An Era Ends

I opted to wait an extra day to let the news settle, but it’s finally been announced: Warhammer Online is shutting down in December. This is not a surprise, and was writ large on the wall when EA pulled six month subscriptions from the online store.

I’ve directed a lot of snark at WAR over the years, but I never actually hated the game, only its loudest and most verminous fans, who felt that the only way to prop up their hollow, teetering Jesus Game was to tear down stuff that other people liked. That’s something I won’t miss. Warhammer Online itself… well, I will miss the good times I did have in it for a short while, and I’ll feel bad for those people that really loved it and stuck with it. Ultimately it promised too much, delivered too little, and failed to understand or implement its studio’s past success.

What we might also miss is the end of the era in which MMORPG bloggers seemed to have a real footprint. This may not have been caused by WAR and wasn’t ended by its dramatic collapse, but it was concurrent with its rise and fall. It was… interesting for a while. There are plenty of us left, of course, and some will never go away, but now there are too many other avenues for the kind of news, commentary and speculation that we were once collectively the biggest source of.

The War Against Rift?

This kind of thing was all over the place yesterday, so I’ll just point you to the Massively article and launch my own take on the matter. The basic premise is that other developers are pushing out news yesterday in particular and probably over the next couple of days as well to counter the explosion of interest in Rift with today’s opening of headstart and the upcoming launch on Tuesday. In particular:

  • Blizzard pushes out the first load of 4.1 patch info.
  • Funcom announces the upcoming launch of a pair of full-loot, free-for-all PvP servers for Age of Conan.
  • Warhammer’s account management page sees the “Cancel Subscription” button mysteriously disappear.
  • Mortal Online launches a 14-day trial.

Granted that this all makes 2/24 a busier news day than most. And the WoW news is bigger by far than the other stuff, so I’ll focus on that first.

Does anyone seriously think that Blizzard’s announcement of the return of Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman, two old raids being retuned for five level 85s, constitutes news that stands a chance of deflecting interest in a new and very shiny game about to be released, and about which interest is surging? Does anyone seriously think that any significant number of WoW players read the news today and thought to themselves, “Well gee, I was going to check out Rift, but since two old raids are coming back as five-mans in a couple of months, I’ll just stick with WoW instead?” Does anyone seriously believe that anyone at Blizzard actually thought this?

As someone who’s elected to go back to WoW instead of hopping into Rift at launch, that’s just fucking preposterous.

Sure, the people in charge of pushing news out to the public are struggling to keep their own properties atop the news cycle. But that’s true all the time, not just when a competitor is launching and therefore is going to occupy that position anyway. The smart thing to do would be to wait until the flow of news is at a low ebb, especially for a low-visibility title like Age of Conan, for which news of almost any magnitude is going to be inevitably swamped by the flood of New Shiny items anyway. Much less for Mortal Online, a game that almost nobody cares about or is playing, and which even at launch came and went like a fart in a hurricane.

Minor news regarding WoW, or significant news regarding minor titles with which Rift is not really competing, is just not going to compete with a big release infosurge. To think that it is would be ludicrous, and therefore the idea that such is being done as part of a calculated effort on the part of Blizzard, Funcom or Star Vault is a de facto accusation of stupidity.

The Mythic item is kind of a different story, as Rift is very threatening to WAR’s already extremely tenuous position. But Mythic says it was just a glitch and I’ve always found that, as the saying goes, “never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by ineptitude.” And ineptitude is pretty much Mythic’s modus operandi.

Warhammer Next?

The new Warhammer Online producer’s letter hints at big things afoot. The letter is from James Casey, and not from Carrie Gouskos, WAR’s actual producer, who is “still working on WAR, but is looking at a different aspect of the game.”

That’s certainly intriguing, and one is tempted to draw the obvious conclusion, as Massively does, that a free-to-play change is being looked at. WAR already has a sort of truncated F2P thing going on, with their “Endless Trial,” which lets you basically play as much tier 1 as you want. A move to full-blown F2P might… well, I’m apt to say “save WAR’s bacon,” but it’s worth discussing what I mean by that.

