Good News & Bad News

It was an eventful week for MMORPG fans. In bad news, EverQuest Next was scuttled by Daybreak and 40% of Wildstar’s staff was given the golden toe by NCSoft in preparation for that game’s looming closure. In better news, Black Desert Online launched with a decent bit of buzz and the live stream of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen surprised a lot of people.

The abortion of EQNext is symptomatic of two things, I think. One is the obvious haplessness of Daybreak, a company displaying no clear signs of knowing what it is doing at any level. The other is the relative decline in what I’m forced to call “Immersive World RPGs.” The perception is that there’s no longer a market for triple-A games of this kind. This may or may not actually be true, but with the cancellation of EQNext I can’t think of any that are in development in the west. Even the extant games are slowly shuttering or evolving away from the immersive world.

Of course, there are a host of such games brewing at the indie level. Two that I have my eye on are Richard Garriot’s Shroud of the Avatar and Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, both of which are slowly progressing under small development teams. In both cases some, shall we say, less than triple-A quality stuff has been shown; the early Pantheon footage was scarily primitive-looking.

But both games are coming along. On Friday, Visionary Realms streamed the first-ever gameplay from Pantheon, live and unscripted. It was “pre-Alpha,” whatever that even means anymore, and while we only saw a small part of the world, the game has obviously come a very long way indeed.

For one thing, it looks terrific. The Unity 5 engine has really come through here, and this looks as good as anything I have seen using that platform. The character and spell animations are obviously still placeholders (which the devs mention) and there was some graphical glitching but overall it looks tremendous.

More impressive, though, was the actual gameplay. Six devs just playing, with no cheats, and hashing out strategies on the fly, first for clearing out an Orc camp and then penetrating a cult’s mysterious sanctum. The novel Pantheon mechanics of colored mana and atmospheres were on display, but the coolest thing was that stuff happened that the devs didn’t expect. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this point; true emergent gameplay isn’t even seen as desirable in MMOs anymore. The Pantheon team appears to get why it’s awesome and why it belongs in an Immersive World RPG.

Origins 2014 Wrapup

The 2015 iteration of the Origins Game Fair has concluded. So here’s my big rundown of the whole event, sans pictures because WordPress is unhappy today. But if you want ’em, they are HERE.

On Wednesday, I spun down to the con early after work to get the registration thing done and but tickets for events. Which was good strategy, because there was a snafu whereby they didn’t have me in their system — even though I was in their system. There had been some crosstalk about this over on G+, so I kind of saw it coming, and the onsite staff bent over backwards to make things work out. A bunch of my events were, predictably, sold out, but I managed to schedule stuff for that evening and the following day, with the intention of doing Games on Demand on Friday and spending the day in the Board Room on Saturday.

The first game was a fine little World War II game called Quartermaster General. This is a very high-level grand strategic game aimed at six players. We had three, which was only slightly awkward. But I enjoyed it and am contemplating picking it up at some point. This is not by any means a game for the hardcore grognard, but it was sufficently wargamey to be suited to my tastes. Had the opportunity arisen I’d happily have played it again.

The second game was supposed to have been Traveller: The New Era, but I misread the start time and missed it, alas. I’ve always felt that TNE is a bit under-appreciated, and would have liked to have fired it up again. So instead, I hit up the Board Room but didn’t find anything of interest that wasn’t already full.

Thursday was going to be the first big play day for me. In the morning I got to play HârnMaster, a game I like a lot but haven’t had the chance to play in several years. Together, shipwrecked Ivinians Kjartan and Bork used their wits to navigate an ancient cavern and rescue the local lord’s bastard boy — and save him from being killed by his conniving stepmother as well, making friends with an alcoholic Nolah along the way. Despite having only two players (plus the GM) it went very well, ending with a promise from the GM to continue the saga next year, which I’m totally up for.

