Hello there, do I know you?

Perfect timing from Blizzard… Just when I feared I would have nothing to write about on the 4th day of NaBloPoMo, they sent me an email reminder that the offer of 7 free days of playtime in World of Warcraft is about to expire. I activated my account this morning, patched it and then went to work.

I think it’s great that they give you free days every year or so. It actually did make me return to WoW before. I even bought an expansion just for that. However, usually after the first month or so, I realize: You either pay or you’re out. And that’s when I usually leave again. I still like the game, but it doesn’t offer me anything that other games can’t give me either. Or, at least, they offer me a similar experience without forcing me to pay. I’m not a “freeloader”, in case you’re worried about that. I do give companies some of my hard-earned money. Especially now that my financial situation allows me to spend money on such luxuries as gaming. I am still very clingy, though, and don’t like to feel forced. It’s all about perception here!

Anyway, this doesn’t change the fact that Blizzard offering me 7 free days here and there has had the intended effect in the past. This time, however, I very much doubt I’ll return. Guild Wars 2 is releasing their new patch today which also comes with a new zone and Rift has just released their expansion which I’m slowly playing through. On top of that, Trove is entering open beta and I’m curious to see how the development of the game is coming along and when they will release the candy barbarian. That’s three fine games right there and not one is asking for any money, just so I can even play it.

WOW_Female human
Left: old. Right: new.

But let’s look at World of Warcraft. I don’t know everything that has changed since I’ve last left the game, but upon loading the game, I got quite a shock. I had seen the redesigns of the character models and always thought: That looks nice! But when I saw my own characters, my heart sank a bit. It’s not that they look completely different, but in a lot of cases, something in their expression changed. While I chose this one human face because it has a mixture of naiveté and curiosity, it now just looks… weird. Yes, weird could be it. Maybe a bit skeptical even. Look at the picture and you will probably see what I mean. My dwarf had this pretty shiny orange hair. I loved her friendly expression. The new face frankly just takes away any personality my dwarf has ever had.

Thankfully, I quickly found out that you can re-enable the old character models. For a moment, I thought everything was gone. All those memories… yes, I know I’m not even playing the game anymore, so that doesn’t matter, right? But in a way, it did. Friendships formed in that game and for several years, it just accompanied me through my life. I know a lot has changed since then (both in my life and in the game), but my characters have always still been there whenever I returned.

I am curious what else I will discover in the next… 6 days. But for now, this blog post has actually been cut short as ArenaNet announced that they’ll be giving us the patch soon. This also saves you a lengthy rant today, I think. ;)

Educate the gaming masses!

For a few years, I had been a forum moderator for a forum with a few hundred members (at peak times… not online at the same time, though!). We had members from all over the world, aged 13 to 50-something. We allowed all sorts of discussions to happen on the forum. We did have heated debates about politics and religion (fascinating to watch at times with people being so different like us and at a post 9-11 time). Being a moderator taught me a lot and hearing from others now, years after the forum had its prime time, how they saw me back then taught me even more. Some of the younger members were intimidated by me because I was always so reasonable and level-headed. But what I took away from this experience – and the point of this whole rant – is that explaining and communicating is quite often the best way to handle a problem.

There were rules on the forum. When somebody broke a rule, I sent them a private message informing them about the fact. I always pointed them to the rules and added an explanation why we have this rule. Did I have to? Nope. I could’ve just told them off. But I wanted them to understand why we did something in a certain way. “No, you cannot write in 1337” often led to people feeling provoked to do exactly that and go against what I had said. When I added the explanation that we have people from all over the world whose native tongue isn’t English and that writing like this makes reading and understanding what they want to tell us difficult or even impossible for some usually led them to understand and respect the rule. Later on, I even saw some of the “early troublemakers” turn towards new members and explain to them the rules and why we have them. Always brought a little tear to my eye seeing how they had ‘grown up’ to be responsible community members and how my behaviour (and that of the other moderators) could influence others and, consequently, our whole community.

Now, on to something less happy. I guess lots of us have been there when ArenaNet announced the Collector’s Edition and their game’s prices. We’ve seen it a lot of times before: The dollar sign just gets exchanged with the Euro sign et voilà, the European price. The Collector’s Edition costs $150 and €150. The latter translates to $200. ArenaNet isn’t the first nor the only company to do the pricing this way and as always, there was an outcry. The only reason I’ve ever seen mentioned when companies explained their pricing was “it’s European taxes. They’re higher!” – but how much higher do the taxes have to be for such a difference? We only have 19% VAT so that never made any sense to me.

