Gamescom 2015 Toys to Life Report
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 August 2015, 3:47 pm
I spend most of my gaming time these days on toys to life franchises, which I am slowly introducing to my 2-year-old daughter as a way to populate her dollhouse with dragons and superheroes in addition to the usual princesses and clothed animals. My primary goal during my trip to Gamescom was to focus on both the upcoming games and any good opportunities to collect more stuff.  Various observations:
  • Lego Dimensions, which won the award for best Family Game, was out in force with a full booth and additional playable demo stations in the family gaming lounge.  They had the Dr. Who and Portal figures and periodic panels at the booth (mostly in German, but there was a dev from the US who did a walkthrough of the Wizard of Oz level in English).  People who like the game praise it for being just like the current Lego games… I see the glass half empty in that I saw nothing about the actual gameplay to justify why basically the same game needs to cost 5-10 times more. 
  •  There was a modest Disney Infinity 3.0 area with around 10 demo stations inside the Sony portion of the show floor. They had all the announced 3.0 figures in display cases and playable demos for Twilight of the Republic, Rise against the Empire (exactly one demo station had the Boba Fett figure), and Inside Out. You could generally walk up and get a controller with little to no wait time. Oddly, they went out of their way to prevent you from playing the Disney Originals characters. There were toy box demo stations with a Marvel figure and a Disney figure on the portal, but there was only one controller and the portal was inside a glass case (unlike the Star Wars and Inside out demos where you could switch figures). Not sure what the reasoning for this was, we've seen these figures playable on Youtube and isn't this game coming out in two weeks?
  • There was a single Skylanders Superchargers station in an odd corner of the Nintendo booth, presumably to showcase the two Sky-miibo. They had Donkey Kong, Bowser, Gill Grunt, and their vehicles to cover all three types of terrain for racing mode - I don't think the demo included any traditional Skylanders gameplay.  The only swag for playing was some stickers and a Kaos keychain - for an event Hot Streak I might have considered taking a spot in line from an 8 year old but I couldn't bring myself to do it just to test drive the game since it was literally a single Wii U available to the general public.
  • Nintendo had a large booth with a glass case containing all the Amiibo, organized loosely by franchise. The regular Sky-miibo (no dark variants) were included, if anyone out there is still a Sky-miibo-denier.  If there was any information about Amiibo support, it was in German.  
  • There was also a local game vendor who had a booth in the corner of the merchandise floor and were selling clearance Giants and Swap Force Skylanders (including the only new-in-box Magna Charge's I've ever seen).  I felt the stock was a bit overpriced, so I passed on Saturday afternoon, came back on my way out of the show on Sunday to find that they had sold very little and reduced prices.  I grabbed a S3 Prism Break and a Lightcore Drobot for 3 Euros each ($3.30 or so).  
  • Outside of Gamescom, I visited Saturn (known internationally for announcing the Disney Infinity 3.0 starter pack early), Media Markt (kind of like Best Buy, generally has good prices but inconsistent stock), and Gamestop.  There was a lot of older Skylanders and Disney Infinity at discounted prices (3-5 Euro's) and a few discounts on the current game figures.  I grabbed two trap masters, an earth trap with a variant villain, and a Donald Duck Disney Infinity figure for 26 Euros.  
  • I don't actually collect any Amiibo, but I do sort of photo-safari when I see an Amiibo "in the wild" here in Europe that is impossible to find in the US.  I don't think I'm ever going to top a mall Gamestop in Cologne that had all three of the "holy trinity" plus DeeDeeDee, Lucina, Robin, Lucario, Greninja, Pit, and Bowser Jr (not out yet in the US) on a single rack.  That said, I could find at least a few of these guys in most stores, including a random French supermarket we visited later in our vacation.  Perhaps either supply in Europe is catching up or else demand is dying down as the bubble pops out here. I think at this point the only Amiibo I have NOT seen in the wild are Captain Falcon and the yarn Yoshi's.   
  • (Note - writing this from a hotel in France, any additional finds from the tail end of my trip will go here.)  
So, was it a good trip for a toys to life collector? Probably not. If you had your eye on all the free/exclusive figures that Skylanders and Disney Infinity handed out in places like E3, SDCC, and D23, you would have been disappointed, as there was nothing on offer for the general public. Likewise, the shopping was fun but not inherently worth the trip over to mainland Europe.  Also, an in-box collector would probably need to buy and check an extra bag for the return trip if you bought all the rare Amiibo I've seen in my travels.  I also had some more general cautionary notes on Gamescom. Fun, but I can't say I recommend the trip from the US for this experience.  

Cautionary Notes from Gamescom
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 August 2015, 4:03 pm
I visited Cologne, Germany last week for Gamescom, and had more than 140 characters worth to say about the show…. funny, I used to have a blog for that sort of thing.  Overall, it is an interesting show but I hesitate to recommend it to people who aren't already in Europe due to a number of quirks.

  1. What you read is not what you get: Gamescom is technically a trade fair and maintains a separate area for press, exhibitors, and other "trade" visitors.  The new Skylanders game was based in the trade area. Neither SWTOR nor GW2 were on the floor.  Marvel Heroes was not on the floor either, though David Brevik personally made up for that by hosting a fan gathering at the end of three straight days of interviews.  Point being, you can show up and not get any closer to the real news than you would have been from home.  
  2. Entrance at the cost of experience: Gamescom claims over 300,000 attendees annually.  They do this by selling tickets to the limit of what German fire code permits, and then re-selling the spots of people who leave the show as space-available afternoon tickets.  As a result, there isn't really quiet time at the end of the day when you can avoid the worst of the lines.  Instead, most lines have matter-of-fact markers indicating that you will be waiting 3 hours from this point.  I'm sure it's lucrative for the organizers but it's not a positive experience to walk the floor at 1:30 PM and feel like you have to line up for something now because if you wait any longer the show might close before you can get to the front of a line.  
  3. German is the primary language: You won't have trouble ordering food, as most signage is also in English, most employees speak English, and English is definitely the second most common language.  The Assassin's Creed demo had English voice acting and German subtitles/instructions. The WoW expansion trailer had German voiceover, but many of the Heroes of the Storm character trailers were in English. Lego Dimensions apparently flew in a developer from America, who would hand off the mike to the German community guy periodically.  Just be aware that you will probably miss out on understanding some of the content  if you don't speak the language. 
  4. German Public Transit, Also German: (Also, I found the public transit system hard to use because you need to identify the right stop to know what to pay and then find the right train and not stay on too long and end up on the other side of the country.)  
I don't mean to be too negative on the show - in some ways US shows like PAX suffer from the same crowding issues.  You do get a very large crowd with all the requisite cosplayers (note: unlike in the US, German cosplayers can use realistic looking guns without running afoul of law enforcement), merchandise, and access to the top games for the fall if you were prepared to wait.  I was coming from England, and tacking this onto a family vacation, so I'm mostly okay with the effort and expense.  I would not have been happy with the effort and expense if I'd flown in from the U.S.  Your mileage may vary.  

Three Weeks In Draenor
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 February 2015, 4:51 pm
As Blizzard wraps up the first content patch of the Warlords of Draenor era, I'm marking something like 3 weeks in the expansion.  I'd say that overall it's a good expansion, but I'm not yet convinced of the staying power given that we are almost certainly at least a year from the next edition.

My tale thus far:

- Advanced my main from level 90 to level 100 in 9 days, including full clears of Shadowmoon Valley, Gorgrond, Talador, and portions of the Spires of Arak. 
- My garrison is currently as upgraded as possible given my late start, with all buildings at level 2 (if gated by an achievement I have yet to complete) or 3.  I've collected 30 followers, all of whom are level 100, and am rapidly working on upgrading them to purple quality and ilvl 630 gear.  I'm actually about to start tearing down some buildings where I have already obtained the best rewards. 
- Polished off Spires of Arak and cleared out Nagrand. 
- Captured all pets that can be battled in the wild in Draenor. 
- I'm advancing professions as quickly as the time-gates allowed.  One detour here - I'm continuing to farm the Pandaria farm for cloth, so I can make nearly free 28-slot bags every two weeks or so. 

At this point, I have some amount of stuff that I can loot for zero effort in about 20 minutes each day at my Garrison.  There's a daily quest that I've done once to go to a level 100 area and farm a relatively modest amount of an endgame currency - I can see this getting old pretty quickly.  Otherwise, I can level an alt (including the "free" instant 90 that came with the expansion box) for fun and additional garrisons.... or go do dungeons.  I don't know that I'm going to be sold on doing dungeons.

There is a lot to like in Draenor.  The world is pretty and does much more to encourage exploration than recent expansions have done.  There are constant little blips in the world for looting treasure, killing rare spawns, and even triggering events by just taking the time to kill mobs attacking a town without a quest to do so are in some ways a bigger innovation than anything Blizzard did in Pandaria.  The story is alright, though a bit focused on having major villains escape to go be raid bosses (perhaps appropriate for revisiting Draenor). 

But overall, I'm a month in with a month left on a 60 day time card and I'm not entirely sure what to do with that time.  Perhaps tomorrow's patch will shake things up, but this does not bode entirely well. 

Heroes of the Storm Alpha Business Model - Complaints Heard And Disregarded
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 January 2015, 4:38 pm

The Heroes of the Storm "technical alpha" wrapped up on Tuesday with a mostly uneventful patch to what they are technically calling "beta" - seems like the same game it was on Monday, plus a new hero, some usual patch fixes, a new battleground, and addition of the game's new lower-tier ranked mode.  My experiences in the game have been generally positive, and overall I am okay with the business model.  However, I will say that it is very striking how - and why - in this model widespread criticisms are known and simply do not matter to the developer's bottom line.

How I spent my "Alpha"
From the reset in early October until Christmas-time I played this thing about 3-4 hours per week to complete daily quests and work on any heroes I did not own in that week's free play rotation.  At Christmas, they announced a unique portrait icon for reaching the maximum account level of 40 during alpha, so I made a push to do this.  In the process, I advanced all but one of the game's heroes to at least level 5.  This unlocks all talents for the heroes and also a one-time payoff of 500 gold per hero.  Collectively, I hit level 40 with a grand total of 52,000 gold, including one time awards of 6000 gold that all accounts get in the early levels and 15,500 gold for leveling heroes.  (Murky, who has yet to be free to play since the alpha reset, and the newly released Thrall are each worth another 500.)  I.e., I pulled down roughly 30,000 gold in normal (not one-time) income over a three month period.  

