Adventures of Taas

2012 Prediction Recap: I didn’t do so hot edition

by on Dec.28, 2012, under Industry Musings, LOTRO, Rift, SW:TOR, World of Warcraft

Prediction season – oh how I love you. In most years its a time for me to show off just how insightful and connected I am to the games industry, this year however I suspect might be a different beast. I really didn’t see the force F2P was going to be this year (I really did think it’d be Pay to Plays year to come back with a vengeance) amongst other things. So let’s get right to it and look at my predictions from 2011 for 2012:

World of Warcraft has a disappointing year that sets the mark for the way forward, Blizzard doesn’t care when they redeem themselves in that fall by announcing Titan in the fall and making a boat load of cash off Diablo 3′s release.  Mists of Pandaria will release late Spring/Early summer and it will be the first expansion to not break sales records (that’s not to say it won’t sell by a long shot, but the hype will be muted).  The perception shift on WoW will be complete and for most people “the game they go back to” will no longer be a viable home.  Subscriptions will continue a 1-2 million year over year decline in line with what was seen this past year.

So a few predictions here.  1) WoW has a disappointing year (I’ll also tie in the 1-2 yoy decline prediction here) 2) Blizz announces Titan in the Fall 3) Blizz makes a boatload off D3 4) MoP releases in the spring/early summer 5) MoP does well but doesn’t break records 6) WoW loses its status as the “go home to game” for many.

At first when I reread this a few days ago and started thinking about how I did I thought I was way off the mark but reading it over again I dont think I was far off at all.  There was a lot of “WoW is dying” hype last Christmas as we were on the eve of TOR launching.  I didn’t really buy in to that hype (I use conservative language throughout the above prediction, hype will be muted, etc) but I did think WoW would have essentially its first bad trend setting year and you know I don’t think I was wrong.  So let’s break it out:

1) Did WoW have a disappointing year?  I think all and all it probably did to an extent.  The subscription picture was a steady yoy decline (to the tune of 2 million+) until MOP released and even then the game did not make the subscription numbers back with the expansion.  The blizzard layoffs mid year in the WoW customer service area point to the fact that Blizzard realizes that there is now no where to go but down.  WoW isn’t dying, it will not die, let’s be clear.  But its best days are finally behind it.  I’ll take the point.

2) Titan in the fall.

Nope.

3) Blizz makes a boatload off D3

6 million in a week.  Yarp.  Do I really deserve points for predicting the sky would be blue though?

4) MoP releases in the spring / early summer

Oh Blizzard.  I really thought you’d be able to stick to a more aggressive expansion schedule.  I guess not.

5) MoP Does well but doesn’t break records.

Yep.  For the first time a WoW expansion did not break retail records.  Between declining sales and a move to digital I dont think you’ll see retailers doing midnight openings for WoW any longer…

6) WoW loses its status as the “go home to game” for many

This is impossible to get a read on.  But what I do know is that many long time WoW players did retire in the last year.  Lots of blogs, big name mod authors, etc packed their bags and went to greener pastures.  I won’t take the point here, but I might come back in 2013 to collect these as a bonus point because I’m really convinced the “mental shift” away from WoW has occurred, despite reviews of MoP being the strongest WoW expansion in a long time.

Next up TOR:

Star Wars The Old Republic continues at  a strong clip.  Bioware will break the SOE mould and instead of a 4 patch / 1 expansion a year model will continually deliver high quality content for the price of the monthly fee.  Despite this solid evidence/leaks/well sourced rumours of a 2013 expansion will close out 2012.  People’s fears that content of Bioware quality will not keep coming will be put to bed when Bioware releases two solid / high content / high quality patches before the six month mark.  This does end up masking the complications of delivering Bioware’s level of quality (because the truth is they already have those first two patches virtually in the can and in QA now) and towards the end of 2012 its possible content releases will slow paving the way for the above mentioned expansion in 2013.

Star Wars The Old Republic will face a crisis within 6 months due to their tight lipped community approach.  I’m not sure how it will play out but there will be a big blow up caused by lack of communication.  It likely will be something silly that just grows and grows within the community (see the handling of the early game access as a microcosm for what this will look like).

Hmm.  Let’s break this down as follows: 1) SWTOR will continue at a strong clip through 2012 2) SWTOR will break the 4 patch / 1 expansion model and deliver content on an aggressive schedule for the cost of the monthly fee alone 3) Fears of Bioware content quality will be for naught 4) Bioware will not be able to keep with content demands by the end of 2012, as their production cycle will be too slow 5) Community stuff.

1) TOR did not continue at a good clip.  I have doubts if they’ve even made a profit yet despite huge box sales.  No points

2) I’m going to give myself a half point here.  At first Bioware tried really hard to push high quality content out the door but the result was an extremely slow release cycle that would have put them at the 4 patches a year mark HOWEVER Bioware did call this out as a problem and started to change their approach to patches by shipping content as it was ready instead of waiting for mega patches.  So their plan on paper was more SOE, how they ended up executing was as I predicted out of necessity   They just would have never shipped if they waited for normal MMO sized patches because of the slowness of their production cycle.

3) Hmm.  So far content quality hasn’t really been a concern, it’s been more a lack of depth.  So they are maintaining the quality standard but their production cycle proving to be an unwieldy beast.  Do I suffer because of a lack of depth in the content here?  Hmm.  I’ll take half a point.

4) Bioware was not able to keep up with content demands because of their production cycle.  Full points thanks.

5) There was no real large scale community crisis however when the first large of community layoffs hit the community team was gutted out and I suspect management saw the same disturbing communication trends I did.  I’ll take full points here.

Next up, EQ Next:

Everquest Next is announced.  It is (at least on paper – all we’ll see this year) a theme park MMO with a fresh approach of mixing in strong sandbox/virtual world elements.  EQ:N won’t release until 2013 or even beyond.