And then I saw a link to a post on Steam by Double Fine Productions. After having read the posting, it became much clearer. I never knew that in the US you don’t have to pay VAT for online purchases. Nobody ever explained that to me. It still doesn’t explain the whole difference but it gets a lot closer, at least! And it did calm me down and stop me from sulking so much. ;) – By the way, in case anybody is wondering: Yes, I want the Collector’s Edition. But that’s not difficult to decide because I’ll get it as a present. ;)

Back to the topic of educating the masses… Another rather good example is Star Trek Online. Ever since they went free to play, their server (you only have one big server and aren’t divided like you are in games like World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic etc.) has had problems and kept crashing every few days. Naturally, players don’t like this behaviour. So they explained what the issue is. Now I don’t understand too much about all this stuff. But I get the part with “trying to find where the bug is” and adding code to get logs (had to do that with my thesis where I had a web-based training and when the students watched an animation, I was supposed to get time stamps on when they do what – pause, play etc. – and that had worked during all tests I’d done but when it went live, it sometimes didn’t work. Turned out that simply uploading the whole course fixed the issue. We still don’t know what it was but at least, it was fixed! ^^). I wasn’t among those flaming or even ranting when STO’s server crashed again. But I, too, was wondering why it took them so long to “upgrade the server” or do whatever necessary, so it could handle the load.

Oh, and because this just came in and fits rather well: ArenaNet released another blog entry on a rather controversial topic – Mike O’Brien on Microtransactions in Guild Wars 2. So far, they have positively surprised me with the way they have communicated about their design decisions and I hope we will always get such in-depth postings even after the game’s release. ;) In today’s post, there are explanations in there for why they’ve made the decision to allow the sale of gems which are bought with real money and I can only hope it works. Namely: The goal would be to reduce the incentive for gold farmers. You all do know that gold farmers are the ones responsible for hacking your friends’ accounts and stealing all the items they had? Making them jump through a few hoops before they get their account restored (depending on the game and quality of support)? Blizzard actually wrote a nice article about this issue some time ago: Purchased gold comes at every player’s expense. Sorry for only linking to it indirectly. I can’t find the original website anymore. So Waybackmachine has to do. But I remember telling a friend about this after she had told me that she sees no harm in spending money on gold so she could get things faster in game when she doesn’t have as much time as others to actually play the game because she has to go work in order to earn money. I told her about hackers and that this is where the gold she bought could have come from. She hadn’t known until then!

I know that those games aren’t made for a few hundred people like our community was. It is much more difficult and time-consuming. You can’t send every forum poster a private message with details and explanations about what they did wrong and why it’s wrong. Also, our forum wasn’t there to earn money for its owner. Those gaming companies, however, need to earn money in order to afford their staff, offices, etc. ;) And with that probably come lawyers, marketing, PR who all want to have a say in what the company can or can’t talk about in detail or even mention to its customers. Although I really wish they could be a bit more open especially when it comes to decisions that cause outrages (like the US-EU pricing usually does). Educate us, please! Explain to us why you’re doing things the way you do them. It might not stop all people from hating, flaming, trolling. But it might make a few understand.

SWTOR release on the horizon & my thoughts about it.

E3 is over and some new videos, cinematics and information about Star Wars: The Old Republic and its content were released. While I absolutely understand the hype when I watch those very detailed cinematics and enjoy every glimpse of story they do contain, I am also a little worried about the low amount of information about gameplay content, mechanics and how all the new information is published.

So I tried to rationalize a bit why and by which aspects I feel so torn between anticipation and disappointment. Here are some of them:

Damn yeah, it’s Star Wars! I am totally sucked into that universe the moment I hear any part of the many well known themes or sound effects and who could resist the urge to explore all the landscapes we know from the films and games and taking our role in their “history”.

The cinematics created by “Blur” do their part very well, but that’s no wonder. If you’ve been playing computer games for quite a while you surely know one or more trailers they did. Just take a look at their listed work. In a more negative way, some of the titles made me realize that a brilliant trailer and a beloved IP (intellectual property) does not automatically result in an awesome and successful game or hint in any way at the overall quality or content.

Speaking of the brilliant IP, “Star Wars: The Old Republic” is not the first Star Wars MMORPG.
While the prosperous days of “Star Wars Galaxies” are a long time ago and there are, not only for me, reasons to compare the two, BioWare already stated in more than one interview that their game should be considered fundamentally different. I’m not sure if that makes it better for me.
I liked Star Wars Galaxies for its wide terrain, plastered with player houses and -cities and a very complex, deep and time-consuming crafting and player economy, but there was maybe a lack of guided story and predefined endgame the time I played it, which was pre-NGE.

SWG comes from and maybe marks the end of the era of sandbox-MMOs. Compared to that BioWare’s new attempt seems to fit perfectly to the less free and deep but extremely entertainment oriented and easily accessible family of themepark-MMOs.

Considering the amount of different MMORPGs and the variation in their mechanics I was a little surprised that in the last year their announcements were mainly centred around features I love to see in offline RPGs, like an immense amount of decision-making while developing your character, the extensive storyline or the full voice-over. Now my question is whether that is enough to keep player numbers high and if that is the content MMO-players are seeking nowadays, especially considering the possible pricing like the other MMOs in EA’s portfolio, e.g. “Ultima Online”, “Dark Age of Camelot” and “Warhammer Online”. Each of them not blessed with a large community anymore but still with a monthly fee of around 15$/13€.

Sure, the game will contain more content than the story part but most of the mechanics I have read/heard about I have already seen in some kind of variation in other MMOs. Thus, I do not find variety or improvement when it comes to the every day content aside from the hopefully brilliant RPG-part.