Warhammer is a game I have been very hard on. Partly this is bitterness on my part, for its initial promise not panning out, and part of it is to stick an imaginary thumb in the eye of those people who felt that they had to attack the superior Age of Conan in the wind-up to WAR’s release. But at the same time, and I’ve said this probably as often as I’ve laid the hate down on it, WAR has a lot of things going for it. The game essentially has two issues, one of which is that the quality of the WAR experience is very dependent on a robust player population, even more than most MMOs. The other is that is a world with no real exploration and only a halfhearted crafting system, there’s very little reason to engage in World PvP as opposed to, say, scenarios. There’s very little reason to even expose yourself to the opportunity for world PvP, and no reason to even go into the areas where it happens unless that’s what you’re going for. A lack of players in the world contributes to the feeling that the population isn’t robust, especially when the population that is there is imbalanced in favor of one faction or another, such that scenarios don’t fire very often for the disadvantaged side. That leaves players filling in the gaps between the occasional scenario run with PvE, and WAR’s PvE is not strong enouigh to sustain a subscriber without Public Quests, the cornerstone of the game’s PvE content and by far the most interesting thing it has to offer that doesn’t involve killing other players.

The two problems feed one another, in a pattern I’ve called the Warhammer Death Spiral a time or two in the past. But if one could increase player churn, it may be that both problems could be ameliorated, for exactly the same reasons. A move to free-to-play might do just that, as demonstrated by other titles that have taken the same plunge.

I see two potential issues with this. One, WAR’s not going to be the first game on this particular bandwagon, so the package will want to be fairly attractive. Which means substantial access for free accounts, and cash shop options that seem reasonable. The other is that WAR is predominantly a competitive game, and cash shop items that grant a competitive advantage would have to be heavily controlled, if not entirely absent. And is the market really there, among WAR’s player base, for cosmetic items and the like? Or would we see more of a “modular DLC” type of setup, where you pay $10 or so for regular content packs? (Which itself could be said to grant an in-game advantage.)

I’m not sure I see F2P as a viable solution for Warhammer, if indeed that direction is something that’s being explored – and the last six months or so have, I think, shown that it is. But maybe not F2P in the way we’ve seen implemented so far in games like LotRO and EQ2X. If we see something new, that would itself probably be a good thing, giving future developers another data point to plan against. In any event, I think some in the community will think, as I am inclined to do, that F2P has a good chance to seriously shake up WAR’s current situation. Whether that’ll be in a good or bad way, the future will tell. Maybe.

Leveling For Dollars

One of the dangers we hear about “free-to-play” games is the idea that you can succeed at the game merely by paying money. We’ve all heard the horror stories out of Asia, wherein any loot of even vague desirability is a cash shop item. Or even worse, for your cash you get a random lottery box which might contain something desirable – or maybe not.

However, I’m not aware of anything (offhand) quite as direct as the Specialized Training Pack, a new cash purchase available to Warhammer Online players. You pay $9.95, and every character on your account gets a writ that kicks them up one level when used. This is not the legal equivalent of paying a powerleveling service, since paying a powerleveler is against the Terms of Service, but I can’t see how it’s much different from a cheese standpoint.

The other cash shop items include $9.95 for a mount at level 2 and $4.99 for two trophies of your choice. Remember when trophies were being oversold to us as earned achievements that would be visibly displayed on your character?

If anyone still cared about Warhammer Oniline, this would be a scandal. As it stands, it’s just overpriced. But I predict many tears from the dessicated remnant still playing the game, although I doubt many people will actually leave over it. If you’d put up with all the other problems WAR has, why should a little officially-sanctioned powerleveling bother you?

Chris over at Game by Night sees this as a precursor to a move to F2P. He may be right, but I see a lot of reason to be concerned over microtransactions in a game primarily about PvP. Leveling’s not such a huge issue because of bracketing and the bolster buff, but I’m not sure that people would actually buy vanity items in WAR, and items which give concrete advantages outside the level system could easily throw off the balance of an already precariously-balanced game. I’m not advocating panic over the idea or saying that it absolutely couldn’t work, but I see cause for concern. And moving to a F2P model might salvage WAR, if done properly.

The Massive Gap

As a follow-up to the post the other day about the largest online battle ever, and as an additional data point relating to Syncaine’s post yesterday, I present the following video. Go ahead, watch the whole thing, and pay attention. I’ll be right here.

The first thing I’d call to your attention is not the experiment that the video is about, but the numbers involved. Roughly 700 participants took place in this battle, which was (much) smaller than the epic struggle in LXQ2-T. Now I’ll point out what you didn’t see. Lag.

Seven hundred players, plus their drones and missiles (Drakes are Caldari, remember?) fighting it out in a single system, without lag. I’ve often defended WoW against Syncaine’s various assaults, but on this I agree with him – Blizzard’s failure to get even moderately-scaled open-world PvP working is nothing less than an embarrassment. But it’s not Blizzard who should be most embarrassed – it’s everybody other than CCP (and maybe Adventurine.)

