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Posts Tagged ‘f2p’

Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been a month since I deleted Marvel Puzzle Quest from my smartphone.  I played the game for almost six months and had a decent roster of characters built up.  And yet… almost every single change that the developers made during the time I played the game made the game less appealing.  I finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to like it any more, and gave up.

The sad part is that the core gameplay is actually really solid.  The puzzle combat isn’t finely balanced, but I’m fine with that, as I don’t mind a bit of imbalance.  It is well crafted and adds some nice twists to the Puzzle Quest formula.  If the game can be taken purely on its combat, it’s a fine addition to the pedigree.

And yet, the progression scheme and monetization scheme (intricately tied together, but even without monetization, the progression would be awful) just kill the game in the long run.  Of course, that’s “kill the game for me”, since it’s apparently still live and gathering clients, but I would really love to see some numbers on what sort of churn they are seeing.  It is very much a “winners win more” game, with elements that skirt the dreaded “pay to win” area.  Some of the judgment on the latter depends on how you define the phrase, but for me, it’s clearly designed to give an edge to those who spend inordinate amounts of money on the game, in no small part because of how glacial the progression system is, and that you can pay to speed it up.

This is not anything new in the F2P arena, to be sure, and it’s less grievous than being able to flat out buy victories, but it does undermine what could be very satisfying PvP combat puzzling.

In the end, though, it wasn’t any single huge change that made me uninstall the game.  It was a death by degree.  The poor progression scheme.  Nothing worth spending money on (which saved me money, but it was still what I thought of as poor design).  New characters introduced fairly regularly… but predominantly at the rare tier, so recruiting them was a crapshoot with their slot machine sort of character acquisition.  (Almost everything in the game is tied to a random chance of acquisition or absurdly overpriced… sometimes both.)  The change in healing so that it was limited to the combat of the moment.  Damage persists after a fight, limiting the ability to play multiple rounds in succession unless you heal in the fight or pay for refills between fights.  You get a few free refills, but they don’t last long if you’re in a heated race to top the competition boards to get some character you’d like.  You can buy refills or wait for them to recharge, 1 every 35 minutes, and you can hold 5 at a time.  (With 3 characters in combat, that’s not a lot of healing to go around.)  Competition is mostly PvP of a sort (never against other players; the AI just takes their team and runs it), which isn’t terrible, but PvP really needs to be balanced to be fun, and when character levels can be as disparate as they are in the game, it gets old when you play a few successful rounds and then get matched with an overpowered team you have no chance of beating.  Normalized PvP (like Guild Wars) where skill and team composition rule would go a long way to making the game better… but that sort of level playing field is harder to monetize.

Playing the moment to moment combat was still good fun.  It’s just… everything else isn’t, and the combat alone isn’t enough to save the game.

On the other hand, there’s Slingshot Braves.  It’s sort of a weird mix of PS1-era graphics (so it still looks good; I’m playing on a phone for crying out loud), Squids and Angry Birds, with a gear upgrade system that feels a bit like Puzzle & Dragons (consume hundreds of little pieces of loot to level up your gear) and a newly introduced gem/slot system that is a bit like socketed gear in a Blizzard game, but you can also level up the gems by combining several of a kind, and you can move some gems around, so it has a slight FFVII flavor.  It’s simple, but the five weapons are fairly elegantly designed, each with its own niche.  Leveling gear is slow, and the only way to make your team stronger, but it feels just fast enough to be acceptable.  Marvel Puzzle Quest’s character leveling is very, very slow by comparison.

Acquiring gear is only done via very rare loot drops or by the “Gacha” system.  It’s effectively a gear slot machine.  This is a bit annoying, but the game provides you with enough “gems” (the currency you can buy directly or earn via play or the occasional promotion) to get the occasional new bit of gear in that system.  Gear is in four tiers (C, B, A, and S, increasing in value), and you’re guaranteed at least a B level bit of gear in the Gacha.  It’s a bit annoying in that the best gear seems to be in the Gacha gamble, but at the same time, you can level up your gear and evolve it to a higher tier with enough little loot drops, so you can grind into some good gear eventually.  It’s slow, and annoying to get great new gear that you then have to level up, but that’s the quirk that comes with leveling gear in general.  It’s still much faster than MPQ’s system, and less frustrating.

I’m not sure there’s much that offers good value for real money here, either, but at least progress in the game isn’t as tedious as is is in MPQ.  You can buy gems, which allow character renaming, larger loot libraries, Gacha “pulls” and stamina refills (each mission you play consumes stamina, which recharges slowly; a standard F2P throttle).  Still, it’s not necessary, and most importantly, buying gems doesn’t have a huge effect on your success or pace of progress.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the only multiplayer system is a cooperative one, so it’s OK if someone else is stronger than you.  You both win faster that way.  There is some light competition among scoring leaderboards on some events, but the majority of the time any reason you have to care about the gear other players have is in how much it helps you, not how hard it is to beat.  That’s a huge underlying shift in assumptions and goals, and it makes a world of difference.

