In Defense of Subscriptions

I like Gamasutra, there are some solid articles about the business side of the industry. Ramin and Isaac are on my reading list not so much because I agree with them but because they expose a side that we rarely see.

Ramin is more of an internal systems designer with strength in economic systems – auction house, crafting and so on. I am guessing he’s working on one of the two Big MMOS coming around the bend.  Isaac is a service guy, looking more to the economic systems outside the game – support models, client interactions and whatnot.  Both of their fields intertwine but I consider the above their specialties.

Isaac’s latest post attempts to support the subscription model along 3 main issues. First, subscriptions push people to get value for money by rushing content. Second, development of said content needs to follow and be of quality. Third, companies cannot price discriminate as everyone has the same fee.

While conceptually I think he has some strong arguments I think there are some flaws and realities that are unaccounted. Let’s say his baseline is accurate for playerbase – 30 to 40, kids, working, no huge time available. Yes they sink less time but they are hyper-aware of dollar per smile economics. Subscriptions drop when similar services are available for less cost, that’s why F2P works.  The math is simple enough.  I have X dollars to spend per month, where can I get value for that money?

Two, content delivery must meet player expectations in terms of volume and quality. Iceberg Blizzard has paid massively for their schedule. SWTOR’s 4th pillar destroyed their ability to quickly iterate and expand (voice acting).  This bleeds a bit into the first topic.  2 months after launch, the content that was there was consumed at a rate far exceeding expectations and what was left lacked value for money.

Three, price discrimination is a red herring. All games have internal metrics to see what is consumed and for how long. WoW saw that their moneysink – raids – were only hitting 1% of the userbase in Cataclysm. That brought us LFR, and now Flex Raids. DDO only offers what sells, same with NeverWinter. Companies know exactly how to nickle and dime. There is no other reason for lockboxes.

Are subscriptions bad? No, they provide a baseline income that investors can see and development can project. They are however, an easily accounted for expense for players to compare to other games. The argument simply becomes “can I spend 15$ or less in another game for the same or more fun?”. The answer, today, is a yes and that bodes extremely poorly for Wildstar and TESO.  They must “out content” all other MMOs (not really seeing this as possible), provide an iterative schedule faster than what is offered by competition (everyone is better than WoW, few are better than Rift) and somehow target their material/pricing to bring in the most dollars/effort possible – without existing metrics.  One heck of a tough road.

Balance for the Sake of Balance

Wildstar is on my map for future MMO.  It seems more focused on the action/adventure portion than the “mash 1-2-3” of current games.  I also like the art style, and if you’re going to spend dozens of hours staring at a screen, might as well like what you see too.

There’s only a bit of stuff on the site so far but one of the more interesting links is on balance.  Sure, you get the typical crud about trying to and actually achieving balance but some of the more interesting comments are:

Gazimoff: Glass cannons that are all glass and no cannon. If I’m playing a spellcaster, give me a Yamoto Cannon, not a Pea Shooter.
sirchatters: When the developers give up unique classes and just make everything fair/even. I prefer a few paths be bad than all the same.
qn2Quid: I get annoyed when special abilities are removed to create class balance, classes should be different and feel unique
jleithart: When I don’t understand why things are nerfed. patch notes should give an explanation for the reason I’m nerfed.
jkkennedytv: many players confuse 1v1 for game balance. Biggest frustration is for devs having to filter misinformation.
Gazimoff: Also: Buff Spellslingers.

This is why prefer Rift’s class balance efforts to WoW’s.  Rift knows that some builds are simply horribad and some are great.  It doesn’t focus on the details of the builds but more on the feeling of the builds.  WoW has all specs having to be withing 5% of each other, which is simply impossible to do when trying to balance raids, dungeons, single player, duels, arena and battlegrounds.  A mage should be a glass cannon.  Most games today make them a ranged tank.  Games either need to accept that balance isn’t possible at a high level or build their systems to ignore the need for balance (lower difficulty).

Wildstar is doing a few things right.

  1. The focus is on PvE first and PvP will fall in later.  Focus.
  2. Balance on fun skill vs number skills. This is a major problem I have with ToR.
  3. Due to the telegraphing mechanics of the game, CC really ins’t a factor.  AE attacks put markers on the ground, dodge them.  Active combat!
  4. Skills work on everyone.  In most games, (TOR especially) a bunch of skills don’t work on bosses for balance reasons.  They will work with diminishing returns but they will work from the start.

Planetside is Not For Me

All this talk about Planetside 2 made me want to give it a shot.  As most have reported, the second to log into the game, you’re going to die.  You’re not going to understand any single mechanic (like the inability to get more ammo without another player), what the hell any of the icons mean, why enemies look the same as regular players, and how it is you’re exactly dying.  Emptying an entire clip into someone’s head and them not dying while you die in a single shot is annoying.  Snipers that can’t hit the broad side of a barn, annoying.  1 grenade for all your lives, unless you buy another, annoying.

There are so many core mechanics that baffle a non-hardcore FPS player, it’s surprising.  I’m sure I ended up with a 100: 1 death to kill ratio.

None of this says it’s bad, so much as clearly the game is designed for a particular niche and makes no compromises.  I gave it a shot, some people are going to love it, and those some people aren’t me.