As an early alpha player, I was able to take advantage of a heavily discounted bundle that offered ten heroes who cost a total of 64,000 gold for $29 - more than half off, as 10,000 gold heroes normally cost $10 in the store.  This skewed my experience slightly in that I already owned many of my staple heroes before I had to start spending my in-game currency.  I was then able to pick up my top five favorites from heroes I did not own - Anub'arak, Azmodan, Gazlowe, Valla, and Rehgar - for 33,000 gold, and left the alpha with the remaining 19,000.  This sum buys basically any two heroes of my choice, but could in principle have gotten me to a roster of ten characters if I had been starting from zero.

Ten characters matter in Heroes due to how the game has implemented draft mode for ranked play.  In addition to an account level requirement, you must have permanent access to ten heroes - NOT including the weekly free rotation - because you could theoretically get the 10th pick and watch the first nine players pick nine of the ten heroes you own.  The community perceives this move by Blizzard as a way to try to encourage players to buy heroes for cash, though I can see some value in not having the weekly draft strategies vary extremely widely based on who is available for free that week.  The bigger issue is that, especially early on, players will very likely fill out their roster with the cheapest characters, which will skew the meta and also likely lead to acrimony with pick-up-group teammates when someone with does not own any top tier heroes who remain on the draft board. 

At the end of the day, I don't have too many complaints about a system where 2-3 hours per week for daily quests will unlock a character of your choice for free once a month.  The one flaw is that gold gain is heavily skewed towards the daily quests, with very slow gold gains (maybe 20-60 gold per hour) after your dailies are complete, which can make it feel unrewarding to continue playing beyond your first 2-3 matches of the day.  That aside, skins and mounts cost roughly what they do in other games and are purely cosmetic.  Bundles are underwhelming, though prices may do better in the future - you can buy a limited time package of a hero and their skin for 25% off, or you can unlock the hero with gold for $0 (almost always more than the 25%) and then pay full price for the skin (or wait for a future sale). 

Your complaints are known, but don't matter
With all of that as background, if you follow the community for this game anywhere, you will hear roughly the same complaints over and over again:
  • Players feel that gold gain per match (especially beyond the dailies) is extremely low compared to the cost of heroes.
  • Players do not like having to spend time leveling, including an hour or two leveling new characters to remove "talent gating" restrictions that often render that character ineffective, and high account level thresholds for the ranked modes (in my case, up to three months).  My readers can probably guess at this point that experience gain can be doubled through a cash store consumable. 
  • Players are very concerned about the significant one-time cost to get in the door for draft play, and the extremely high barrier before you own most or all of the heroes and thus are no longer affected by cost in your competitive draft picks.  
  • Some players are also objecting to the high price of cosmetic skins relative to heroes.  I buy fewer skins in this and other games as a result of the pricing, but at least these are cosmetic items and will be discounted for sales.  
Blizzard can read, so these complaints aren't news to them either.  In fact, one unusually brave interviewer actually asked about most of these topics and Blizzard stated that they are aware of the complaints but made the decisions deliberately to make money so they can support the game. 

The business model of a game cannot be a democracy, as the people in this case aren't even willing to pay for cosmetic items.  Likewise, there are many issues with the "good old days" of the mandatory subscription model, which among other things is all-but a dealbreaker for me these days.  The one issue we did not have in the subscription era was player buy-in/acceptance of the model; if you didn't buy, you weren't in. 

The decisions that developer make in games like this one (and others, such as Marvel Heroes) don't just write off the non-paying majority.  You can be paying (in my case, $43 for a title that is still in pre-release testing) and still get the short end of the stick to leave room for other people to spend even more.  You can also be paying a lot less (or nothing) if you're prepared to tolerate various limitations.  The price is that we end up with models where your experience is impacted no matter how much you are willing to pay - for example, even if you own all the heroes, your PUG teammates may not. 

I won't say that the good old days were all good, but I feel comfortable saying that there are parts of being a consumer in this era that are frustrating at best.  

2014 Wrap-up: Resolutions, Expenditures, and Questions
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 January 2015, 6:25 pm
2014 was a year when I moved to a new country, largely (though informally) dropped off from MMO blogging, and spent the majority of my time in a single game for the first time in years. (Perhaps 2008?)  I spent very little of that time in traditional MMO's and sat out the major MMO launch events of the year (which don't seem to have gone that well).  What did I plan to do, what did I actually do, and what did it cost? 

Marvel Heroes: $220

I started the year committed to a $130 pre-purchase of the thirteen hero Advance Pack and then added on $50 in cash store currency and a $40 team-up Advance Pack purchase.  I started the year still working on my first level 60 and something like 8 characters unlocked.  I ended it with 2175/2580 total levels, access to pretty much the entire current roster (all but one unlocked, solely because I haven't had time to play the latest two releases) and 32 out of 43 playable characters at level 60.  I might have been able to push through to cap everyone, but I saw no need to rush, especially with a few characters still waiting for their 52 reworks in the coming months. 

Having spent about as much time on this game as a traditional MMO, the amount I spent is mostly reasonable and the game treated me reasonably well.  The resources I did NOT spend unlocking all those heroes and team-ups sufficed to unlock the entire backlog of playable heroes from launch, and at least the next four new releases besides.  That said, with the current pricing strategy I did not have to think long before declining to "renew" the Advance Pack for 2015.  The discount sounds great on paper but it isn't large enough compared to all the frequent sales that don't require a year up-front commitment to bundles that include stuff you don't want. 

So, it'll be interesting to see where next year goes.  I think I will spend more than $0 and less than $220.  Probably some cash store currency, perhaps a bundle for the Avengers movie, it will depend on what's on offer and how the year is going.

Heroes of the Storm (technically alpha): $43
I was around for the alpha reset and bought up bundles containing a total of 14 heroes, 2 mounts, and a skin at a far greater discount than what Blizzard has offered since.  After trying the remaining characters during free weeks, I unlocked an additional 5 characters with gold.  Collectively, that's over half the roster (with gold remaining to unlock 2-4 more heroes depending on price point), and I have access to characters covering every combination of franchise/role currently implemented in game.  The goal was to get started with a budget around a retail game, and it looks like I'm good to go. 

World of Warcraft: $7.50 (discounted time card)
I used a pre-paid time card to tie up loose ends in Pandaria, including the pre-expansion event and somehow barely grabbing a LFR Garrosh kill before the pre-expansion talent revamp.  I liked Pandaria better when cherry-picking the fun parts at the end instead of trying to grind them them all on a deadline to try and jump the next hurdle.   

I've got some time penciled in for Draenor in a month or two.

Neverwinter: No Cash Spent
I own a level 60 character never paid Cryptic a cent.  Of course, the way this title works, actually gearing out that character would likely churn through a non-trivial amount of money.  Meanwhile, I spent significantly more time leveling and farming currency in the out-of-game portal than in-game, which in principle means that my Astral Diamonds helped encouraged someone to spend real money on Zen to sell me. 

SWTOR: No Cash Spent
I used a double exp weekend to finish up my Sith Warrior's class story.  The expansion presale campaign was a bit wasted on me, as I wasn't willing to clear out that particular month on my calendar to take advantage of it.  At this point I'm likely to leave SWTOR on the back burner for a few more months anyway, and perhaps they'll reduce or eliminate the expansion fee (as they did last round).

Dishonorable Mention: Hex ($20 Kickstarter contribution last year)
I'm not going to list out every game I've previously played and/or spent money on that didn't get my time and money in 2014.  Hex, however, earns special recognition in this category because the defining feature that convinced me to pledge to their Kickstarter in June 2013 remains unimplemented. The game's plans for PVE content were a huge focus of both the Kickstarter campaign and the accompanying website, but have seen repeated delays, most recently a somewhat-obvious late-year statement that PVE would not be added in 2014.

In the interim, they may or may not get wiped out by a lawsuit from Wizards of the Coast (that they may or may not deserve - I've seen completely convinced people on both sides, and doubt that the real legal meat is available to the public at the moment) that certainly wasn't listed as a budget contingency in their Kickstarter. 

I can't say who the dishonor actually falls on (perhaps myself for having decided to offer up $20 and considered paying more), but it's a typical tale for crowd-funded video game projects, and I wish all of you who backed various MMO-hopefuls better luck. 

My relatively modest mop-up project on this front was mixed.  I did complete Uncharted 3, and I also tried Infamous 2 before concluding that I didn't like it and writing the thing off.  I also procured a copy of Batman: Arkham Origins that I'd like to finish someday, but decided not to let that stop me from getting a PS4 for Christmas.

2014 Releases:
I've actually spent a few hours, and zero dollars in the open beta/soft-launch for Infinite Crisis.

That aside, TESO and Wildstar both reached the end of 2014 with subscription business models intact.  Based on the incorrect assumption that the game would launch on consoles in 2014, I had assumed that TESO in particular was unlikely to make it.  Whether either makes it to their respective first anniversaries without replacing their business model is a separate question.  In a possibly related story, Massively reports you can no longer purchase a 6-month subscription to TESO; it would make a ton of sense for the game to rip the band-aid off BEFORE the unspecified console launch. 

I'd also asked if we would see any F2P-relaunched titles get the axe in 2014, and SOE of all people came through by killing several titles, including Vanguard.  I guess that means so long to my former low level Goblin creature, gone off to wherever the inhabitants of Telon have ended up. 

And that's 2014, on to another year. 

More From the Heroes of the Storm Technical Alpha
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 October 2014, 7:09 pm
Cooperative PVE in Blizzard's technically upcoming MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, has quietly taken a high spot in my gaming rotation due to the game's polish and familiar faces. 

I got into the "technical alpha" for Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm MOBA back in June and promptly did not play it.  Given a business model in which matches played translated into characters unlocked, it made little sense to play before the beta reset.  The game remains technically in alpha despite a functioning cash shop and allegedly over 2 million concurrent users during my gaming hours, but Blizzard announced earlier this month that hero and skin purchases and unlocks will be permanent. 

Yes, the chat claims there are 2,000,000 players online.  This has to be both the biggest "alpha test" in software history and the biggest abuse of the term "alpha test".
The game has largely met my expectations.  Compared to League of Legends, the game is more cooperative - your team has a shared level, so you never risk hampering your team by damaging foes and thus "stealing" experience or resources.  You unlock talents at fixed team levels without the need to return to your base hub to spend time shopping - and opening the door for a team to hit level 10 mid-battle and suddenly bust out a bunch of newly unlocked heroic abilities. 

