Archive | Opinions RSS feed for this section

When copying is a good thing

It’s no secret that plenty of games in the MMO space borrow from each other, and from their community. Each new game is, in many ways, a response to the games that have come before — and, of course, many of us bemoan that fact, or deride new MMOs as WoW Clones, and so on.

And yet it’s not at all uncommon to play a new game, stumble across a feature, and think “oh, ffs, [Game X] did that so much better; this is so clunky!” Or, more often, stumble across the lack of a feature, and be frustrated that “bah, [Game X] managed to get this right three years ago, why isn’t everyone doing it?“.

It’s terribly unfair of us, of course, to criticise games on the one hand for being too similar, and yet to complain on the other when New Game Y is missing the convenience features we’re used to in Old Game X. But apparently it’s human nature, so here are a few off the top of my head:

  • Looting: DCUO gave us one-key AOE looting. RIFT, WoW and SWTOR now have AoE loot; TSW and GW2 have keybound loot. Other MMOs are still catching up, but few games have matched DCUO’s looting convenience. Every time I kill a mob in SWTOR or RIFT I lament again the lack of a loot key – TSW and GW2 have spoilt me.
  • Selling junk: RIFT has a “sell vendor junk” button on every vendor window. Why doesn’t every game do this? (In fact, why even have vendor junk?) GW2 followed suit. SWTOR comes close with your ability to send off a companion to sell your junk for you. WoW solved the problem with addons. Other games missed the boat.
  • Character customisation in game: SWG had a brilliant “image designer” system back in 2004, people. LotRO caught up with the release of Barbers in Book 12, early 2008. WoW matched them with barbershops in Wrath of the Lich King, late 2008. RIFT only brought in stylists a month or so ago, and SWTOR still doesn’t have them. TSW launched without it, but is implementing them shortly; GW2 lacks any kind of in-game character customisation and ArenaNet’s said nothing about it.
  • Crafting: It’s no secret that I have strong opinions about how games implement crafting systems, but however else you feel about it, SWTOR did one thing brilliantly right: crafting from the bank. RIFT wasn’t far behind in implementing that, and players everywhere loved it, yet GW2 launched without it (as did TSW, though that was probably an inevitable effect of its crafting system).
  • Group-finding tools: I’m not sure whether WoW was the first to implement such a feature, but despite criticism it revolutionised gameplay for many many players. There are those who don’t like group finders, but they make it much easier to find groups for the majority of players, and especially in games with low (or spread-out) populations, one could argue that they’re vital. And yet they don’t seem to be a priority for many games at launch, oddly, despite grouping woes being one of the single biggest turn-offs for player retention.
  • Customisable UIs: WoW obviously set the bar here with its addon system (although it wasn’t the first by a long shot), and other games followed suit. Even games without addons allowed players to move and resize stock UI elements for their own comfort. Some devs, on the other hand, seem to be very precious about their beloved UIs, refusing to allow players to customise their layout in any meaningful way (which is a bad move on accessibility grounds, if nothing else). BioWare, thankfully, wised up with SWTOR and implemented a system like LOTRO and RIFT; ArenaNet, on the other hand, are very resistant to letting players customise GW2’s (intrusive and unfriendly) interface. It’s certainly not winning them any friends in my neck of the woods, I can tell you.

I’ve probably got a whole bunch of these wrong, in terms of who first pioneered an innovation, but the key point is not “who did it first” but “why isn’t everybody doing it now?”. I understand that devs want to set their game apart, but eschewing features that make gameplay better, more convenient or more satisfying is really not the way to do that.

So, what have I missed? I’m sure there are plenty of other features that should be industry-standard by now — and aren’t.

MMO communities aren’t a monoculture

I went for a low-sec roam with a bunch of my guildies in EVE tonight — we’re all in different corps because we prefer different playstyles in EVE, so we don’t get to play together very often, so it was a lot of fun. (And a lot less fatal than I was expecting!)

The Retribution I flew

Not that that’s what I set out to talk about; it just reminded me of an incident that happened last week. Kris cancelled a few of his EVE accounts, and we were discussing how much stuff he’d need to transfer out of their item hangars before the accounts shut down. And during the discussion, I discovered something about EVE I’d never have expected:

If you’re in a corporation, your corp’s directors can see what you have in your personal item hangar, in the station where your corp HQ is located.

