The Road Ahead: 2012 in MMOs

An end is come to 2011, and it was, shall we say, not a banner year for MMOs. The year saw two successful launches of games mired in their lack of ambition, and the rest of the year was older games doing interesting things like going free to play or launching nostalgia servers. Still, as we say in Cleveland, “there’s always next year.” Which is now. So what’s on the horizon for the next twelve months (minus a couple of weeks,) and how will current market entries evolve? Here are my (only slightly late) predictions.

As far as I can see, the only “triple-A” title with a real chance to shake things up in a big way is Guild Wars 2. Even if it doesn’t come through with everything it’s promised, it’s going to make the year’s big splash, with top-notch production quality and a stated desire to abandon some of the hobby’s most pernicious leftovers from the EverQuest days. Holy Trinity, this means you. The move toward dynamic world events rather than static quests may provide a sense of non-linearity. On the other hand, I worry about the cohesion of its world and the side systems that are so important to fleshing out an MMO, like crafting. And the semi-static cutscenes, while artfully done from what I’ve seen, may subtract from immersion and sense of place. There’s also the technological element that I tend not to favor in a fantasy game, and the inevitable cutsey race, but I intend to do my best to live with those.

A game that will have less impact but which may be just as innovative is Funcom’s The Secret World. It ought to be graphically top-notch, if system-crushing. It’s going to fill the modern supernatural niche that’s been underserved by MMOs up to this point, and also promises to depart significantly from established tropes. It’s scheduled to launch in April, but my guess is that it’ll be pushed back to July. The big fear with this one is that, as they did with Age of Conan, Funcom will mis-target the game and end up courting the wrong bunch of players. But hopefully they’ll have learned a lesson from AoC’s troubled evolution and the marketing and community folks will be rowing the same boat as the developers this time.

Not likely to shake things up at all is Mists of Pandaria. More of the same, yawn. Blizzard has unquestionably left the era in which they can do no wrong, and their Big Dog will continue to shed subscribers, but by late in the year — November or December — Mists will cast off, and WoW will still be on the top of the heap. Expect a formal announcement of whatever Titan turns out to be at Blizzcon.

I’m now thinking that my earlier prediction for Star Wars: The Old Rebublic — 2-3 million subscribers at peak and 500K six months later — is going to bust. I now think it will peak substantially lower — say a million and a half — but that it will hold on to the players it has much better than recent history would suggest. Whether it’s actually a profitable enterprise for EA is likely to remain murky, no matter how many people are playing it. Don’t be shocked to see it holding on to a million subs by the end of the year… but we’d better see some substantive update/expansion news by then, too, or we’ll see it start to peter out after that. The slow rollout of new content is poised to hurt SWTOR more than other titles because it’s likely to be even slower than usual.

I predict that TERA will be the next Mortal Online – mildly hyped before launch and sinking like a stone after. But I could be wrong, and if the game pulls off the action-style combat at its heart it could do better than I expect. TERA is going to live or die by two things: how well the combat plays, and how well the combat plays one-handed, if you catch my drift.

WildStar looks promising, if conventional, but I don’t think we know enough about it to dismiss it just yet. It’s coming out of the NCSoft House of Winners, so my expectations are low, but it’s not being developed by NCSoft, so there’s a chance it will turn into something palatable. Its visual style, though, sings “WoW Clone,” and many might not be able to get past that even if it varies from bog-standard more than expected. I think it will release in Q4 of 2012.

Dust 514, the ground-based counterpart of EVE Online should finally launch in 2012. It had better — Microsoft and Sony are gearing up for the debut of the next generation of consoles, and this year is likely to be the last chance for titles to make a big splash before people start looking more at the new round of hardware than the current one. I predict modest — very modest — success on this one; it’ll be hobbled both by CCP’s lack of cred in the shooter marketplace and by its exclusivity on the lagging PS3. God only knows how clean it will launch, but nobody is better than CCP at shepherding a title through a modest debut and into long-term growth. Expect to start hearing about a PC port around the end of the year.

Speaking of CCP, we may or may not hear anything new on World of Darkness Online. It’s not shelved, exactly, but expect the focus for the year to be on EVE and Dust. Next year I think we’ll start to hear some serious noise about this title.