Collectively, I play this game much like I play Marvel Heroes - the maps are the same but my approach to the maps is different depending on who I am playing.  The huge advantage of setting the world among Blizzard's various properties that the characters are already established - they look and sound like they should so even in the space of a few lines, ability animations, etc, you can recognize and appreciate that you're playing a familiar face. 

Business Model
My current roster
The business model will be familiar to League of Legends and Marvel Heroes players, but with a few quirks. 
  • Players will have access to a weekly rotation of 5-7 heroes (the final two are available at higher account levels, and typically have more complicated kits) for free, and earn currency that can be used to unlock characters permanently.  One possible issue for people looking to jump in with their friends is that this roster is applied to the entire game, so you and your friends will be stuck with exactly those five characters on your first play sessions. 
  • You can pay between $4-10 to unlock characters immediately, with better "exchange rate" compared to in-game gold for the more expensive heroes (and a huge premium for brand new releases).  
  • There are hefty one-time bonuses for your first few account levels (so you can unlock at least one character and be less at the mercy of the weekly rotation) and for trying each character to account level 5 (to encourage you to do so).  
  • Beyond these, Blizzard is very likely tuning gold gain, which is currently very heavily slanted to daily quests.  These quests effectively offer up 100 bonus gold per match for playing a certain type or franchise of hero, compared to 10-30 base gold depending on the game mode and whether you win.  Very rewarding to log in once a day (or every 2-3 days, as you can hold up to three dailies in your quest log) for an hour, significantly less rewarding to continue playing after you've cashed in.  
  • At the moment, it looks like you can expect to unlock a new hero every month or so depending on which price bracket you are aiming at, which is not bad.  
Blizzard is also offering some bundles, which can be a good way to establish a baseline stable of heroes to run your daily quests with.  I put $43 into the game when the tech alpha reset happened to snag some limited time offers.  The current bundles aren't that impressive but I assume that more promotions will happen as the game is actually open to the public.  

The shop also includes cosmetic skins, most of which are $10 though some are as low as $5 or as high as $15.  Cosmetic mounts are also available for $10-20.  That said, Blizzard has an unusual number of free visual options, including color variants for every skin and mount in the game (unlocked free with character experience) and exclusive gold-only cosmetic skins to sink some of that gold so that players will pay for heroes with cash instead. 

There are definitely some bugs left to sort out - for example, losing a cooperative match awards no money or exp and does not display a match results screen so you can determine how you did - but overall this game is looking solidly like what we would have called a beta before marketing people killed that term.  For the moment, I am logging in whenever I have daily quests available, and sometimes playing beyond that.  Given my calendar and the fact that I haven't really stuck with a MOBA in the past, this is relatively high praise. 

Playing on Their Schedule
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 October 2014, 6:30 pm
Syp has posted his latest action plan for fitting four separate MMO's into a week.  I don't have anything so specific - no one is expecting multiple weekly columns about different MMO's from me - but I am starting to arrive at a decision tree of sorts for my MMO time.  For better or worse, non-subscription titles combined with daily/weekly/monthly quest rewards often leave a clear-cut choice for my limited gaming time. 

My decision tree (in rough order starting from 30 seconds total in front of a computer all day, down the list as time permits):
  1. Log into Marvel Heroes to collect the daily login bonus (+1 daycount towards exclusive pets, team-ups, and other goodies). May immediately log out depending on which of the below is available. 
  2. Log into Neverwinter once daily for 2-3 minutes to invoke (+1 token towards an epic quality healer companion at the end of a year) and send my profession minions off to farm cash store currency for me.  If possible, check the web portal roughly twelve hours later to refresh completed missions. I've bought an account-wide cash store mount this way, time will tell if all this farming eventually pays off in actually playing the game itself.
  3. Time-critical content (will be gone or massively harder forever, may need daily attention).  Last week, that meant several loose ends in Pandaria that I feared would be prohibitive after the patch; in particular, I pushed to finish all of the of the Siege of Ogrimmar LFR wings once so I could say I'd done them, as I feared this could be a huge mess after the patch due to nerfs to "smart" healing abilities.  
  4. Time-sensitive content (typically not unique/not gone forever, but significantly more valuable to play this game at this time).  Last week, this meant the Heroes of the Storm Alpha, which was offering double experience.  I could also see Heroes of the Storm occupying some time every 2-3 days due to how its daily quest rewards and weekly rotation work. Some of Marvel Heroes' weekly events qualify because I like either the event or the rewards.  A monthly visit to the Darkmoon Faire if I have a WoW subscription active falls into this category. 
  5. Other content.  Marvel Heroes has typically fit in here, but this accounts for less of my time as I finish leveling more and more of the game's playable characters.  Expansions - WoW? Rift? would fit here.  I.e. anything else that would ordinarily fit under the category of playing the games normally.
  6. Oh right, I have a blog that I used to post on, don't I?  Funny how you don't get this far down the list when you have a toddler.  See also, not getting around to new MMO launches.
Most of these trends have been around for a while now, and there are definitely days where I feel like some daily incentive is pushing too hard in the direction of having to play a certain type of content a certain way.  Then again, I suppose there are days when having a good idea of the most valuable use of my time can help dodge decision paralysis from having too many options.  It is what it is. 

Pay Not To Play, Revan Style
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 October 2014, 5:30 pm
"The sad truth with SWTOR is that I'd pay Bioware a fair amount of money - possibly as much as I've spent on the game during sporadic subscriptions - if they just removed the gameplay and offered an interactive movie version of the story in which my character just wins all the fights after I've chosen my dialog.  I suppose double exp is the next best thing in that at least I don't have to do any side quests, but this also does NOT motivate me to get back into the game when the exp drops back down to the normal rate."
- Me, back in March
Bioware has launched SWTOR's latest expansion pre-sale campaign with an odd pre-order exclusive - pay to get out of playing anything but your class story. Customers who pre-purchase the digital expansion for $20 and ALSO subscribe to the technically subscription-optional title will gain more than 12 times the usual rate of experience from their class story missions.  The boosted missions grant enough experience to reach the maximum level of 55 without doing any side-missions, PVP, dungeons, or other content to supplement their experience gain. 

Bioware's decision to offer eight distinct class stories - each with writing, production, and acting costs to rival a reasonably sized game - added significantly to SWTOR's notoriously high budget.  The investment largely failed to pay off, as players burned through the one-eighth of the story content available to their characters inside of a month and canceled their then-mandatory subscriptions.  The concept of movie-quality stories for each additional character sounded nice in principle, but in practice I was never able to get excited about taking characters to the same worlds in the same order to do (or work around) the same planetary storylines - sometimes with classes that played similarly - just to eventually earn a minute or two of conversation towards the class story plot. 

And thus the compromise - you still cannot get out of playing at least some SWTOR to see the story, but you can get out of playing most of SWTOR.  Only trouble is, that may still be more SWTOR than I'm willing to play, much less pay for.  Such is the peril of marketing NOT playing your title. 

A Waste of Draenor?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 September 2014, 5:23 pm
I'm on the fence about the schedule for WoW's upcoming expansion and 10th Anniversary celebrations.  I've long since ceased to make purchasing decisions a matter of principle, but I am concerned and a bit puzzled by the rushed pace that the calendar seems to be dictating.  

WoW's fifth expansion has taken so long to produce that it has bumped into the game's 10th anniversary.  An announcement this week clarified how the schedule will work - the expansion launches on November 13th, the anniversary window begins on November 21st, and the last opportunity to get the goodies will be on January 6th.

The centerpiece of the festivities is a revamped level 100 version of the classic Molten Core raid from WoW's launch.  Getting there will require that players purchase the expansion box - at an increased price of $50 compared to past $40 boxes - and gain the ten new levels in just under eight weeks.  (The preceding 90 levels are a moot point, as the new box includes one instant level 90 character upgrade credit.)  On a shallow level, this is a way to sell boxes and game time, but I wonder if this was a missed opportunity.

I sat out Pandaria's launch due to newborn, and thus incidentally got the expansion box for half off on Black Friday and got to experience the game with the 5.0 jitters polished out.  While I'm not opposed on principle to paying full price and showing up at launch, I probably won't enjoy the journey nearly as much with the deadline.  I also don't understand why it's in Blizzard's best interest to rush players to the new max level before month two of the new expansion cycle when they have yet to release an expansion in under 22 months.

Finally, there's the nostalgia factor.  The 10th anniversary should have been an opportunity to bring back millions of former players to see what Blizzard has done with the game in their absence.  Perhaps the cynical math says that $65 for the box and a month of game time is the best outcome Blizzard can expect from these customers.  Otherwise it would seem like slapping a large upfront purchase and a deadline is not the best on-ramp for people who may be one or more expansions behind the times.  Does it really make sense to take players who last saw their characters three talent overhauls ago, catapult them past all the current expansions, and rush them through the new one, landing them right back at the endgame that may have driven them from the game in the first place?

If anything, I'm thinking I might enjoy resubscribing for a month or two now with no particular pressure to do anything but play around in Azeroth since everything meaningful will be reset in two short months anyway.  There are pets to battle, stories to finish, mounts and achievements to collect, and any number of other things that I'll be rushing past if I do take part in the expansion rush. 

The Cost Of Letting Go
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 September 2014, 6:02 pm
Scott Jennings' pretty slideshow about the lifecycle of an MMO player already lured Spinks out of several weeks of retirement, so I suppose there's no harm in joining in.  His bottom line is that MMO design is not set up for players to come, enjoy the game, and leave.  I'm inclined to agree, but I don't see how to address or ultimately solve this problem. 

It's been a less-than-great news week in MMO's.  Wildstar, which by Tobold's estimate sold fewer than half a million copies, announced that they were dropping pre-launch promises of monthly updates and consolidating their remaining players onto "megaservers".  Most people who are actually playing Wildstar seemed to agree that something had to be done to consolidate the remaining playerbase, but objectively it's hard to see this as anything other PR-speak to avoid saying that they are merging servers.  No designer goes to the bother of launching with the 2004 server model and realizes out of the blue three months later that it might be better if everyone playing the game could actually play together, with the added bonus of removing pesky dedicated servers for roleplaying, non-English language EU servers, etc.  Meanwhile the Elder Scrolls, which was the other late spring release that was going to save the big budget subscription MMO business model, has announced layoffs

So why haven't the presumably intelligent people behind these projects caught on to Scott's simple advice to "let it go"?  Or perhaps is that exactly what Zenimax has done?