Between games I again cruised the Board Room with no luck at actually gaming, although I did swing a trade for Avalon Hill’s Fortress Europa, yet another game I once owned but foolishly sold off years ago. Afterwards I headed over to the dealer’s hall to buy some dice and the latest issue of C3i, GMT’s house wargame magazine. I don’t normally buy them, but this one had the errata counters for The Dark Valley, which I own and would like to have accurate counters for. As a bonus, the mag came with a complete wargame: Unconditional Surrender: Case Blue, a mingame about the Case Blue and Operation Uranus campaigns in southern Russia in 1942-43. It’s a micro-version of Sal Vasta’s much larger Unconditional Surrender, which covers the whole of World War II in Europe. This will be a great way to feel out the system to see if I like it, and it’s also a good target for a future wargaming video, since it’s small and can be played to completion in a couple of hours.

In the evening I tried, for the first time, one of those events that I think about doing every year: the National Security Decision Making Game. This is very much a LARP, although there seems to be a general reluctance to call it that, in which you play as segments of some real-world historical faction. In our case we played various internal factions within the USSR at the height of the Cold War. It was a ton of fun, and I did end up as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, kind of by accident. It was very worthwhile and I got the chance to talk a lot of Soviet history before and after the game with some folks very knowledgeable on the subject, which was almost worth the price of admission by itself.

I would absolutely play it again, with one caveat: the game I played was the “short form”, four-hour version of the game, and I was pretty wrung out by the end of it. I’m not sure I could take the full eight-hour game. I wore bad shoes that day, a bush move that I have no excuse for (this was my 19th Origins,) which may have contributed to my discomfort. Also the room was approximately the same temperature as an actual Siberian gulag. The game was enjoyable enough to get me through it, but I’m still leery of an eight-hour marathon.

On Friday I arrived at the convention relatively late; there were some real-life things that needed to get done that day. Nevertheless, I did arrive in time for the 2 PM slot of Games On Demand. I landed in a session of Ken Hite’s Night’s Black Agents, sort of a vampire thriller game powered by Robin Laws’ Gumshoe system. The seesion itself was very enjoyable but I have reservations about the themes of NBA in particular; I like vampire stuff but the corporate espionage thing leaves me a little cold… but I’d like to read it to be sure.

In any event, when I spun down to the dealer’s room between events, I did my earnest shopping of the con. I picked up Crown of Roses, a block game and GMT’s answer to the classic Avalon Hill Kingmaker and Caesar’s War, a minigame from Decision Games that I’ve heard positive buzz about, and something else that’ll make a nice video at some point.

On the RPG front, I picked up the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, which I’ve had my eye on for a bit. To my surprise the massive hardcover was substantially cheaper than I expected, so it didn’t take much convincing. And I picked up Torchbearer and its accessories; it’s a dngeon crawling game based on Mouse Guard, which is in turn derived from Burning Wheel, a game I like a lot and consider a major inspiration.

Afterwards I hiked back up to the Hyatt for the 8 PM Games on Demand slot, where I got into… Dungeon Crawl Classics! It was great to see the game in action so quickly, and I had a great time; of our fourteen zero-level characters, about two-thirds of them died due to a single fire trap. It was glorious, and surprisingly, nobody else died for the rest of the session. DCC is a game I may do a separate post on once I’ve had the chance to digest the rules a little better; offhand it does some really nice things to baseline D&D, but I do retain some leeriness over the funky d14s and such.

Saturday was my #2 big gaming day, and started bright and early despite me oversleeping a bit. I started out again in Games on Demand, playing Microscope, an interactive Worldbuilding game that was a riot to play. The setting we came up with was a weird Meso-Polynesian society where the young spoke a different language than the old and ended up dying out, before the whole place was conquered by an Alexander-like foreigner who came in and settled the nearly depopulated islands.

After that: dealer’s room again, to pick up Trail of Cthulhu and the Dresden Files RPG, along with a couple more odds and ends. Both are fantastic reads, and my experience playing Night’s Black Agents earlier in the con sold me on the Gumshoe system, while Dresden was yet another piece in my Fate collection.

That night, again at Games on Demand, I got into a playtest of Wrath of the Autarch, run by its designer Phil Lewis. This is a Fate-powered kingdom building game, something that is incredibly up my alley, and it works wonderfully, although It does depart considerably from Fate Core. It was a joy to play, and probably my game of the whole con.

