Mists of Pandaria Cinematic Trailer Hits, Deemed Irrelevant

As of today the Mists of Pandaria cinematic trailer is up for perusal on YouTube. As such things go (I like to try to judge these things as short films in their own right,) it’s very nicely done. But I doubt it will change anyone’s mind.

WoW is starting to slide in a big way, losing another million players last quarter alone, and the launch of Guild Wars 2 in under two weeks is going to hurt it some more. But not permanently, I think — many of WoW’s players will dutifully return to check the expansion out. The real issue is Blizzard’s own complacency that has slowly chipped away at player confidence and enthusiasm; the content updates for a game which is starved for new content designed to be digested by players in mere days come less and less frequently, and the expansions have gotten less and less ambitious even while they really didn’t add much to gameplay and while other gameplay elements have gradually been backed out of the game. It’s a leaner, shallower game than the game that put Blizzard on top of this market in the first place. I can’t see any alternative to the notion that this is a game on the verge of life support, with Blizzard trying to squeeze out maximal revenue for minimal investment while the party lasts. That’s a valid strategy from a business standpoint, but it’s clear that Blizzard doesn’t believe in this product any more.

As for me, I have a vague intention of checking the expansion out at some point, but certainly not when it launches at full price — and given how historically sluggish Blizzard has been at lowering the price of aging products, I’m not motivated to do so any time soon… maybe next summer or something. But given how fast the market is evolving, with almost everything no longer requiring a subscription, and with numerous entries even within the same fantasy themepark niche offering more features, greater depth and in some cases comparable polish, I can’t see any reason to do more than step in for a month or so. For different reasons, games like Rift and EVE Online are more attractive for a subscription price, and titles like GW2, LotRO, EverQuest2 and Vanguard offer more for (potentially) less money. Even The Secret World at least offers novelty when compared against a contracting game that we have probably all played more than enough of, and to which nothing really new or appealing is being added with this expansion. Unless you have a thing for Pandas in particular.

The Summer in MMOs and Other Stuff

We have quite a summer ahead of us in the MMO sphere. The release of Guild Wars 2 may come before Mabon, and the free-to-play launch of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes should as well. My feeling is that both of those will happen late in the season, and there’s a good chance, in my estimation, that GW2 will get pushed back into the fall, although NCSoft is telling its investors that it’ll launch this year.

There’s also the chance that Mists of Pandaria will find its way onto store shelves during this period. The hunch at this point is that it’s pretty close to being ready, and that Blizzard is holding off on a firm date to see when its big potential rival (GW2) will launch so they can jockey for the best positioning. But I think that Blizzard’s patience will be as limited as that of WoW players — they’ll only wait so long, and then they’ll go ahead, because fresh content is badly needed, and the expansion is supposedly going to fix some lingering issues brought in with previous rounds of enhancement.

So what are my plans for the summer? Spring classes finally wind down this week, and I’ll get a couple of months of comparative leisure; last summer I got quite a bit of quality gaming in, a lot of it free thanks to Sony’s, shall we say, “suboptimal spring.” This year may not be quite as optimal; we’ve a houseguest (our nephew) for the next two weeks, we’re probably moving around late July, and there is the Pennsic War in early August, and that’s a definite this year (we didn’t go last year, which made both Mr. and Mrs. Ardwulf very sad.)

As far as gaming goes, I may try to get some boardgaming in — we have an excellent local club that does that kind of thing and I want to play some Twilight Imperium. Plus I’ve a hankering to do some old school hex and counter wargaming, no doubt where we all stand around reminiscing about the good old days of SPI, smoking pipes and thoughtfully stroking our beards as we pore over the mapsheets. There may be tweed involved. (I exaggerate only slightly.)

IN the MMO department, I have 30 days of Rift waiting, courtesy of Raptr (and Trion, of course,) so I plan to dabble in that over the next couple of weeks. The big thrust of my gaming, though, will be in SOE’s All Access pass games, primarily Vanguard and EverQuest II. So pretty much the same games I was playing last summer. By the time GW2 comes out classes are likely to have started back up, which is fine as I have every intention of taking my sweet time with it.

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.