Re-defining MMO's to have a beginning, middle, and end and a tidy way for scaling as players come and go hits basically all stakeholders in the current genre. 
  • As Scott's slides describe, many old school MMO players are playing to be with their friends, not for the game on its own merits - for these players, accepting churn means that the experience they wanted is already gone.  
  • For investors funding these hundred million dollar projects, the reality that you won't turn each copy sold into $200/year in perpetual subscription revenue means that you can't recoup your investment.  
  • And for the developers - I assume this was Scott's audience - the logical consequence of his modest proposal is the ship-and-layoff-the-team model that single player games publishers have done for years. Some number of players will continue to pay to rent an online version of the Elder Scrolls to use like a single player title, it may not be possible to retain the rest no matter how much you spend on continued development, so why NOT launch with a solid base to monetize and then cut your losses on any continued development expenses?
I've spent the majority of my gaming time and budget in 2014 on Marvel Heroes, which I play functionally as a single player title, so I suppose I'm the market that you gun for under Scott's approach.  This approach, however, has its costs.  In over a year post-launch, Marvel Heroes has added only a single new story chapter - the new one for last year's Thor movie takes me about 30 minutes to replay - so the beginning, middle, and end may be closer together than most players will be prepared to tolerate.  It does not appear that the team has suffered layoffs, but hero releases and events feel increasingly rushed, while everything else is routinely delayed by weeks or months as the team focuses on additions that actually bring in more revenue.

I'm not disagreeing with Scott, as nothing about the decade post-WoW suggests the old ways work - clinging to shipwreck debris might seem better than nothing but won't save you from the whirlpool threatening to suck you to the bottom of the ocean.  The challenge is that from where we are today the cost of letting go is obvious - either you end up somewhere completely different from old virtual world MMO's (as I have), you jump on a bandwagon likely headed for catastrophic failure, or you gamble your money on a crowd funding project that will take years before potentially ending in catastrophic failure.  It's just not clear where the other side of the maelstrom leads. 

(P.S. On that cautionary note about crowd funding, Camelot Unchained announced this week that it was delaying its alpha by six months, with a vague promise that the over nine thousand backers who pre-paid for alpha access over a year ago will be compensated with some combination of founder's rewards, in-game currency, and game subscription time if it slips further.  The unspoken assumption is that there will eventually be a launched game in which to grant these compensation measures.) 

Canada Day Resolutions for 2014
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 July 2014, 5:08 pm
Despite not being Canadian, Canada Day Resolutions used to be a thing here on PVD, since I often found myself reviewing my progress on my New Year's resolutions on a day that coincided with the Canadian national holiday.  Last year I didn't cover Canada day due to being on summer vacation, and this year I was in the middle of an international move and didn't feel postured to write New Year's resolutions in January, but no need to let these details stand in the way of tradition.

Pursue 2580 Total Hero Levels In Marvel Heroes

Through a combination of purchases, promotions, and in-game awards, I'm rapidly closing on unlocking every hero in the game. Thirteen sit at max level and another five have hit at least level 50 for their second tier synergies.   Without specifically trying, this puts me over halfway to the game's current total level cap (2100 for the 35 current heroes at 60), and just shy of halfway when you include the eight announced characters (six remaining Advance Pack characters, Nova, and X-23 for a total of 2580). 

I'm hesitant to commit to this kind of goal for fear that I will get tired of it, and perhaps that's a fair concern, but clearly chain-leveling characters in Marvel Heroes has managed to hold my interest.  Meanwhile, later characters are definitely getting easier due to steadily increasing amounts of bonuses as the game keeps adding new systems.  We'll see how far I can get.

My current roster: I can immediately purchase four of the seven greyed out portraits, as I currently have 1400 splinters.  I will need 1000 more for the other three, plus 600 for Nova and X-23.
Neverwinter - To 60 But Actually Playing?
Level 30 in Neverwinter was enough of a headstart to get working on the several out-of-game minigames, similar to Star Trek Online's duty officer system.  These are good fun, and it seems highly likely that I will hit the game's level cap through experience gained from these mini-games alone.   A better, and unanswered, question is whether I will ever get back to playing the actual game, or just stick to the minigames as I did in STO.  Not sure if that's good or bad feedback for Cryptic, but there you have it. 

Clear out the PS3 line-up
I passed on the PS4 last year, in part because of looming move and in part because there wasn't much on the release calendar for the holidays that I couldn't just get for my existing PS3 instead.  A year later, the math is flipped - many of the older PS3 games I had yet to beat are now available in re-mastered editions on the PS4, so it's only a few last hold-outs between me and retiring my PS3, possibly for the shiny white bundle with Destiny.  The titles in question are the last few chapters of Uncharted 3 along with all of Infamous 2 (both of which I already own) and Batman: Arkham Origins (which I technically could purchase on the PC if push came to shove).

I have a new set of multi-platform gaming headphones, so I'm feeling good about my odds.

Other MMO's?
And then things are open ended. 
  • I own some prepaid time for SWTOR that I won't use until the next mini-expansion that has adventuring content (apologies to those who are eagerly awaiting the housing mini-expansion).  
  • Honestly, I'm more likely to jump on the Blizzard MOBA than the next WoW expansion, but I'll keep my eyes out for steep Black Friday discounts.  
  • I won't look at either TESO or Wildstar until they offer a free trial, and honestly neither is likely to make the cut with me as a subscription title. 
  • EQ2, Rift, TSW and the Turbine games also seem to be out by default.  EQ2 has the best shot at a come-back, but since they went digital only their expansions are no longer available at a discount, and I'd need to buy an expansion to continue playing my character.  
  • FFXIV is a possible contender.  I left that game with generally favorable impressions, but also feeling that I was starting to need more structured group content to advance.  This would be a deal-killer with my schedule these days.  Maybe in a patch or two, as I hear they are going to have ninjas. 
Could actually be a year where I do almost nothing in traditional MMO's?  We'll see.

Happy Canada Day, and/or best mid-year wishes as appropriate!  

Technically Alpha Of The Storm
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 June 2014, 5:29 pm
I've never heard of a "technical alpha" before an email from Blizzard indicating that I was now part of one for the upcoming MOBA Heroes of the Storm.  My first take was that it was a Phishing scam, as I had not heard of anyone else in this test, but I typed in by hand and sure enough, my account was flagged for what it described as a "beta".  There's probably a definition somewhere that isn't "this is what used to be called a beta, but that term now has so much marketing hype that we have to technically call it an alpha", but no matter.

(Also, despite being technically alpha, there is no NDA - Blizzard continues to show admirable lack of fear of showing their cards with extended public testing.)  

The Game
So far, I'm liking what I'm seeing.  I was never the core MOBA demographic, but for the occasional pop-in PVE against bots I can see little reason why I'd ever use League of Legends for that purpose now that Heroes of the Storm is arriving.  I'm sure the competitive players greatly enjoy the strategy of forcing the other player out of lane to heal or finding a time when it's safe to return to base to spend your accumulated gold on necessary item upgrades.  I'll take Heroes' talent system (pick one of several abilities every few levels) and healing fountains (which the enemy can destroy) any day. 

The engine is smooth, the UI is clean and polished, and the game is full of Blizzard's attention to detail and sense of humor.  In an era where we show players stories rather than telling them, I'd much rather be playing characters I know from over a decade of Blizzard's lore than possibly deep League backstories that never really intrude into the game itself. 

The game starts with a tutorial in which Uther explains quickly to Jim Raynor how he has ended up in a world of cross-franchise battles, and then it's off to the races. 

The Business
A testing bundle of ten heroes for just under $30

The "invite" (there was no key or I would have considered raffling it off, they automatically applied it to my account) is somewhat wasted on me due to how the game's incentives work.  Like Hearthstone and League of Legends, you earn rewards including an alternate currency for unlocking stuff as you play the game.  Thus, there's little to no reason why I'd invest significant time on this test only to see my progress reset when the game goes live.  Likewise, there is a partially functional cash shop up and running for in-game purchases, but these purchases will be "refunded" dollar for dollar in Blizzard credit; there's zero reason I'd take that deal since I might want to spend more or less money if offerings change between now and launch.  

What is in the cash shop will be relatively familiar to League players.  Characters run for $4-10 or some amount of in-game currency.  These are allegedly based in part on the complexity of the character and seemingly with little basis in popularity - Raynor and Malfurion sit in the $4 tier, most characters including Tassadar, Illidan, and Diablo sit at the $7.50 price point, and only a handful, most prominently Kerrigan, occupy the $10 tier.  Cosmetic skins are pricier, generally either $7.50 or, $10 and not available with in-game currency, but are reasonably well done and very clever.  In addition to minor or comedic variations, there are cross-franchise outfits -  Kerrigan as a WoW succubus, or Uther as a Starcraft Terran Medic - and alternate realities such as Arthas as a human and a fallen demonic Tyrael.  Once you own the skin, you can unlock color variants in-game only.  There are also apparently cosmetic mount variants (everyone gets a free basic horse), including a $20 rainbow unicorn, because why not. 
You can take the healbot out of Azeroth....
A promising first look....
It may be technically alpha, but it looks well polished.  League will survive fine due to its massive userbase, but I'd be very worried if I was running any less prominent MOBA when this game hits wider release. 

All In On Wildstar Attunements: Legacy of the Burning Crusade
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 June 2014, 5:17 pm
I have the advantage of a healthy level of distance from Wildstar and its raid attunement system.  I'm not playing the game and wouldn't be raiding if I did, so I can't say if what they're doing is either good or the way it should be.  Based on what I'm reading from Syl and Liore it sounds like an old-school system in which players will have do do all the content multiple times to be allowed in the door for raids.  I think I can see why the studio would want to do this, though there's also a significant risk; if the plan does not pan out, neither the model nor its current target audience will be amenable to changes.

Can Targeting the Top Work?
Reacting to the steep requirements, Syl writes:
What attunements absolutely shouldn’t be is a way to divide your playerbase and essentially make it excruciatingly frustrating to nigh impossible for the more casual crowd, which constitutes the majority of your paying customers, to ever experience endgame or raid content. It makes no sense to create content for your top 1% or even top 5% and that’s a lesson Blizzard learned down the line, to a point where even flex raids have become a reality.
History may argue for the opposite.  The majority of MMO's in the last five years, assuming they managed to launch an endgame at all, have drastically reduced or eliminated both hard requirements (you must complete this attunement to zone in) and soft requirements (you must have X gearscore, but we're resetting the gear curve every patch) to enter compared to days of old.  Excluding the two titles that launched in the last two months (for which the jury is still out), none of these titles have done especially well at retaining their subscription base, and have instead been forced to relaunch with different business models.  Yes, Blizzard continues to release raids, but I don't see the increasing efforts to  lower raid difficulty as a vote of confidence.  Instead, it seems a reaction as more and more people and guilds either refuse to play them in the traditional formats or struggle to field the requisite rosters. 