Warhammer 40K: Dark Millennium will not launch in 2012.

Neverwinter is a wildcard. Like TERA, it’s supposed to be action-oriented, but my hopes are not high for it in this department. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to seeing it. I’m predicting a Q3 launch.

Korean entry ArcheAge has all the hallmarks of a Vanguard — big promises, low quality control and a lead developer past his prime. No other game manages to look so promising yet elicit so many utterances of “really?” Open world, super-detailed crafting and construction, mass battles on land and sea… and player run jails and other harebrained-sounding stuff make me excited yet extremely leery. It may release in 2012 — I think it will — but my guess is that a North American release is months behind the Korean launch, maybe into 2013.

Less worrying is The Repopulation, despite its awful title. With early talk centering around the influence of Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, it’s not likely to be a massive hit, but it’s got a chance to shake the hobby out of its torpor. I expect a launch in 2013 at the earliest. It’s one to keep an eye on.

Planetside 2 will launch in 2012 with major problems and withering scorn in the blogosphere, but will be a modest success for all that. “Modest success” is the best SOE is going to manage for the moment… but they have a big opportunity to do something special with EverQuest Next. Let’s hope they don’t blow it, but in any event I expect to hear only token news about it in 2012.

Vanguard will still be running as of the end of the year. I hope to see a freemium move, but SOE appears to not be considering that for the moment. I should finally see some long-awaiting development and new content, which may boost its (currently dire) numbers.

The most promising-sounding thing in development is Pathfinder Online. Goblinworks seems to be telling me all the right things… start small, don’t spend a gazillion dollars, don’t plan for more players than you have even the remotest chance to get or keep, and create a realistically-scaled sandbox world. But it’s really early, and I’m not even convinced that the project will materialize at all. These guys are really new and untested, so I think they’ll either bring a number of fresh ideas to the table and actually advance the state of the art, or evaporate before accomplishing much of anything. I’m rooting for them.

Among older games, EverQuest II, LotRO and City of Heroes will keep on trucking under their new freemium models. EverQuest will continue to endure, but I think we’ll see another historic sunset some time during the year. My guess would be Dark Age of Camelot, but Warhammer Online is very, very vulnerable, especially with a companion game (Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes) that takes the fun(ish) part from WAR and makes it a game of its own. Bioware/Mythic may also decide to tighten their business up if they’re taking to big a bath on SWTOR, the basket all their eggs are laid in, so Ultima Online could fall here as well.

We’re going to start to see the many entries in the freemium MMO marketplace shake out into tiers. This has already started, but it’ll become more apparent in 2012. The biggest player in the freemium market is going to continue to be LotRO unless something very dramatic happens, but APB is giving it a good run for its money right now, and Star Trek Online has a shot at landing in the top bunch if it can hold together.

We’ll see in a year how I did.

Conan Servers Merge

The news has come down on Age of Conan’s server merges, done in anticipation of the game’s move to free-to-play in a few weeks. They should be complete shortly if they aren’t already. You can read up on all the details HERE, but the gist of it is that in North America, Tyranny and Cimmeria merge into one PvP server, while in the EU, Crom, Hyrkania and Ishtar will merge into one PvE server and Fury, Aquilonia and Stygia will become a single PvP server. After the merges are complete there will be free transfers for 30 days, within the same region.

Age of Conan F2P: The Shiny Upside

Yesterday morning’s post pretty much covered my concerns about Age of Conan’s upcoming conversion to a free-to-play hybrid. This one discusses what I like about the change. The last post may not have made it apparent, but I think this is going to be a big and positive shift in the trajectory of Age of Conan. Here’s why.

