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.

What’s in a Name

What is an MMO? I think when we talk about this particular topic the definition itself becomes personal and very subjective. At a basic level, the wording must mean something though. Massively. Multiplayer. Online.

Massive doesn’t have an objective definition and is completely relative. What one person thinks is big could be small to another. At the highest possible level, we can infer than massive means big. So let’s say that Massive, in this case, is when you compare to the typical games. A typical game has enough content to last 12-20 hours. A massive game would require content that extends beyond that time. While you could play Solitaire for years (who hasn’t), you wouldn’t call that massive. The content needs to provide diversity. Counter Strike might have the same basic elements but the randomness of other players increases the content value.

Multiplayer is very objective. Either you can play with other people or you can’t. Pretty much every game on the market today has multiplayer. If the actions of one can affect the other, than it’s multiplayer. Simple enough.
Online is also objective. Either you need a network connection or you do not. If you don’t need to be online (or a LAN) then it’s not online. Co-op on a console is not online.

Using these terms we can come down to some agreement on what games should be considered MMOs, if their primary mechanics fit into the three criteria. EvE, Rift, WoW, LOTRO, DDO and the rest in that genre are certainly MMOs. Call of Duty has that primary focus, even if there’s a single player component. Minecraft is the same.

Some games do straddle the line though. Assassin’s Creed has MMO components but it isn’t primarily focused on those 3 attributes (certainly not the massive portion). Mass Effect, Uncharted don’t either. Diablo 3 might sink hundreds of hours but the content is the same throughout and the people around you don’t affect that. If I said that you needed to connect online to play Final Fantasy X, you could easily argue that it is much more massive than Diablo 3.

Looking into a crystal ball we can see some patterns emerge in gaming as a whole. The Multiplayer and Online portions are pretty much going to be the norm from this point forward. The kicker is in the Massive portion. Skyrim is massive. Batman is not. Most indie platforms are unable to be massive – unless they have procedurally generated content (Rogue-like games come to mind).

In the end though, what difference does it make if D3 is an MMO or not? Do all of a sudden all future MMOs have to follow that game? Is it easier to compare D3 to WoW or EvE to WoW? Do you even want to? Games today are more than simple statements. Games are experiences and experiences are personal.

Payment Models

There’s a lot of talk about payment models lately.  Syncaine clearly has a disdain for the model.  Tobold is taking a development perspective. Rohan sees a systematic divide.  Syp just wants to play without paying.

At the fundamental level, it takes money to run a service.  The actual cost of that is dependent on the technology, people and process and therefore varies greatly from game to game.  We can assume that it costs less to run Rift than it does EvE – for various reasons.  When a game company offers a “free” service, they still have to charge people for something.

Rohan’s breakdown of payment methods strikes a cord with me.  Not all F2P (or sub games) are set up the same way.  Each has a different gating model and revenue generating possibilities.  While WoW is a sub model, the sparkle-pony sale generated somewhere in the region of 30 million dollars.  In such a fashion, you can break down the service offerings for each game.

The debate is less about the payment models and more about the perceived cost/benefit of spending money.  Is 15$ spent on WoW worth more than 15$ spent on Rift?  What would 15$ get me in F2P-TOR?  As I’ve mentioned a few times now, TOR is offering KOTOR3 for free.  Anything to do with the MMO portion is set up behind a pay wall.  This makes sense as the economy is at risk if all of a sudden the barrier to entry is nil.  Someone mentioned that Slicing is a net positive in cash flow.  Imagine setting up 100 accounts to bot slicing.  It would cost you the PC power (minimal) and you’d have a cash generating machine with nothing to stop it.  D3 has this problem, in another sort, but the devs actually take a cut of the cash sales, so they secretly endorse it.

Let’s add a bit of contrast here.  I spend 15$ after a hockey game with the guys having a beer.  I play hockey 2-3 times a week.  I get a cup of coffee every day, well over 15$ a month.  There are plenty of activities that I do that cost way more than 15$ per month and in actual fact, other than my internet access fee, I don’t have a better deal available to me.