And that was Origins 2015. There was Sunday stuff happening, but I typically elect to go Wednesday and save Sunday for a day of cooldown before returning to the real life grind. And thus it was. Now, on Monday, I’m still tired.

Notes for Next Year

  1. I think this is my last go-round with the Board Room. It’s a great way to go for folks who want to play general-interest boardgames all con, but I have access to all I could ever want to play of those kinds of games (through CABS) and the kinds of things I’d want to get into at Origins tend to just not happen there. So barring something set up specifically in advance, I think that I’m just going to stick with roleplaying events from now on.
  2. On that subject, every year I tell myself that I should run games next year, but this year it feels a litte different. If there’s something I would specifically like to see, I should probably just run it myself, whether that’s some particular wargame or the kind of under-represented RPG that I like to get into at cons. Games on Demand can be a good vehicle for this, depending on the game — and even old school stuff like Classic Traveller and Dungeon Crawl Classics saw play there this year.
  3. My immediate thoughts on what to run would be old (but not OSR) stuff like Classic Traveller or Rolemaster. Or maybe have something of my own design ready to go by then, but we’ll see. It’s not like there aren’t several things in the pipeline.
  4. In a similar vein, I think that most of my RPG play will happen in the context of Games on Demand, which I felt was a huge, huge success this year. As this effort has grown the people running it have done a bangup job of keeping things organized, and even the last folks in the incredibly long lines tended to get into something cool.
  5. Wear good walking shoes every day. Dumbass. Also, maybe invest in some kind of wheely thing to carry stuff around. That damned messenger bag gets heavy after carrying it around for several hours.
  6. Socialize more. Gaming-wise I think my Origins was wildly successful despite considerable idle time. But I didn’t get to hobnob nearly as much as I’d like, or hang out with some of the people I wanted to hang out with. This is my own social anxiety aggravated by the logistics of having to drive in every day, so I had a reason to bolt promptly before midnight when my parking expired. Next year I’d like things to work out so I can stay later at least on Friday and Saturday.
  7. More and better forward planning. I was particularly bad about it this year, not even looking over the events listing until the day before the show. I’d also like to plan meal times better; I did make it to Bareburger, but otherwise made do at the Hyatt food court, which, aside from Subway, is about the same price as eating at North Market and not nearly as good. The issue is that RPG stuff happens in the Hyatt, which is at one end of the whole convention, and the High Street places like Barley’s and North Market are just past
  8. Since the amount of cosplay at Origins grows every year, I’m thinking of checking out the costume contest next year. I myself am very unlikely to cosplay (I have enough hobbies, thanks) but it might be fun to check out.
  9. Sunday will probably remain a stay-home day unless I take the following Monday off, which is probably not happening. I like to have a day to cool off after all the hustling of four days of con, so even if I have the extra day I’m more likely to blow it on Wednesday, where there is now plenty of quality gaming to get involved in.

Changing Categories

With the windup to Origins and all the other stuff I have going on, there’s been very little gaming happening. I haven’t played Neverwinter (or indeed anything else) since before the recent exploit/rollback flap. What I have been doing, here and there, is digging board and war games out of the closet. There’s a decent chance of playing some at Origins.

What strikes me, though, having been doing a great deal of poking around lately, is how board wargaming has managed to survive — by changing. There’s still plenty of the of hex-and-counter stuff getting produced, as it turns out. You just have to be paying attention in the right places. But there’s also stuff like The Napoleonic Wars, which even ten years ago (about when I started to drift away) would have been huffily declared by hardcore wargamers to be “not a wargame.”

Nobody thinks that now. Furthermore, the crop of “card-driven” games starting with We the People seem to have invigorated the hobby. They’re more game and less simulation than the old school stuff, but there’s a ton of them on a wide array of subjects from the Napoleonic Wars (duh) to World War II and the Second Punic War or the Protestant Reformation. (A lot, but not all, of these games are from GMT, and the system itself is tight and relatively simple in the examples I’ve seen.) The common definition of “wargame” has drifted, and while the old stuff is still around, there’s now more in the category that would have often been excluded years ago.

