Friday, August 31, 2012

Noooooooooo! City Heroes is shutting down

Via Anjin in Exile and Bio Break I just got the news that City of Heroes is shutting down before the end of the year.  This is the most depressing MMO news I've heard in a good long while.   I really thought City of Heroes was doing OK given the steady update schedule.  The latest update (Issue 24) is even supposedly ready to go and sitting on their test server.

City of Heroes still has, to my tastes, the best character generation system of any MMO on the market.  The number of powerset combinations available to choose from is staggering, and the appearance generation system will let you come up with at least a rough approximation on pretty much any humanoid you can dream up.   There are also some really unique archetypes in CoH such as controllers (extremely powerful crowd control specialists) and master minds (pet users that are can summon swarms of pets) that don't really have close analogues in other MMOs. Finally, the game has one of the most robust systems around for letting players create their own content.  Some of the best story arcs to be found in CoH are in player crafted missions.

I will admit that City of Heroes is a MMO that I only ever seem to enjoy in one month stints.  I think my overall problem is that the pace of advancement seems to slow to a crawl by some time in the mid levels.  But those one month stints are always incredibly fun.  Dreaming up a crazy new character design and taking it out for a spin is simply more of a blast in CoH than any other MMO I've played.

The sad thing is that I suspect that CoH is actually still at least a bit into the black.  I don't see how Paragon could have put out so much content in the last year if it weren't.  If CoH was under SOE, Funcom, Turbine, or really just about any MMO company apart from NCsoft I doubt we'd be having this conversation.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Suckage is in the eye of the beholder (on a horse that never seems to stay dead)

This post over at Kill Ten Rats about The Secret World got me thinking about a more general issue.*  Most of the arguments we use to "prove" that a given MMO is better than another, or that a given MMO "sucks", are arbitrary and subjective.  The kinds of arguments I've seen commentators use to rank MMOs  generally fall into a few categories.  However, if you think about it there are clear reasons that none of these ranking schemes is a good universal metric of whether a MMO is "good" or not.  For example:

Popularity/ Financial Success: used by players of WoW to argue that WoW is the "best" MMO.  However, this leads to the McDonalds analogy (I stretched that one waaay too far in one of my early posts).  It's kind of elitist, but I think it's also a fair point.  How many folks reading this really think McDonalds has the best hamburgers that money can buy?

Innovation: used by players of EVE Online, TSW, and Guild Wars 2 to argue that their games are better than all the "WoW-clones" out there.  I do see the importance of innovation. Anything that pushes the boundaries of mainstream MMO space is overall a good thing, since it potentially expands the audience.  However, if we want to use innovation as our yard stick of what constitutes a "good MMO" then really bizzare MMOs with tiny audiences like A Tale in the Desert, Endless Forest, and Myst Online have to be considered the best MMOs.  Arden: the World of William Shakespeare was innovative as hell, and development on it eventually was halted because players didn't find it fun. 

Pooled ratings of Professional Critics:  used by players of WoW, SWTOR, and LoTRO (among others) to argue that their games are "good" in an objective sense.  On the surface this seems like a good argument, since it evokes the opinions of "experts."   However, when it comes to it this is just another form of popularity.  History is filled with examples of works of art that critics hated or ignored at first but later came to be considered classics.

Further, I don't find Metacritic scores to be a good guide to whether I personally will like a game or not.  Wrath of the Lich King got an astounding score of 91, and when I first tried it I didn't even last out the free month that came with it.  Diablo III scored an 88 and, at least among the bloggers that I follow, the overall consensus seems to be that it's a popcorn entry into the series with little staying power compared to Diablo II (no offense to Tipa!).  Warhammer Online garnered an 86, and we all know how that turned out.  Dungeons & Dragons Online scored an abysmal 74, and it's grown to be one of my favorite MMOs.  The Secret World did even worse, and I find it to be extremely compelling. 