From a business perspective, piecing out content makes sense.  You can easily point out where the best bang for the buck is.  People buy a lot of monocles?  Build more.  No one is buying dungeons?  Build less.  What should be free and what should cost money?

From a dev perspective, this segregation of systems adds overall complexity.  You can longer integrate systems as you can’t assume that the player has access.  The XBOX360 launched with an optional hard drive, meaning devs couldn’t assume players could save content.  You need to have a solid understanding of your foundation material.  Anything built on that cannot be dependent on another built component.

From a player perspective, we’re in an age of options.  Being able to pay for the options you want and not for the others is simply the way things will work from now on.  This adds complexities, depending on the division.  What if your friends don’t have the same content you do?  What if the content is packaged in such a way that it isn’t attractive (pay per use model, gambling model)?

This is far from a simple issue, as most bloggers can attest to.  As long as the dev is making money to sustain operations and make some profit for improvements and the players are content, then you can have success.  In the end though, it’s the player’s money and they get to decide where to put it.


Casual Hardcores

Oxymoronic?  Not really.  I’m distinguishing between activities and personalities here.  A casual activity is something you can complete in a relatively short period of time, say under 10 minutes, with minimal conscious effort.  Most games have daily quests and each of those typically encompasses a casual activity – even the group dailies.  A hardcore activity is something that takes a combination of time and effort, where dedication is key.  Running an old raid might not require a lot of time now but it does require thought on some parts.  Running a new raid is certainly a hardcore activity.  Competitive PvP is hardcore too.  Running an auction house business comes up.

When we get to personalities we have the casual player who’s in it for the distraction and time wasting (in a good way).  They might log in here and there, no real big deal if they miss a few days.  Each session is different from the last, with no real disappointment if they didn’t reach their goal.  They play for fun, which is measured by the journey, not the goal.  Hardcore players have set goals and measures to reach them.  Dedicated playtimes are often par for the course and there’s a need to be “the best” at something, even if you’re the best in your small circle.  They also play for fun, but the journey has nothing to do with it, it’s all about the goal.  Here’s a Venn diagram to help explain it.

MMO Player Types

Most players exist primarily in 1 of the intersections.  I tend to fall into the casual activity, hardcore personality.  I rarely have the time or dedication for strenuous activities but I certainly take value in improvement and reaching my goals.  The inverse, hardcore activity and casual personality are in my opinion, the true gaming minority.  It is really hard to do a hardcore activity with a casual attitude in an MMO setting as the peer pressure can push you out.  Hardcore content usually requires a solid group effort and if you can’t put in what others can, then you get put on the sidelines.  Casual/hardcore raiders exist, but they need fairly strict rules for success and something outside the game to keep them going.

The other side of the coin is those who gel with their personality and activity.  Casual/casual tends to fit into the F2P model, where the journey/process is where the meat is, rather than the goals.  You don’t need to be the best pet trainer, you just need to get more pets.  These players existed in previous MMO models but had extremely limited options up until 5 years ago.  Facebook gaming exploded thanks to this group.  Zynga is failing at an epic pace because other groups, who have much more game development experience, are able to put out quality titles at the same price point now.

Finally, the hardcore/hardcore player.  EvE nullsec players are this group, though they apparently only account for 20% of the playerbase (if that).  Raiding guilds racing for world firsts fit here too.  Rank 1-10 PvP players.  FPS clans.  MLG is tailor made for this group.  For a very long time, this was the only gaming group that was catered too because their needs are simply.  The goal is organic to the game (be the best) so your reward system is simpler.  The obstacles to get there are “balance” in PvP games (which can be easy if it’s only PvP) or “pick 3-5 from this list of 100” for PvE games (a-la DnD) – again, easy.  This is by far the easiest group to please but they are also in the gaming minority today, especially in the MMO front.  EA has said that they won’t ever release a game without an online component again.  If you like the hardcore online stuff, you have way more options than any other player type.

I’m curious where people think they fit into this mix, if at all.