…and is it telling that the progression scheme is the first thing I write about?  That’s really where these games live or die, since that’s where they monetize, usually.  It’s also where things get annoying, and where MPQ got worse as time went on, SB just keeps getting better.  Loot drops have been made more frequent, promotions give people more goods to work with, the gear Gacha was split into a weapon Gacha and an Armor Gacha (anything that increases player control over the slot machine is a Good Thing for players), and the new socketing system makes gear more flexible.

But how does it play, moment to moment?  Largely like Squids, where you fire your character in a direction and watch it bounce around the arena, beating on foes or careening off of your ally unit or the walls.  Maybe it’s just the billiards fan in me, but I love that a good eye for angles and thinking ahead pays off in the game.  It’s a simpler game than MPQ, but it still seems to reward player skill, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most in games.

So, while Marvel Puzzle Quest’s fortunes in my library sank, Slingshot Braves has risen to be the game I most prefer to play at the moment on my phone.  Tiny Dice Dungeons is another great contender, but it hasn’t seen as many “live” changes.

I find it striking that MPQ made most of its changes to try to squeeze out more monetization, and it’s obvious.  SB wants more money too, certainly, but their changes have almost uniformly felt like they were improving the progression scheme, and occasionally the combat engine.  My visceral response to the two development teams couldn’t be more opposed.  The more I see each in action, the more I like SB, and the less I like MPQ.

In a world where games can mutate and adjust over time, I think it’s critical that the changes feel like they are making the game better, and that’s really the difference between these two when it comes to whether or not I play them and recommend them.

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Last time I noted some of the great bits and a few of the bad bits of this fancy new Marvel Puzzle Quest.

It turns out that the game is still more or less in beta, and the developers are still monkeying around with the character balance, progression system and monetization.

And it turns out that most of those changes are making the game slower, harder and more expensive.

I’d still buy a single player offline version of the game, and I still recommend at least taking the game for a spin, but I cannot recommend spending money on it.  I had hoped that the continuing development would mean that the problems I highlighted last time would be alleviated.  It turns out that such a hope was, at least so far, merely a dream.  Almost every change I see on the developer forums over thisaway winds up being what I’d call Bad Design, sometimes even Twinkie Denial choices.

I actually don’t mind slower, more tactical battles on the whole, but PvP and PvE scoring races mean slower battles tilt the scales ever so slightly more in the favor of established players or those who spend more money.  With the overall “rich get richer” system in place, it’s really not a game to play if you want to make steady progress.  It’s a game to play because the core puzzle combat design is really good, and the progress side is something you can ignore.

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I loved Puzzle Quest.  I loved the sequel, PQ: Galactrix.  I really like Bret Airborne, though I found that I was a bit frustrated by the campaign’s limited “lives” (though the core of the game is really great).

So, when I caught wind of a new Puzzle Quest, I had to investigate.

Specifically, it’s Marvel Puzzle Quest.  It’s on Steam, but I’ve been playing on my phone thanks to Google Play.

It’s… different.  Some really good parts, some… less so.  At its heart, though, it’s still Puzzle Quest, and I do recommend it.  (For an entertaining video review, check out TotalBiscuit’s one over thisaway.)

Pros

It’s match three combat, with bonus abilities powered by matches.  That’s the heart of PQ, and it’s strong here.  There’s a twist or two, though:

It’s three-on-three combat, with each team fielding three units.  This is a nice expansion of the mechanics, as you can shuffle around your team by making matches strategically, allowing you to have a “tank” that keeps itself healthy and “DPS” units that hang back and use damaging abilities.  There are even healer units.  Yeah, it’s a weak trinity design in some ways, which can often be kind of trite, but it’s a nice expansion of the PQ systems.  Building around the trinity isn’t necessary, either, but it’s there if you want to use it.  Smart planning of overlapping abilities and specialties can make for a strong team, and figuring that out and then executing smart play is the heart of the game, I think.  That said, if your team isn’t all about at the same level, your weakest character may never actually step to the front of the team to take the hits.  That might be a good thing if that’s your damage dealer, but this isn’t always ideal.

It’s fast.  Faster than PQ has been before now, at least.  That may not be good for everyone, but I like it.  Every single match you make does damage.  There are no “skull” tiles that are alone in their ability to damage.  Every move you make helps you somehow, and that’s a Good Thing.  Certainly, making matches in colors you can use for abilities or that your characters do more damage with (usually the same thing, though not always) is usually the right decision, but even if you’re forced to make a subpar match for defense or to set up a combo, it will still help out a little.

