Tag Archives: business

Not-So-Disposable

A comment on Massively caught my attention this morning:

“It is truly amazing to me how the gamers have changed over the years. Now all they do is complain. This is whats wrong with the MMO industry, They have spoon fed most of ya to the point where nothing they do now will impress. too many spoiled gamers!
Give the game a chance, 99% of ya have not even played the game yet. So we all know what assumptions do. Just sayin.”

~Haukeye

It’s not a particularly new comment – people have been stating this for years. And while I do agree with the comment, it’s tempered by the reality of obligations and priorities that I think many of us face in the Real World. Also, I think the assessment of “spoiled gamers”, while probably true in many cases, is also too simplistic.

It’s all well and good to say, “Give ’em a chance!”. Especially because Masthead is an independent studio trying to put out a game that actually takes some chances in it’s design. I want to give them a chance; I would love nothing more than to reward that type of risk-taking. But the comment above is the statement of, I presume, a young gamer; at the least, someone with few real obligations and plenty of disposable income.

For many of us, this kind of attitude just isn’t realistic (especially in this economic climate). Money is tight, and free time is even more precious. After all of my real obligations  have been fulfilled (bills, food, diapers, kids, etc.) the money I have to feed this hobby is pretty limited. I’m lucky in that I don’t have to make any “hard” decisions, but I’m probably in the minority in this regard these days. (Not that “food or games” is a hard decision). Take a look at sales figures for the gaming industry over the last year or so and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Sure, some games are setting all-time sales records. Even MMOs. But overall the industry is suffering just like the rest of the world.

So, yes, Haukeye, I would love to just give Masthead a chance and drop 50 bucks on a game that hasn’t proven itself, or even really sold me on its ability to execute. I’d love to be able to take them on their word that the features they describe are actually in the game, work as they should, and are fun. But I don’t have that luxury; I have to carefully pick and choose where I place my dollars and where I spend my time. And free time is really the catch here – I’m not going to shell out serious cash for a game I’ll never play. I don’t have the funds to just throw money away.

I’m not a “spoiled gamer”; I’m a middle-class husband and father. If a game company wants my money, they better damn well prove the value in what they’re selling.

So far, Masthead hasn’t done that with Earthrise. So, sadly, I have to play wait-and-see. But I’ll be watching, closely.

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I’m a ‘Lifer’, For Cryin’ Out Loud

This is getting a little old...

A Casual Stroll to Mordor had a great post yesterday with some suggestions on how to improve the LotRO Store, and I agree with pretty much everything. Especially the part about the buttons to the Store appearing everywhere.

But, for me, this is just one part of a problem that is increasingly frustrating – Turbine constantly badgering me with options I have no chance of taking. I’m a Lifetime Subscriber – I’m a VIP for as long as they keep the servers up and running.

You can’t tell me that Turbine doesn’t know exactly who I am every time I log in. They know everything about me as it relates to LotRO, and probably a little more. How hard is it to alter the loading splash screens to display content appropriate to the type of player? I’m a Lifer, which means I’m already a VIP – don’t show me advertisements for VIP status. I own Moria and Mirkwood, which means I already have access to the Runekeeper and Warden – don’t show me advertisements for purchasing access to classes I already “own”. I help design and run systems like this for a living (it’s called Business Intelligence), so I have a fairly good idea of what’s possible; Turbine, if you don’t have people to do this – call me, I’ve been known to freelance.

What’s not going to work in the long term is the constant barrage of reminders, the inundation and utter carpet bombing of every moment we spend in-game with the “upsell” that the Store has become. Nothing breaks immersion, and especially my enjoyment of the game, quite like the all-too-frequent, “<Ding> You’ve earned a nickel! Why don’t you go spend some money in our Store! PLEASE GO TO THE STORE. NOW!” Save all that for the Free Players.

The Store is not The Game, no matter how much upper management would like it to be. (Wouldn’t they just love it if we threw money into the Store and then simply went away? Alas, that particular scenario is not meant to be.) Our characters are The Game. The world is The Game. The Story is The Game.

