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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

Microtransactions by Stealth? CoH/V's Booster Packs

Posted by UnSub Saturday August 30 2008 at 12:01AM
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City of Heroes / Villains (CoH/V) released the first announcement of I13 this week - titled "Architect" it contains a number of systems to get very excited about, including player mission creation tools and an offline character reward system titled 'Day Jobs'. I'll get to them later, but what interested me a lot is the announcement a bit further down about new Booster Packs coming to CoH/V - purchasable updates that unlock new powers, new costume pieces etc for your account.

In Positron's (aka Matt Miller's, lead developer on CoH/V) words:

"Finally, I want to tell you about two "Booster Packs" that will be available in a month or so. Many players have requested the ability to buy the 30 day temporary jetpack that comes with the new City of Heroes Game Cards. Once the retailer exclusive period ends next month, we are making the same jetpack available for purchase for $4.99 (which is the cost difference between the one month game time and the $20 Game Card price). We are also excited to launch our Super Booster I: Cyborg Pack for $9.99. This pack has an awesome set of costume pieces, emotes, auras and a power. We'll be sharing all of the details shortly."

The first of these items is a bit useless for most existing players - $5 for a 30 day travel power in the jet pack. I'm sure a number of people will buy it once just to try it out, but probably won't repurchase it. However, that's still money into NCSoft NorthCal's coffers, so I'm sure they won't mind.

The second, the Booster Pack I: Cyborg Pack, is also not entirely new to CoH/V, but it's an interesting step down a certain path. In reality it should be called Booster Pack II - Booster Pack I is really The Wedding Pack, which unlocked a number of wedding-related costume pieces and emotes for $10 and was released in February this year. The success of The Wedding Pack meant that more resources could be deployed on developing I12, which in turn saw more content implemented in that issue. So it is a strategy that has worked for CoH/V once and they are trying their hand at doing it more formally.

As much as it pains me to say, CoH/V is unlikely to grow substantially in player numbers from this point forward. CoH/V is four years old and coming up against some younger competition, both of whom have studied this title in great depth. However, what CoH/V does have is a very committed player base and a character creation system that is yet unmatched. As such, the sensible financial strategy for them to take on is to try to increase their current players' share of wallet with CoH/V. This means putting out 'cosmetic' items (such as costume pieces or emotes) that won't actually do much to how your character plays, but is vital for completists or those wanting to build a specific type of character to get.

Some people will grumble about this, or say that if a game charges a sub fee it shouldn't charge any other fees. I disagree, because you don't have to buy these Booster Packs to be competitive, or they won't make the game automatically more fun - they are just added extras. But it is a way to get more money out of a relatively stable player base that means you can then have a development budget that will grow the title, not just keep it propped up.

This strategy could backfire. Players could resent paying for things they used to get for free - new costume pieces are a big thing for some players every issue, so if they stop just so they can go into Booster Packs, well, there will be blood. NCsoft NorthCal will have to carefully balance this strategy with the expectations of players.

However, if it works, it could see more resources put into making CoH/V stand out from its two new rivals. I'm interested to see what Booster Pack I actually has in it and will probably buy it. But would I buy 2 booster packs a year? 4 year? Would I buy Booster Pack XVII: Catgirls Gone Wild? I don't know.

But it is an interesting tactic for CoH/V to be going down. I see the future of AAA MMOs relying more on a mixed model of subscription fees and microtransaction revenue, which certainly seems to be where CoH/V is going.

UPDATE: Toned the title down a smidge.

The Twelve Trials of UnSub: Urban Dead

Posted by UnSub Sunday August 24 2008 at 11:26PM
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I'm sure some people will take me to task in even considering Urban Dead a MMO. In my view, however, it ticks all the necessary boxes to be a MMO:

  • It's massive (over 40 000 players had signed into Monroeville)
  • It's multiplayer
  • It's online
  • It's set in a game world

 

That it is action point-based, doesn't have fancy graphics or lacks a complex game lore doesn't exclude it from the genre in my opinion; in fact it is arguably part of the leading edge of web-based MMOs that ignore being pretty or being shallow, grind-based time sinks in exchange for being easy to log in to and easy to play.

I played on Monroeville, a 'hard core' server set up to help celebrate the launch of "Day of the Dead" on DVD. What makes this server 'hard core' is that once you become a zombie, you can't turn back into a human thanks to Necrotech science (which you can in other games of Urban Dead). Also, once a survivor gets to level 10 (not that easy in Monroeville), they can get the Headshot skill which will permanently kill a zombie. So, it's the perma-death server, although you get two goes at virtual life - one as alive, the next as undead.

The short of Urban Dead is that you start a character (classes are Military, Civilian, Scientist and Zombie, with sub-classes for the living classes) and proceed to level that character up by doing things that get experience points (xp) - for the non-dead, this is generally trying to survive while taking pot shots at zombies; for the undead, this is generally trying to make survivors uncomfortable and / or into a meal. Every 100 xp you can buy yourself a new skill to help make surviving / zombie-ing easier.