It’s fairly pretty.  Yes, it’s a match-3 game, so it doesn’t need a lot to look good, compared to a Gears of War or Kingdom Hearts, but it has clean, readable UI and an overall good design.  Character portraits and action shots are static images that get a little Flash magic applied to them, and it works pretty well.  There’s a bit too much rim lighting for my taste, but that’s a rant for another day.  Overall, it’s a nicely presented product.

It’s Marvel.  I like some of the Marvel characters, so their IP is a nice touch for me.  The characters have abilities that fit their theme as well, like Captain America’s tactical shield strikes that “boomerang” back to give you more power for a repeat strike, or Thor’s pure, unadulterated beatdown, with all three of his special abilities doing direct damage.  The flavor of the characters and mechanics going together is a nice touch, and in its way, more interesting than the generic fantasy abilities of the original PQ.  Yes, you had four classes in that game, but their unique abilities were often superseded by found abilities. That’s one of the strengths of that game, to be honest, but in this PQ, being limited to the three prebaked abilities (albeit of different power levels depending on your cover build) per character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows for more experiments to see which characters synergize best for your playstyle.  It’s not too far removed from the original game in that you’re effectively fielding a team with a handful of abilities, where in the older game, you’d have a single character with a handful of abilities.  Making smart choices of what to bring to the fight when you’re limited is a big part of the strategy of the game.  Limitations aren’t always a Bad Thing.  And yet…

Cons

The progression is… dumb.  (TotalBiscuit’s video covers it well, but I’ll also expand here.)  The experience system in previous PQ games was great, as you could build your character or skills just by playing (experience gems were part of the combat board).  This cover-and-ISO system is far too random and finding rarer covers (presently there are four levels of rarity) makes the rarer characters far less useful than common characters.  You’ll have a very difficult time acquiring all the characters and once you do, it’s going to be very hard to make them all competitive.  It may be exciting to get an Invisible Woman cover, as I did rather unexpectedly, but when she’s limited to level 30 until you get more covers, and your Uncommon team is nearly maxxed out at lv. 85, she’s a bit underwhelming for a character that should be special, because she’s rare.  (It’s a bit like Magic: The Gathering in that regard, if all the rares were big, splashy, overcosted creatures, except there’s no secondary market to take the edge off the sting, and the present Legendary characters all have big power costs, meaning quick Uncommon or Rare characters would make short work of them anyway while the Legendaries scrape together enough energy to use their abilities.)

Characters with two skill colors can max out their abilities.  Characters with three skill colors can only power up 13 out of a total 15 slots (five levels of each power).  I get that game devs think that “decisions should matter”, but this is inconsistent.  There is also no way to respec your character if you build it in a way that you don’t like.  If you don’t like your choices of those 13 (and there’s no way to look more than one power level ahead, so you must go to a wiki to properly plan ahead, a twinkie denial condition in my book), you have to just build the character all over again, with new covers and more ISO-8.  (Apparently, the devs are looking into a respec system, but this is the sort of thing that should have been designed better far earlier than now.)

ISO-8 is how you actually level up your characters.  The covers level up the powers and raise the character’s maximum level, and ISO-8 expenditure is how you actually have the character grow in their basic attack power and health.  ISO-8 is earned fairly easily from fights, events or redoing fights… but it seems to come at a slower pace than experience in older PQ games, and trying to grind out ISO-8 by replaying old missions is a VERY slow process.

Common, Uncommon, Rare and Legendary characters have disparate power levels… too disparate.  Beside the trouble of finding enough covers to fully realize the rarer characters, if you do happen to get one of each tier to their maximum level, you’re probably looking at a level 40 character, a level 85 character, a level 141 character and a level 230 character.  This difference in power is absurd.  I’d have made them all have the same power caps and let special ability and playstyle synergy keep things interesting.  As it is, if I were to have the two existing Legendary characters maxxed out and a Rare character at level max, there’s almost no way that any different team would be competitive against me.  The Rare character’s lower power would be so small a part of my team’s overall power that it almost doesn’t matter who is in that slot, aside from absurdly strong abilities that might be on offer, and a team of Rare characters would have a tough time beating the Legendaries, even with their slower powers, just because of the massive power difference in basic match attack power and health pools.

PvP is weird.  It’s not actually against other players, it’s against their team, but the AI is driving.  Since the AI is a little flaky (it plays too offensively, with too little defense or disruption, and doesn’t seem to see cascade opportunities or right angle “five” matches), it’s a less than satisfying proposition if you really want to test your skills.  The matchmaking system is rather annoying as well.  And the “progression” rewards for winning matches, well… they are more of a tease than anything to really aim for.  You’ll almost never get more than a few tiers in, just because of how the scoring system keeps pulling you back down when your AI-controlled team loses.