The definition of “MMORPG” is changing in the same way. the old category wasfairly narrow and the current one is much broader. Some folks are still stuck inside the old borders of the category. Which isn’t really profitable for them, although it’s perfectly fine to prefer one particular corner of the field over the rest.

Guest Post: Storytelling in Games vs. Books

Our guest post today is by the illustrious Professor Beej of the eponymous blog. He has paid me a gazill… wait, what? You mean the check bounced? He mailed me a cat?

Oh, well. It wouldn’t be here if it weren’t a crackerjack article written by one of the finest hands in our corner of the internet. So give it a read, and if you’ve a hankering to root for one of our own, head on over to his Kickstarter page and support his latest, Birthright. It’s a great-sounding project and I for one will be very happy when it succeeds. — Ardwulf

Storytelling Differences in Games and Books

Storytelling is an interesting thing. The further I dig into being a writer–especially as I work on these guest posts as a way to promote Birthrights Kickstarter campaign–the more I realize just how much various media change our perception of what we consider to be a good story.

For instance, when you’re a kid, stories start out with “Once upon a time…” and end with “…and happy ever after.” That’s it. That’s all it takes to tell a good story. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Saturday morning cartoon, a hand-me-down storybook, or Grandpa Eskimo telling you a bedtime fairy tale. If it has those two phrases, it’s a good story.

But as you get older, you start wanting more. Stories don’t have to fit into a particular format anymore. Prince Charming doesn’t always have to marry the princess, and the good guy doesn’t always have to beat the bad. There might not even be a bad guy anymore!

Then, if you’re like most of us in these parts, you start branching out from stories told in books or by TV/movies, and you discover video games. You may find a Final Fantasy title that makes you think about what it means to be human, or a BioWare RPG where your choices actually influence what story is told–whether the main character is a good guy or a bad guy.

And from that point on, you are addicted to interactive storytelling. Nothing else will do. You may try to read a book, and you get bored fifteen pages in. You try to sit down and watch a movie, and you spend more time looking at Twitter than you do looking at the screen.

So why is that? What’s so different about wiggling an analog stick or clicking a mouse and turning a page in a hardcover or clicking Next Page on your Kindle?

Center of the Universe

Well, for the most part, it’s because in video games, you are the hero. You are the one saving the day. You are center-stage, the entire reason this story is being told. Without you, the whole thing falls apart.

Or that’s the way they’re designed to make you feel.

Even if you’re playing as Cloud Strife or Commander Shepard, nothing can happen unless you want it to. You move from place to place, you decide who to talk to, and you get to make the choices that dictate the flow of the narrative.

In MMOs, there are quests that put your character in the middle of the story. Even with a huge, wide world for the avatar to explore, there are nuggets of story breadcrumbed around to bring the focus to a more personal level. Why bother exploring the Titanic Ruins of Eternal Thunder or killing Korfok the Unintelligible without a quest explaining why you should? What good does it do if the spawns will just reset in fifteen minutes, anyway?

These tasks matter to you because, when a quest centers on your character, you learn that exploring the Titanic Ruins of Eternal Thunder will provide a cure for Korfok the Unintelligible’s speech impediment, and will therefore save the village of Gobbledygook from destruction during one of the giant’s anger-fueled tantrums.

You did that. You made a difference. Like most kinds of marketing these days, being able to focus on a person’s ego compels them to invest in the story you want to tell.

Where Does That Leave Books?

In a book, movie, or TV show, ensuring gaming-level interaction is just not possible. With the exception of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, very few novels are structured to quite literally immerse the reader in the narrative.

Some books can. Pop-culture-phenomenon Twilight being one of them. Say what you want about sparkly vamps and vapid PoV characters, readers really respond to Bella Swan. Fans don’t see her as vapid and empty. Instead, they get to experience the events of the novel as the main character, not with her.

But let’s say that the characters in a book aren’t empty shells. What then? How can that book compete with the ego-tickling goodness that gaming provides?

Well, in much the same way as those games do, actually. At some point in the first few chapters of a book, there’s an inciting event. Something happens–or should happen, at least–to motivate the characters into action. They can’t just sit around and explore any longer. They have to get up and go, or else invite calamity of some sort.

