As Cloudy As You Think

Is it too late to start year-in-review talk? I’d think so, but then again, everything but Cataclysm is already out, so all the cards are pretty much on the table or about to fall. The year lacked impact MMO releases, but as Syp points out, this may be remembered as the year the major paradigm shift began, from subscription models to low-entry-barrier minipay games. It really began at least a year ago in the western market, with the conversion of DDO to minipay, and one can point to earlier examples.

Few would dispute this. But there’s an inevitable consequence that I haven’t seen much talk about. If the era of retail boxes and entry price points goes away, so too does the big-bugdet MMO in the vein of SWTOR, Tabula Rasa and APB. This may be a good thing, since innovation tends to come from smaller projects that give creative folks more room to stretch, rather than corporate affairs run by committees with dollar signs in their eyes. The big-ticket MMOs are all canned WoW clones, and this is why – investors want to see that there money is going into something proven to be profitable. Some investors aren’t averse to risk, but most are; so the indie project can probably scrape together the $2-3 million it needs, but in order to assemble $100 million in development capital you need to be able to point at existing successes and say “this is what we’re going to do.”

We think of subscription revenue as being where the real money is, which is true… in the long run. But those entry fees (or “cover charges,” as Winged Nazgul cleverly put it,) are where you want to make your development investment back. You don’t want to have to tell your investors “well, we’ll have the costs paid back in 13 months, and then all will be profit,” because to get those many millions you promised them returns at or shortly after release. Eliminating the cover charge also eliminates this method of settling the score. The megabudget titles will get rarer and rarer as the greatest existing success continues to wane.

So the average project budget for the hobby is likely going down, by a lot, over the next two or three years. This like most things has an upside and a downside. As fewer megabudget projects arise smaller affairs will rise to take their place – the gaming media has to cover something. Some will start to refocus on multiplayer games in general (as Beckett MOG has done,) while others will stay focused on virtual world-type products. And we should see an increase in innovation, from which the next overnight sensation could arise (just ask the Minecraft guy.) But we should also see a decrease in polish and in the development of heavily refined systems, possibly including scripted content.

We in the west are used to what we glibly call “polish.” We expect it, and go bananas when we don’t get it (witness the furor over FFXIV.) In the era of fewer WoWs and more Darkfalls, you can kiss it goodbye. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the old buggy days of EverQuest; now there are a ton of platforms and engines that small developers can use to build games, some of them open-source and therefore free. we needn’t sacrifice gameplay, but we’ll likely have to give up hand-crafted content.

At this point the word you’re looking for is “overdeveloped.” Lack of polish didn’t kill Warhammer, no matter what the navel-gazers among us may think. What killed Warhammer were fundamental flaws in the game from top to bottom. Every bit of scripted content in that game was a wasted development dollar. A real working virtual world and systems to interact with it could have been done with a fraction of the budget.

Does this mean I’m predicting the long-awaited return of the sandbox? Well, I’m not predicting anything – I’m speculating. But that could possibly happen.

Ed Zitron Returns! Okay, Not Really.

There’s a flap over at Game by Night about two reviews of Final Fantasy XIV posted by GameSpot and GameTrailers. Both are negative. These days, whenever this comes up, comparisons to Ed Zitron get made. But this isn’t a comparable situation.

For the sake of transparency, I haven’t tried Final Fantasy XIV. I don’t need to; I know I won’t like it. It says it right there on the box, in big letters that spell out “Final Fantasy.” So I’m not at all qualified to comment on the actual game itself. But this post isn’t about Final Fantasy XIV, but about the expectations we have for critics and where the blame should go for bad reviews.

Everyone in our community (by which I mean the community of MMO bloggers, and not the MMO-playing population at large,) knows that you can’t evaluate an MMO like you would a more conventional game. A playthrough of GTA4 or Mass Effect 2 will give you a pretty good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of those games. But MMO’s aren’t designed to be played in a single stretch, instead relying on long-term progression and sustained player involvement. A game like Dragon Age, which allegedly takes 80 hours to play through (I personally haven’t finished it,) is an extreme example. But 80 hours is a drop in the bucket for an MMO.

Mass-Market video game sites tend not to put this much effort into a review. There are probably exceptions, but by and large, you want to go to dedicated MMO sites, or to MMO blogs, to get informed thoughts on our kind of games. An MMO gamer’s expectations for a thorough review of an MMO from this type of site should be virtually zero.

Then there’s Ed Zitron, now the albatross around the neck of anyone who dares have an opinion in this hobby. Zitron’s review was a rotten review, and not just because he only played Darkfall for 4 or 6 hours or whatever it was, even though that’s an unfair interval by which to judge an MMO. It was rotten because it was utterly one-sided, and even somebody who dislikes Darkfall is going to have a hard time credibly arguing that it has no merits whatsoever. Zitron resolutely either refused to see them or to note them in his review, which is the dictionary-grade definition of a lousy critic.

Neither cited review did this. I think the one from GameTrailers was a bit more balanced, but even the reviewer from notorious shill site GameSpot pointed out some things that he liked in FFXIV. In both cases, though, the overall review was pretty negative. Getting one’s self all worked up into a lather over that is a bit inappropriate, even if neither one gives the viewer a complete picture of the game. Nobody will have a complete evaluation of Final Fantasy XIV for at least a couple of months, and even that will eventually be invalidated by changes to the game.