I was stunned, because I can’t imagine a situation like that in any other MMO. Can you imagine the outcry from the community if, say, a WoW guild’s officers could see into the banks of any of their guildies who were sitting in Stormwind? It’s something that just would never happen, no matter how collectivist a guild was; I’m pretty sure that almost everybody would see it as an unreasonable invasion of privacy, and in no way something a guild should expect from its members.

And yet it seems perfectly normal in EVE; it’s just a given part of the game. More than anything, that’s a lesson that I probably needed — we bloggers talk all the time about “MMO players” and what they expect, how the culture operates, and how they behave. It’s worth remembering that different games do have different cultures that aren’t interchangeable, and expectations and assumptions that might be true in one game don’t necessarily apply to others across the board.

Five nonexistent MMOs I’d love to play

In honour of the Friday Five 1, and bearing in mind my opinions about what makes a good MMO setting, here are Five Non-Existent MMOs I’d Love to Play:

  1. An Exalted MMO, based on White Wolf’s tabletop RPG Exalted. This is a non-European post-apocalyptic high fantasy game, based on ancient Asian and Roman civilisations, with strange magitech, terrifying Primordials who want to destroy or enslave Creation, complicated politics, and awesome cinematic wuxia-style action. There’s a whole range of potential threats, with a powerscale that would nicely suit a levelling curve with bonus epic (very epic) endgame.
  2. An Earthdawn MMO, based on the obscure tabletop RPG Earthdawn, originally published by FASA as a prequel to Shadowrun. Set ten thousand years ago in an age of magic, Earthdawn is best described as post-apocalyptic fantasy horror — the world is just recovering from the Scourge, a time of darkness when (evil, twisted) spirits called Horrors invaded and the people of the world hid from them in supposedly-impregnable caers. Horrors would make great enemies on every power level, from evil little skittering minions up to terrifying abominations the human mind was not meant to know, and the world would be perfect for exploration as the races of Earth are just starting to emerge from their caers and take stock of the wreckage.
  3. A Marvel superheroes MMORPG. DCUO was a letdown for a number of reasons, and its arguable failure (and the upcoming closure of CoH) doesn’t make superhero MMORPGs look like a good bet. Disappointing, as I’d always hoped to see a Marvel MMO — I simply prefer Marvel’s setting and universe, and I’ve been thoroughly turned off DC thanks to various shenanigans with their latest universe reboot. I know there’s an upcoming MMO, Marvel Heroes, but a) it’s an action RPG (ie Diablo-style gameplay), and b) you’re limited to playing a canonical character and just customising them, not playing one of your own. I want a “proper” (ie traditional) MMORPG, just set in the Marvel universe. (Although I am tickled by the fact that Squirrel Girl is one of the two dozen playable heroes.)
  4. A Harry Potter MMORPG. One of the things I enjoyed most about the Harry Potter series (and the reason it immediately exploded into such an active, insatiable fandom even among adults) was the wonder and possibility in the world. For everything that was defined in the books, ten more possibilities were hinted at, and there’s so much potential for excitement and adventure within the setting. (Also, Quidditch!)
  5. An Eclipse Phase MMORPG. Eclipse Phase, published by Posthuman Studios, is a tabletop roleplaying game of transhuman conspiracy and horror. It’s set in the future after wars have devastated Earth and (trans)humanity has fled to the stars. One of the most appealing things about the setting is that the technology exists to download one’s consciousness into everything from cloned bodies to battle robots to augmented animals, which suggests a lot of really fascinating gameplay options. The setting itself is also really cool, with a huge range of cultures and civilisations to explore. The game’s been a critical and commercial hit, and I think it’d translate very well to an MMORPG setting — in particular, the cloning and consciousness-transfer mechanics allow you to get around limitations like ‘dying regularly’, which is an obstacle MMO settings always have to justify.

Eclipse Phase, art by Stephan Martiniere

So, that’s my list — how about you? Any other super-awesome-cool MMOs that don’t exist but should?

(P.S. Plug time: Eclipse Phase is an amazing game, and if you have any interest in tabletop RPGs you should totally check it out. It’s licensed under Creative Commons, so you can download legitimate copies of the game and its supplements to try it out, and buy it if you love it. It’s totally awesome.)