In the case of space combat it is in my opinion a lot worse. I feel taken back to ’93 when “Star Wars: Rebel Assault” when railway space-combat felt innovative and entertaining.

Until now there is no definite release date but according to an interview with Frank Gibeau (President of EA Games) the game will definitely release this year! Well, in the same interview he said that the game has 6 classes. I hope Bioware is aware of both. That may be not that dramatic but when you take a look at his profile at EA’s homepage he states that he is playing the game. O.o ;)

More seriously though, I do hope that does not show how EA as the publisher defines the time frame for the game’s developers and puts them under pressure to release the game even if it may not be complete, polished and balanced. Releasing a game unfinished or cut (imho in the case of EA & Mythic: again!) may reduce the development costs and make you a quick buck but may turn an MMMO into a one day fly at the market despite its potential. Are MMOs not naturally aiming for continuous income, but what if EA or investors could use their margin for this fiscal year?

Another reason to push this game into the market this year could be that the later it gets, the more they would have to place it against Guild Wars 2 and TERA. But I have to say, if I lean back and take a more distant look at the kind of MMO they will be, I do not see one of them as BioWare’s main competitor. Sure, both belong to the MMO-genre but in my opinion TERA will be a niche game in the “western market” due to its Asian style, different controls and overdone sexiness. It probably attracts a different kind of player than SWTOR and should have less impact on sold boxes and monthly income. Guild Wars 2 may attract the same players but as a buy-to-play. If the release dates differ more than a month, many will take a look at both games like I have said in another blog entry or may leave Guild Wars again even if only temporarily to test SWTOR, because you can return spontaneously whenever and for how long you want without the monthly fee. Also Massively has some interesting thoughts about the competition between the these two.

The main competitor I see is Blizzard. But no, not with a meagre patch for WoW with some raid content, instances, a new area or more dailies to keep the playerbase busy.
The largest threat I see rising is Diablo 3. At the first thought that may sound surprising because it’s not sorted into the branch of MMOs but it has many parallels. It’s a time consuming game in which you can easily spend every minute of your free time in for a few months. It has (like Guild Wars 2) only an entry fee.

But as my strongest arguments: it is from Blizzard, it is highly anticipated, and I see many indicators that Activision/Blizzard and EA/BioWare are very concerned about how polished their games are and when they could release the games. So welcome to the release date poker.

If I take a look into my crystal ball and do a bit of rough guesswork I see Diablo 3 being placed against SWTOR would be in so much ways beneficial for Blizzard and could massively hurt EA and the succeeding development of SWTOR. Imagining that about 5% of WoW’s subscribers are bored with the game and craving for a new refreshing time sink or the holy grail in another game like many times before, we would be talking about 250.000 subscribers in the Western market. Not counting in the Eastern market here because the payment models are usually different there.

For Blizzard that may not be that dramatic. The number of subscribers usually fluctuates between patches, but for a new game on the market that is a great deal and could be a solid part of the playerbase. At least, this would be a fine number of sold boxes to please the publisher and investors.

With those 250.000 players, especially in the long run, I see a bigger value than just their bought boxes and paid subs. If a new game does not only want to peak high at release but also wants to maintain a larger amount of players, they have to build and establish a stable and growing community. So it would be beneficial to get as many players as possible which are connected with each other. That’s the point where Blizzard could intervene. They will be losing players but it would be wise to lure them to Diablo 3 to keep them in their Battle.Net.

Blizzard has already stated years ago that the day will come that WoW’s playerbase finally peaks and then starts declining due to players moving on to other games. In the same statement they also mentioned that they hope that this other game will be one of their own ones. So why not do it this time? Yes, we do not know how finished the games really are at the moment and if it is possible for Blizzard to already announce Diablo 3 as finished and that it can be shipped within weeks but if it is, I see no reason why they should not wait until EA makes their move.

Compared to EA, Blizzard has the financial background that they can easily delay the game for months, even the development teams would not have to sit there eating up money. They could polish, balance and optimise the game even more or already start to work on an add-on.

Not an easy environment to release a new MMO in, I admit. One of the biggest selling points I see is the IP and that BioWare may attract a lot of fans because they are trusted for their good RPGs. Also, it’s Star Wars and a science fiction-setting. There is not such a huge number of AAA-MMOs as in the fantasy section. I may guess heavily here and there is absolutely no proof except for my experiences and my personal preferences when I say that I think that the game will have about 1,2 – 1,8 million sold boxes in the first months (which would be more than Warhammer Online, Rift or Aion achieved). Heavily depending on who they are up against, of course.

But after that, I see the game drop to 600.000 – 900.000 after about 6 months like most of the games in the past years did when the MMO-tourists leave, the game turns out to be not like anticipated, friends don’t join in or in the worst case the storyline and RPG-Part is done multiple times and the rest lacks that entertaining quality.

Finally, I have to admit that at the moment I don’t see myself buying this game on the first day, even if I do love Star Wars but I wish to be proven totally wrong and that the game is in fact brilliant because I like BioWare for what they did before they were bought by EA and merged with Mythic. I want to see diversity, creativity and a tough competition between several high quality games on the market.

May the force be with you, BioWare!

Edit: Another article about Star Wars: The Old Republic from Massively.