It’s indicative of the larger problem in MMO development, which is the lack of will on the part of most developers to push technological boundaries. The battle for LXQ2-T was massive, both because of the number of players involved and the fact that they were all in a frefight. How massive is it for 100 players standing around, browsing the Auction House and dancing on mailboxes to crash Ironforge? How massive is it when a numerical advantage of a few dozen is enough to throw the factional balance of an entire Warhammer server?

The “massive gap” is widening between EVE and the rest of the MMO field (with a couple of weird outliers like Champions Online and Darkfall.) And it’s narrowing between the MMO field and conventional multiplayer games, even titles like shooters which are traditionally resource hogs. No wonder these types of games are calling themselves MMOs, nowadays – in their fields the technology is still advancing; they’re getting more massive all the time. Only in the MMOs that pioneered the idea are developers not even thinking about this anymore. Everybody assumes that the way WoW does this is perfect, without even asking themselves whether it might be desirable to actually live up to the massive name. Mythic decided 2500 players on a server with three-quarters of them blocked out of the open world by instancing was massive enough, but their game was dependent on being massive, so it goes down as perhaps the most epic fail in the history of MMOs thus far. Even bigger than Vanguard.

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.

New on the EALouse Front…

The absolute best take on the EALouse pseudo-scandal can be found HERE. I was going to link to the original, but it’s apparently been hacked.

UPDATE: Unhacked, apparently. Either that was the world’s most inept hacker or a scheme orchestrated by EALouse himself to make his “enemies” look bad. If he posts a back-scratcher, I guess we’ll know.

P.S.: The whole affair, along with the comments as well as associated reading of stuff like EA Spouse, and the history of this kind of thing coming up repeatedly with many companies, makes me again ask the question: what kind of freaking lunatic would want to work in the gaming industry?

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.

AoC, WAR and the Choad Factor

OpenEdge gets a shout-out on the wonderful Shut Up, We’re Talking podcast #45. Grats to him, and his mention of it reminds me that I intend to get back to Age of Conan around its one-year mark to see how things have come along.

It’s no secret that Age of Conan’s touted PvP features were something of a bust. But it also fell victim to two other factors, the impact of which remains uncertain.

The first seems to be a trend when new MMOs launch nowadays, what I call the PvP Choad Factor. This occurs when a bunch of choads who think they enjoy PvP get into a new title which promotes it heavily. When they inevitably find that they actually don’t enjoy it very much, they proclaim the game to be busted rather than seeing that their actual issue is with PvP in general. After all, if they really liked ‘consequences PvP,’ they’d be playing EVE Onlne, or maybe Darkfall, as the fantasy alternative. Darkfall may end up suffering from this as well, but the limited launch appears to be offsetting this to a large extent – limiting access also limits the ability of the choads to bitch about it – a smart move on Adventurine’s part. I have no opinion on how good or bad Darkfall may actually be, but watching the sociological impact from the outside has been interesting.

The other factor was the extreme hype over Warhammer Online, of course. Partially this was Funcom’s fault for marketing Age of Conan in a similar position to WAR, as a game oriented around PvP, when that turns out not to be what it really was. AoC’s launch was marred in large part by a barrage of hate from WAR partisans who thought that title would be the GRAETEST EVAR experience. This was a pretty understandable feeling at the time, with a big chunk of AoC’s PvP (which was, again, supposed to be a major part of the game,) non-functional and the WAR hype machine in full force. Alas, WAR turned out to be a disappointment, centered as it was around an RvR experience that the game did not actually provide, and by ladling on the weaksauce in every other department.

I think that Age of Conan is flatly a better game than Warhammer, because I have decided that I personally prefer a variety of experiences within an MMO. I enjoy PvP as one element of play, but I also enjoy PvE, crafting, instances, atmosphere, and other dimensions of exploring the game world, and to put it bluntly Warhammer shit the bed in all of these areas. But I also think that AoC offers a better PvP experience than WAR does, regardless of the non-functionality of city seiges and mass battles (Are those still non-functional? I’ve haven’t kept up with it.) Firstly because the combat system in AoC is worlds more interesting and dynamic than the well-balanced but derivative WoW-style combat of WAR, and secondly because viewed in the light of my own preferences, as an adjunct to gameplay rather than the whole of it, occasional PvP that actually happens in a game in which PvP is but one aspect of gameplay is infinitely preferable to constant PvP in a game wholly centered upon it, but in which it is seldom if ever actually available.