Obviously what ultimately matters is whether a MMO is fun or not.  Just as obviously, fun is in the eye of the beholder.  What's perhaps harder to accept is that, like fun, suckage is also in the eye of the beholder.  Just because you don't like something doesn't mean that it sucks any objective sense.  Conversely, just because someone doesn't like an MMO that you like doesn't mean they have brain damage or aren't as perceptive as you.  All you can say for certain is that they didn't think it was fun.

Few of us run around screaming at people over whether they enjoy boardgames (love them), tennis (hate it), or hiking (love it).  I can list all the reasons I don't like tennis (I bite at it looms large), but I would never be tempted to claim that tennis sucks in some objective sense. Would anyone?  Why then do we get so worked up over whether other commentators "get" or "don't get" the MMOs we play?    And why do some commentators feel the urge to go out of their way to antagonize fans of games they don't like?  In a some ways MMO enthusiasts tend to behave a lot more like religious fanatics then hobbyists.  Do coin collectors and knitters have these kinds of debates? Well, maybe they do (thanks for the link Sente!).

I'm certainly not the first to comment on this phenomenon.  But to me this is an issue that keeps rearing it's head.  The internet: the great pit where the flamewars are not quenched and the horse dieth not.

*Note: the post I linked at KTR is absolutely not the kind of commentary that irks me.  It's a well written post that raises some interesting points.  Give it a read if you haven't.  The post is simply what got me thinking about these issues again.  

Saturday, August 18, 2012

SWTOR: a baffling design decision (on the latest world event)

The latest world event just went live in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Darth Hater has a very nice rundown on the quests and the rewards that you can get.  Among the rewards available are some very nice high end rifles fitted out with purple mods.  Here's the problem: very few classes and specialization lines can use rifles.  In fact only three out of the 16 possible specialization lines if I'm not mistaken (I'm to lazy to check), at best roughly 20% of level 50 characters.

If you aren't one of those few classes, the other rewards are a 90% run-speed speeder (useless to anyone that uses the high end 110% speeders), a pet that's a re-skinned version of one we already got for free last month, and a set of cosmetic gear that will let you dress like a Sandperson.  In other words, nothing all that great. Understandably, players are freaking the hell out on the forums.  Bioware's official response from Online Community Manager JovethGonzalez is as follows:

Hi folks,

I wanted to take a bit of time to explain the reasoning behind the weapon selection on the vendor. As you know, each SWTOR event that we do is unique and this also applies to the variety of items offered. That is, if you don’t find anything that you think is useful during this event, you may find a different assortment of items in the next one. Your feedback is definitely appreciated and we’ll look into different ways to improve our item selection in the future.

Thanks for participating!

Really, "Wait for the next event, maybe there will be something you can use" is the official answer? Really?!?  I mean no disrespect to Joveth, he is but the unfortunate messenger. 

This is only the second world event in the nine months the game has been live. If each world event caters to 1/5 of the classes, then some time in the next two years most classes should expect to have been offered at least one decent reward (hahahah). This event comes on the cusp of the release of Guild Wars 2, as well as the launch of major expansions for Lord of the Rings Online (Rohan) and World of Warcraft (MoP next month).  The decision to not provide weapon rewards for all 16 specialization lines in the game is perhaps the most baffling display of ineptitude that Bioware has yet shown.

It certainly isn't going to hurt the game as much as launching with far too many servers and waiting too long to consolidate them.  Or hyping the game so hard before launch that anything short of 1.5 million steady subs would be viewed as a disappointment.  However, those are understandable mistakes.  They fell into the same traps a lot of studios have.  Launching an event guaranteed to annoy 3/4 of your playerbase just as some of your stiffest competition is coming online strikes me as utterly inexplicable.

Imagined design meeting:

"Hey guys, I have great idea.  Let's include powerful weapon rewards that most of our players can't use.  I'm nearly certain that will be extremely well received."

"Bill, you are a genius!  Let's do it!"


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

SWTOR: the latest news (on interpreting fluid levels in glass containers)

This week two big pieces of news about Star Wars the Old Republic were released.  Reactions have been mixed, but overall were pretty gloomy in most quarters.  I think SWTOR is one of the most fun MMOs to come along in a while, and I'm still enjoying it quite a bit.  However, I have to admit it's hard to say whether the latest news bodes well or ill for the long term prospects of the game.