I’ll take a half point here.  EQ Next wasn’t announced so much as it was temporarily unannounced.  Where I will take the points however is I think I’ve clearly nailed what EQ Next is going to be based on Smed’s comments at SOE Live.  It is clear that Smed and Co want to take the game in a new direction.  I plan on elaborating on all of this with my 2013 predictions.

PS2:

Planetside 2 ships.  Underwhelms the mass market but is a money maker for SOE anyway.  The biggest barrier to financial success for Planetside in my mind was the business model – the F2P/Sub hybrid that SOE is really iterating and nailing right now will be a perfect fit for Planetside Next and the game will carve out a solid niche.

I’ll take full points here.  I think PS2 has done really well and really has captured the attention of PC Gamers, but I don’t think its appeal has spread beyond that base.  It’s a great game and everyone should be playing it.

GW2:

Guild Wars 2 does not ship in 2013.

I should probably get minus points for only dedicating this paltry amount of space to GW2.  The game itself is lots of fun, although short on long term depth/appeal/replayability but what I really missed out on was the business model.  I think when GW2 did well and made money it was the single moment in 2012 that will forever ring out through the industry.  Because of GW2 I suspect 2012 is the year pay to play died.  WoW and I’m sure some future AAA pretenders will try and go pay to play but i think free to play is the way forward.  And for me, as an old school guy who loves paying subs (because I feel that’s how I get the most value out of a game and a studio) I have to admit that’s a huge shift in thinking.  2012 was the year free to play won the business model wars, and I didn’t catch it.  No points.

Firefall / other players:

Some interesting new players enter the scene.  Firefall will be the biggest commercial success following a Riot Games/League of Legends rapid build to mainstream success.

This actually didn’t happen at all.  Firefall didn’t release (and those who got their hands on beta have shared with why it hasn’t released and there’s good reasons).  The success story throughout the year continued to be Riot, it continued to be Mojang and Minecraft.  2012 was more of a further entrenching year for the guys who started to make noise in 2011.

Ultima IP:

Electronic Arts does something with the Ultima IP, involves massively multiplayer.  I don’t want to guess too much on this one.  If I did have to guess I imagine Richard Garriott will NOT be involved at least not in the initial running.  After the first announcement goes out EA will realize getting Richard involved in someway will help revitalize and bring attention to the new project.  He might end up involved in some token manner (likely involving the Lord British character who he owns the rights to).  There was an interview a few weeks ago saying Bioware will be turning their attention to a well loved IP, I believe this is Ultima and this is my predication for what that means.

No points.  I really don’t fucking want to talk about it.

LoTRO:

Lord of the Rings Online has a bad year.  I have no idea how this plays out but I get the sense that the game has turned the corner and the benefit of the F2P switch is starting to run dry for the game.  I don’t think the last expansion did overly well.

I think Turbine re-releasing Asheron’s Call 2 gives me the points here.  To me the AC2 rerelease felt like a bit of a desperate grab for revenue (don’t get me wrong I’m very happy AC2 is back!)  and I think LOTRO’s prime as a beacon of F2P light are over and done with.

Dust:

CCP / DUST – I suspect DUST will not ship this year, particularly after early betas receive overly negative feedback.  I have no basis for this, but call it a hunch.

Points plox.  (Why the fuck is this game launching on PS3 again?)

Rift

Rift suffers the most from SWTOR.  Many MMO vets who burned out on WoW after Cataclysm found a haven in Rift.  Even those who have resisted SWTOR in the short term will find the sheer amount of their friends in TOR a strong enough pull to walk away from Rift.  Trion needs to announce an expansion for Rift by June or the game’s long term outlook could be called in to question.  Don’t rule out a business model change.

I was pretty right here, minus the fact that the real suffering came at the hands of GW2 and not so much SWTOR.  They did announce an expansion in the summer.  I’ll take the points.  The business model change might still come, despite the fact I think Trion knows its not very smart to change a game that was designed for P2P to F2P.

TOR as a proving ground for pay to play:

Speaking of business model changes – SWTOR becomes a proving ground for the AAA subscription approach.  The problem is TOR has also raised the expectation for what a AAA subscription MMO is.  Companies will be more tempted by the Sub model again (counter to the fleeing to F2P we’ve seen in 2011) but the up front cost is a more daunting barrier to entry than ever.  Expect this to mean a slow 2012 for product reveals as publishers and the money men figure out what the fuck this all means.

TOR’s failure + GW2′s success as buy to play = the death of pay to play.  And this prediction is why I really didn’t get 2012 going in to it.  The writing was on the wall (League of Legends, SOE’s conversion to pay your way F2P, etc) and I just didn’t pick up on it.  I was wrong.   And quite frankly I’ll take a minus point for this one.  I really screwed the pooch on predicting 2012 right here.

FFXIV:

Final Fantasy XIV this is a toughy.  FFXIV 2.0 is set to release in the fall of 2012.  I suspect this date might get missed completely and 2.0 might not happen until 2013.  I suspect the decision to start charging for the game this week will kill the game outright in North America.  The key question is whether enough JP players stick around to pay the upkeep while we wait for 2.0.  If 2.0 does release I don’t expect it to win hearts and minds in North America.  It’ll take the PS3 version, which won’t hit until early 2013, to give the game another shot in North America.  This will be a dark year for S-E in the MMO market.

This is in a nutshell what happened.  Well done Ryan (maybe if I put this success here people will ignore the whole missing free to play thing…).  Full points.  I have high hopes for FFXIV a realm reborn in 2013!

And my conclusion:

Overall 2012 will be a brighter year for MMOs as TOR brings some fresh air in to the room.  There will be less closures, less F2P conversions and just less activity on the business end and a lot more gaming.  SWTOR and WoW: MoP will exist together and the MMO sub business will be bigger than it has ever been.

It was a good year for MMOs I think overall.  The reason however was because people found new ways to monetize that were up front a better experience for the consumer.  And that I completely missed.  I couldn’t have been more wrong on why 2012 was a good year.