Let’s Get This Straight

When you exchange money for something and it’s understood by both parties that you are getting a specific item, that’s a purchase.

When you exchange money for a chance at something, that’s called gambling.

This proliferation of lockboxes that can only be opened by exchanging real money is gambling. I know the US prohibits online gambling as it’s the easiest way to launder money. I am astounded that companies that offer this feature, without an in-game option, haven’t yet been brought to court.

I’ve studied enough math to know that gambling is a tax on the mathematically inept. If you gamble TO make money, you’re delusional (or a prodigy and lucky). If you gamble as a passtime, with the same budget as others (say a round of golf), then that’s quite a bit different. Sadly, there are more in the first bucket than the second.

Little fact for you. The odds of winning that $500 million PowerBall were higher than getting killed by a vending machine trying to coax the chips out.

ADD is Good

Let’s say it’s taking me about 5-6 hours per level in Rift and that’s if I concentrate.  I find it extremely difficult to set myself up on a goal and continue to completion before something else catches my eye.  The eye catches are the following:

  • harvesting nodes:  I get to one, see another, see another, etc…
  • carnage quests: these are kill X quests that start when you kill the first enemy type.  There are 20-40 per zone from what I’ve seen
  • main quests: there are only 3-4 active at any given time, sometimes only 1.  It’s the driver to move through the zone often
  • rifts: these pop up (or I summon them) for a 5 minute battle.
  • random quests: these come from drops or items on the ground, they make you move around the map.
  • protect from invasions: at specific spots on the map are hubs that you use to defend against invasions.  sort of like rifts but without the quest mechanics.
  • artifacts: the shiny white spots that you collect to fill out, uh, collections
  • achievements: sometimes you just see a weird spot and know there’s an achievement, like jumping from waterfalls
  • exploration: the vistas look amazing. I like to find the highest point around and look around

All of these are happening all the time.  It makes it hard to just do one thing and then get to the next, as most themeparks do.  WoW and TOR are these types of games.  I remember doing 85 to 90 recently and I think there were a dozen choices total that I had to make.  I make more than a dozen choices per hour in Rift.

Though the content isn’t necessarily innovative, it makes it continually fresh because it’s given out in various types and amounts.  It sure does make the time much more fun than it could be and let’s Trion make leveling take as long as it does.  Now to go smash some giant bone golems.

What A Dollar Gets You

Syp has a good post on the F2P change for SWTOR.  The main argument is against the two main models of F2P – one that lets people play for free with add-ons paid for cash and another that provides huge restrictions and essentially works as a limited trial.

Rohan has a nice breakdown of the F2P components that bears repeating, where the main ones include:

  • Box
  • Access
  • Content
  • Cosmetic
  • Convenience
  • Power

The box is simple, access too.  Content can be pieced out, as Turbine does pretty well with DDO and LOTRO.  Cosmetic is the way for most Cryptic games, including most super hero variants.  Convenience speeds up portions of the game that are clearly tedious.  Faster mounts, bigger bags, experience potions et al.  Power is the most controversial but the most prominent in the F2P world of Asia.

TOR is clearly using Access, Cosmetic and Convenience as the main drivers for cash.  Content is simply much too expensive for TOR to sell piecemeal, what with the full voice over costs and high production values.  Power isn’t an option either as the pusback on this model in western games can destroy a game.

You are paying for access to raids and PvP and whatnot but the general agreement is that these portions are a much better value in other games.  The convenience issue is an interesting one.  There is no real challenge in TOR, at any given point.  1-50 can be completed, if slowly, for absolutely zero dollars.  For 20$, much less than anyone would pay for a box copy of a AAA single player game, gets you enough unlocks to may the game very playable.

Once you hit level 50 though, then it’s much less about convenience or access.  Nearly every single aspect of the game at that point is locked behind cash doors.  You need to pay to do anything, use the AH, truly craft or customize your character.  Heck, you need to pay to equip items.

Right now, you can buy KOTOR2 for 10$ (on sale for half for a few days), a game dating from nearly 8 years ago or you can pay 0 dollars for KOTOR3 that’s 1 year old.  If you only wanted the Single Player experience, I would say “good deal”.  If you’re looking for the social experience, I would say that the F2P option isn’t an option at all, subscription is the only way to go.

This essentially means that TOR is offering a free trial from 1-50, with the option to buy perks along the way.  Once you hit 50 though, it’s a subscription game like any other.

Public Transport

I take public transport to and from work. It gives me time to prepare for the day and relax after a rough one. It also gives you a chance to think quite a bit.

The bus is a lot like a themepark MMO. You get on at the stop, the bus has a determined route and you get off. You can do certain things while on the bus but you’re not free to do anything. The bus is made in a generic fashion to get as many people on board, make them “comfortable” and take them on a ride. A network of buses can get you from point A to point B without stress. Mostly.

Now the bus isn’t perfect. You are stuck with their timetable. You’re stuck with sitting next to some special people. You aren’t going to be picked up and dropped off where you want either. But it does offer a cost effective way to meet a need.

Themepark MMOs are just like that. Generic enough to get enough people to be sustainable yet flexible enough to differentiate between the solo experience and the group experience.

If taking the bus makes you mad then perhaps a themepark isn’t your cup of tea.