And you, dear readers, are supposed to be motivated, too. The narrative hook is supposed to sink into your brainyparts and keelhaul you along behind the storyboat.

However, unlike in a video game, the story isn’t dependent on you at all. The only action you have to perform is turning the page. So unlike a video game quest, those first few chapters of a book must get you invested enough in the world, the event, and the characters that you want to keep moving forward and seeing what happens.

And from a storytelling perspective, that’s much harder to do than saying, “Go do this, and everyone will love you forever.”

Gaming and interactive stories are designed to give a more immediate and more personal payoff, whereas book, TV, and movie narratives are designed to reward audience loyalty with stronger emotional impact upon resolution.

Hybrid Theory

Which brings me back to Birthright. With this book, I wanted to see if it were possible to hybridize these approaches. I’ve done my best to build a world that draws readers in quickly and makes them want to know more about it. From the beginning, my protagonist, Ceril Bain, hints at a much larger world, one that includes technomages, their artifacts, pocket universes, and a spaceship coated in jelly.

I want the reader to be intrigued enough to see what the characters are making such a fuss about.

And for the gamers who are waiting to see how the story relates to them, I based the fundamentals of my universe on familiar MMO tech and tropes. There are Instances in Birthright, where different teams can literally be in the same place and not know it. And when the time comes, Ceril and his party are assembled based on Holy Trinity archetypes – tank, healer, and DPS.

My hope is that gamers will see these familiar ideas and themes and become invested with the narrative. I want gamers to think about how they might react if their favorite game were to put them in a situation like Birthright. How would they react in Ceril’s place?

How would you?

B.J. Keeton is currently running a  Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the firstbook in The Technomage Archiv eseries.  He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness at

Sometimes A Step Forward is a Step Back

I have been playing MMOs since 2007. That’s not a long time compared to many MMO bloggers who came into the hobby with EverQuest or Ultima Online, but it’s five years, which is a while. Coming in I bought into the Big Dream of an immersive virtual world, but that’s gone nowhere, and major publishers have opted instead to chase the Big Money by making a relentless series of nigh-indistinguishable themeparks.

At this point, while I have certainly had some good times with MMOs and have no intention of abandoning them entirely, I feel like I’m wasting my time in making them the sole focus of the gaming I do. It would be an oversimplification to say that Skyrim is the culprit here, although it did highlight for me just how much MMOs lack and how much video games in general lack in comparison to tabletop RPGs.

In that hobby I go back thirty years, and am inching into old-timer territory. I can go on for hours about memorable events in tabletop games that happened ten or fifteen years ago. My experiences in MMOs simply can’t match that. I am, to be blunt about it, largely bored with MMOs at this point, barring something new and radical coming along (and there are some upcoming titles that may fit that bill.) Too, there’s the issue of MMOs eating up huge quantities to time, often just to get to the parts of the various games that are alleged to be fun. I spend more than my share of time parked in front of a computer, and would like to spend more of what I do have with Mrs. Ardwulf and doing social things with actual people and not avatars.

I have played very little on the tabletop in the past year or so, just due to an incredibly tight schedule that allows me very little opportunity to do much else. MMOs have been okay for that, since I can log in at odd hours and get a few things done. But I’m becoming a cantankerous hermit in so doing, and I’m tired of it. So I have decided that it is time to refocus. Games are always going to be a part of my life, it’s time to make tabletop games a part of it again, and if that means I spend less time n MMOs (which is already happening anyway,) so be it.

So what does this mean for you, Gentle Reader? Well, less than you might think, actually. I will still be posting about MMOs (I am still playing a couple) and assorted video games of interest to me, but the volume of such posts will go down a bit. I will also, however, be posting about tabletop RPGs. This is something I have written about here very occasionally and have tried to do in a more serious way a couple of times, but I’ve never managed to quite find my “blogger’s voice” for tabletop games, which is just weird. I think I now have a good hook to develop that, and that’s what you’re going to be seeing more of around here in months to come.

APB to Rise Again?

Via Massively. Evidently, fans of the massive GTA clone should hold off on abandoning all hope just yet.