So there we go!  What was my score?

Out of a total of 22 possible points I got:
10.5, 11.5 if I don’t minus out my epic fail.

This is by far my weakest prediction performance ever.  Let’s hope I do better for 2013!  That post will be coming Soon(TM)

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WoW Might be Slowing Down – But It’s Still a Cash Cow

by on Feb.15, 2012, under World of Warcraft

Last night I waited in line with over 74,000 other people.  What was I waiting in line for?  Probably the coolest looking mount in World of Warcraft:

I was kicked out of the line twice at different points of the evening and judging by my line various line positions and how fast the line was moving at various stages you have to figure that Blizzard sold at least 250k of these things (and probably more).  Let me do the math for you.  That’s SIX point TWO FIVE million dollars.

So while many including myself are heralding the beginning of the end of WoW’s era let’s not get ahead of ourselves. WoW is still a game with 10.2 million people in some way paying and playing for the game.  WoW is still a game with a tremendous potential to make revenue for Blizzard Activision.

Blizard Activision held their quarterly earnings call this past week and revealed that on the quarter WoW had lost 100k subscribers.  This was after losing 1.8 million on the year.  So clearly the churn is starting to slow down, or maybe even heading to a bottom.  Let’s keep in mind that the MOP expansion is likely coming out early summer and that will bring people back in droves.  So maybe the old giant is battered and bruised but ready to fight on at this level?  It’s starting to look like it.

The lesson here for me:  It’s fun to predict the doom of WoW, but with its economic power for its parent company it would take a lot to slay this beast.

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You need to think of SWTOR as an investment…

by on Feb.15, 2012, under SW:TOR

People, myself included, are starting to burn out on SWTOR (there’s the predictable ZOMG 3 MONTH TOURIST declaration over on Keen’s blog).  I personally find myself playing a lot less and I know that overall my guild Aureus Knights has seen its activity level drop quite a bit (from ~30 active week day evenings to ~10-15).  People are showing up for Raids no problem but other activities such as PvP, alt leveling and Flashpoints are starting to get stale for people.

There’s a lot of reasons for this: Linear leveling path making alts less appealing, no point to the space game once you’ve done leveling, Ilum being a bad joke for open world PVP, Battlemasters, PVP stats on gear and faction imbalance impacting other areas of PvP.  There’s a lot of reasons to NOT log in.

There are those who are pointing to these factors and calling the game a failure.  But I think what we have here is a solid platform for the future, not a failure.

MMO fans often get caught in the trap of viewing a game they get bored with as a failure.  There’s a bigger fallacy that we allow ourselves to get caught up in and that’s expecting a game that is 2 months old to compete on content with games 5, 10 and 15 years older.

The truth is Star Wars The Old Republic has a lot going for it.  The combat is fun, the PvP when not bogged down by gear differences is a lot of fun and when done right the raiding and dungeon experiences can be quite fun.  This game is something Bioware can iterate on and expand the content offering for.  SWTOR has a huge plus in that the leveling experience (initially) is engaging.  Up front there is a lot of gameplay offered.  Once they’ve been given time to expand the back end it will get exponentially better.

I think the best thing people can do is view this game as a long term investment and allow themselves to take a break.  Come back in March when 1.2 has hit, come back a year from now when we are getting hyped over the first expansion.

There are games you play and think to yourself, “Man, this could really use another 12 months of getting the fundamentals right” or “level 30-40 (the mid game) is just unplayable because there’s no content and it’s all grind” and SWTOR is not one of those games.  This is a game that over time you and your friends will return to and I suspect Bioware with the legacy system, whatever they have planned for space combat and other expanded content offerings will find ways to keep bringing us back for years to come.

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The Death of a Virtual World

by on Jan.15, 2012, under Industry Musings, SWG

Raph Koster linked to this article in Paste Magazine (wtf is Paste Magazine?) and it’s a brilliant read on the death of virtual worlds in general and of Star Wars Galaxies in particular.

And so it ends. A world disappears and we lose the possibilities it afforded. There’s the danger of letting yourself get too close to a virtual world: It’ll break your heart when it closes. You’ll have to come up with your own story why: balance sheets, bad business decisions, failures of marketing or design. We know this story, though: when top-down business and bottom-up social spaces stop aligning, business interests win out every time. They shut down our record stores and our coffee shops and our bars and our clubs.

But we bounce back. We adapt. We find other places—maybe, if we’ve been burned enough, we make our own places. But even when we can’t make our own places, we keep making places our own.

Indeed.  Whole thing is here.

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2012 Predictions…

by on Jan.01, 2012, under Industry Musings, LOTRO, mmo, Rift, SW:TOR, World of Warcraft

My favourite post of the year.  The Christmas/Holiday season crazies (and a lot of SWTOR playing) have delayed this post a bit – so let’s get right to it, what I think we’ll see in 2012:

World of Warcraft has a disappointing year that sets the mark for the way forward, Blizzard doesn’t care when they redeem themselves in that fall by announcing Titan in the fall and making a boat load of cash off Diablo 3′s release.  Mists of Pandaria will release late Spring/Early summer and it will be the first expansion to not break sales records (that’s not to say it won’t sell by a long shot, but the hype will be muted).  The perception shift on WoW will be complete and for most people “the game they go back to” will no longer be a viable home.  Subscriptions will continue a 1-2 million year over year decline in line with what was seen this past year.

Star Wars The Old Republic continues at  a strong clip.  Bioware will break the SOE mould and instead of a4 patch / 1 expansion a year model will continually deliver high quality content for the price of the monthly fee.  Despite this solid evidence/leaks/well sourced rumours of a 2013 expansion will close out 2012.  People’s fears that content of Bioware quality will not keep coming will be put to bed when Bioware releases two solid / high content / high quality patches before the six month mark.  This does end up masking the complications of delivering Bioware’s level of quality (because the truth is they already have those first two patches virtually in the can and in QA now) and towards the end of 2012 its possible content releases will slow paving the way for the above mentioned expansion in 2013.

