Saturday, February 25, 2012

DDO Heads Up

Via massively, Dungeons and Dragons Online is having a big anniversary event this Monday. If you have any DDO characters, be sure to log them in on Monday to receive a six-year-old cake. It can be traded for, among other items, a free +2 stat tome of your choice. That's kind of a big deal, especially now that stat tomes will last through reincarnations. Oddly enough, the DDO website currently gives no hint that this is coming up. Don't miss out!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Coming soon to a MMO near you: gambling via treasure boxes

This isn't exactly a rant, but this post is about a trend I'm not too happy about. Apologies to regular readers for the shift from my usual tone.

Way back in December Star Trek Online experimented with a lottery system where players could buy red gift boxes from the item shop, and each box had a really small chance of containing a very nice star ship. Apparently some players spent excessive amounts of money trying to get the ship, and as a result Cryptic made gobs of money while the boxes were active. The trial was such a success that this month Cryptic added a similar option permanently, in the form of Cardassian Lock Boxes. These drop in game, but can only be opened using keys that to all intents are impossible to obtain outside of the STO item shop (Tipa has a great and more detailed write up on all this). Reactions to this move were less than than enthused. Even the normally cheerful Blue Kae got a bit upset about it (though he did later soften his stance on the issue).

Apparently Cryptic wasn't the only one paying attention in December. Recently Turbine announced that pretty much the exact same system is coming to Lord of the Rings Online. The keys will be a bit easier to come by in game (compared to STO), but the basic mechanic where you'll find a locked box you likely can't open without hitting the cash shop is essentially the same. Paragon Studios also announced that "super packs" with random items are going on sale in the item shop of City of Heroes Online. It seems that letting players gamble away vast sums of real world cash in an online lottery for rare items is simply too profitable for Turbine and Paragon to pass up. This galls me particularly because these are two studios I would have pointed to as examples of "not evil" until now.

I can't comment in much depth on the moves in STO and CoH because I don't play those games currently. However I'm still active in LoTRO and feel more qualified to editorialize about it. I hate to be a Negative Nancy, but I feel like I keep waiting for Turbine to up their game when it comes to LoTRO. Turbine keeps bragging about how much money they have been making since LoTRO went free to play, and yet the pace of new content really hasn't changed at all from what we were seeing in the post Mines of Moria sub-based era. The Rise of Isengaurd was great, but I was done with it around a month after it went live. Since then Turbine has started selling armor in their item shop that's better than what can be crafted at similar levels, and now is pushing forward a cash shop driven lottery system. This is where all that money they are raking in from the FtP conversion is going? Are these really the same guys that gave us more free content than any MMO I've ever played in the first year after LoTRO launched in 2007?

More broadly, how long will it be before similar systems spread to other high profile FtP MMOs like Dungeons and Dragons Online, Everquest II, and Age of Conan? I fully realize that these treasure box systems are optional. You don't have to buy keys to open boxes you find or buy boxes from item shops. You can still play and prosper without using the boxes in the games they've been implemented in so far. However the trend really disturbs me. It seems more like the baldfaced greed I expect from a facebook game developer than something I expect in a full featured MMO.

[An aside: Syp was kind enough to allow me to participate in a recent retrospective on Phantasy Star Online. If you aren't a regular reader of the excellent MMO news site Massively, you can find the article here]

[Edit: Blue Kae came by and clarified the situation with Cardassian lock boxes (see comments, thanks man!). They will only be available until late March, though boxes of some sort will likely be available from here on out.]

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The curse of sucessfull blockbusters

I recently read a really interesting editorial over at 1up. The premise of the article is that video games are falling into a trap that has already affected the movie industry and the music industry. The audience for video games is larger now then it has ever been, and the willingness of that audience to try new products is lower than it has ever been. For the most part, gamers are only buying the same games that everyone else is buying like the newest iteration of Call of Duty, Halo, or Madden. It's because humans want to be able to participate in shared conversations. As a consequence, the more socially connected we are (as a society) over the net the more monolithic our tastes become.