   What the hell do I make of this?

On subs:

Yesterday EA released some rather vague subscription information about SWTOR, telling us that it has less than a million subs but substantially more than 500K.  I'm guessing this means the game currently has roughly 700K subs, but whether it's 600K, 700K, or 800K ultimately doesn't matter a whole lot to the arguments you'd make about the numbers.  Glass-half-empty-man would say this means the game has lost 1.4 million players in eight months, the greatest bleedout in MMO history (putting aside the fact that few MMOs have ever had that many players to lose in the first place).  Glass-half-full-man would say that only four sub based MMOs in history have had more than half a million players 8 months out from launch (WoW, Lineage, Lineage II, and  SWTOR being the only ones if I am not mistaken), and that only WoW has managed this feat in the west (putting aside the fact that this represents a drop of close to 70% of the players since the game launched).   Both views of the glass are correct, if uninformative.

I'd argue that what really matters is whether the game is still bleeding out subs, or is hitting it's steady base of core users:

Three scenarios for the future of SWTOR, based on 1.3 millions subs in May and 0.7 million subs in July.  If the decline over this period were the result of a linear trend, SWTOR would be on the gray trajectory.  Blue and red represent (somewhat arbitrary) best case and worst case trajectories.  I chose 100K subs for the bottom of the red line since even abysmal failures like launch AoC* and WAR have tended to level out in that neighborhood.

Since we only have four data points on the number of players in SWTOR it's pretty hard to say whether a leveling out of the current player base or a steady decline to Warhammer Online numbers is more realistic.  My guess, based largely on my limited impression of populations since the server merges, would be that reality is somewhere between the blue line and the gray one, and that the game is likely settling in as the second largest sub based western least until it goes FtP in November.  X-fire numbers from July show the number of players as steady or in a very slight decline.  SWTOR is no-where near the WoW challenger EA was hoping for, but it's likely still doing better than Rift, EVE, or even EQ at it's peak.

On the switch to FtP

On the glass-half-empty side of things, at the very least this announcement  means that EA is not happy with the amount of money they are drawing in from subs.  We still don't really know how much EA spent on SWTOR, but clearly the game took/ is taking too long to recoup that cost for even "substantially more than 500K subs" (at least 7.5 million a month in sub fees!) to seem sufficiently profitable to EA.

However, to me personally, this is very much a glass-half-full announcement.  First off, the part of the game that I most like, the 1-50 leveling game and the class stories, is going to be free for everyone.  That means that I probably will eventually get to see all eight class storylines, which I really doubt would have happened if I had to stay subbed long enough to play them all.

More importantly, I just don't like the "Pay $60 for a client and then $15 a month to sub" model.  It's a really poor value compared to most FtP MMOs.  For example, I've already spent more than twice as much on SWTOR as I've ever spent in most FtP MMOs, even ones I've played a lot like Everquest II and Wizard 101.  Even in games like DDO and LoTRO where I pay the big bucks for a new expansion or set of modules every year (I own 100% of the content in both games; adventuring areas, classes, races...everything),  I spend a lot less per year than I would on sub fees.  Plus it isn't as if expansions to sub based MMOs are generally free, in most cases they are on top of your sub fee.

The breadth, depth, and quality of FtP MMO offerings is such that it's getting harder and harder for me to justify the expense of sub based MMOs.**  "Pay only for what you want, and keep access to it forever" in my mind is a much friendlier business model than "You can't even log to check your mail unless you pay us every month."  The switch of SWTOR to FtP is another nail in the coffin of the sub-fee model, and I can't say I'm shedding any tears over it.

*While if flopped hard at launch, current Age of Conan is pretty good (imo) and doing well financially by most accounts.

**I say this, and the three MMOs I'm currently playing the most are DDO, TSW, and SWTOR.  I really thought SWTOR would be my last sub based MMO, but The Secret World impressed the hell out of me in during beta.  Joke's on me?