Health packs are… not cool.  Damage your characters take is persistent between matches, and while your characters do heal naturally over time, it’s very sloooooow.  Health packs are consumables that restore a character to full health, but they are throttled over time as well.  I’m not sure if there’s a limit to how many you can carry (I think the limit is ten, but I haven’t verified that), and they regenerate over time as well, but they are slow to regenerate (35 minutes or so each), and if you spend all of yours, the natural regeneration only regrows so many.  You’ll usually only have the five that the automatic regeneration gets you (you can pick up extras as rewards).  It seems designed for mobile gaming, with long breaks between play sessions, but it’s a troublesome throttle.  It’s a monetization vector, but it’s one of the more annoying ones.

Finding covers is a gamble.  You win or buy “recruitment tokens” that are an awful lot like coins.  You then put those in a sort of slot machine and hope you get something useful out of it.  You’ll get a cover each time, but most of the time it will be something that you don’t want, and have to sell for a pittance in ISO-8.  This is better than a box full of useless Magic: The Gathering commons, but only barely.  (Check out these two videos for more fun in this vein.)  I’m decidedly not a fan of this sort of thing in general (though I love MTG drafting), and it only exacerbates the problems with the cover progression system.  There is no cover trading, no way to trade a red Wolverine cover for a yellow one, so you wind up with a lot of useless junk.

Oddments

It’s Free to Play.  This kind of annoys me, actually, since I think it’s tied to the cover system.  I don’t begrudge them the Hero Point system, at least not the way I’ve used it.  I just use the Hero Points to expand my roster, allowing for me to collect more characters.  It’s like buying character slots in a F2P MMO, and I’m OK with that.  The other uses of Hero Points, though, from shields to protect PvP score to buying recruit tokens… those are closer to “pay to win” and “lockbox” purchases that I’m not fond of.  And yet… it’s free.  You can download it and just start playing.  You can do a lot without spending money, and that’s pretty cool.

Still, I really wish I could just get the game via a single purchase and play it single player.  I suspect this would allow for the hero levels and rarities to be normalized, quicker and more even progression (single player games don’t have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses), and ultimately, more exploration of character synergies.

…in sum, I do have a lot of little complaints with the game, but they are almost entirely on the progression side.  The core gameplay is really good, and I wish that the progression side would facilitate that better.  I’d have done that with a very flat level curve (no inherent advantage given to rarer characters) and drop the cover system, but you can’t win them all, I suppose.  It’s definitely possible to just play and have fun with whatever team you can scrape together, you just won’t have a great deal of success in PvP or PvE races without some luck in the progression scheme getting covers you want, and enough ISO-8 to make your team stronger.

I’ve been lucky to get a max level Thor and Captain America, as well as a midlevel Hulk, Hawkeye and Wolverine, and they have carried me to a fair bit of success.  I placed in the top ten (out of 1000+ players) of the most recent week-long PvE competition, scoring in the top 50 in half the two-day overlapping mini phases, in the top 10 in most of the others, and top 2 in one of them.  I didn’t get the top spot, but I wasn’t far behind.  It took a fair bit of time overall, but it was fun to play, so it worked out.  The way that the scoring opportunities “regenerate” during events means playing every 8 hours or so… but it doesn’t take a lot of time in each play session to scrape out a handful of high-scoring matches and stay ahead of the curve.

I’ve been able to have a fair bit of success in the game without spending anything other than time.  I count that as a successful game… though I’d still really like to get a single player single purchase version with some of the more annoying F2P barnacles scraped off.

…and yes, I think F2P can be done well.  I’m just not all that happy with this implementation.  You really can do a lot without spending money in the game, but I find myself stubbornly refusing to spend money, wishing rather for the ability to spend on the game the way I’d prefer to.

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A couple of thoughts on subs and F2P business and MMOs, today guest starring Tobold, Spinks and Raph Koster.

Tobold’s I Would be Happier with Free2Play

Spinks’ WoW Thought for the Day

Raph Koster’s F2P vs. Subs

I’ve long been a proponent of making WoW F2P and even offline or in W/JRPG format simply because subscriptions never offer me enough value for me to bother with them.

…and yet, I have a 60-day time card that I’ve had for almost a year and a half and a handful of 30-day time codes from the WoW VISA card I use for big purchases and emergencies.  I have the time codes (and one unscratched card), ready to use, already paid for, but the flubbernuggin’ time-limited monetization scheme still doesn’t feel like good value to me.  I don’t want to use those codes since I have too much going on to devote sufficient time to playing to get good value out of them.  Similarly, I have a Steam code for 30 days each of FFXI and RIFT, but I haven’t activated either of them.  They are paid for, ready to go, but I hate the idea of locking myself into a monogamous game experience just so I can squeeze the most out of it as I can before the time stops ticking.