Each action takes up a certain number of action points and given that each character can only get a maxium of 50 action points per day (earned at a rate of about 1 every half a real-life hour) players have to be careful about how they spend their time. Running out of action points when out in the open is a good way to guarantee a survivor's death or a possible beating from other zombies. This is because characters don't log off just because you aren't online - a character has be to be inactive for 5 days before they are hidden.

That's about the depth of the game: try to spend your action points to gain the most xp while also trying to stay upright. My Civilian Firefighter, Union Sub, managed to make it for several days and got to level 2 before being turned into a zombie while I was offline. Although this annoyed me a bit, it underlines the difficulty in providing a survival horror experience in the online environment: if I can log off at any time to protect my character then there is little risk in playing in such a world. Not being able to hide my character, the best I could do was try to stay with other survivors, or hole up in locations I hoped that zombies wouldn't look. This does a lot to add an element of tension to an otherwise simple game.

Currently Union Sub is wandering the city of Monroeville as a zombie, taking bites out of whoever he comes across (and, at this point, it is a lot easier to chomp on zombie than living flesh). No new characters can be created on Monroeville and at some point this server will be coming down and existing accounts rolled into Malton (a non-hardcore server). Importantly, I'm still having fun. It only takes about 10 minutes at most to play through my 50 action points, but it is a short-and-sweet experience. My only major gripe is that the hit percentages in combat are set incredibly low so that whiffing dozens of attacks is unfortunately common; however, I understand the design reasons behind it (higher hit percentages means it would be easier to kill characters without using all your action points, which in turn would reduce the challenge of making combat decisions in Urban Deadi.e. "Do I spend my last 6 action points attacking a target I might be able to kill, or do I use them to run and hide?").

Urban Dead is fun, simple to get the hang of (once you understand what gives xp) and does what it does with a minimum of fuss. It will never unseat WoW, but it wouldn't want to - Urban Dead and WoW are offering entirely different experiences. Any horror MMO currently in development should take a look at what Urban Dead does and learn from it - it already shows how a number of challenging game design decisions (e.g. characters being killed while players are offline, making survival interesting, permadeath) can potentially be solved.

Fallen Earth Alpha: Round 1.5 and Invites Are Out

Posted by UnSub Tuesday August 19 2008 at 10:45AM
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Just to round out a previous entry, Fallen Earth's second attempt to get alpha sign-ups out appears to have worked - all the alpha keys on Gamespot were reportedly snapped up in minutes.

This has led to a lot of wondering on the official forums about why the dedicated community who has been following this MMO for a while didn't get first shot at alpha. As is the idea that perhaps launching your alpha to the Gamespot audience might backfire.

 

No Use Getting Angry: Fury Closes Its Doors

Posted by UnSub Tuesday August 19 2008 at 12:33AM
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I know I'm a bit late on this, but I think the passing of Fury (along with the undeath of Hellgate: London and Flagship Studios) hold a lot of valuable lessons and insights into the MMO industry today. Failure can teach people a lot, but the natural reaction is to try to ignore the failure of others as if it were somehow contagious. It isn't, and just because WoW was successful doesn't mean the MMO industry won't see failure after failure until the Rapture (and even then, those left behind will want a MMO to play).

And, in the case of Fury, the failure was quite spectacular.

An image of Fury's hard copy box.

From what is publically available, Fury started development at Australian developer Auran in 2005 and made its first major public appearance at E3 in 2006. It was a MMO title with a difference - a pure PvP arena combat game with no PvE, with huge numbers of powers, a highly customisable character power system and even finishing moves (you might need a codec for that video). Fury had some great ideas on display - no endurance bar (your attacks built up mana that could be then used for more powerful abilities - a similar system is being used in Champions Online), a loot system that saw both winners and losers get copies of loot from their opponents, a very easy respec system - that made it stand out as something different.

The fact it was being developed by Auran, a publisher with a small but solid reputation (Dark Reign, Trainz) also added to the idea that there was a studio out there willing to push the envelope. A lot of PvP orientated players were excited by the potential of Fury as being something different on the horizon.

Fury's alpha started early in 2007 and, from memory (I'll check my emails later) I got an early invite. My PC wasn't up to spec at the time, but the beta forums were quite excited, even if the game had flaws (crashing bugs, it was hard to find opponents - stuff like that). Closed beta happened in July 2007 with a lot of the same bugs and issues still causing trouble. Auran had determined that in order to refine the game as much as possible, they needed a large number of players to beta test Fury despite its instability and short comings. Although this sounds like a sensible idea, the reality is that players get into a closed beta to play, not to act as free quality assurance or to deal with an application that crashes their PC every time they try to remap their keys. Should a player get past the bugs and the waiting time for a match to start, they were then greeted by experienced Fury players / teams, who would then squash their newb face into the dirt. Repeatedly. Often the match was over before you had an idea of what was going on (and yes, I speak from experience :-).

A screenshot of Fury

The large player churn that Fury experienced saw them invite more and more players to the beta test, which became more like an open alpha - players got deterred in playing Fury for a number of factors, declared it sucked and left... and then told their friends about it.

