whenever you logged into the game. It's the core reason why some people want Net Neutrality. It certainly doesn't take a genius to calculate how much an overpriced service sold to a captive audience can make, just look at the cost of traditional text messages.

The one reason I was always been a fan of the plain old subscription model for MMOs was that I felt it was easier to keep track of costs. I know how nickle and dimeing works since I grew up when most malls still had arcades. You've never seen money disappear so fast. This has kind of influenced me away from Free2Play games, but I'm starting to change my mind. Subscription MMO's are getting to be almost as bad as Free2Play games with World of Warcraft leading the pack. Services to move/rename/faction change your characters? Planned services to allow cross server grouping with friends? Most of these services just allow you to get around artificial barriers put in place by the game developers in the first place. No different from item shops in Free2Play games which sell teleports or double experience potions. Worse even since they already have you on the hook for the base subscription fee.

It's enough to make me really look forward to a MMO like Guild Wars 2 which will just has the flat cost of the box. How old fashion!!! I always thought the subscription model wouldn't influence game design like item shops do in Free2Play games. However, it's starting to look like that's becoming less true. Maybe in time for the next WoW expansion they can have an gold membership elite plus service that gives your priority access to the instance queues. It sounds cynical and far fetched, but it wouldn't surprise me. Anyways, I'm going to try out Spiral Knights on Steam and hopefully learn to appreciate something that doesn't try to hide the nickle and dimeing.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Crafting Companions for Success

I've written several posts in the past about my love for crafting systems. One of the main reasons I tried out Lego Universe was that I was hoping to finally see user generated content play a major part in a MMO. Alas, I was disappointed that the "time to penis" caused the removal/suspension of this core feature. It seems like a lot of gaming companies have decided to just give up on trying to integrated user generated content with any core game mechanics. Sure you see a lot of support for user interface add-ons, but these are downloaded through third party sites. This is probably the main reason they are allowed since it protects game companies from potential lawsuits and bad PR incidents.

Still, its obvious that crafting systems in most games need improvement. The gather resources and click "combine" model has been relatively unchanged since the early days of the genre. It's boring, time consuming and prevents us from getting to the action (killing bad guys). Luckily, I have seen a couple new games trying to address these issues. In fact, both Diablo 3 and The Old Republic seem to trying to combine crafting with a type of NPC training mini game. Think of it as the pokemon method of crafting where you have to train your NPC so he becomes stronger and can make you better stuff. Diablo 3 even increases the shop size of your crafting companion as you level him up on a diet of gold and salvaged loot.

The Old Republic is going even further by allowing your crafting companion to fight with you during the early part of the game. Since his fighting prowness doesn't scale much as you level you probably won't group with him in the later levels. Insead you get to assign him missions, which he automatically completes over time. It looks to be similar to the time based training in EVE Online. You assign one of your NPC's a gathering mission and the next time you log in he presents you with the materials. I'm believe this type of crafting system should help counteract a lot of the gold sellers who depend on resource gathering bots. On the other hand the video describing the system hints that it takes a decent amount of time to make items.

This might not be too much of a problem if the times aren't too long. After all you can be out running instances while your NPC is slaving away putting together your new light sabre. I guess it would only be annoying in cases where you got a rare item and wanted to turn it into a bad ass piece of equipment right away. Then again patience is a virtue and it's not like you have to personally hit combine 10,000 times to make it. If anyone ever crafting in EverQuest or Ultimate Online you know what I'm talking about. Anyways this idea of a crafting companion looks pretty fleshed in the Old Republic and halfway decent in Diablo 3. I hope this is the start of designers putting a little more effort into MMO crafting systems.

Friday, June 10, 2011

2011 Status Update

I haven't posted in quite awhile as most of my free time has been destroyed by a combination of work and a decreasing ability to stay up past midnight. Once again, it came down to either writing about MMOs or getting to play them. I have been able to play a few new games since the last time I wrote including: Lego Universe, Cataclysm, and even some Rift. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to experience much of the raid content in these games, so my perspective is mostly from a single group.

Lego Universe was a lot of fun and I got to try it out in beta right before they went live. Net Devil had some really great ideas for the game, but the time to penis was a big issue for them. Part of the appeal of the game was supposed to be about being able to show off your giant Lego structures. Well that feature was pretty much disabled from the time I started playing. Some people were talking in the forums about giant phallic towers complete with fountains on top that lead to the ban on visiting other people's architecture. Other then that the game was like a simplified version of Legend of Zelda with some mini games thrown in. Fun for a couple of weeks but, not enough content for a full MMO.

After that experience I jumped back in DIKU land and started on a bit of a tank lark. Both Rift and Cataclysm have LFG tools and I enjoyed the instant queues for dungeons by wearing the heavy plate. One side effect of this was I found out what happens when you're the only tank online. A nice casual guild can get very authoritative and all of a sudden you start thinking twice about logging in and finding yourself being bugged to raid for five hours. This wouldn't have been so bad if I had the gear for it, but our guild had switch exclusively to ten men raids and gearing up multiple off-tanks had not been a priority.

Instead, me and a couple friends had been mastering heroic dungeons and we had a lot of fun for a couple of months. We did seem to burn out quicker on Cataclysm then Wrath of the Lich King though. Leveling was just too linear with the limited number of zones and most of of us already had a lot of max level characters. The old world revamp of Azeroth was very nice, but you hit the Outlands like a brick wall now. Eventually, a couple of us decided to try out Rift while some other friends decided to take a break from online games.

I love the class system in Rift. In my opinion it's the closest to perfection out of any fantasy MMO. The problem was that after a couple of months it became clear Rift was too much like the other fantasy games. The rift closings was nice change of pace, but we had accidentally leveled on a PvP server and didn't realize the implications until later. In the later levels you are expected to supplement questing with rift farming and things can get a bit slow if your faction is constantly outnumbered. Rift did have great expert dungeons which had more bosses then the normal versions. Unfortunately, just like Cataclysm this quickly got old for some of my friends.

Rift is probably the second best MMO I've ever played, but its too much like World of Warcraft. It would have been great if my friends and I had come to Rift from some other game. But starting Rift right after Cataclysm made the burn out happen much quicker. I think fantasy MMO's are going to be on hold for awhile and we're waiting for something different. At least one buddy of mine has become a rabid Old Republic fanboy and that seems to be the next target. There's also some talk of playing Diablo 3 as a group. A number of us still use Battle.Net to play Star Craft 2 mods so I wouldn't be surprised if we did that. At the moment though I'm MMO-less and enjoying the freedom to research and write about what's on the horizon.