I hate gaming on the clock.

…and on the other hand, I’ll happily sink a little time into the newly F2P Star Trek Online every morning sending my Duty Officers off on missions and maybe run a story arc mission in the evening.  The cost of activation is really low, so I go play when I feel like it.  I’m considering spending $15 or so to get a new ship that I would then be able to use whenever I darn well please for as long as the servers are live.  That’s value I’ll pay for.  That’s how I approach Wizard 101, too; I bought Crowns to unlock areas that I’ll get to someday, and in the meantime, I’ll play when I feel like it.  I’ve spent money on Puzzle Pirates for the same reason; I bought a ship that I can sail around and pirate with, but I don’t have to keep paying just to play on the occasions when I make the time for it.  I’d readily pay for a single purchase SWTOR.

Would that translate to WoW?  In my case, absolutely.  I’d log in and do a few quests here and there, and toss them money to unlock a dungeon or the ability to make a Dwarf Druid or make my own guild comprised entirely of my own characters without the need to recruit other players or some sort of service that lets me bypass some of the extremely poorly paced crafting curve.  I’m definitely not averse to giving Blizzard money, I just want to pay for things that offer me good value.  WoW is still a fun game to play, even with all its warts and weirdness.  As it stands, though, I can’t exactly send them a financial message about the parts that I care about, which is one of the weaknesses of the subscription model.

…I can, however, offer to sell my time codes.  Anyone?  Maybe trade for some titles on my Steam Wish List?  Oh, and I still have some coupons and COGS and World of Goo if anyone wants them.  Nobody took me up on the snowflake contest, so I’ll just throw them to the winds.  (Another interesting take on value, perhaps…)

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Ostensibly, the much-ballyhooed “SOPA” means “Stop Online Piracy Act”, but I prefer to think of it as “Sack Our Pathological Administrators”.  Not that such will happen, mind you, but one can dream.

As near as I can tell, SOPA is a thinly veiled statist control grab, all in the name of stopping piracy.  Guess what, guys?  Piracy can’t be stopped.  And no, the varied and vehement denizens of the internet don’t trust you with power.  To echo a famous pithy quip:

“Orwell’s 1984 was a warning, not an instruction manual”

It does strike me as odd, though, these “going dark” protests.  The problem is that the U.S. government weasels want to control the internet, possibly censoring it, and the answer is to… take your ball and go home?  Effectively self-censor?  It seems like a weird message to send, but with big ol’ sites like Google and Wikipedia in on the action, at least it’s calling attention to the stupid potential policy.  (Though curiously making it a little harder to research said policy.  Again… odd.)  I do like XKCD’s take on it, found at this convenient link.  Sam and Fuzzy’s author comments briefly on it as well thisaway.  Shamus of Twenty Sided has a good article up on it, too, and I like the Rampant Coyote’s take.

As for me, well, I’m going to go work on Zomblobs!, which will be released as a Free to Play tabletop tactical wargame.  The ruleset will be free in PDF form, but you can buy nice printouts.  The PDFs will come with units, maps and tokens you can cut out and play with, or you can go buy models from my Shapeways store or maps from The Game Crafter.  Play a fully functional if vaguely unaesthetic version for free with a little elbow grease, or upgrade a bit to a nicer version for a little cash.  Seems simple to me.

It’s evidence of my mindset; create something that’s fun to play and offers great value, create a relationship of trust and goodwill, and hope that some kind souls are willing to chip in a few bucks for the experience.  I won’t be able to make a living off of the scope of what I’ll be offering (though Three Rings does with their games, notably Puzzle Pirates, and they have a similar philosophy), but I’ll still be offering something I consider to be valuable.  Giving, not controlling, sharing, not stealing.  …and perhaps sneakily, monetizing actual, tangible stuff rather than the digital parts of the game.  Sure, my work is copyrighted, but again, pirates can’t be stopped.  I prefer the carrot approach rather than trying to find a bigger stick.

Seems to be a better way for me to conduct my business.  I’m the sole proprietor of this site, Alpha Hex and Zomblobs!, so I’m going to do what I want with them, and that’s try to get as many people playing and having fun with them as I can.  I think I’ve made some fun games, and while I’m no Raph Koster, Klaus Teuber or Wil Wright, I’m just confident enough in these games to want to put my work out there for consumption and feedback.

Rally ho!