Business models are not a democracy, so the percentages don't matter.  What matters is whether the content you are creating is retaining your revenue stream or not.  A possible explanation of the trend, which I believe is what Carbine is banking on, is that it may not make sense to invest the time to develop raid content for the less dedicated crowd, because they are leaving in a few months anyway. 

If there was no top 1-5% then you could always price out a cut-rate option that would fit within in the budget, but there's an additional cost.  Making a raid game that looks like what WoW has today makes the game not worth playing for that 1-5%.  Five percent of WoW's over ten million peak would be over half a million subscribers, which would put Wildstar in solid territory by any measure. 

Legacy of the Burning Crusade
Raiders will often swear that WoW's first expansion, the Burning Crusade, was the pinnacle of the genre.  I don't believe this is solely nostalgia, as TBC existed at a unique time in history.  WoW opened the genre up to players who wanted to spend some or all of their time soloing, but at that point they faced little or no competition to retain those dollars.  This left Blizzard free to do what Carbine may be attempting to do with Wildstar - pocket money from the majority, accept the risk that these people will run out of content faster than you can produce it and leave, and spend your effort on the minority who will only stick around with a robust raid game that's not feasible if budgeted solely on a per-capita basis.

That said, it's a different risk today than it was in January 2007.  As other companies finally caught up to Blizzard's lead, WoW faced real competition for solo players dollars for the first time from titles like the newly launched LOTRO and the largely re-launched solo-friendly incarnation of EQ2.  After cramming three full tiers of raids into the first four months of TBC, Blizzard spent much of the remaining time in that expansion, and arguably most of the time since, trying to make the game more accessible.  You don't make that kind of change to a 10 million subscriber cash cow because things are trending in the way you wanted. 

All In for Wildstar may mean All In
Wildstar launches in an era where the risk is that the majority of players will leave in the first 90 days regardless of anything they do.  Posturing to anticipate who will be left when the dust settles - trying to be good at one thing, rather than mediocre at all things that WoW does - could be a better plan than many games have tried.  The problem with catering to the top 1-5%, though, is that you don't have a lot of room to run in if you're not liking your numbers.  When you're that far off the median MMO player, you'll render the endgame completely useless to its existing demographic long before you make it even slightly acceptable to the median. 

(The same is true of the business model; despite being the heaviest users of games and demanding a disproportionate level of effort on their content, raiding players are generally the least tolerant of any model in which they would pay a higher share of the development and operating expenses.  If you add anything that raiders would actually want, they are quick to accuse your title of being "pay to win".  IE, if Wildstar does have a secret plan to go free-to-play in six months after pocketing the launch box prices, they should probably be focusing on other demographics.)

The real test for whether Carbine can win their bet is not whether dedicated raiders continue to pay their $15, but whether they actually willing to back up their desire for this old school system with their own time.  Forcing players to rehash the content endlessly to flag their guildmates is not a side effect of this system, it's the entire point.  Those guild groups will be short a player or two and that will create the rare opportunity for new players to enter the system.  If the Wildstar elite take the position that neither the PUG masses nor lower tier content that no longer offers worthwhile drops are an acceptable use of their time, the system will collapse. 

That's where I'd look - not to declarations that the system is demographically unjust or that games should be allowed to try different things - but to whether raiders are willing to run PUG's.  If the system works, it'll stick around.  If the system never reaches critical mass, both the elite raid community and possibly the entire game could be in a very tough spot. 

Looking Back on Marvel Heroes
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 June 2014, 6:34 pm
I spent $20 and maybe a dozen hours on the launch of Marvel Heroes.  I returned in November and have spent $270 since (including pre-purchase of post upcoming content slightly into next year), playing Marvel Heroes as my primary title for most of the time since December.  The good and bad of the game as it stands today:

Atmosphere, Gameplay
This game is a licensed property - I can't speak to whether you'll like it if you don't like the source material.  If you do like the material, it's in good hands - including a week-long review process at Marvel for stuff being added to the game.  Characters look like they should, almost always sound as they should (some voice acting is better than others, par for the course), and usually play as they should. 

In one example, they could have half-assed a magic user like Dr. Strange by re-coloring existing projectiles, and they instead spent time and effort on elaborate animations - portals with demons, swarms of magical homing daggers, a giant floating eye - to make him look more like the Sorcerer Supreme.  (One catch - heroes are priced largely based on level of development effort, so characters like Dr. Strange, and Ghost Rider who had a ton of work for his flaming motorcycle, end up costing more.)  The team has also taken the time to go re-review the launch-era heroes - one at a time - to bring them up to current standards at zero additional cost to players who already own that character. 

The gameplay is relatively standard action-RPG combat, with lots of dodging out of damage zones and occasional screen-filling explosions of particle effects.  The Marvel feel is here again, including a storyline that romps through a relatively timeless version of Marvel's major villains.  Personally, I enjoy repeating the story on all of the different characters to see how they handle the same content (which I now know very well) differently.  The action setting also includes shorter levels with more frequent opportunities to sign off and resume your progress later compared to Diablo III.  I feel that I can make progress in a 10-minute session or sit down on a rare occasion and power a character through the entire story in a few hours.

The Business
The game's business model has also seen an overhaul.  At launch, the cash store was all over the place, playable heroes were the priciest items, and just about anything could drop in game with no real way to farm what you wanted.  Today, heroes are cheaper across the board, and a new currency based entirely on time /played can be used to unlock any hero in the game.  The flip side, which the developers have been much more reticent to confirm, has been that everything else, from respec potions to costumes, have been drastically slashed on the loot tables. 

The new model makes sense - personally, my playtime drops off when I start running out of characters I want to play, and that costs the developers the chance to sell me other stuff.   I can also see how someone who focused on a single character and didn't care as much about cosmetic stuff is now looking at increased costs because things no longer drop at any reasonable rate.

This is also, as you might gather from my top line numbers, a potentially pricey game.  If you wanted to purchase just the playable heroes and team-ups released from December through May when there isn't a sale on, you're looking at over $90 without paying for any storage or costumes, i.e. $15/month.  Longer term promotions don't really save you much money but you can expect significantly more stuff - including storage and an alternate costume for each new hero as they are released.  I'm actually in a bit of a dead spot in the business model where I get squeezed harder than most.  Very infrequent players get a lot of playtime without paying at all, and players who get in 40+ hours a week walk away with enough splinters to unlock every character in-game for free.  I play just enough to want new characters faster than I can earn them. 

Also, the marketing team has always focused heavily on aggressive promotions, and recent months have seen a major rise in small but desired bonuses (exclusive costumes and team-ups, permanent experience boosts, etc) for very large purchases of $100 or more.  Thus far the extras have been optional, but the quality and frequency of these promotions is increasing.  A game's business model can't be a democracy, but that doesn't make it fun when it's pointed out that there's a lot of stuff they just won't sell to players who spend $300 per year, in order to make a market for players who spend over $1000 per year. 

The game's developers will readily admit that the initial launch had problems - customer service had to manually flagging accounts for access during launch, the game's first client patcher was routinely redownloading 10GB of data until tech support began telling people to go download the game from Steam instead, and there were huge issues with basic functionality like tracking quests across multiple characters and landing only halfway to the cap after a first trek through story mode. 

The good news is that the game has come a long way and seen a lot added.  Patches with various amounts of stuff arrive monthly, and events of one sort or another run on most weekends.  At least one new playable hero, ready or not, will arrive every month.  And there's the other side of the coin - the team is reasonably good at following up on new releases, but the production cycle is very aggressive, with under a week of public testing for most releases, and new paid characters seldom miss their mark.  Anything that isn't a new paid character is likely to take at least twice as long as the developers say it will to release. 

It's hard to say how harsh to be on this topic.  Blizzard fails to follow through on both its preliminary designs and its time-tables; with frequent releases in Marvel Heroes that aren't held to fill an expansion box, it's more noticeable when features were promised for their actual target date and end up slipping by weeks or months.  Sometimes, small but significant issues even get held up because the team decided to tackle something larger - for example, Life Leech cores were deemed to be overpowered so the developers disabled them from dropping in game and said they would be nerfed in a subsequent review.  The review took something like four months, during which the best costume cores in the game no longer dropped in the game. 

The studio is in the midst of re-branding the title "Marvel Heroes 2015" to match the naming convention of annual sports franchises and attempt to earn re-reviews from game reviewing outlets.  Given the hiccups that they experience on almost every patch, they might want to be careful what they wish for - Simcity still owns a 64 Metacritic score and a 2.1 user rating due largely to server issues (and the company's poor handling thereof) from the launch weekend over a year ago. 

Overall, I'm playing the game and spending money on the game.  The mechanic of collecting new heroes (some with cash, some earned in-game) and benchmarking them against familiar content is fun for me.  Familiarity with the IP means that I start each new character with some impression of who they are and what they do, and the drop-in style of gameplay works with my lifestyle.  I feel okay about what I've spent thus far, but I do have some concerns. 

Looking into 2015, the team will be releasing increasingly lower-profile characters, and I could see character designs beginning to blur together as roster sizes increase.  I have concerns about how the number of vertical progression systems they are adding to the game will scale over time.  At some point I won't find what they're offering to be worth what they're asking, and because of how I play the game that will likely mean giving up on the game entirely rather than cutting back (i.e. playing with a very limited flow of new characters will no longer be fun). 

As I said up top, this is the first time in several years that I've spent six straight months almost entirely in a single game.  So far, that counts for something. 

Balancing Power And Fun
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 May 2014, 5:40 pm
I had a difference of opinion with a member of my supergroup concerning the Invisible Woman.  He argued that she plays like a weaker version of Cyclops with more support skills, and is further disappointing because she spends less time in stealth than other stealthy characters.  These points may be true, in particular at high level content, but I'm having a lot of fun playing her anyway.