So, Fury was getting quite a bit of negative PR and launch (October 16 2007) was approaching. Gamecock Media Group, who'd come aboard as publisher in February 2007, Auran and Codemasters (the European publisher) arranged the Fury Challenge, a pre-launch event with a prize pool of over US $1 million (and later US $2 million in prizes), to help attract attention to the MMO. This was despite Fury still having a number of issues affecting its playability and the fact it was still technically in beta status.

Suffice to say having a competitive event with real world prizes on a game that is still not completely finished backfired somewhat. A lot of people were interested in the idea of winning prizes, but ran into bugs with downloading Fury, installing it and then actually playing it. Those who played in the event found themselves up against the uber-PvPer who didn't make the play experience particularly enjoyable. Although this article makes the Fury Challenge seem like fun, the key stat for me is that even the top 20 didn't win more than about half the matches they took part in. I think a lot of people were turned off by losing more than they won, especially in a MMO.

All of which, surprise surprise, led to Fury launching very weakly and never really picking up an audience. Reviews of Fury were very harsh and the lifespan of Fury looked short from the beginning. Despite Auran's best efforts - free content updates, the introduction of a PvE play type, free play being offered, players being called "LLLOOOOSSSSEEEERRRRR!"s (who thought that was a good idea?) and so on - but it was too late. Fury "was a financial disaster, it lost Auran a lot of money" (Fury cost US13.2 million, which is a big amount to a small developer) and staff numbers working on the title continually were reduced. The branch of Auran who worked on Fury was forced into voluntary administration and, on August 5 2008, Fury announced the servers would be permanently shut down on August 7.

A screenshot of Fury.

So, who was responsible for this failure? As always, a number of factors go into it. Fury had a good concept that might have been foiled by the real world - do people want to pay a regular subscription fee for a PvP when there are quite a few out there with free online play (especially FPSs)? Perhaps not. The former staff of Auran have been particularly chatty about what went on at the studio, with Adam Carpenter, the lead developer on the title, saw both the difficulty in learning how to play Fury as a new player (correct) and that a certain group at Auran only wanted to work 9am - 5.30pm on the game (incorrect) as key reasons for Fury failing. Former Auran staff blame poor management decisions and a lack of an ability to listen to a wide variety of opinions as reasons for why things went so wrong.

Having been through a lot of articles about Fury and based on my experience with this title, a lot of its problems came down to management decisions. New players had no chance to learn how to play before they were thrown to the wolves, which was a major reason for Fury having very high player churn. The range of power options available were also very confusing for players, especially those who had no idea about the differences between the (say) fire and water power of nearly the same function. How equipment worked and what characters should wear was very hard to work out. These problems are design issues and have to lay clearly at the feet of the developers.

Another management blunder was the handling of alpha / beta. Inviting huge numbers of players to an alpha / beta, only for them to be turned off by bugs, is a great way to get your game some free negative word-of-mouth. Holding a huge contest that attracts a lot of hard core players who also experience bugs / crashes while also destroying the fun of other players new to the game is also a bad move. Bad move after bad move helped sink Fury at launch and it was never able to recover.

Fury is a game that was probably ahead of its time and had a lot of really good ideas behind it. Unfortunately, the execution didn't put those good ideas on the best display and left Fury committing the greatest gaming sin of all: not being particularly fun to play.

Fallen Earth Announces Alpha Sign-Up, Sign-Up Fails

Posted by UnSub Tuesday August 12 2008 at 11:15PM
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After about 7 or 8 years since it was first announced, Fallen Earth (FE) has finally announced it is going into public alpha testing. FE has been very public in saying that the game is feature complete and coming up on content complete, so the actual alpha experience should be more of a bug-fixing and technical exercise prior to launch rather than stuff being added on the fly at random.

Of course, god help FE if players find the existing experience isn't fun, or lacks perceived necessary features. MMOs should wait until they are at a 'launch complete' level before they open the game up to the public, but the risk is that systems that don't work well with a large audience will be too far along to fix prior to launch. But anyway...

FE is using Gamespot as the base to sign up to the alpha. Now, why Gamespot? No official reasons have been given, but it probably comes down to 1) it's a great way to get Fallen Earth known, since the game to date has been practically invisible, 2) it means that someone else handles some of the logistics - this is important for a company running an official forums supported by Google Ads, and 3) it gives FE the chance of future attention from Gamespot editors, who will do probably do exclusive hands-on previews, pre-launch reviews and so on. For a small MMO (it's been small to date, anyway), getting this kind of assistance for promotion and recruitment could be invaluable.

The irony kicks in when a number of players complain that they don't understand the sign-up process, followed by the announcement that the Alpha registration process has been suspended due to "technical issues".

Not quite the coming out party FE wanted, I suspect.

Oh, and I find it interesting that Gamespot currently lists Icarus Studios as the developer and publisher of FE - Icarus publically spun Fallen Earth off into a new company (Fallen Earth LLC), but the fact they haven't even got Gamespot to update their information makes me wonder exactly how separate the two companies really are (in my opinion: not very).