Star Wars The Old Republic will face a crisis within 6 months due to their tight lipped community approach.  I’m not sure how it will play out but there will be a big blow up caused by lack of communication.  It likely will be something silly that just grows and grows within the community (see the handling of the early game access as a microcosm for what this will look like).

Everquest Next is announced.  It is (at least on paper – all we’ll see this year) a theme park MMO with a fresh approach of mixing in strong sandbox/virtual world elements.  EQ:N won’t release until 2013 or even beyond.

Planetside 2 ships.  Underwhelms the mass market but is a money maker for SOE anyway.  The biggest barrier to financial success for Planetside in my mind was the business model – the F2P/Sub hybrid that SOE is really iterating and nailing right now will be a perfect fit for Planetside Next and the game will carve out a solid niche.

Guild Wars 2 does not ship in 2013.

Some interesting new players enter the scene.  Firefall will be the biggest commercial success following a Riot Games/League of Legends rapid build to mainstream success.

Electronic Arts does something with the Ultima IP, involves massively multiplayer.  I don’t want to guess too much on this one.  If I did have to guess I imagine Richard Garriott will NOT be involved at least not in the initial running.  After the first announcement goes out EA will realize getting Richard involved in someway will help revitalize and bring attention to the new project.  He might end up involved in some token manner (likely involving the Lord British character who he owns the rights to).  There was an interview a few weeks ago saying Bioware will be turning their attention to a well loved IP, I believe this is Ultima and this is my predication for what that means.

Lord of the Rings Online has a bad year.  I have no idea how this plays out but I get the sense that the game has turned the corner and the benefit of the F2P switch is starting to run dry for the game.  I don’t think the last expansion did overly well.

CCP / DUST – I suspect DUST will not ship this year, particularly after early betas receive overly negative feedback.  I have no basis for this, but call it a hunch.

Rift suffers the most from SWTOR.  Many MMO vets who burned out on WoW after Cataclysm found a haven in Rift.  Even those who have resisted SWTOR in the short term will find the sheer amount of their friends in TOR a strong enough pull to walk away from Rift.  Trion needs to announce an expansion for Rift by June or the game’s long term outlook could be called in to question.  Don’t rule out a business model change.

Speaking of business model changes – SWTOR becomes a proving ground for the AAA subscription approach.  The problem is TOR has also raised the expectation for what a AAA subscription MMO is.  Companies will be more tempted by the Sub model again (counter to the fleeing to F2P we’ve seen in 2011) but the up front cost is a more daunting barrier to entry than ever.  Expect this to mean a slow 2012 for product reveals as publishers and the money men figure out what the fuck this all means.

Final Fantasy XIV this is a toughy.  FFXIV 2.0 is set to release in the fall of 2012.  I suspect this date might get missed completely and 2.0 might not happen until 2013.  I suspect the decision to start charging for the game this week will kill the game outright in North America.  The key question is whether enough JP players stick around to pay the upkeep while we wait for 2.0.  If 2.0 does release I don’t expect it to win hearts and minds in North America.  It’ll take the PS3 version, which won’t hit until early 2013, to give the game another shot in North America.  This will be a dark year for S-E in the MMO market.

Overall 2012 will be a brighter year for MMOs as TOR brings some fresh air in to the room.  There will be less closures, less F2P conversions and just less activity on the business end and a lot more gaming.  SWTOR and WoW: MoP will exist together and the MMO sub business will be bigger than it has ever been.

We’ll see next December how I did…

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SWTOR is not a linear game…

by on Dec.27, 2011, under SW:TOR

There is a popular notion (even from those who play the game) that Star Wars The Old Republic is a linear game.  As I’ve gotten more and more in to the game I’ve realized that this might be one of the least linear leveling MMOs I’ve seen in quite some time.  Don’t get me wrong: this is a theme park experience that is very well guided and on first blush feels extremely linear.  But its the modes of play that Bioware gives you really give it a non-linear feel.

My wife and I are both playing the game.  As of this writing she’s 27 and I am 31.  She is actually FURTHER AHEAD of the story than I am.  How is that possible?  A wide variety of ways to progress in the game.  The viable major modes of play are:

  • Story / PVE quest leveling
  • Heroic Quests
  • Flashpoints
  • Warzones
  • Space combat

I and I imagine most people spend most time in the Story / PVE quest leveling game but there is a lot of playability and progression to be found in the other modes as well.

Flashpoints and Warzones are staples in most MMOs these days.  Flashpoints are your usual dungeons and Warzones are your instanced PVP battlegrounds.  Bioware has however managed to add spice to both of these game play modes.  In Flashpoints every 10 levels you encounter a major story driven dungeon.  You really can’t call these dungeons in the traditional sense because it would be selling the Flashpoint concept short.  There is some great and engaging story content built in to these dungeons and it is a lot of fun to play with people to see how they respond to conversation options and how dynamically the Flashpoint story comes together.  Don’t get me wrong.  This is only every 10 levels (on the Republic side it is the Esseles and Taval V I’ve encountered so far that are this more dynamic and story driven format), the rest of the dungeons very much play like your usual MMO setup, I find it enjoyable but I know some people will point and decry “das clone”, but whatever.

The Warzones are interesting as well.  Alderaan, which honestly is probably the most fun Warzone in my mind is pretty standard MMO fare.  Capture and hold 3 points.  Hold the most the longest and you win.  But the other Warzones are bit different and engaging.  Voidstar is an attack and defend Warzone while Huttball is… well … Huttball.  It is really an eSport that plays a little like football, although instead of tackling you murder the opposition with Lightsabers and Blasters.  It is a lot of fun and is certainly different.