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Twenty Thumpin

A little while back, I figured the new sub-level 20 “free” World of Warcraft to be a way to get a taste of the vaunted “endgame” of an MMO, since a level-capped free trial character is effectively progress-locked on the ol’ leveling treadmill.  Their only progress comes from gear hunting, reputation grinds, PvP honor grinding, collecting, achievements and other assorted busywork.  Since then, I’ve been playing intermittently with my new Dwarven Paladin, Thumpin.

Home is where the hearth is

Perhaps ironically, Thumpin’s best weapons have only rarely been maces.  He has gotten the most use out of axes, and indeed, his present weapon of choice is an axe; either the Cold Iron Pick or the Razor’s Edge.  It’s been fun having a Dwarf whose apparent “best in slot” two handed weapon is a mining pick.  It just feels so right.

Fish outta water

At any rate, perhaps half the time I’ve been playing this character has been when he’s at level 20.  I’ve been chasing incremental upgrades to his gear, some from quests, some from world drops, some from dungeons.  It’s been an interesting scavenger hunt, driven by the Wowhead database, inspired by Psynister’s “Trial Account Twinking” commentary.  It’s been interesting… but ultimately kinda, well… dumb.  I could never persist in the real“endgame” raiding scene.

PvP not so much, either

It’s all about the ends; finding the stuff that make my numbers go up.  I’m just not all that motivated or entertained by that quest (though I’ll readily concede that it’s a perfectly valid way to play, it just doesn’t do much for me).  The actual gameplay hasn’t been anything inherently different from just playing the game (including occasional dungeoneering as I usually do), except that it’s a bit more targeted now instead of just playing as the flow takes me.

Onna boat

One notable exception has been hunting for the “best in slot” Foreman’s Leggings.  It’s been pretty mindless, as they drop from one baddie hiding in an armpit of the pre-dungeon Deadmines.  That’s where I got the Cold Iron Pick (and a Petrified Shinbone and the Skeletal Gauntlets, several copies each, actually, as well as a fair dose of ore that the ghouls drop… a potentially viable alternative to mining, actually), but since the ‘Leggings only drop from one unique, semi-rare foe, it starts to feel like a quarter of Thumpin’s life has been in that little pocket of the world.  I gave it a good shot, I really did, but I can only do that for so long.

Freedom!

So, I’ve gone back to my world-traveling ways.  I’m making the rounds in Darnassus and Darkshore, then I’ll go to the Exodar and the neighboring islands.  I kinda want to get a Night Elf kitty to ride (hence the Darnassus tabard for reputation grinding in dungeons), as I love absurd mount/character mismatches.  I feel like I’m adventuring again, going where the action takes me, rather than hunting for numbers.  Of course, I’d rather be flying, but hey, free players can’t have it all, or so they say.

Not the same

I also almost wish I’d done this on a Role Playing realm, so I could really play the “one-eyed miner Dwarf” schtick to the hilt.  Then again, I have a lot of other games I’d rather play, so I’m really going to just leave Thumpin in limbo and imagine that he’s off, having grand adventures, making his way through the world with his pick in hand, belting out a hearty drinking song as he crushes skulls and collects ore.  What more does a Dwarf need?

Bring it.

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20 is the New 85

In one way of looking at it, level 20 is the new “endgame” for the F2P slice of World of Warcraft.  Characters are locked at level 20, and progression past that point will be largely based on gear.  It’ll be an unholy grind of rerunning instances and plowing through the crafting system.  I have to wonder, though…

What is the highest GearScore you can attain?  What is the most difficult dungeon you can complete (solo or otherwise)?  What is the highest Achievement point total you can accumulate?  How many classes can you beat one-on-one?  How many Exploration Achievements can you get?  How many quests can you complete?  How much coin can you gather and how quickly?  How many unique pets can Hunters acquire and get screenshots with?  How far can you get from the newbie grounds, and where can you go without dying?  (Rogues and stealthy Druids might just win this one.)

Y’know, Blizzard might be missing a few tricks here.

Normalized PvP is one that I’ve always wished they had.  The heirloom era makes PvP balance worse at low levels (though twinking made sure it was never really balanced), but what if the system arbitrarily set character stats (including level within a certain band, say levels 11-19 get snapped to level 20 or the like for the duration of the PvP event) to something they decided was “balanced”?  Might we see more interesting PvP at lower levels?  The Arena is sort of normalized in that everyone just has the best gear, but what if there were an equivalent at level 20?  (And then 30, then 40 and so on…)

There are a handful of dungeons available to level 20 characters, and it’s a great learning opportunity to play those at an appropriate level for as long as it takes to learn your class, rather than counting on outleveling the content.  You’d have to learn to play a lot earlier than at the now-level-85 endgame.