Listen, Turbine, we get it. The Store is how you make money. It takes money to run MMOs and the Store is your income. But no matter how hard you try to sell us on the Store, LotRO will not reach the same level of success that DDO accomplished with it’s move to free-to-play. What’s happening, at least for me, is that every time I have the Store shoved in my face, the wedge driving me away from LotRO gets a little bigger.

It’s exhausting.

Trust me, I want to give you my money, as I’m sure many of us do. I love LotRO. And in many ways, you’ve earned it; if Isengard is half as good as I hope it will be, I will buy more points to afford it instead of saving up my monthly stipend. For me, it’s another expansion, and I’m accustomed to paying for expansions. But if I have to wade through reminders and billboards for the Store every time I log in, guess what? I’m going to stop logging in; that’s a real loss for both of us.

More Drama: Why Are We Like This?

Not so much a post about MMOs today, as much as about the gaming industry in general…

I’m talking about this:

“Bungie are a very unusual company. They’re probably the last remaining high quality independent developer.”

Bobby Kotick, CEO, Activision Blizzard

And of course, an inevitable response:

“You were quoted saying that Bungie is the last remaining high quality independent developer. As a former executive vice president of Bungie, I need to tell you: If this is true, you’re screwed.”

Peter Tamte, President, Atomic Games

Tamte proceeds to challenge Activision on its vision and ability to innovate, and issues a (ridiculous) challenge. Now, we the gaming public get only pieces of both sides, most likely taken out of context. Kotick may be well-known for making vastly unpopular, broad generalizations and for putting investors and profit before customers and fun (shocker!), but what would prompt anyone to make a statement like this? Being at the top of the heap doesn’t mean you get to piss on everyone “below” you.

And, honestly, why would Tamte even bother to respond? Paying it more attention, and devoting time and energy to a public response just lends validity to that type of behavior. I get the “stand up for the little guy”, and I even agree with Tamte. But the best response is often no response – let it fly by in our consciousness and die a quick death of inattention. Shrug it off; is Kotick’s opinion of your company that critical, or carry so much weight, that you need to do anything other than ignore it?

Why does it always break down to smack-talk? Why is this considered “news” for our industry? (As a somewhat related aside, Manifest Pixel posted a good argument on the validity of the label “Games Journalism” – well worth a read.)

What prompted this post was a response on Kotaku:

“The video game industry is so weird.

It is strange how the constant verbal sparring between companies is publicly disseminated by the game industry, yet it has no effects on the game or the game sales.

[…] It essentially feels like it’s melodrama for the sake of itself. The only value existing in the artificial sense of social interaction with people that are otherwise inaccessible.

I mean we don’t see article’s elsewhere about how much of a jerk the CEO for Hostess is.”

This got me thinking about the video games industry as a whole, and how we seem to be unique in our behavior (both the industry of developers/producers and the fans). You don’t see this kind of behavior in any other form of mass media. Movies, books, television – none of them compare to the drama to which we subject ourselves. Why does the games industry behave in such a juvenile manner? It’s almost as if the stereotypical behavior of their audience has somehow bled into the thinking of these companies; “Our customer are trash-talking teenagers, so we have to be the same way…” I think this is a part of it, but there’s something more to it.

One, I don’t think we (gamers) necessarily see this kind of behavior in other forms of media and art because we’re not plugged into those circles the way we are into gaming culture. If we were heavily involved in movies, we might take notice of this kind of news (if it exists, I have no idea). We have sites entirely devoted to “news” about our hobby, why wouldn’t other hobbies? And because our sites tend to be focused quite narrowly (on average, only covering games) we don’t tend to see any information on other forms of media.