So these two modes of play certainly take a lot of inspiration from the MMO standard set by WoW in these modern times but Bioware has managed to find a way to evolve them and make them engaging.  Getting back to the topic at hand they are also great for leveling.  Early going you can get around 10k XP and a decent chunk of change for doing a warzone and that’s without the daily quests that can easily double that.  Flashpoints will give you at least half a level as well as provide top end gear.  Some of them can be run very quickly.

Next we have Heroic Quests.  These are not anything new to the genre BUT I would argue that SWTOR is one of the first games in the post-WoW era to really bring them back.  One of the fun things about Everquest 2 when it launched was that there were places in zones you just couldn’t go as a solo player.  There were very intentionally areas packed with mobs that were tuned for higher levels.  It was one of the real strengths of the game, giving groups things to do.  SWTOR has blissfully returned to that.  And there is quite a bit of it as well.  I would say each planet has at least 4 and most of them aren’t just out in the world quests either, many of them end up in mini dungeons after completing over world objectives.  Again a really solid iterative move forward for the genre done with a Bioware twist.  Too often these days MMOs are solo fests and thankfully Bioware has really put an effort in to building content for groups.  Heroic Quests are also very rewarding both in XP and loot.

Last is Space Combat.  Richard Garriot once laid out his dream MMO.  It would be a central hub game where you’d take an avatar in to all kinds of different worlds and games.  Space combat in TOR certainly feels like a stab at this.  You are playing a completely unique game experience where your character isn’t really involved.  Your ship has gear, you do missions to get better gear and completing those missions also progresses your central avtar by way of XP and credits.  Garriot was on to something I think and I hope Bioware figures out how to implement different modes of play above and beyond these.

So that’s how my wife and I can be so far apart in levels, even though she is “farther in the game”.  I find myself sitting down for a session saying “ok, today I’m going to do story” or “tonight we are doing Warzones”.  Being able to sit down and play several different modes of the game is very refreshing.  All with a story line underpinning and Bioware feel.  It is very cool.

So the next time someone tells you SWTOR is a linear WoW clone, tell them they are full of it.

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2011 Prediction Recap

by on Dec.20, 2011, under Everquest 2, Industry Musings, mmo, Rift, SW:TOR, SWG, warhammer online, World of Warcraft

It’s that time of year again – time to recap my 2011 predictions!

World of Warcraft:  A mind shift that the game’s best days are behind it.

I imagine my man Evan would disagree with me but I feel this has happened.  There are a few reasons:

First is SWTOR.  It’s hard to judge this factor because SWTOR is so fresh and shiny at the moment and we’ve seen countless games come out swinging and then fall off but I think the IP and staggering initial sales will push SWTOR to terrirtory uncharted by the Rifts and Aions of the world.  We all know that every time a new MMO comes out the cries of WoW’s death get kicked in to high gear and I think most people would agree that SWTOR is the biggest threat WoW has faced.  One of the things I did in the build up to SWTOR was keep an eye on the MMO-Champion forums every day as the various public betas progressed.  I was curious how a fairly WoW centric community would react to the release of a challenger like SWTOR and it was fascinating.  Slowly but surely as people got to try the game the sentiment towards SWTOR picked up incredible steam a community that started out as heavily “I doubt I’ll play SWTOR, too much going on WoW” shifted to “I’ll juggle both” to “I’m going to leave WoW for SWTOR”.  SWTOR’s voice acting and production values are going to raise the bar in the AAA space and the fact is WoW will for the first time feel a generation behind.  Where WoW was an evolution on EQ I think ten years from now we’ll be able to identify SWTOR as the next evolutionary step after WoW.  Time will tell, but I think SWTOR is a real threat to WoW.

There are other signs that WoW is past its peak:  The response to Cataclysm has been mixed.  Some feel that game has lost its nostalgia factor in a changed world, the lore nerds feel that with Arthas down they’ll never quite feel the same about raiding never mind how some of them disagree with the directions Warcraft lore has been taken.  Other people just aren’t excited about Mists of Pandaria.  Some people hate the idea of Pandas (some love it), I personally worry about what the Monk class is going to do to balance (a hybrid class that sounds amazingly unbalanced from a design perspective – auto healing?  really?), while others can’t get excited about an expansion without a central boss to go after.  Mists is going to be different, but I’m not sure how the fan base is going to react.

Another thing with Mists is the removal of talents.  The talent redesign in Mists is essentially a concession by Blizzard that the talent system as it was designed in vanilla doesn’t work (in their opinion).  You basically will not be able to customized your character any longer, the new talent system is the most stripped down iteration you could dream of.  I wonder if this is where WoW jumps the shark and goes beyond the common denominator.  Will Mists be the expansion where WoW gets too easy?  Not just easy, but too simple.  What does this new talent and class system offer the min/maxer?

So.  For the WoW prediction I will give myself the full point.

Bllizard MMO 2.0: Leaks through 2011 and is announced late 2011.

I was wrong.  No points.  From what I’m hearing we won’t see a launch of Titan in 2012, but maybe we’ll see an announcement?  Is the project even on course after the recent team departures?  Has the game taken a Warcraft Adventures -> World of Warcraft type of course correction?  We’ll see.  But I won’t be predicting much for Titan in 2012.

Blizzard MMO 2.0: Is an MMOFPS

While I still think I’m right (duh), we know nothing on Titan.

Planetside Next is announced.  Launch will be delayed to 2012.

Swish!  Nailed this one.  Game was announced and expected to launch in 2011.  Was eventually delayed to 2012.

EQ Next:  Slow build up to an announcement.  Will be a WoW clone

So.  There’s been the slow build up, but no announcement.  And the early EARLY indications I’m getting from SOE is they expect to bring in sandbox elements and it might actually be a refreshing departure from WoW Diku.  One can hope.   But I don’t get the points here.