Here’s hoping it happens. APB had some pretty big problems, but there was a lot there to like as well, and with some tweaks to the vehicle controls and matchmaking it could have a nice life. Hell, the character editor alone is worth salvaging the game for.

As an aside, APB is a great example of what I was talking about in an earlier post: an MMO (well, an MMO-like, in this case,) that cost way too much money to produce (word is around $80 million,) and so stood almost no chance of earning that money back, let alone being profitable. I can see why some people might have thought that a massive GTA game might be a huge moneymaker, but that level of investment, paired with flawed gameplay and an opaque money model doomed it to failure. Let’s hope that someone (Epic continues to be the leader in the rumor mill,) picks it up on the cheap and can turn it into something at least modestly profitable.

SWTOR Will Fail, With Numbers to Prove It

Tobold thinks SWTOR will fail. Syncaine hopes it will. The common thread is the EALouse scandal that’s got all the MMO Blogosphere up in a tizzy.

And Bioware? Don’t make me laugh. They’ve spent more money making the Old Republic than James Cameron spent on Avatar. Shit you not. More than $ 300 million! Can you believe that?

Now, some of the stuff EALouse has said has been confirmed, if indirectly. Some of the other stuff he said has been strongly implied to be false. The piece quoted above is not confirmed either way, and I don’t know that I’d want to take his word for it without independent information. Certainly, the $300 million figure is higher than the numbers that were already in circulation.

But let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that the real budget for SWTOR, marketing and all, is $200 million. Let’s run some numbers based on that. Bear in mind that we’ll be making some assumptions here: namely, that SWTOR will sell a retail box for approximately $59.99, and charge a monthly sub fee of $14.99. These are both reasonable but not confirmed.

Let us assume further that SWTOR will sell two million boxes, an intentionally very optimistic estimate. I’d be surprised if it surpassed that, but equally surprised if it didn’t sell at least one million. Also, after the first (free) month, half of the people who bought retail boxes will elect to subscribe. After a second month, half of those people will elect to continue paying, and the percentage of subscribers retailed will gradually increase until we hit the 6 month mark, at which point the population will be more or less stable. These are big assumptions, but they are all weighted toward optimism. That’s important.

It’s important because after 12 months of operation, boosted by tremendous box sales, Bioware will have made a bit more than $146 million in gross revenue. That doesn’t count operating expenses like staff salaries or whatever it costs to operate the servers or the cost of developing content moving forward. It doesn’t take into account the very substantial cut (at the very least about 40%,) that will be taken out of the box sales revenue by retailers and distributors. It doesn’t take into account some players paying less than $14.99 per month by buying multi-month packages. It doesn’t take into account a whole bunch of costs that I don’t have enough information to estimate. So let’s take that number, again, optimistically, and say it’ll all go to Bioware. Every last cent.

After 1 year, all this gives us an estimated paying subscriber base of around 151k. This too is optimistic. But it’s a pretty healthy number for an MMO. So after two years, total gross revenue would be a bit more than $173 million. SWTOR would still not have made its budget back. Not until the end of year three would gross revenue top the $200 million mark.

Okay, so it’ll take three years to make its money back and start turning a profit. And maybe that’s not so bad. But I’m making some fantastically optimistic guesses here, and leaving out a ton of costs. What if SWTOR only sells 1.5 million boxes? Then it will take six years to pay off what it cost to make. By then a generation or two of newer games will have shown up to pull interest away. What then?

I think you can see where this is going. If Bioware is going to spend $200 million on SWTOR, let alone the $300 million that EALouse claims, they must be really freaking nuts. On the other hand, if they spend $100 million and sell one million boxes, and my retention estimates are anything like accurate, it’s back to three years.

My guess is that the budget is likely going to hit at least $100 million when the final tallies are made. If that’s true, Bioware is almost inevitably going to take a bath on the project. Things aren’t looking good, whether you think the game will be outstanding or not.

ADDENDUM: It’s possible that SWTOR will go with some kind of minipay system rather than subscriptions. If that’s the case, the player numbers are likely to be much higher but the amount sent by the average player into Bioware’s coffers is likely to be lower. Either way, I think my estimate of roughly $1.2 million in monthly gross revenue is like to not be too far off.