This really favors big publishers like EA and Activision that can put out games with production values that appeal to the masses, and still afford the advertising blitz or IPs (say Batman or Star Wars) that will attract the attention of the masses. Mid level publishers like THQ are being pushed out, they just don't have the budgets needed to compete at that scale. What we will soon be left with is a few big publishers selling safe bets with high production values to the masses (think summer blockbuster movies) and indie titles with low production values and miniscule budgets.

To me this seems to be a pretty accurate description of what is happening in console game space. I like to think of myself as an independent minded gamer. However, the games I have played in the last few years on my X-box 360 are generally ones you have heard of and likely ones you have played (e.g., Dragon Age Origins, Mass Effect 2, Halo Reach, Half Life 2, Fallout 3). The only things I could find in my disk collection that weren't connected to wildly popular IPs or from studios that have legions of fans (e.g., Bioware, Bethesda, Valve) were Crackdown and Borderlands. The more obscure games I have played were all downloads from small publishers.

And now we come to the point of the post, which you likely suspected all along. Is this going to happen to MMOs as a genre? I think a lot of the angst currently being directed at Star Wars the Old Republic has to do with this issue. The formula for a summer blockbuster movie seems to be: (1) rehash at least part of the story arc that Campbell outlines in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, (2) glam it the hell up with fancy special effects, a high profile IP, and/ or a huge ass advertising budget. The future that I feel a lot commentators are dreading in MMO space is the following formula for MMO blockbusters: (1) borrow a lot of mechanics and game design elements from World of Warcraft, (2) glam it the hell up with fancy graphics, a high profile IP, and/ or a huge ass advertising budget. This is very much the formula that SWTOR (and LoTRO and Rift for that matter) followed in the eyes of many MMO enthusiasts.

From there it follows that if SWTOR succeeds the formula for an MMO blockbuster will have been established. The financial success of SWTOR would be the first step down a path that inevitably leads to the place video games in general seem headed: all we will have available are predictable blockbusters or (more innovative) indie projects with lower production values.

So how do I feel about all this? I really like SWTOR. I also go out and watch all the Super Hero themed blockbusters in the Spring/ Summer with glee. I also recently bought Arkham Asylum (I won't pay $60 for a console game, I wait for them to go down), and I'm really looking forward to it. At the same time, I think Myst Online is a great MMO if you can get past the clunky controls (it must have at least ten players), I watch a lot of indie and foreign movies through Netflix (recently I watched "Super" and "The Girl who Lept Through Time" and enjoyed them both), and I really enjoyed Braid on my X-box.

I can't say that everyone panicking at the possibility that SWTOR does well is wrong. We may well be entering an era where all big budget MMOs are Diku style. I also can't decide whether I really care. The small guys will still innovate, just like they do in the music and movie industries. Let the giants spit out their predictable fluff, enjoy it for what it is if you can, and support the little guys with your time and your wallet when they make something you like. Hardly sounds like the apocalypse to me.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Six weeks in: SWTOR is obviously doomed

EA has announced that as of Feb 1 SWTOR only has 1.7 million active subs, which amounts to a mere 85% player retention rate. Obviously most of the folks that have tried SWTOR can't stand it. After the first six weeks, it seems that Star Wars the Old Republic is an abject failure.

In all seriousness, I'm really glad to see that SWTOR is off to such a good start. It remains to be seen whether the game can maintain this level of success in the long term. But it's also obvious that the great bulk of players didn't rush to the cap and cancel their subs in the first month, as some have been predicting.

I personally have hit the ripe old age of 40 on my main, after playing nearly every night in January. I don't know that I'll be taking 8 characters to the cap to see all the storylines. But I'll certainly play up at least one Republic character after I finish playing the Empire side (they get a completely different storyline and a few planets that the Sith don't). That will get Bioware at least a few more months of sub time out of me whether they manage to iron out a decent endgame or not.