SOE and F2P.  Blunders abound, EQ2′s best years in the rear view mirror

I’ll take full marks here.  They didn’t exactly commit out and out blunders but it wasn’t a pretty year for SOE.  DCUO going immediately to F2P, partial F2P conversion of EQ2 followed by a late year conversion to full F2P and the release of a different type of EQ2 expansion that the community doesn’t quite know how to take yet.  F2P might reenergize EQ2 (I really hope it does, I think it is a brilliant title) but we will have to see.  SWTOR’s production values and the issues it causes WoW likely impact EQ2 the same or even more.

SWTOR: Huge commercial success at launch.  Game will be found extremely linear with limited replay value.  Players will find end game the same old same old.  However new players and vets looking for a fresh coat of paint will bring a strong sub base.

I’ll take a half point on this for the commercial success of launch.  We’ll see numbers in a week or two and they are going to be unheard of, likely including WoW’s launch.  The only hard data I have to take this half point is the preorders and the  retail tracking services peg TOR’s North American sales at just south of a million.  That’s before Digital Downloads and usually Amazon does not report in to these services.  So.  2.5 million sales anyone?  Another million out of Europe.  Asian plans to likely be announced within 3 months.  Oh yeah.  Go buy yourself some ERTS quick.

The other aspect we’ll see.  I still think replay will SOMEWHAT be limited but now that I’ve actually played the game I think it won’t be as bad as I originally thought.  I have a blog post coming up that will explore replayability and pacing in SWTOR soon.

Closures.  Vanguard dead, WAR 0 dev resources, lots of closures all around.

I’ll take half point here.  It was a year of closures for sure.  SWG (close to home, I’ll miss it), Lego, Global Agenda, The Agency cancelled.  Lot’s of bad news and lost jobs in the industry.  A sad year for the genre.

Rift.  A success with MMO vets, game will end the year with around 500k subs.  Will be viewed as a WoW clone but will carve a niche.

Full points.  I think I nailed this one right down to the final subscription numbers.  Rift sold well (~1-1.5M range) and I think Trion will be happy with their investment.  I think Rift hit just when WoW sentiment was starting to shift with some vets and they flocked to Rift looking for a slightly more old school Diku-MMO vibe.  Sadly patch 1.2 (lowered the difficulty of some content) drove a few of those folks away, but despite that there’s still plenty of pie left for Rift.  They need to announce an expansion very soon to compete in the post SWTOR space I think.  2012 will make or break Rift.

The Design Gods currently wasting their talents on Facebook will wake up and begin work on a AAA product.  I’m looking at you Mr Koster, Mr Garriot et all.  This one might be more of a “I wish it would come true” but I’m sticking by it

One day… one day.  In all honesty it sounds like Richard Garriot might be starting to get the itch.  We can only hope.

_

So out of 10 points I landed 5.  Not bad, this guessing business isn’t easy.

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SWG

by on Jun.26, 2011, under Industry Musings, SWG

* My apologies for this post being a little behind.  The SWG closure announcement happened while I was on my way up north (literally sitting in my car opening a package of Crazy Bread when the news broke embargo) for a quick out of town vacation and I haven’t had a chance to put my thoughts to keyboard until now.

In my last blog post here on AoT (the one about the SOE lay offs) I expressed I had a pretty bad feeling about what laying off half of the Austin studio would mean for SWG.  Sadly that bad feeling has now become a reality and I feel the genre will be the one that suffers.

The reason it will suffer is because some people will take the meaning of today wrong and see SWG as a failure.  A AAA MMO being canned after only 8 years meets a simple criteria for failure but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  The reason we are here today is not because of the NGE or the CU or the CU2 or the delay of JTL or any number of things.  Those were all barriers to SWG reaching its full potential perhaps but that is not why the servers will go dark on December 15th.  This has everything to do with SW:TOR coming out in the next few months and nothing to do with SWG’s success or lack of success (note it was SOE’s 2nd or 3rd most profitable game depending on what year you snap shot for the data).

I’ve read the 20+ pages of the discussion thread on the closure over on the official forums and many people are blaming SOE.  I know its easy to blame SOE but please folks:  This is 100% Lucas Arts.  A lot of SWG’s darker days have come at the urging or flat out instructions of Lucas Arts and had very little to do with SOE.

I think if you go back to the earliest days SOE went out to make their sandbox (guys like Vogel and Koster being on the team making this pretty clear).  This was their answer to what they saw in their biggest competition (UO) in those days.  The problem with that is I’m not entirely convinced SWG was ever the game Lucas Arts wanted them to make.  Later Lucas Arts would push SOE to make “a more iconic experience” and the result was the NGE.  We all know how that went.

This is all my take based on conversations with the dev and community teams over the years as well as my experiences working as a project manager for a major media outlet.  One thing I can tell you with almost absolute certainty the relationship between SOE and LA was workable but always seemed very tense to me.  When I was working on SWG Stratics as a project manager we had to clear a lot of what we did with Lucas Arts and it was a terrible pain in the ass every step of the way.  I’m not just talking during NDA and pre release times either.  There were times we’d have to secure permission for something a thousand other fan sites were doing anyway.  SOE was always its usual very approachable and brilliant self when it came to dealing with the media.  The managing editor for SWG Stratics (Matt K!) spent many nights ripping his hair out as we’d have to ask LA for permission to breath (I won’t shout it out here but I’ll never forget the name of the rep we dealt with at LA in all my life – she’s on my “avoid this person professionally like the plague” list).  If these were the conditions we were operating under what could it possibly have been like trying to develop for these guys?

Enough of the business stuff though (sorry – I can’t help myself).  I have to get right down to the emotional core of this:  I’m really sad to see the game go.  I’m sad on two levels:  As a fan in general of the genre (in particular sandbox MMOs) and as a fan of the game in particular.