  • I’m a supporter of the current free-to-play movement in general; not of the Asian freebie grinder/moneysink model, but of the high-quality western MMO that you can play at your own pace and throw a few bucks at when needed. Yes, there’s some truth to the idea that these games are high-quality because they were developed under subscription-only models, but I dismiss that as irrelevant, since I’m not going to argue that the subscription thing is dying.
  • In every case the conversion of a traditional MMO to free-to-play has increased populations… in most cases dramatically. The boost it’ll get will do a lot of good even if it’s a modest one.
  • Going by Elementalistly‘s tracking effort, Age of Conan’s current numbers are good but not spectacular – comparable generally to the already free-to-play DDO, However, some servers have low population, and this will help with that.
  • Alongside the F2P change we’re getting a server merge to six servers: one each of PvE, PvP and “hardcore” (Blood & Glory) for each of NA and EU. This is a unique server merge, though, in the sense that it’s being done in anticipation of increased player numbers rather than in response to decreased population. Funcom’s improved Dreamworld architecture allows for much high overall population caps per server, so servers are going to be segregated by ruleset rather than arbitrarily dividing the player base that wants to play under each ruleset.
  • Personally, I think last year at this time would have been the best time for a F2P launch if all other factors were equal. But they’re not – because the movie is coming in August, the couple of months surrounding its release becomes the opportune time. Funcom is not generally thought of as good at maximizing things like product exposure, but this summer will see a genuinely massive push – and now we know why they’ve been so quiet for the better part of a year. We already have a content patch that went up a couple of weeks ago with new instances, and this summer we’re getting free-to-play, a movie tie-in, a huge “Adventure Pack” that’s pretty close to a full expansion, and the launch of the Blood & Glory “hardcore PvP” ruleset. It’s not guaranteed, but don’t be all that stunned should AoC suddenly seem to be in competition for EVE or LotRO numbers in the second half of the year.
  • The specific model that Funcom seems to be going with is kind of a blend of the established LotRO/DDO type and the much less well-received EQ2X model. I am not enamoured with all the various points of it, but gameplay under it will be much less hampered than it is under EQ2X, where you begin to become crippled in the level 30-40 range due to the gear and bag limits.

I should point out one last thing in the interests of full disclosure. I will not be playing under the AoC free model. As I discussed previously, Age of Conan is my go-to subscription MMO at least until Guild Wars 2 comes out, which won’t be until next year. And I have a stack of time cards worth more than a year of premium time. So I’ll be subscribing and getting full access.

My Thoughts on the AoC Free-to-Play Model

Having thought it through overnight, examined what we know so far, and having been through multiple examples of this transition before, this is my opinion of Funcom’s free-to-play model for Age of Conan, as I understand it so far. Bear in mind that a number of points remain to be clarified, and some things could be changed outright even before this goes out the door.

So. The logic behind an MMO going from subscription-only to free-to-play runs like this:

  1. Make the barrier to entry zero.
  2. Lots of people will try your game for free that otherwise would not.
  3. Some of them will like the game and stick around.
  4. Since free players don’t pay subscription fees, you make up the difference in microtransactions.
  5. If the pool of free players is large enough you end up making more money than you would if you offered only a subscription plan. This is true whether or not you offer subscriptions alongside your microtransactions (although the specific microtransactions available will be different if you don’t.)
  6. Prospective players need to feel like they can get the full game experience for free. Whether they do in practice is irrelevant, and you don’t even need to even make it easy to do. But you can’t make it impossible. This means that everything or almost everything in the game will be available to free accounts, either as part of the free package or via microtransactions.
  7. Existing, sub-paying players need to not feel boned by the change. Ideally, just as freebie players should feel like they’re getting a deal, subbers should feel like their sub is more valuable than it was before the switch.

So here’s the problem I see with the AoC free-to-play plan: it ignores points 5-7. This is, coincidentally, much the same problem that many had with the EQ2X model, although that game has addressed this up to a point since launch, and has a couple of additional issues besides. In both cases, though, the model seems to be to drop the “cover charge” and then drive players toward subscriptions. I think this is the wrong approach.

Now, this isn’t a wretched model – it avoids the other issues with the EQ2X method, and I think it will help the game overall – and I think that a lot of players will return to AoC or try it out for the first time, find that it’s awesome, and choose to subscribe. But it’s inferior to the best examples of the hybrid model. In terms of how effective I think these models are, I’d rank the games like this:

  1. Lord of the Rings Online
  2. D&D Online
  3. Champions Online
  4. Age of Conan (tentative)
  5. Pirates of the Burning Sea
  6. EverQuest II Extended

See Turbine as the clear leader here? The reason for that is their particular attention to points 6 and 7. When DDO and later LotRO went free-to-play, there was some grumbling at first, but the player base was delighted overall with the changes, which brought in a huge number of new players who ended up spending money even if they hadn’t planned to. Free players felt they could play their way into the whole game by earning points through play, but many of them ended up spending money either anyway or on top of what they needed for progression, and veterans like the plan because they got a stipend of 500 points a month along with their subs and there were appealing things in the store to spend them on. This caused revenues of those games to explode, which is good for everybody.