What’s the solution? Don’t do reviews at all?

That might sound good to some people, but I think it’s impractical, unreasonable and even undesirable. Reviews, viewed in the proper context, are important tools for getting information about a new title. It’s the proper context that’s missing here, in that I have absolutely no right to expect a reviewer to agree with me. A review is something to use to evaluate the critic’s style and tastes; if you grasp those and understand your own, you can extract enough information from a pool of reviews to form your own opinion.

This is what a good critic does, and what good reviews do. Their function is not to provide you with the critic’s opinion, but to help you judge the reviewed product for yourself. A good review tell you about the product and its features; the critic’s opinions on those features and even on the product as a whole is secondary.

In other words, take any review with a grain of salt, whether you agree or disagree with its conclusions. How those conclusions reflect on your own tastes is the whole point.

In the final analysis, FFXIV will no doubt be bulletproof against bad reviews anyway; by and large, even those North American players defending it now will end up drifting away sooner rather than later, but it’s in line with Asian players’ expectations. So I suspect that whatever interest there is in the English-speaking market right now will dwindle very swiftly, while the game will go on to a long and happy life in the Asian market.

The Future, Near and Far

There’s enough titles on the horizon to warrant a post hitting the highlights. In no particular order, here’s what I’m looking forward to.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, likely late this year or early next. My initial impression was that we’d see it well before the end of the year, and the timing of the start of the opt-in beta seemed to back me up. Yet the details coming out of that beta reveal that much remians unfinished – too much to take a release now and fill in the gaps later approach. Maybe we’ll see it this year, but I’m starting to think February or so is a better estimate.

In any event, I’ve cooled on it considerably. I’m still interested, and I still think it will make WoW a better game in a number of ways, but I’m no longer stoked about it. Although I’ve certainly got my ear to the ground.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is looking mighty tired from where I’m sitting. It’s still at least a solid year away from release, so there’s hopefully aspects to the game we haven’t seen yet (with starship combat being the big one,) but what I see is a WoW-model game with Mass Effect-style dialogue and cinematics. Which is cool, as far as it goes, but it’s pretty obvious we’re not getting any significant innovations out of this game. That’s disappointing, especially considering how frustratingly close Star Wars Galaxies came to really fulfilling the potential of an MMO.

That doesn’t mean that SWTOR won’t be good or successful or fun. In fact, I’d be quite surprised if it weren’t all three, and I definitely plan to play it myself. However, BioWare appears to be trapping themselves even deeper in the fatigue/expansion cycle than Blizzard has with WoW, because the content is so elaborately constructed, and without some form of emergent gameplay I think the title’s long-term prospects are mediocre. Hopefully BioWare has surprises up its sleeve.

Guild Wars 2 is the title I’m currently most excited about. Enough that I’m fooling with GW1 again, as noted earlier. Of everything on the horizon it appears to embrace a form of emergent gameplay the most, even if it’s in a somewhat truncated and scripted form.

GW essentially takes Warhammer’s public quests and fixes them by doing two things: letting them scale to the number of player involved and making them the primary engine of character advancement. Then it ups the ante by promising tangible (but either temporary or instanced,) changes to the world resulting from the outcome of those encounters. This looks like a recipe for a type of game experience we really haven’t seen before.

GW2 also gets away from the GW not-really-an-MMO both in the game itself and in the marketing – ArenaNet is embracing the label this time around, by eliminating henchmen/heroes and adding a persistent world to adventure in. I’m a bit disappointed that ArenaNet didn’t follow one of its original ideas (batted around in the initial announcements back in 2007,) of having levels but no cap – that’s something I’d have liked to have seen, and I don’t think it’s impossible, even though no developer has done it yet. My best guess on a release date is late 2011.

Rift: Planes of Telara is the earliest of these four titles in its development, at least judging by appearances, and it’s by far the mostly likely to stall significantly before release. On the plus side it looks to have potential; on the minus it positively screams Vanguard all over again. Assuming development doesn’t fall apart what we might get is something that appeals to the old EQ nostalgia crowd, along with whatever post-EQ gamers with similar leanings it can pick up.

I actually think there’s a market for this. Although such a game is unlikely to be a big hit, a title that’s intelligently budgeted, well-designed and has realistic expectations as to how many subscribers it’s likely to get could stick around for a long while as a modestly successful entry in the market. And as CCP’s example shows, it is possible to build from there. Is Trion the next CCP? Or is Rift the next Vanguard?

Final Fantasy XIV, Dark Millennium and The Secret World are games I’ve no interest in currently, although I think the last has some potential and I’ll be keeping one eye on it. I may check out DC Universe Online for the PS3, but the video I’ve seen of it looks terrible, so I hope to all the gods there’s a demo – otherwise I’ll be passing.

Lastly, there’s the game we know the least about, CCP’s World of Darkness Online. I expect to start seeing some real details on this some time in 2011 – all CCP has confirmed so far is that it’s in development, and I expect that EVE’s Incarna is the major holdup, since WoDO will use the same engine. So we’ll likely see details on both within the same general time frame. In any case, though, I wouldn’t expect a release before 2012 at the earliest, which tempers my enthusiasm in the here and now. Nevertheless, CCP is the company that best understands what an MMO is and should be, and WoDO has the most potential of anything currently in the pipeline.