From the genre point of view many people will tell you SWG was a failure.  There are many ways to measure failure when it comes to MMOs and I think many of those methods of determining success or failure would tell you SWG had a rough ride.  In my mind though the simple fact is SWG was a proof of concept that a major studio could release a sandbox game and could turn a profit doing so.  Having the Star Wars IP helps, huge.  No doubt.  But the complex social and economic systems that were weaved in to the game play stand  alone as a brilliant accomplishment (the housing and city system, the player based economy, the crafting – I could (and might in a future post) go on at great length on all the things SWG did right in the sandbox sense).

Repeat after me folks.  SANDBOX MMOS CAN BE PROFITABLE AND ARE WORTHWHILE ENDEAVORS.  I’m heartened by Smed’s SWG Closure Interview with Massively where he hinted that they are going to take another crack at building a sandbox and I really hope it becomes a pillar of what they do with EQ Next (I suspect we’ll find out at Fan Faire).

This is a dark day for sandboxes (a very very dark day) but hopefully the vacuum this creates will open the door to the next step on the sandbox journey.

On the personal front.  I’m a little heart broken honestly.  I haven’t played the game much since the NGE (that is to say I haven’t played at all in at least 2-3 years aside from a few random drop ins when SOE would do a free welcome back campaign) but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at all.  Even if I wasn’t subscribed I knew my brother in law was taking care of my houses and that my player built town would be there.  I had a home to go to and more importantly it WAS a home, just in another world.  That I think is the core strength of SWG and other sandbox virtual worlds.  The whole point it is it is another world, another place where you exist on some level.  There is a connectedness there that transcends what a normal game offers you.

I have so many experiences and moments I want to share.  But paramount is how SWG helped me build a relationship with Tammy when we were dating.  After we got engaged Tammy and I got married in an in game ceremony that many of you attended, it just felt right that we’d celebrate our engagement using a platform that did so much to bring us together with people we had grown so close to over the course of a year playing the game. When we eventually got married in the real world Raph Koster was nice enough to dedicate a Developer Chat to us!

In the earlier stages of our relationship we would go on dates in the game.  SWG was the platform where I fell in love with my wife because over the distance of 3500 kilometers we could have meaningful experiences with one and other.  We had met and been talking for a year or so when SWG came out but our exploration trips and little side “date nights” in game really brought us together and strengthened our bond with one and other.

Another favorite story I have from SWG was the founding of our player town Mos Strahteks.  Months before the game had even come out we had developed a plan for our town.  We knew exactly where our guild hall was going to go and where Tammy’s armor shop was going to go.  A town of 50 or so people completely planned out in a democratic and very fun fashion.

When launch day came (Tammy called my cell when our server came up a few hours late, I was out, I had to rush home!) we all came together and stockpiled resources and over the course of a few weeks built a city building by building, brick  by brick.  My adventures with MS are some of the best times I’ve had in my life.  Could I have had those experiences in another game?  Maybe.  The fact is though that SWG was a platform that enabled these types of experiences.  THIS was the content.  Working collectively with friends.

As I read through the consolidated shut down thread over on the official forums I see the depth and impact of my experiences reflected by others.  My experience wasn’t a one off.  There were 100s and likely 1000s of people who found so much more than a game in SWG.

In the MMO space we’ve come to accept the adage “there will never be an MMO you love like your first MMO” and I realize as I sit here and type this that it is a shame that we’ve let it come to this.  My first love was UO.  My second MMO love was SWG.  There were six years between the releases of the two games, maybe that should serve as a little reminder that greatness can’t be expected every year in every MMO that releases.  It is a damn shame that it took the closure of this great game, this great virtual world for me to realize the cost of our cynicism as fans and the stagnation from the development and publishing communities (that we enable and even encourage in our spending patterns).

I’ll try and get a post up soon on what I feel should be the lessons learned from SWG for anyone who would want to make a sandbox in the future.  I think there are many lessons worth learning from SWG and I hope whoever is the next studio to take a crack at a game this ambitious takes them to heart.

The game was far from perfect, but when we look back years from now I think we’ll remember SWG as one of the greats.

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The SOE Layoffs – The start of a needed rethink?

by on Mar.31, 2011, under Everquest 2, Industry Musings, mmo

Kotaku is reporting that Sony Online Entertainment has laid off 1/3 of its work force.  While SOE has not confirmed this yet the rumblings I am hearing is that this is credible.  Before I go any further (and start talking about why I think this is a good thing) I want to say I really feel for my friends at SOE and those who have made some of my favorite games.  When I was Managing Editor at Stratics I was fortunate to have a very close relationship with members of the community, development and management teams at SOE and I’ve never seen a more dedicated group.

SOE has not put out a big AAA MMORPG-genre title in a few years now (I know I know DCU – but I argue that is an IP title that lives on its own – disagree if you will) so it is easy for those who have come to the genre in the post-WoW era to scoff and question just what it is these guys have done lately.  In 2008  SOE was given a Technical Emmy Award for advancing “the art form of the MMORPG” and I couldn’t think of a company more deserving.  This is a company that spent almost as much on R&D as other studios spend on their whole game.  These guys helped found this genre (we wouldn’t have World of Warcraft today if there was no Everquest, that is just fact) and for years they’ve done huge things to move it forward.

But in recent years, since around the time (2008) SOE was moved under the SCEI branch of Sony, SOE has become a company that is a little lost and a little bloated.  Since moving from Sony Pictures to SCEI they have gone from a company that makes AAA pay to play MMOs to a company that makes primarily F2P games, builds strategy card games, and ports games to the PSN on the PS3.  It feels like it has come to the point where SOE is a mish-mash studio dedicated to supporting SCEI.  I would challenge anyone in SOE’s management to tell me just what the identity of the company is today.

I hope these layoffs are the start of a new day at SOE, the start of getting back to their core competency of putting out AAA MMOs, even if it likely  is with a new business model (free to play or hybrid models).  SOE has been a great contributor to the genre and I hope they can get back to that.  There is of course a real risk that this goes another way.  MMOs are expensive products to produce, and Sony has likely seen some quick profits from having SOE porting games or build smaller games for the PSN.