Two (and this one if far more responsible), I think that the games industry is somewhat unique in that it’s relatively young for a form of mass media, and is “growing up” in the age of the Internet. In an age of instant gratification and immediate, ubiquitous access to information, the games industry is saddled with creating products that have budgets similar to movies and television but which require years of development. Combine these factors:

  1. Incredibly complex technology to produce a “leading edge” product, requiring years of work hours to produce, which often leads to:
  2. INSANE budgets that become immense investments requiring mass popularity just to cut a profit
  3. Built by a combination of corporates, artists, and “IT geeks”, often at odds with one another

And you get the melodrama we see on a daily basis coming across gaming Web sites. I’m guessing that a good amount of it is intentional. Maybe not conspiratorial in the sense of developers-playing-the-gamers, but certainly as a means to maintain attention on any given product. How else do you keep your company, and product, in the headlines for months (or years) at a time when your audience has the overall attention span of a toddler?  We may grind our teeth every time Kotick opens his mouth, or facepalm every time David Allen or Derek Smart decide to extend their personal vendettas onto the Internet, but the fact is we pay attention. We criticize, but their antics work after a fashion.

In the end, I agree with Tamte, and I’m not the biggest fan of Activision, or Kotick. If we’re just talking about making good games, they’re mediocre at best; if we’re talking about advancing the art of creating fun games, Activision (not counting Blizzard) isn’t exactly a leader. They are a victim of their own success, and fill a role in the industry that may not be the most exciting or forward-thinking, but is necessary nonetheless. They release solid entries in established franchises. There’s fun there, but ‘change’ for them is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Numbingly slow, but there is change.

But I also see the ability to innovate as a natural part of being in Tamte’s position as “the little guy”; major corporations answer to a host of authorities – from investors to the Board of Directors to the SEC and big sums of money draw huge attention. Yes, companies tend to play it safe when maximum profits are Priority One, and this often becomes (or appears as) laziness. Smaller companies don’t necessarily have these pressures, and can afford to take some risks. As Tamte states, in many ways they need to take these risks. It’s a trade-off.

But does any of the above really require the kind of one-up-manship, character assassination, and verbal sniping that is so rampant in gaming circles? Does maintaining attention on a company truly equate to increased attention for a product, and therefore increased sales? Isn’t it enough to present a product leading up to release, and let the game sink or swim on the merits of its content, instead of on the reputation or notoriety of the company releasing it? One would think so, but if you do you’re not in Marketing.

When I think about the future of the gaming industry, I look at my four-year-old son. For him, computers and the Internet are not things to be learned. They simply are, and he’s never known any different. He learns them the same way he learns to speak – by watching and playing and not being afraid to make mistakes or ask questions. He absorbs those skills in a way that only children can, and now knows more about some things technical than his mother (his old man still has the edge, but for how long?). Because these things are a natural part of his world, he will see things technology can do, and devise things he wants technology to do, that we will never see or imagine. Should he choose to create games, I can only hope that the tools with which he will work will enable his generation to create in such a way that they can put aside the puerile tactics being employed today, and mature the industry.

Hubris

Hey...Trust Me.

“And a man who fancies himself a god feels a very human chill crawl up his spine.”

A lot of people talking (raving) and posting about Blizzard’s announcement that their Real ID feature, which uses a player’s real first and last name, would be used almost everywhere, including the World of Warcraft forums. That sound you heard – that’s the Internet imploding.

There’s mixed reactions around the blogs and new sites, though it’s mostly negative. Many, many real concerns are raised by the players; I will say there is potential good that could come of Blizzard’s decision, but more than anything it shows the unmitigated hubris of whomever is in charge of this decision (I’m not laying this one at the feet of Kotick, but someone made this decision and needs to own up). At the very least, Blizzard is finally showing what an 800-pound beast can do – whatever it feels like doing. I’m honestly torn on how I feel about this, but more on that a bit later.

The real problem, as I see it, is Blizzard is delving into an area way beyond their expertise and going places they really have no business going. They’re trying to build a social network, when they are a game company. I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t try to extend their experience, but Blizzard is way out of their zone, and apparently operating without a paddle, map, or a clue. Bring on the class action.