What if there were full-on raids at level 20 that could therefore be played by characters stuck at level 20?  We might, just might, see players learning about raiding earlier and how to play their class, rather than outgear the game.  That might be a Good Thing.  Of course, I have other ideas about raids, too, but still, just thinking out loud here.  What if these pre-endgame raids were normalized like PvP?

How else might the level 20 cap actually be a good thing for players and the game?  I can’t help but think that there’s potential there to teach players what the vaunted “endgame” is all about a bit earlier than the, well… the endgame.

Of course, there are pros and cons to teaching about endgame habits early, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.

It’s also notable that with the trial restrictions on characters, they might be as close as possible to “purist” WoW play.  Yes, they don’t get the multiplayer experience very easily (alleviated somewhat by the Dungeon Finder, which works just fine for trial/Starter accounts), but neither do they find their play distorted by heirloom gear (leveling is too fast, waaaa!), fairy godmother alts or the severely disjointed market via the Auction House that winds up pricing copper ore and bars at one gold apiece.  That’s a pittance to level 85 characters, but a week’s wages for a low level character.

Starter characters also don’t get the guild experience, but with the new guild incentives, they aren’t the purely social animals of old anyway.  Oh, and sufficiently leveled guilds will also accelerate the leveling pace of low level characters.  The horror!

So maybe, just maybe, guildless and godmotherless is a nice purist way to play the game.  Leave the default UI on and don’t bother with addons, and get a feel for the game as Blizzard designed it, rather than what bitter veterans complain about through distorted glasses.

…that’s not to say the game won’t have problems, of course.  It will.  It’s just that if you learn to accept a game for what it is and see what’s there, rather than what you want to see, you might just learn something.

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World of Warcraft finally steals the WarHammer Online “perpetual limited free trial” hook.

Too little, too late, says I.  The time to flank the F2P tide was a couple of years ago if not earlier.

It’s still probably a smart move.  It will be interesting to see what effects it has.

As for me and my house?  I’ll have a new baby Druid to play with when the itch strikes, and I don’t have to plunk down a sub for the privilege of picking up the game whenever I darn well please for a bit of sightseeing.  Oh, and I can patch the blasted thing without feeling like I’m wasting a couple of days of a month’s sub or firing up a new dummy trial.

…and I’d still pay for an offline version.

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I’ve suggested it in a few comments recently on other blogs, and I’ve argued it for a while in one form or another, but I wanted to put a fine point on it for posterity.  Let’s not call this a prediction, since I don’t think Blizzard will do this (it’s potentially a lot of work and has a few wrinkles to iron out), but I’d recommend it.

The Cataclysm expansion is a perfect time for Blizzard to jump into the wider MMO market by diversifying their business model.  The recent trend of formerly subscription-only MMOs converting to item shop microtransaction business models isn’t a surprise, nor is it a move of desperation.  It’s realization that the MMO market is diversifying and maturing, and that the old ways of doing business aren’t going to work forever.

World of Warcraft is a bastion of subscription gaming, a behemoth that operates by its own rules, seemingly independant of the overall market.  Be that as it may, ignoring customers served by the so-called “free to play” or F2P games is effectively conceding strategic ground in the larger market.  It’s often suggested that converting WoW to one of these F2P critters may well not be more profitable for Blizzard, so it’s not likely.  I’m not convinced of that, but even conceding that as a given, as someone recently noted (Bhagpuss, I think, but please forgive me for remembering incorrectly if not), companies don’t always make moves for immediate profit.  Sometimes it’s about claiming market share or positioning themselves for future projects. *

* This is one counterpoint to my recommendation, actually.  Blizzard might be angling for the wider market with their next big MMO project.  Since that’s likely not imminent, though, I’m setting that aside, because the market is changing now, and Blizzard is oddly reticent to keep pace.

With that in mind, the release of Cataclysm provides a perfect excuse both in lore and in business to make a significant change to the WoW business plan.  What better time to break up the world than when a dragon is doing it for you?

Specifically, I would recommend that they take the Old World of Warcraft (the content from level 1 to 60, sometimes called “vanilla” WoW) and break it off into its own product, literally breaking the game into pieces.  They should then sell this like Guild Wars, as a single purchase that can then be played in perpetuity.  They should then keep the “live” Cataclysm-era world going for subscribers.  Players can upgrade from the Old World to the Live World, but not migrate backwards (maybe with some restrictions to keep gold sellers down, like no money migration).

This could neatly corner the F2P market by outflanking the other big movers in the field, including EQ2X, LOTRO, DDO and even GW and GW2, while still providing the subscriber experience that current users are accustomed to.