Part of the comparison to Cyclops is that Invisible Woman has a basic attack power that ricochets.  This means you can spam the attack infinitely and it will bounce automatically between a large hostile and inanimate targets.  The damage isn't super high - similar powers that cost spirit to use, such as Captain America's shield toss or Nightcrawler's self-teleporting-projectile Blink Strike, do more damage, but the convenience can't be beat.  Invisible Woman also has some of my other favorite abilities that are commonly found on other characters, including a ground targeted damage over time effect (mob AI is not any better than MMO players at getting out of the fire) and a swarm of auto-targeting force spheres.  Collectively, she can clear out a room of trash very quickly. 

Which gets us back to the other point about stealth/invisibility or lack thereof.  The bad news is that my colleague is technically accurate that Invisible Woman starts combat from stealth (she is automatically and permanently invisible any time she is out of combat) but once she is fighting she typically does ranged combat like other non-stealthy characters.  She can escape into stealth by kiting for a few seconds, but other characters can get out at the click of a spammable button that's also part of their DPS rotation.  But ironically the good news is that you never need to fight any trash if you don't feel like doing so.  Mobs will emote because the AI doesn't know to turn that off just because because the mob can't see you, but you can easily, effortlessly and painlessly skip everything you don't feel like fighting.  This is also true for characters who can teleport, and to a lesser extent to any hero willing to repeatedly dodge-roll for their life across the entire map, but this is a ton more work.

Maybe the appeal for me is that she's the ideal character if you're too lazy to work at avoiding and/or targeting the enemy? 

Getting back to the bigger picture, every game now has way more character variety than you can feasibly balance.  Whether it's dozens of specializations for a smaller number of classes as in WoW or maybe only one or two builds for a really large number of playable characters in Marvel Heroes, it's inevitable that some will be better than others.  It's probably okay for some of the less optimal choices to be fun despite this, though I guess that can be a problem in a game where a significant amount of progress is tracked separately for each character (i.e. you can't really use Invisible Woman to farm gear for Wolverine), or if you felt really strongly about a particular character due to the IP.  Then again, sometimes having the game be relatively easy on the baseline leaves room for a less optimal character build to still get by with enough synergies and bonuses. (Another example is Emma Frost's diamond combat build, which is widely panned and sounded bad on paper, but I liked it better than her popular mental DPS build)

At the end of the day, it is not in the developer's interest for any of the characters to be bad, as they're making money selling all of them.  Novelty characters are possible, but probably limited (and I don't know that anyone would have picked Sue Storm for this).  Maybe this particular character is under-tuned (in fairness, her DPS does seem slightly low), but should the fun factor count for something? 

1000 Total Levels In Marvel Heroes
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 May 2014, 5:25 pm
I hit a milestone in Marvel Heroes over the long weekend, gaining my 1000th combined level. 

The levels are split between 26 different heroes, some of whom are relatively low level, in particular characters who are awaiting their post-launch reworks.  Overall it's 10 characters at level 60, 5 more inactive characters parked at level 50 or 52, and then a small handful of characters I actually consider active.  There are a total of 2040 levels in game amongst the 34 released heroes, with a new 60-level hero added every month, so I'm not even half way to the total cap (especially since the higher levels go slower than the low levels do). 

One odd bit of irony here is that I almost prefer to play when there is NOT an weekly event experience boost in effect.  I have so many different ways to increase my exp gain that I don't have trouble getting my levels and I do sometimes have trouble not outleveling content.  My "baseline" is over 150%, as I'm running at 123% synergy bonus plus 10% for Cyclops and 25% for an experience boon (which will run out in just over five days of /played time outside of hubs due to boon parties).  On top of that, I have the following consumables:
  • 16 of the common 50% exp boosts (32 hours total, I would "store" these by consuming all of them - which I've done with the 50% rare item find boosts - except that sometimes I want it to expire).  The overwhelming majority of these come from quest rewards - three per character. 
  • Triple iridium 50% boosts (6 of these for a total of 12 hours, and these are comparatively more valuable because they stack with the regular boosts.  Mine came from the most recent fortune cards)
  • 100% rush bars (available in exp only - reasonably common and I have 9 of these - or triple iridium, where I have a whopping 14 due to the recent cards and promo codes, i.e. 23 hours of 100% bonus)
All told, I can get above 350% bonus exp with a couple of mouse clicks and stay at that level for at least twelve hours /played before stuff starts falling off, and all of that is multiplicative with any server bonuses.   Thus the reduced enthusiasm for server exp events.  Then again, it does seem like the events are so frequent and so impactful that it's almost anticlimactic to play when there is NOT an event available. 

So that's where I am going into the game's touted 1st birthday.  I'd say expectations - speculation runs anywhere from free G's for the cash shop to a surprise hero - are unrealistically high, but they have done a pretty impressive job with past events.  Guess we'll know in a bit over a week. 

Auction Errors and Cash Currency
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 May 2014, 6:09 pm
If you've used player auction houses in an MMO, chances are you have experienced significant pricing errors from both sides of the equation - as the player who screwed up and listed an item for a fraction of its value, and as the person fortunate enough to grab a major windfall as a result.  As interactions between cash shops and tradeable currency/items increase, the stakes feel somewhat higher.  

I snagged an item I've been camping on Neverwinter's auction house that typically sells for around $30 worth of Astral Diamonds for a mere $1 worth of AD.  This was almost certainly a pricing error on the part of the seller - opening the lock boxes that the item drops from requires a key that costs $1.50 worth of AD so it's pretty unlikely that anyone would sell any of the good prizes for less than the cost of a single key.    

I haven't equipped the thing yet.  I've done nothing wrong here, and I probably wouldn't think twice about it if it were just in-game gold - as I said, everyone makes these mistakes, you live and you learn.  The thing that bugs me is that this currency is so close to effectively real money.  It's possible that $20 worth of diamonds really matters to the person who made the error, because they don't have much money to spend on games.  Back in the subscription days, everyone could be assumed to have the $15/month price of admission on hand, and capitalizing on someone's mistake for gold was not going to take away something that they paid money for. 

Should the mechanics of auction houses be different when there's sort-of money at stake?  Or is it best to let people learn from their hard knocks? 

Neverwinter: When are Stats Cosmetic?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 May 2014, 6:40 pm
My Neverwinter character has advanced steadily through level 31, halfway to the game's level cap.  If you're looking for a decent single player experience with little (though probably not zero) money down, the game seems to fit the bill.  If you play MMO's because you are seeking to fill every gear slot on your character with a reasonable quality item, you're in for an expensive and frustrating haul.  The question I can't quite answer yet is to what extent your stats matter.

The Gameplay
According to the game's map, I've seen fewer than half of the zones, though some of these areas may be dungeons and/or level 60 endgame areas.  The game plays roughly like other recent MMO's, with click-to-attack, a requirement to play in mouse-look mode (which is clunky when it comes to actually using anything on the UI), and lots of dodge-rolling in response to red danger zones on the ground. 

One innovation on this point is that you are not actually required to get OUT of the red area - as long as you perform a dodge roll, the game will treat you as having dodged that attack, so you can get back to killing and don't need to worry about failing to travel far enough for whatever reason.  (I guess this is technically consistent with Dungeons and Dragons rules, where making a saving throw against something does not necessarily physically move the character out of the way?)  I don't generally play rogue type characters, but with all the rolling around that you have to do regardless and less penalty than normal for being caught in melee range, an agile character just feels right in this particular game.

Mechanics aside, it's a reasonably high production value game with about the requisite quests, some voice acting and cut-scenes, and basic MMO features.  I haven't had trouble soloing on the rogue with a healing NPC companion - more on this in a minute - and thus far I haven't hit major roadblocks.  Things could go downhill but overall it seems like the game is not out to stop me from getting to the level cap.

Filling the gearslots
I happened to have some Astral Diamonds I didn't have to pay for courtesy of some promotional codes, but if I had not I probably would not have spent money on the game to this point.  I don't know where the cutoff is, but I expect that trying to get all the way to level cap without paying would be less pleasant.  Even at this early level, pretty much everything can be upgraded to somehow boost your stats. The cost (generally in real money) of gear, item quality, etc, could be a major issue for someone approaching the game with an MMO min-max mindset.  A few examples:
  • Almost all equipment has slots for enhancements.  Refining enhancements (done by feeding them other unwanted enhancements and then using a consumable item that is not readily available without diamonds) is costly, and it's not clear that it's worthwhile; I'm finding rank 3-4 enhancements in loot now, so spending diamonds to upgrade my rank 1's would not have been a good plan.
  • Players can equip one artifact for stats and a special effect (like trinkets in other games), and two additional artifacts at max level for stats only.  Costly upgrades are required to increase these in quality from green to blue and blue to purple.  (There is also a purely cosmetic and even more costly upgrade to level 100 that does not appear to grant any additional stats, only change the tooltip to legendary orange status.)  
  • Each character can have one active NPC companion and 2-4 additional companions (the slots unlock with levels 30 and 60) for passive stat bonuses.  In addition to costs to obtain the companions, these guys also have quality tiers that affect both the companion's rank cap and their passive bonuses. 
My top priority with my Diamonds was to obtain a healer NPC.  Neverwinter characters don't have significant passive healing or food to heal up between combat, so either your character or your active companion just about has to be some kind of Cleric if you intend to solo.   You receive a white quality Cleric for free at level 16, but this character is capped at rank 15 out of 30 due to its low quality; by most accounts, soloing at high levels will be unpleasant. 

I don't know if you absolutely need to go all the way to Purple quality and rank 30 (though each companion has a third special ability that requires this rank), but paradoxically the cost of upgrading that companion was actually significantly higher (300K for white to green, 500K for green to blue, and 750K for blue to purple) than just buying a purple healer from a past promotion (about 600K) and not having to worry about the problem.  This solution costs around $12 depending on the current exchange rate, and I'd consider it a near must have. 

If I was paying out of pocket, I'm not sure what, if anything, I would buy.  Since I didn't pay for my diamonds, I did spend a chunk on an upgraded mount, which moves twice as fast and can take significant more hits, in exchange for looking like a steampunk scorpion-mech.  I spent my remaining diamonds on additional companions who offer passive bonuses I wanted to slot on my character for adventuring, while also providing a party of four companions to play the Sword Coast Adventures minigame on the web portal. 