I really hope, for the sake of the health of the AAA MMO marketplace that SOE lives to fight another day.  I truly believe that SW:TOR with its large production budget is going to move the AAA standard forward in a big way.  In the future it is going to take companies with deep pockets like Sony to take a risk to create AAA titles.  I’d hate to live in a world where Bioware/EA & Blizzard/Activision are the only ones able (and willing) to compete at that standard.  As players, we all lose out in a world without SOE.

In practical terms, here’s my speculation about what this could mean for projects at SOE:

  • Vanguard is in deep trouble (dead)
  • Pirates of the Burning Sea is either dead or going to maintenance mode (I’d bet dead)
  • Everquest 2 will see a shake up – SmokeJumper’s time as producer has been turbulent and I’m not sure he’ll be around after this.  Further pushes to Free to Play could result, but I’m not sure it’s worth SOE’s effort to do that push (they’ll likely do it anyway…)
  • You’ll never hear about The Agency again – unless someone gets Smed to admit it is dead in public
  • Everquest Next will survive.  I wouldn’t be so sure you’ll see Planetside Next in this life
  • SWG is at best now on life support and won’t long outlive the release of SW:TOR.  The Kotaku article suggests half of the Austin studio was laid off.  While Austin is responsible for two things:  DC Universe and SWG.  I’d be willing to bet the farm where most of those lay offs came from (S W and G)

I hope SOE emerges a better company from this rethink.

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What Publishers and Venture Capitalists Should Learn From Rift

by on Mar.26, 2011, under Industry Musings, mmo, Rift, SW:TOR, World of Warcraft

Rift has been a surprise hit for many hundreds of thousands of players.  I know in my guild it went from a game we knew nothing about in December to a full guild chapter with over 80 active members now in March.  Rift’s success has caused some confusion for those who have only tried the first 10 to 20 levels.  A common confused question that gets asked is this: “This game is so much like the competition, why would anyone play this over X”.  While I disagree that Rift is a “WoW clone” (excuse the expression) it does iterate well on the previous gold standards mostly defined by Blizzard over the last 5 or so years and it certainly is one of the game’s greatest strengths (just how well it pulls it off).

More than anything I believe the success of Rift has to do with the time and place we are with the genre right now and how Trion (the makers of Rift) set themselves a high standard to deliver against the expectations of the current time and place.  It is no secret that 2010 was an abysmal year for new MMO releases and it was on this backdrop of low expectations that Rift launched.  Trion delivered a polished and feature complete package and they are going to reap the profits because of it.

So what lessons should the people who fund games learn from Rift?

1) The AAA standard is all consumers will accept.  Players in the MMO genre are tired of games that are half finished, buggy and have large content gaps.  Trion decided on their feature set, set a target for bugs and refused to release until they hit that AAA standard.  If you want your game to implode in 3 months just try and release a game missing a mid game or end game.

2) For a subscription MMO, consumers will accept you launching a AAA platform. Rift very much is a platform.  The dynamic content in the game (Rifts, invasions, ancient wardstone quests, etc) that we have seen so far is “only the beginning”.  Trion put out a platform that they will build on and used their marketing channels to very clearly define where they will take the platform from where it is at release.  The old adage that an MMO is never done is true, but it is important that your players can envision the way forward based on the potential of your platform.  In a subscription MMO the player is making an investment in your platform.

3) There is a desperate appetite for a AAA PvP game.  Of Rift’s 100+ servers half are dedicated to PVP.  But it isn’t in the server count and the population volumes (and the PvP servers are some of the busiest and most active) that you can find the opportunity here.  If you spend any amount of time on the official Rift forums you very quickly begin to find this under tone:  There is a HUGE PvP community that is just dying to find a home.  The dynamic content and zone capture mechanics in Rift are wetting the appetite but I don’t think it will last long.  There is literally a 110 post thread on the forums begging Trion for more RvR like mechanics.   Seriously.  If you are a publisher or have the money to fund a AAA studio project you should be doing everything in your power to release the spiritual successor to Dark Age of Camelot (and no, Warhammer Online was not that).

4) You need to be feature complete.  One of the things I heard time and time again from guildies as started to pick up and play Rift was that “I looked for feature X and to my surprise it was there and worked awesome”.  Almost universally everything you’d expect to be in an MMO was present in Rift’s beta.  From straight forward things like keybinding and tool bar setup to more advanced things lik full UI setup, twitter integration and other social features Rift had it all from the go.  I think we can agree that there are now standard features that fans expect.  You cannot launch without these.

5) The subscription model is still alive and well.  You can compete in a space occupied by Blizzard and World of Warcraft.  Plain and simple.  I am of the belief (although there have been no official numbers) that Rift has sold in the neighbourhood of 750,000 to 1,000,000 boxes.  I also believe that first three month retention will be good (we’ll see beyond that).  The fact is Trion set out to make an iterative game and has and will make some good money doing it.  There is still Blue Ocean here.

6) World of Warcraft’s days are numbered.  I know I’ve talked about this before and people have been declaring DOOOOOOM for WoW for a long time now.  And honestly that’s not what I’m saying here.  WoW will still be here and profitable for a long time.  But I think the sheer volume of people who lept at Rift directly from Cataclysm and the negative backlash in the WoW Blog community after the launch of Rift is a noticeable and should be a warning sign for Blizzard.  Again to be clear:  WoW is not going anywhere.  But I think we have seen the beginning of the end of WoW as the undisputed heavy weight champion of the world.  (Even Blizzard is starting to talk about Diablo 3 and Titan as a potential WoW killer).

I think Rift heralds the fact that we’ve now entered a new post-WoW era in the MMO genre.  This era will be defined by high budget and high quality titles (SW:TOR with its insane production values will only serve to advance this point even more).  Releasing crap will not be forgiven and we’ll see games that don’t live up to the standard shutter at record breaking speeds.

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