It’s also possible that SWTOR’s budget is in fact closer to $50 million than $200 million. If that’s the case, the situation looks a whole lot rosier for the game and for its long-term sustainability. My gut feeling is that total budget will end up being in the $100 million range at minimum, however, and that’s where we start to tread in the dangerous waters that this post talks about. If you spend more than that, you need numbers at least comparable to WoW or you’ll faceplant.

What to Call the New Breed of Payment Models/MMOs

I have posted many articles that were written in response to other blog articles or news items. This will be the first one written in response to a Twitter post, this one from Beau Turkey, he of Massively, MMOVoices, Voyages of Vanguard, et al. To wit:

So, what do we call the newer payment models (EQ2X, LotRO, DDO) — blended models? Tiered? My jury is still out how I feel about them.

I and others have been doing all kind of gyrations of nomenclature over this. In my response to Beau’s tweet, I suggested that they be called “Non-Subscription” or “Semi-Subscription” models (and therefore MMOs,) in contrast to traditional subscription-based models, partly because I’m really tired of typing out the word “microtransaction.” But to be honest, this is a bit clumsy, and not much less work. One could shorten it to “Nonsub” or “Semisub”, of course. But the former implies a complete lack of subscription, while the latter implies an exclusion of games which don’t have a sub option.

So I suggest we call them minipay games. It seems to fit, in that it lets you play while paying less than what a traditional subscription would cost. You can pay the sub, or pay more in microtransactions than what a sub would cost, but paying a lesser or “mini” amount doesn’t exclude you. Just as importantly, it’s a very convenient term to use in a discussion.

It’s not airtight terminology, of course. What about EVE Online, which in principle lets an advanced player pay for his or her account with in-game money rather than real-world cash? (Yeah, EVE has come up a lot lately and is likely to continue to, for reasons previously discussed. But it’s not like I don’t have a long history of writing about it.) But I submit this to be a borderline case. So I think I’m going to adopt this terminology from here on out.

Fun Latin Fact of the Day: “To wit” does not come from Latin. It comes down to us from Old English instead.

Disgruntled e-Mythic Staffer Hates On SWTOR

A soon-to-be ex-employee of Mythic has started a blog talking (ostensibly) about why Warhammer failed and why SWTOR will suck. It’s interesting reading, although I’d take it with a grain of salt, and a couple of the points made are outright laughable, like there being no marketing campaign behind Warhammer. Maybe there wasn’t, as such, but the buzz around that game leading up to launch was immense, and initial box sales were huge.

Also interesting is the claim that Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online have more subs right now than Warhammer. I find that hard to believe, and Xfire’s numbers back me up. Maybe there are whole brigades of people still playing those old games faithfully on PCs too old to run Xfire or something.

The comments are equally interesting.

EDIT: Forgot to add the link. Dur.

EVE Advancement and Why It Matters Less Than You Think

Massively is reporting that CCP will be offering a new EVE boxed retail package on October 19 in North America, the “Commissioned Officer Edition.” Bundled along with this will come a new in-game implant that will ‘significantly accelerate’ skill point acquisition for the initial play period.

It’ll be nice to to see EVE with a presence on retail shelves. New players will no doubt find the skill acceleration reassuring, but unless the increase is genuinely spectacular, it really doesn’t amount to much. The implant essentially offers +3 to all attributes, along with a +20% damage from turrets and +20% rate of fire for missiles, up to a maximum pilot age of 35 days. I think this is non-problematic for a couple of reasons, but I’ll get to that.

For those who don’t know, EVE has no ‘levels’ in the traditional way. Instead there are a whole bunch of individual skills. (How many, you ask? I have no idea, offhand. But they number in the hundreds.) Each skill can be raised as high as rank 5, and each either allows you to do various things (fit and use ship modules, generally,) or gives you a bonus to a specific activity (or both.) This is broadly similar to the way advancement works in Ultima Online and Darkfall and, I’m told, Star Wars Galaxies before the NGE ruined it for everybody. (I’m quoting, here – I don’t have a horse in that particular race.)