There are fees for storage, though I haven't had issues here.  There are fees for respecing, but I either didn't screw up my build that badly or else haven't done anything hard enough for it to matter.  The real place where the cost will be problematic would be if the game gets to the point where it's hard to scrape together enough DPS with non-upgraded gear.  Of course, I don't care about PVP or even dungeons, so it's easier for me to shrug this side of the game off.  If you play MMO's to acquire gear, this system - bearing in mind that acquiring the currency naturally is not especially convenient to create demand for currency resales, could be a deal-breaker.

A side effect to grabbing the cheapest purple quality healer and mount I could find is having a giant scorpion mech for a mount and a Lamia with a sword-harp for a companion.  This tasteful stuff doesn't exactly fit the lore as far as I was aware, but at least it's not costing me anything out of pocket.

Currency Re-selling in Neverwinter
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 May 2014, 5:36 pm
A double exp weekend finally got me to try out Neverwinter a year into its run - I played a few hours in beta, had no particular problem with the game, and just didn't get back to it until now.  I was a bit surprised to find that the business model appears to emphasize currency resale on a scale I would have associated more with an underwhelming Neal Stephenson book.  By making the game's primary currency extremely inconvenient to farm, Cryptic has somehow carved out a niche where it puts non-payers to work farming currency to sell to people in exchange for cash store currency (which they pay Cryptic for in real money).  

The Economies of Neverwinter
Neverwinter's primary currency is tied into the game's business model in a way that isn't possible for games that had to retrofit a payment model revamp post launch.  If you were to take WoW non-subscription today, you'd have years of player experience that gold is the currency for all player and many non-player transactions, and you'd have a massive inventory of gold already in the economy to deal with.  Instead, Neverwinter started with a clean slate.  Some context on the various economies:
  • There is gold in the game, looted from mobs and used to pay NPC's for some things (primarily common consumables), but notably is NOT the currency for the auction house.  
  • There is a cash store, with a currency called Zen (common name for all Perfect World games, though the actual funds cannot be transferred).  This contains all the usual stuff - bags, mounts, outfits, etc.  There are some places where the game mentions that you can buy stuff with Zen, but it's nowhere near as common as many other titles.   
  • There are the obligatory tokens used to barter for gear.  These at least go into a currency tab as far as I can tell. 
  • The game includes the ubiquitous obnoxious item gambling lock boxes, which you have to manually destroy out of your inventory because they are the only item in the game that is automatically picked up upon walk-over (like gold).  Like many other titles where these have a bad name, there is zero transparency about drop rates and a server wide spam message claiming that someone has won the top prizes, though I see many less of these than I do in other games. 
  • The game does NOT include an optional subscription, charges for content, etc. 
All of which brings us to Astral Diamonds. 

Using and Trading Diamonds
Diamonds are the currency for the auction house, and the majority things that you would expect to pay for in an MMO, including consumable components of crafting, tier upgrades for gear/mounts/companions, along with some free-to-play additions like instantly refreshing cooldowns in most mini-game systems. 

The primary source of diamonds are a variety of daily quests or other objectives.  The currency is routinely looted in quantities of a few hundred or maybe a thousand, is routinely spent in the hundreds of thousands or even millions on the auction house, and can't really be farmed short of planning your entire life around logging in every hour to take advantage of every last event and cooldown that offers diamonds as a reward (which still has a hard cap of 24,000 diamonds per day).  The only quick way to obtain more diamonds is to pay other players. 

In addition to the auction house, where players can trade items (including many cash store items, as long as they aren't account-wide), there is a separate currency exchange used to swap between the Zen - which you can purchase from Perfect World at any time - and Astral Diamonds, which are farmed by players.  The exchange rate floats based on supply and demand.  The upshot is:
  • Completely free players (and I suppose anyone willing and able to play the AH for profit) can eventually acquire enough Zen to buy any item they desire from the cash shop
  • Because people who are actually paying are such a minority, the supply of diamonds for sale is constantly increasing and thus the amount of diamonds a player can expect to get if they are willing to buy and resell some Zen are perpetually increasing
  • $20 worth of diamonds almost always gets you more stuff and more interesting stuff than the $20 worth of Zen; also, the NPC prices aren't subject to inflation
It's an odd setup, but apparently players are more willing to tolerate this approach than having Cryptic cut out the middle man and sell the diamonds outright.  There's a niche for the clever, a way to monetize players who are never paying a cent of their own money, and a way for the player who does not want to be bothered to solve the problem with their wallet.  Clearly it's working for Cryptic well enough for the game to stay up and running.  Whether this approach can fly in the long run with inflation is another matter. 

The Give and Take of Marvel Heroes Promotions
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 April 2014, 9:22 am
Marvel Heroes is throwing the biggest "10 month" celebration I'm aware of in an MMO, continuing an impressive trend of high value give-aways and live events.  They're also running yet another presale promotion in a way that leaves me less than thrilled with their marketing practices. 

The Freebies
If you are currently or have ever played Marvel Heroes, you want to go to the account profile tab on the game's website and enter the following promotional codes ASAP:
  • RNDMHRO - Provides a token that either unlocks a random playable character (retail cost: $4.50/$9.00/$13.50) or upgrades the random character's ultimate power if you already own them.  These are also handed out this weekend with the purchase of a hero (standalone only, not bundled) in the game's cash store for the above prices.  Your odds get worse as you own more heroes, but it's a heck of a freebie.   
  • RNDMCSTM - Provides a free random costume (retail cost: $4.50-$19.50) for a random character.  If it's a dupe you can apply a different set of stat affixes to it, or grind for an item used to re-roll three unwanted costumes for a random costume. These are also handed out this weekend with the purchase of any costume in the cash shop.  
  • PEWPEWPEW, VENGEANCE, FASTBALL, NOTASKRULL, REDWHITEBLUE: Free one-hour Iridium Triple Rush bars.  Gives 100% rare find, special find, and exp for 1 hour (additionals can be stacked for severe diminishing returns, or you can wait for the first to expire which is generally better).
  • InfiniteRetconWeek - Grants one free retcon device for respeccing your character.  It's described as infinite because Retcons are not consumed on use for the next week to allow people to respec after a large number of balance changes in this week's patch.
  • SPRCNDY2, possible also SPRCNDY (last week's code, but it may still work if you haven't used it) - Grants an easter consumable that grants +70% to various things for 70 minutes, not sure how these stack with other consumables.
In addition to all of these things, logging in every day this week results in a flood of event items good for vendor exp, fortune cards, eternity splinters, and other consumables.  If you are reading this on Saturday, log in ASAP, as today's gift includes an easter basket with at least one free unique item and generally at least two cosmics for your current hero, a four hour pentaboost, a level 60 cosmic medallion, and the Cowbell runeword if you missed it last month. 

My odds of getting a new hero were slim due to how much of the roster I currently own, but I lucked out and got Punisher - not a priority obviously or I would have him by now, but a heck of a freebie.  Also got the grey Black Widow costume (costs $7.50), which is low on my list, but there are very few costumes I actually want so this was pretty much guaranteed to be fodder for the random re-roll anyway. 

With this much stuff to celebrate 10 months, what are they planning for one year? 

The new bundle
The team has also kicked off a new pre-order bundle for the new team-up hero feature.  I have mixed feelings.
  • A marketing email announcing the pack was factually inaccurate.  The bundle claimed to be at least 50% off of retail price at its $40 price tag, but it also claimed that you are buying eight team-ups and getting a ninth team-up and an enhanced costume for free.  Both statements cannot be true at the same time - the highest price for eight team-ups is under $60, so you can't get to the $80 MSRP without including the "free" bonuses.  The websites have since picked one or the other.   
  • I pre-ordered the year's worth of heroes in December knowing that Team-ups were coming and would be available for the in-game Eternity Splinter currency (which I would not be spending on the heroes I just paid for).  Then the feature arrived, and it turns out that they cost twice as many Splinters as comparably priced playable heroes would, which means that you're wasting a huge amount of splinters unless you're never going to pay cash for another playable hero.  So I bought the cash store currency, G's, at a sale a bit over a week ago.  They don't accept G's for pre-order bundles, so now I either buy the new bundle on top of the money I already gave them for the G's or else spend nearly $40 worth of G's for half of the team-ups in this bundle.  Fooled me fair and square, but do you really want a customer who has spent $250 in a year to feel like you tricked them?
  • The hero pre-order bundle came with a bunch of extras, such as costumes and character-specific storage for all thirteen included characters, so it felt like a choice to pay more and get a lot more stuff.  Because Team-ups don't come with any extras, this feels like the choice is to pay the money now or pay the same amount later and get way less stuff. 
  • (Aside: Team-ups are supposedly priced in three tiers, but there are no options available or announced in the "basic" cheap tier.  They've confirmed that the bundle heroes will be at least middle or top tier to ensure the value for your bundle purchase, so we're looking at maybe two of the cheaper characters out of the first 20 or so that will be released.  This makes it feel like the bottom tier exists primarily as a stepping stone to have two pricing tiers above it.)  
I will say two positive things about the promotion - they have chosen characters that I would be happy to add to my roster (if all but 1-2 were terrible, skipping the bundle would be an easy call), and part of the reason why prices are such a high portion of the price of playable characters (who are much more work to produce) is that they are taking the time to do good quality VFX and voice work for them.  If you actually like the character, you get a good version of that character in a situation where they could probably dump out the cheap versions for much less work and still sell them.

At the end of the day, blog and forum posts are fine for posting discussion like this, but you can only buy or not buy the stuff that's out there.  From a rational perspective, withholding my $40 now isn't going to change the business model, I'll end up paying almost as much later for less stuff, so there isn't much to do but suck it up and save the G's I paid for to purchase future releases that are not part of bundles.  It's just always a bit unfortunate to be in a position where you view a $40 purchase as something you should suck up, even if they are giving out a bunch of unrelated free stuff elsewhere.  

Content Reuse and Horizontal Progression
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 April 2014, 4:07 pm
A thread on the Marvel Heroes forums over the weekend discusses how the game's priority has been to add new stuff to sell - playable heroes, costumes, and now new NPC "team-up" mercenary-like heroes - rather than new zones.  That part is obvious enough - you are what you sell, and Marvel Heroes is not in the business of selling new zones, nor could they make reasonable revenue doing so given how long content lasts in an ARPG.  The part of the discussion that I find more interesting is what they have done instead.

Since launch, the game has added a wide variety of new item slots or game systems that increase character power and are NOT tied to specific new zones.  Whether it's synergies for leveling additional characters through existing zones, runes and enchantments as world drops for farming existing zones, the new team-up characters to accompany you through the existing zones, almost nothing on offer requires a specific type of content (some of the rarest artifacts and rings are the exception). 