Perhaps Blizzard needs a sit-down with Facebook to talk about a user’s personal information and some of the privacy issues that can arise. Just saying.

Although this doesn’t really affect me (I haven’t played WoW in years, and never posted to the official forums), I’d have to say I’m mostly with GeeCee on this one – cautiously pessimistic. There is so much potential for abuse, and what they’re doing doesn’t solve any of the many problems currently plaguing the official forums. Quite the opposite, it creates new ones, the least of which is customer dissatisfaction. As if female WoW players didn’t have enough to deal with, now there’s no chance for anonymity.

Such a pretty face...

I am, however, going to play a bit of Devil’s Advocate here, as I have a bit of “insider” perspective. I work with sensitive data all day, and help administer the security protocols that control access to that data. Basically, I know a little about the ins-and-outs of privacy and personal information. I will say this: Those are Blizzard’s systems and they can do as they please. Every one of those who protest Blizzard’s decision agreed to Blizzard’s terms; the official forums and Battle.net are a service provided by Blizzard, for free, and the data contained in those systems belongs TO BLIZZARD. Yes, there are privacy concerns regarding personal information, and yes, Blizzard has responsibilities to their customers – an opt-out process at the very least. But every one of those customers agreed to the EULA, explicitly and implicitly, and I’m sure that somewhere in there is very clear language stating what Blizzard can do with the information customers surrender in order to have access to their free services. When Facebook’s changes blew up in their, well, face (no pun intended), the issue wasn’t so much that Facebook was doing X, Y, or Z with their [Facebook’s] data, it was that they were revealing so much by default, with confusing privacy controls that did not help their user’s determine what was shared and what wasn’t. I don’t think I ever heard anyone argue about what Facebook could do with data that they own (and user’s voluntarily gave up); it’s no different for Blizzard.

Still, I have to wonder – could it be Blizzard’s hubris that kills World of Warcraft?

Rising Tide

Two unrelated posts today that got me thinking about the “hype machine”, and why, for me, it does more harm than good. GeeCee over at MMO Gamer Chick highlighted the recent release of an $80 statue for Star Wars: The Old Republic (yes, you read that correctly – eighty dollars for a resin statue for a game that hasn’t even launched). And Ravious at Kill Ten Rats had a bit to say about “content explosion” vs. “content drip” for engaging existing players or attracting new ones. Basically it comes down to letting content or information trickle out over weeks or even months to keep players coming back, or, especially in the case of an upcoming game, using both an explosion of content to build hype and a constant trickle to keep them interested.

“In a perfect world, I think both a content explosion coupled with a content drip would be the best option.  It seems more and more that the roar from the content explosions collapse all the more quickly as veteran MMO players tear through the intricately designed content like a one-year old’s first birthday cake.”

~Ravious

For an existing game, I agree with Ravious. “Content explosions” are great for upcoming expansions or major patches. They get the existing players and community excited about what’s coming, and give others a reason to check out an MMO that they wouldn’t normally play. Around the time Rise of the Godslayer was released, I seriously considered resubbing to Age of Conan (I chose DDO instead, but it wasn’t an easy choice!). But “content drip” also has its place – mostly to keep the existing players engaged and the community strong. The War in Kryta (as Ravious points out) is a perfect example of this; the epic books in LotRO could also fall into this category, despite the fact that recently that particular trickle has nearly dried up.

But, for me personally, there is a definite downside to the hype machine. Especially in regards to upcoming games such as The Old Republic. There comes a point when there’s too much information being released, and I find myself actively working not to read or learn anything new about a game. If things continue as they have, by the time TOR releases I’m going to have the strong feeling that there’s nothing new to learn; nothing to explore or discover. Sure, there will be areas to see and quests to play through, but all of the flavor and “new-ness” of any particular area will already have come and gone. And there’s no reason to expect that the hype will do anything except increase. The Old Republic is starting to approach that threshold; it’s like those movie previews that show all of the best scenes in a movie – by the time you get around to seeing the actual film, it’s grossly disappointing.