There are problems, to be sure.  There’s the possible need for two dev teams and consequent potential for divergent evolution.  There’s the need for new servers and the potential to confuse customers (who apparently don’t know how to spend their own money, the filthy proletariats).  There’s the likelihood of subbers just playing around in the Single Purchase Old World and losing some part of the WoW money pump.  There’s the banshee chorus of haters and fanboys who would proclaim the doom of Blizzard for deigning to let those people play the game.  There’s the work necessary to make things actually work.  There’s the question of what to let current players do.  (I’d suggest that anyone wanting to go to the Old World can do so, but it would be a complete reboot; everyone starts from scratch.  Current subbers who want to sidegrade can start new characters on the Old World servers like anyone else, without needing to purchase the game again.  They would have to pay a sub to play in the CAT era on CAT servers, but could play in the Old World without a hiccup, just starting over on the new servers.)  There is risk involved, as even WoW may not be able to function in its own shadow.  (But that’s a concern for their new MMO, too.)

Still, the timing is right for such a move, a grab at owning the best of both worlds.  In retrospect, perhaps, this will be obviously wrong, depending on whatever they do with their next MMO, but for now, looking at the market and the state of WoW, I’d say it’s an obvious move, and a smart one.  (This is, of course, totally ignoring the larger question of whether or not more WoW domination of the market is good for the players.  I think that could be argued either way, though, so maybe I’ll save that for an exercise later.)  There’s even room for more mutations, like true “classic” servers and private, gated communities for discerning customers, but one step at a time…

Of course details would need to be ironed out, and suits would need to be convinced.  Kotick would need to be bribed or something.  I’m convinced it’s not an intractible problem, though, and this may be the best time for such an earth-shattering, industry-shaking… cataclysmic business move.

…though I must admit, if it didn’t prove to sell well, just like if Blizzard’s new MMO doesn’t do well, leaving WoW as the clear aberration that I think it is, well… I’d laugh.

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Ostensibly, “F2P” is an acronym for “Free to Play”.

In practice, the term can cover a couple of different types of MMOs that don’t monetize via subscriptions.

On one hand are the Item Shop games, say, Runes of Magic, Allods Online or Puzzle Pirates.  RoM and AO are post-WoW DIKUMMOs (PWDMMORPGs?), but Puzzle Pirates is an entirely different animal that uses a microtransaction dual currency system.  RoM and AO have taken heat for goofy pricing and design that spurs purchases, some of it rightly so, some of it ill-informed and incompetently reasoned.  Noting that Puzzle Pirates functions quite nicely as an Item Shop game, might I take another moment to note that while business and game design are inextricably linked, incompetence in one need not mean the other is equally busted?

On the other hand, there are Subscriptionless games that monetize by selling content and convenience.  Look to Guild Wars, DDO and Wizard 101 for this sort of game design.  Content is sold with perpetual access, and players need not continue to pay a subscription.  These games tend to be constructed differently from the Item Shop games, earning money most like offline games of yore, by providing a valuable experience out of the box.

Also of note are the hybrid games.

Wizard 101 allows for subscriptions, content purchases and item shop purchases.  It monetizes all sorts of demand and lets all sorts of players play together, hopping servers willy-nilly almost at will.  It’s a beautiful game that plays extremely well, carving out its own identity with unique game mechanics and quirky writing.  The Harry Potterish feel is almost certainly part of the appeal, but it really is a solid game under the hood.

Puzzle Pirates has microtransaction servers and subscription servers.  Players cannot change server, and their economies are largely unique.  Doubloons (the microtransaction currency in their brilliant dual currency system) are tied to the account, not a server, and so may be spent on any “green” (microtransaction) server, but “blue” (sub) and “green” servers are isolated.  Still, players can play on any server, and can find one to suit their finances.

I think there is a critical distinction to be drawn between Item Shop games and Subscriptionless games.  I’ve argued for selling content instead of time for a while now, and I firmly come down in the Subscriptionless camp.  Whether this is sold in large bites like Guild Wars or smaller bites like Wizard 101 or DDO, it doesn’t matter much, but there is a clear difference between this model and the Item Shop model.  RoM and AO and their kind walk a line between selling stuff that’s useful and selling stuff that breaks the game, between impulse purchases and wallet-busting stupidity.

Both games can rightfully be presented as “Free to Play”, inasmuch as the acronym itself really only suggests that there is no subscription.  (Though it is a curious thing when a product is defined by what it lacks rather than what it has or is…)  We really have misnomers on top of misnomers abound in the MMO market, so this is no surprise, but it isn’t useful to take something like Allods Online’s messed up Item Shop (or your favorite game used as an example of the apocalypse) and paint an entire swath of games with a disdainful “F2P” epithet.  Games need to be taken on their own merits, balanced against their monetary and time costs, and evaluated for fun.  Blind prejudice against games roughly defined by a marketing acronym that doesn’t have consistent meaning doesn’t really help anything.

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