I'm not sure what to call this steady inflation to character power.  It's arguably not vertical progression since characters levels are staying the same and you aren't replacing one system with the next (i.e. you don't stop using synergies because you've gotten runes and those are better).  It's also arguably not horizontal progression in that the relative level of character power compared to the content - mobs have stayed at roughly the same stats and thus gotten progressively easier - is skyrocketing in a way that I find concerning.  Will players in 2017 zone into the newbie area, click their basic attack, and one-shot Dr. Doom from eight story chapters away?

There are many differences between an online ARPG like Marvel Heroes and a traditional MMO, but in some ways I wonder if this is the logical evolution of the theme park non-subscription model.  Don't be in the unsustainable business of trying to sell content - see version 1.0 of SWTOR.  Give away the content (roughly the equivalent of a single player console game) and make your money selling stuff to do in that environment.    Focus on replayability, accept that your most dedicated players will burn out and/or trivialize the game, but hopefully return after a break. 

Not saying this is better or worse, just different. 

Movie Pricing Perspective
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 April 2014, 5:29 pm
We were not able to get out to see the new Captain America movie this weekend due to the logistics of babysitting.  This got me thinking of perspective in costs. 

Two tickets were going to cost us roughly $30, and probably a similar amount or more for babysitting.  We don't go out to theaters the majority of the time because we'd rather stream stuff to our couch and have the option to take breaks etc - this typically costs between $4 and $20 per film depending on what streaming options are available.  So you're talking about a wide range - as low as $4 and as high as $60 or so - for a two hour movie. 

By contrast, Marvel Heroes had a variety of bundles for Captain America and Black Widow (who also appears in the film).  Some of these don't make a ton of sense to me as someone who pays attention to the business model, which may just mean I'm not the target audience (e.g. if you love Captain America enough to be willing to pay $50 for all of his costumes, wouldn't you likely already own the hero and at least some of said costumes?).  Setting aside whether the bundles are a good deal, the one that would make the most sense - if you want and don't own the heroes and at least two of the three added costumes - runs for about $28.50. 

I don't like direct comparisons between online games and other forms of media, such as movies, because they are inherently not apples to apples.  Amongst other things, I would not spend the money required to go to the movies every night, and it's actually very rare to find a film where both my wife and I are willing to deal with the time and expense to see it in theaters.  The models are also completely different, in that Marvel studios is releasing two films per year and thus typically has only those two opportunities to get money from me, where Gazillion has a new sale every week.  

I wouldn't even make the comparison except that I am spending the majority of my gaming time in a licensed MMO that's running cross promotion with the films.  It's just interesting to be reminded periodically - costs of going to the movies are steadily rising and that industry is fighting tooth and nail against making it more convenient to pay for their product, while MMO costs are flat or falling and entry barriers have been reduced to near nothing. 

A Brief Return to Diablo III
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 March 2014, 5:32 pm
A 100% bonus exp weekend was enough to get me back into Diablo III - a title I tried for a few days post launch and ultimately wrote off as a total failure of a purchase.  The good news about buy-to-play is that if you want more of the thing you didn't like, it doesn't cost you a renewed subscription fee.  In my case, I wanted to see the rest of the story I paid for, and I figured there would not be a better occasion to do so. 

I have no idea why this was the lone screenshot I took all weekend, but the bugged "marker location" text is vaguely amusing.
My old character was literally unplayable when I logged in, dying repeatedly to every trash mob I encountered.  I spend most of my time in an ARPG these days, so I was pretty sure the problem couldn't just be that I was suddenly a terrible player.  The issue is that I was level 22 and mid-way through Act II, but wearing gear an average of ten levels below my level and most of it at the lowest non-trash quality the game awarded.  Apparently the game was very stingy with loot back in the day in the misguided attempt to create scarcity for the real money auction house. 

It took surprisingly long to figure out how to backtrack far enough to a point where I would be able to survive.  (For the record, you have to log out and click on the "game properties" on the character select screen if you want to backtrack to a previous act.)  I died a few times to trash early in Act I as well, but then I replaced every single item on my character with higher quality gear within the space of a few fights that I actually survived.  Between that, speccing my Whirlwind Barbarian out like I have Colossus set up in Marvel Heroes, the rest of the game on normal mode difficulty went by pretty quickly.  I completed the story at level 44 with gear that appears from the tooltips to be vaguely level appropriate. 

Over than the overall rate of loot acquisition, it's hard for me to tell how much has changed versus how much I simply never got around to seeing the first time.  (There is an endgame alternate advancement system that was added post-launch, but I'm still not high enough to access this.) 

I will say that I was struck by how freaking depressing the game's setting is.  Maybe I just wasn't old enough to think about the horrors of war fifteen years ago as a student, maybe it's a matter of having a kid myself, or perhaps it's the game's use of voice-over to read lore updates to you as you continue the action.  It just seems like a staggering number of NPC's die - you periodically find and loot a letter from a dead soldier's wife about how their kid is growing up - in an eternal conflict that doesn't seem to have a point or any resolution.  Maybe this lore just worked better when the plot consisted of finding the village of Tristram dead and spending the rest of the time killing everything that moved because they were all demons. 

All that aside, I guess the weekend was a win for Blizzard.  This expansion moves on my watch list from "why would I pay for more of that game I never finished" to "maybe it'll be worth picking up on super sale next Black Friday".  Doesn't mitigate having paid full price for the game, but having written the purchase off as a total loss I guess that makes this a pleasant surprise windfall. 

Is a MOBA Crash Coming?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 March 2014, 5:36 pm
Are MOBA's in 2014-2015 heading for the kind of crash we saw in subscription WoW-like MMO's post 2009?  

I ask the question looking at the increasingly crowded slate of major and minor MOBA's of various flavors.  I'll probably play Blizzard's upcoming MOBA when it comes out.  Like WoW and Hearthstone before it, the game does not appear to have many revolutionary ideas, but it has some no-brainer quality of life improvements (e.g. try new champions in a closed practice environment for free) that you'd expect from Blizzard.  I may or may not ever get around to trying Turbine's DC Universe MOBA.  I almost certainly won't get around to trying the half a dozen other MOBA's in various stages of beta. 

All of which gets me thinking of the flood of MMO's that imitated WoW's basic design - support solo play and attempt to retain subscriptions with something for everyone.  Rather than grow the market with further success, the last five years have seen titles based on the WoW formula cannibalize each other.  The resulting drop in revenue has forced recent titles to downsize their staffs and ambitions at best, or close down at worst. 

The golden age of the subscription MMO's in the early 2000's was a virtual frontier in which every title enjoyed its own private captive audience.  Each title had something unique - soloing in WoW, RVR in DAOC, playing music in SWG cantinas, space piracy in EVE - that you could not get elsewhere, and even if you could find an adequate substitute you probably couldn't talk all of your friends into coming along for a change of game.  Thus, each title could count on its reliable subscription revenue to invest into further development of the game. 

We have this belief that choice and competition are good, and that the alternative is the parody video about the proposed Comcast merger.  The downside to an era with more choice is that the LACK of choice is what made the subscription model viable in MMO's and the subscription was what made the development of those MMO's financially possible.  In an era where your new title is competing with half a dozen games with similar budgets that have also had the benefit of years of polish and added content, new titles are getting cut off before they can get off the ground, as people choose to leave. 

Modern MOBA's aren't identical to subscription MMO's - in particular, the business model is much more suited to non-subscription payments than retrofitted monthly fee MMO's ever will manage.  League of Legends probably has the critical mass after five years to continue.  I'm just wondering if we're going to be looking at a bunch of failed MOBA's in a few years. 

Staying Power for Added Rewards
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 March 2014, 5:40 pm
A few weekend events this month offered up rewards that seemed designed to encourage me to play.  Ironically, the side effects of this sugar rush sometimes leave me feeling even less inclined to try the content once the incentives have expired. 
  • Two weekends ago, Marvel Heroes held an event in which certain terminal (think dungeon) bosses dropped four times the normal loot.   This event was actually inspired by a bug a few months back in which Kingpin summoned Electra and Bullseye to assist him as normal, but the game incorrectly considered the two adds as bosses and awarded loot accordingly, leading to much farming of Kingpin that weekend. 

    I typically don't spend much time in terminals, and when I do get a Legendary Quest sending me to one I almost always do the easier green difficulty so I can complete the quest faster.  During the event, I opted for the slightly harder red difficulty hoping for better rewards, did the scheduled bosses, and didn't get anything of note.  I guess this is a challenge that ARPG's face - when you're killing bosses every 10 minutes they can't drop loot that frequently, but having an experience like this one definitely sends the message that I shouldn't waste my time on harder difficulties. 

  • SWTOR offered up double exp last weekend, which made it time to finally finish off my Sith Warrior.  The sad truth with SWTOR is that I'd pay Bioware a fair amount of money - possibly as much as I've spent on the game during sporadic subscriptions - if they just removed the gameplay and offered an interactive movie version of the story in which my character just wins all the fights after I've chosen my dialog.  I suppose double exp is the next best thing in that at least I don't have to do any side quests, but this also does NOT motivate me to get back into the game when the exp drops back down to the normal rate. 

  • The Marvel Heroes event of the week (started on Thursday and runs through Thursday morning) offered up rainbows used to earn pots of leprechaun gold in honor of St. Patrick's Day.  The items aren't great for power gamers, but they're good for leveling alts, which is most of what I do in game. 

    Rainbows drop anywhere loot drops, and the best loot drop rates in the game are in a challenge mode called X-Defense.  This is the only mandatory group content in Marvel Heroes at the moment - random groups of five are assembled by the group finder, and the mode features infinite waves of increasingly tough foes until the group fails, with better loot for each wave.  The good news is that there was NOT a specific bonus to X-Defense this weekend, so what I saw was what I got.  The bad news is that ironically the rewards were perhaps too good. 

    I dusted off a character I wasn't really enjoying much in story mode and chewed through fifteen levels, gaining unique items (the game's top rarity) for three of my five gear slots and multiple duplicates besides.  People always swear that group content should be more rewarding than solo, and this definitely fit the bill.  And I didn't hate it, so that's good.  However, it's arguably so much better than playing the game the normal way that I've been playing it for the last three months that going back to story mode almost seems like wasting my time.  
I guess it's a hard balance -  how do you shake things up in a way that leads to sustained interest in something the player has not been doing, rather than a one-time blip and disappointment thereafter? 

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