Where’s the fun in that?

I understand the business behind the hype. These products take insane amounts of money to create, and have to break even pretty quickly. Ongoing costs are a hard fact of life. Box sales and player retention are critical factors to success. It’s almost as if modern “themepark” MMOs are the victims of their own nature – they are virtual worlds that can rake in millions of dollars of profit, but they are also expansive, thousand-plus-hours-of-content monstrosities (though one could argue the validity of grind as “content”) that must continually be moving towards more content in order to keep their customers happy and paying. I’ll leave the arguments over “themepark vs. sandbox” for another time; but as the sole providers and gatekeepers of content for their MMOs, themepark developers are creating a lot of work for themselves, just to remain viable.

These games need the hype machine, even if it damages their product in the long run.

Makes a Good Point

“LOTRO has another thing going for it with the switch to free. Right now it’s arguably the second best, or maybe lower, subscription MMO on the market. After this it will be the single best free to play game period. They stand to make an amazing amount of money with this as people come running…”

~ Amuntoth at Manifest Pixel

This may be one of the best arguments for why LotRO going to Free To Play is a good thing. While I’m not interested in being a player of the “best” or “most popular” game (completely subjective terms that never reflect the value of a game), it is nonetheless a great point. LotRO goes from being a great game among AAA subscription games, to arguably being the most polished, most refined, and deepest MMO in the FTP market.

Think about it – LotRO held it’s own in the subscription market, maintaining a respectable number of players. So many people thought it was worth paying for that Turbine could have continued into the foreseeable future. It was a game worth paying for in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of players. Now that it’s Free To Play, not only does it rise to the top of the heap in terms of quality, it’s low barrier to entry means that that many more players will give it a go. And more players means the game continues for that much longer, we get more content, and, eventually, we get to Mordor.

Sure, no barrier to entry means that it’s probable that we’ll be seeing some less than desirable characters. However, more players mean more money for Turbine, which means more money for development. If you don’t pump money into your product, your players will leave, no matter what business model you’re using. The “Freeloaders” – those who play without ever paying – were never going to buy, try, or pay a cent for your product anyway; at most, Turbine loses some money on bandwidth. And I honestly believe two things:

  1. The number of players who will pay something, but didn’t want to shell out for the game and monthly subscription, will outnumber the players who never pay (at least, enough to account for losses due to the Freeloaders). More players = more money, plain and simple.
  2. For LotRO, if you get someone to try it, they will want to buy in. The game is that good.

I’m not really concerned with “letting in the rabble”; personally, the more players the better in my mind. LotRO’s visual style, gameplay, and story have more impact on it’s audience than the business model. And for the obnoxious players who do stick around, there’s always the /ignore list.

Only a Matter of Time

I figured this would happen eventually; Realtime Worlds announced their pricing structure for APB, and it includes usage-based billing. Old-school cell phone plans have come to the MMO sphere!

I can’t say it comes as a surprise, or that it’s even something with which I disagree. As a gamer with two young kids, the number of hours I can spend playing is fairly limited. It would likely take me more than a month to burn through 50 hours of play time. That, and they offer the monthly ‘unlimited’ plan and, whats more, for less than a standard subscription! My guess is that players will be able to move from unlimited to purchased sets of hours fairly seamlessly.

It’s always been a question of mine why more companies don’t do something like this. I figured it was easier from the financial perspective to just do flat rates and average out bandwidth consumption across all players. People like me tend to pay for the power users who absorb a higher-than-average amount of bandwidth. That, and it’s just easier for the player – pay your monthly fee and have at it. Don’t worry about how much time you have left.

So APB sits somewhere between the standard subscription model and Guild Wars. I don’t doubt that this will work for some people – some will pay by the hour, some by the month. New business models always make me happy, particularly when they represent more choice for the consumer. I have to wonder – could this be something like the “alternative financial model” hinted at a few month ago for The Old Republic?