It’s not clear to me that AoC’s plan will have the same impact; the free package has too many absolute limitations and there’s nothing about earning points through play, yet the subscription package does not look attractive enough in comparison because there is no talk of a points stipend and there’s nothing that subscribers will get under the new plan that they don’t get now. There also happens to be a huge content bundle coming and a tie-in with a movie that might end up being a hit, and that’ll help, but ultimately Funcom has to maximize the appeal of AoC to players both actual and potential. Right now, while this is by no means the worst model I’ve seen and I support the transition to some kind of f2p model in general, the plan as currently laid out isn’t doing that.

ADDENDUM: The fact that you will be able to spend Funcom Points in other Funcom games is a good idea and something new – Turbine and Cryptic don’t allow it. But how appealing is it? Who the fuck plays Anarchy Online, anyway?

The AoC Free-to-Play Approach So Far

Well, it’s been a busy couple of Days for Age of Conan. Less than 24 hours after announcing that a new Adventure Pack, The Savage Coast of Turan, would launch in August, they broke the news that AoC would be moving to a hybrid free-to-play model. The details are still developing, but here’s what we know so far.

The way this is currently advertised, you can play for free, for as long as you want, with no need to give Funcom a credit card number and no level cap limit. You’ll be able to buy Funcom Points which can be spent in the in-game store on stuff. Interestingly, these points do cross over to, and can be used in, Bloodline Champions and Anarchy Online. Maybe Secret World as well, but it’s to early to go there.

You can also choose to be a “premium subscriber.” We assume that this means that you pay the same $15 subscription fee that’s currently charged. The benefits thereof remain exactly as they are now – despite the FAQ saying that premium subscribers will get “even more bonuses,” the only thing we know of so far is a measley %5 discount on stuff from the store. Yay.

So here’s what free players get access to:

  • Two character slots. You can buy more in the store. The move raises the overall limit on character slots to 18 for free and premium.
  • Four classes, Barbarian, Demonologist, Guardian and Priest of Mitra. I think this is kind of dumb. I’d rather see all the current classes in play as “basic” classes available to everybody, with new classes launched with future expansions labeled premium classes that you have to pay for.
  • Half the regular amount of bank space.
  • As far as content goes, all outdoor playfields in Aquilonia, Cimmeria and Stygia, as well as Gateway to Khitai.
  • Some dungeons. For this list, see the Free and Premium Content Overview. Others will be bought from the store or come along with the Rise of the Godslayer expansion. Some of these will be one-time, permenant purchases, while others will be a time-limited ‘lease’.
  • Khitai content, except for the Gateway to Khitai 20-40 zone, will be limited to those who have already bought the expansion or who buy it in the store.
  • The Kylikki’s Crypt and Yakhmar’s Cave Tier 1 raids. Other raids are all store items, or bundled wth the Khitai pack.

Free players will not get access to:

Breaking News: Age of Conan Going Free to Play

Age of Conan is going free to play under a “hybrid business model”. See the press release HERE.

The new business model will give players the opportunity to choose whether they want to play for free or become premium subscribers, and Funcom is also introducing an in-game store to the game where both free players and premium subscribers can purchase exclusive content such as weaponry and mounts.

There’s a pointer to a FAQ as well, but I’m not finding that right now. More details as they develop.

UPDATE: Massively article HERE.

UPDATE: Free to play FAQ HERE.

Breaking News: Incoming Age of Conan Content – The Savage Coast of Turan

See the announcement, made minutes ago, HERE. In summary, a new “Adventure Pack” called The Savage Coast of Turan is slated for August release, and will tie in with the upcoming movie, albeit set some 20 years later.

No word yet on how “Adventure Pack” compares to “Expansion” in terms of the amount of content being offered, but it will include “all new encounters, the massive new area of Ardashir, new dungeons and raids as well as new armor sets and monsters.” More details as they are revealed.