Both games suffered from technical issues from the get go – AoC with the monstrous lag inherent to large-scale actions and WAR with a server population cap so low that it was impossible to have meaningful RvR on the great majority of servers – those without an ideal population value and balance within what turned out to be a very narrow range. Of the two, AoC’s technical issue turned out to be less significant, because it turned out that it was actually a game that had more to do than just PvP, and from my limited technichal knowledge, it’s probably easier at least in the short term to tweak client performance upward than it is to redesign your server architecture to allow for a higher per-server population.

It strikes me, though, that Age of Conan does have an advantage of six months over WAR, which may make the comparison a little unfair. But only a little, and I am at any rate inclined to be charitable toward AoC, which landed with modest expectations among rational commentators, and harsh toward WAR, which was being pimped endlessly as the Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha of MMOs not just by intelligent bloggers (like Heartless and Keen, among others, and I was certainly eventually worn down by it myself,) but also by semiliterate troglodytes who commonly responded to contrary opinions by calling people ‘fagz’. (True story, and this un-admirable element of the community is one of the reasons I don’t much bother with GAX anymore, despite the presence of many worthy voices there, and my admiration of Ryan and Gary. I know maturity in this hobby is an unreasonable expectation on my own part, formed by years of particpation in the generally erudite and mature online tabletop community, but there it is.)

The MMO With No Soul

Keen beat me to it, and stole the very counterexample I was going to use. In today’s post, he talks about Warhammer’s ‘biggest flaw,’ and it’s the same flaw that I see: Warhammer has no soul.

It’s a terrific game, well-designed and mechanically solid. It has a colorful IP, rock-solid art direction, and enough content for players to advance through. It has a wonderful PvP system that’s well-balanced at the group level and provides a reward stream for participating it it. It’s got a ton going for it.

But you know, at level 22, just over halfway through the leveling, I feel like I’ve pretty much explored Warhammer’s world out. I’ve visited the Chaos Wastes and the narrow streets of Praag, and been only modestly inspired. I’ve fought in a dozen different scenarios, all of which play well but none of which are in anyplace particularly interesting. I haven’t seen every zone, but I have no drive to visit those I haven’t, nor to play the Public Quests I’ve missed. The content and questing is good, but I have no desire to try to advance the story, or even read the parts of the story I’ve already unlocked. And even if I was, it’s not my story – it’s somebody at Mythic’s. I feel like I’ve explored it enough to completely understand it. I don’t feel like there’s some surprise or mystery over the horizon.

There is very little sense of community. The game is dominated by big guilds, within which there is interaction, but outside of their own cliques, nobody talks. The open channels are silent. Warhammer makes forming and getting into groups so easy that the grouping, something utterly central to the MMO experience, is utterly meaningless. You can join a group, play for hours, and then log out, never having said a single word to anybody. The Warhammer grouping tools are so good that they eliminate the need to have any kind of social interaction in the game.

The quests are all good – and all paint-by-number. The difficulty goes up, and the number of phases goes up, and the challenge is there, but there’s never anything that’s a departure from the old standards. There are no dungeons worth talking about, and lairs are one-off encounters packed into a world that’s far to small to accommodate that kind of content. There are no Easter Eggs in Warhammer – if it was worth putting in, it became a feature, and everyone knew enough about it from top to bottom on day one to strip it of any mystery or suspense.

Lots of people are playing Warhammer. And they are having fun. But I don’t have a sense that any player feels any love for the game, or the world. I’m not talking about the players who have left, like me – I’m talking about the players who stay. There were passionate players – before the game launched. Four years in, there are still millions of World of Warcraft players who are passionate about the game, who love it despite all of its many flaws and want it to succeed and improve. Such players are invisible in Warhammer less than two months after it released. New classes and new quests and scenarios, even new zones and the arrival of the missing capital cities… none of that will give this game what it’s missing, only more of what it already has.

Warhammer is a work of splendid engineering. Vanguard, and EverQuest, and Age of Conan, and even WoW, are works of craft. They have soul. It’s the difference between a monolithic, Soviet-era apartment block and the Empire State Building, the difference between an award-winning documentary and The Godfather. The former you will watch once, and be entertained or informed; everything it has is lain on the table. In the latter there are layers and subtleties that make it worth experiencing a dozen or a hundred times over. This is what makes repetitive content worth tolerating.

It’s something that the Warhammer development team, skilled and dedicated as it was, managed to miss. Vanguard’s development, catastrophically flawed as only a true debacle can be, got this one thing right, and because of that Vanguard survived the worst launch in the history of MMOs, and is still around – even thriving in a comfortable niche sort of way.