The difference in EVE is that skills do not advance merely by using them. Instead, they must be trained. This process is automated once you have opened (or “injected” the skill) and happens in real time. When you buy a new skill book and inject the skill, it’s listed in your character sheet at rank 0. To train it, you right-click it on that list and select ‘train skill.’ How long it will take to train depends on the level of the skill, the rank being learned, and your character’s scores in whatever attributes are relevant to that type of skill. The higher the attribute, the faster it trains.

Training times scale up dramatically as you work up to higher ranks. Rank 1 often takes only 10 or 20 minutes, perhaps less. Rank 2 takes from 40 minutes to about two hours. Rank 3 can take a whole day. And this is for skills of level 1 or 2 – the really high-level skills can take weeks or months to train.

Again, this happens in real time, and it happens whether you are logged in or not. This means that your character continues to improve even when you’re not actually playing, which has all sorts of ramifications that I won’t go into here. It’s one of EVE’s distinguishing features.

New EVE characters start with about 150k skill points, with a temporary buff (the ‘Rookie Skill Training Bonus’,) which grants a 100% increase to skill learning time that lasts until the character reaches 1.6 million skill points. If you choose to play through all of the tutorials, you also get a bunch of skill books for free that you’d ordinarily have to pay for (a couple of which have costs in the millions of ISK.)

Because of the scope of the skill selection, there’s not really a hard place in the progression where you’re considered generally competent. However, many corps require new members to have a minimum of anywhere from 5-10 million skill points. Super-Veteran characters might have as many as 100 million skill points, or even more.

At first glance, this seems an insurmountable barrier to the new player. Even once you’ve gotten up to that 10 million skill point level, the vets will have gained more skill points as well – with the added benefit of top-quality implants to boost their attribute scores, the price of which puts them out of reach for anything like a newbie. The gap’s really not going to get much smaller.

However, this is deceptive in a couple of important ways. Firstly, advancement is very much set up on a scale of diminishing returns. Improvement tends to be incremental. So the guy with 20 million skill points isn’t going to be twice as good as the guy with 10 million, depending of course on the specifics of the skill build. And adding ships and modules to the equation introduces a lot of additional variables. The 10 million point character with a well-fitted ship is going to hand the 20 million point guy flying a junkheap with cheap modules his ass.

Second, warfare in EVE tends to be asymmetric. Generally, nobody goes looking for a one-on-one fight… and with numbers on your side and in the right ships, it typically doesn’t matter how many more skill points the other guy has. Witness the wealthy and powerful CEO of Quantanamo Corporation getting ganked by a small group of no-names to the tune of a 50 billion ISK loss (which he laughed off in a classy way.)

Thirdly, a skill point total in the many millions of skill points necessarily indicates a lot of skills in a lot of different areas. You can be competent, even remarkably so, with a lot less than that – and there’s a reason that 5-10 million skill points is generally considered where you want to be. You can be comfortably capable in a couple of different areas even a bit under the 5 million skill point mark. Granted, there’s a lot of room to improve from there, but 5 million skill points will give you access to many of the game’s avenues of activity.

So big skill point disadvantages aren’t really all that big a deal. However, getting to that point of initial competence of 3-5 million skill points can take what seems like a long time to the rank newbie, especially so if they don’t figure out what skills they want and how to set up their skill training queue efficiently pretty quickly. It can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months at the extreme end of this – and because EVE skill improvement happens in real time, you can’t rush the process simply by playing a lot.

To that end, I think that anything that helps news players get into that 5 million skill point range is something to be encouraged. Tying it to a retail box is an even better idea, since that limits the number of existing players who will take advantage of the new implant to create alts on new accounts for the purpose of mischief. So while there is, predictably, some whining over it, CCP seems to me to have demonstrated again that they actually know what they’re doing.

Obligatory Notice: If you’ve never tried EVE Online, you can click the banners at the top right of this page, or in the page footer, to get a free 14-day trial. If you find yourself signing up for a subscription, I get a little something from CCP, so you’d be supporting Ardwulf’s Lair as well. EVE is one of the best MMOs out there and I encourage readers to try it out if they haven’t already.