UPDATE: Looks like this is on the scale of “Adventure Pack” more than expansion, but large at that. It’ll focus on the level 50-80 range and will include locations from both the film and the Howard stories, including a new raid, the Temple of Erlik, and multiple new instances for both solo and group play. It also sounds like there will be no increase to the level cap and no new race. There are interview HERE, at Eurogamer, that goes into some of this detail.

Age of Conan Welcomes Back Former Players

As reported on Massively and elsewhere, Funcom has reactivated all inactive Age of Conan accounts through the end of May. There are also in-game goodies like XP potions and such, and a contest where you can will free copies of the game, extra game time, and the like, all in support of AoC’s third anniversary.

A Weekend in Hyboria

The weekend saw me drop about 5 late-night hours into Age of Conan, all of it on my nominal main, the Barbarian Turlough.

I’d left off finishing up some stuff in Connall’s Valley while trying to reach level 30. Alas, everything I had left was group content that I didn’t feel like rustling up people for. Even the solo quests were in areas with elite mobs, and I wasn’t at the top of my game. I may be able to play comfortably in LotRO (mostly) or WoW without enough sleep or caffeine, but AoC’s combat is less forgiving. The greater amount of challenge is actually a good thing and one of the reasons I like the game.

To make a long story short, I had some scattered other quests, so I headed down to the Wild Lands of Zelata and ran a couple there to push me to 30, then headed back up to Conarch Village to run the long-awaited next Destiny Quest, which sent me to Khopshef Province in Stygia. At level 30, though, it was a little too challenging in my deteriorated state. But there were other quests aplenty in the area, so when I returned after gaining two more levels and adding two more via offline leveling (putting me at 34,) it was still tight, requiring careful pulls and the right combat strategy, but I managed it easily enough.

I’m still adventuring in Khopshef Province, and I’m new to Stygia, only having gone there before for a brief sightseeing trip. It’s really extremely cool, capturing the ancient Egypt meets Bedouin deserts thing perfectly. One of the quest hubs there is pictured above, a caravanserai in the middle of the bleak desert. Actual in-game caravans wind their way there from the coastal village of Bubshur, and the place has several short storylines going on.

Khemi is also pretty cool, much smaller and more compact than Old Tarantia, with narrow streets that make it a bit claustrophobic. One of the best things about Tortage is the town itself; its winding alleys, evocative detail and plethora of NPCs about made it seem more alive than any MMO city I had seen before or since. Khemi is like that, and Conarch Village (the Cimmerian 20-35ish hub) has a totally different but but equally evocative feel. Old Tarantia is kind of bland in comparison, mostly because it’s much more spacious and spread out, although it’s still better than cities in other MMOs.

Something else interesting I’ve discovered: Age of Conan has built-in video capture. I’ve started fooling with this but can’t at present decode either QuickTime (which I don’t want to install on my system) or .mov formats. I’m working on this, though.

The Coming Age of Conan

Two articles over on Massively over the weekend hint at the future of Age of Conan.

The first speculates on how, exactly, Funcom is going to try to use the new film to get the game some marketing exposure. Certainly, it’s a golden opportunity to raise the game’s profile. The film release would be the perfect time to either launch a new expansion or to move to some kind of free-to-play deal; either would give the game a big injection of new interest. Funcom’s annual report stated that there will be “significant content and story tie-ins with the [new Conan] movie.”.

The other rumor deals with the aforementioned possible expansion, sparked by the sudden and magical appearance of two new region names in the game’s player finder tool. Although I have to wonder where “Ardashir” might be found in Hyboria. But Turan… well, I’d happily ditch my current Ranger for a Turanian archer a la Subotai.

One of the posts over on the forum thread speculating on new developments states that 2011 will be a make-or-break year for AoC. With this I have to agree. Even if the film is not a huge hit, it’ll get some mass-market publicity that’s tough for a video game to get unless it’s a high-profile console title.

AoC is on a cusp right now. Numbers are still fairly strong but the population is very topheavy and there’s a need to get a new influx of people into the lower levels beyond Tortage (which is fairly well-populated thanks to the Unlimited Trial.)

Personally, I’m rooting for both an expansion and a move to free-to-play. With the movie starting to spin up its marketing and the rumors flying, I would hope we’d see some kind of announcement out of Funcom in the next couple of weeks.