  1. A long-standing blogging tradition that doesn’t seem to have migrated to the MMO blogosphere

The problem of (no) progression

I think GW2 has a serious flaw, and it’s one that I haven’t actually seen commentators discuss much. To wit: there’s not enough progression to keep one feeling satisfied during the levelling process.

The Swamp

It’s pretty well accepted that a feeling of progression is one of the strongest motivators for an MMO player; that satisfying “ding!” as you level up, gain a new ability point, or otherwise improve yourself. Many, many MMO players focus on the levelling experience and lose interest when they hit the level cap – or they roll another alt to do it all again.

When you start playing GW2 those dings come thick and fast. Every half-dozen kills you’re unlocking a new weapon ability, and there are plenty to unlock, from 28 unlockable weapon skills for the mesmer or thief right up to 64 for the elementalist. 1

Of course, that feeling of progression starts to slow down when you’ve unlocked all your weapon skills — but by then you’re well into unlocking slot skills, which open up at levels 5, 10 and 20 for your regular slot skills and level 30 for your elite skill.

By level 30, though, the future’s looking a bit less exciting. You’ve doubtless unlocked all your weapons by now. All your slot skills hotkeys are unlocked, and you’ve probably maxed out two of your five trait areas by now. And now there’s no more progression. No more cool abilities to come. Nothing new about your class – er, sorry, profession. You’ve seen it all; the gameplay you’re experiencing now is going to be the same for the next fifty levels. Call me hard to please, but level 30 seems a bit early to cap out on class mechanics.

Of course, there are still things left to do. There are more trait trees to spend points in. There are more skill points to earn, which you can spend on buying new slot skills. However, it’s my argument that these are fundamentally not very satisfying.

  • Traits are entirely passive modifications to existing abilities, so they do make you more powerful, but they don’t really affect how you play your character.
  • Buying new slot skills is diversification — horizontal progression. Any new slot skill you buy won’t be more powerful than what you already have, and it won’t be an addition to what you can do — it will, at best, be a replacement for one of your existing slot skills, which you might care to use in a different situation. (Provided you have the foresight to swap it in before you get into a fight, of course, otherwise it does you no good at all.)

To be fair, again, that last point isn’t strictly true; each class gets a Tier 2 elite skill which is probably more awesome than the Tier 1 elite skills. It’d want to be, as it costs 30 skill points and requires unlocking two Tier 1 elite skills at 10 points each. Either way, though, it’s just one last ding somewhere in between level 30 and level 80 (depending on how long it takes you to accrue the necessary skill points), and it’s still just a replacement for one of your Tier 1 elite skills — an alternative, not an addition.

The Swamp

And this lack of progression is compounded by the GW2 downlevelling mechanic, where one is always scaled downwards to meet the intended level of an area. Given the importance of dynamic events in GW2’s PvE world design, it’s certainly essential to stop high level players steamrolling lowbie events and making them meaningless for every other participant — however, there are other ways to do that 2 without making the player feel their progression is pointless. As Ashen said in the comments of a recent post at Blessing of Kings, “What’s the point of leveling up and me getting stronger if the game arbitrarily decides to throw that out of the window all the time?” 3

Levelling up still makes you objectively more powerful — new trait points give you passive boosts, and your attributes increase with every level. But subjectively, I don’t feel any more awesome now than I did five levels ago — I still have exactly the same experience fighting a level 25 mob at 30 as I did at 25. That, in my opinion, is a broken system.

Perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps there’s progression lurking around the corner and it’s just in one of the game systems I haven’t encountered yet. I certainly hope so, because otherwise it’s pretty disappointing to think that, at level 30, I’ve already experienced everything my class has to offer.

  1. 30 for necromancers, 32 for rangers and guardians, and 40 for warriors, if you’re curious. The engineer is an anomaly at a mere 14, so let’s not talk about them because they spoil my argument.
  2. Such as giving higher level players the option to downlevel in lower level zones; if they choose not to downlevel, all mobs are green, they can’t do events, they can’t interact with resource nodes, et cetera. Kris came up with this one over dinner while we were discussing this issue, and it’s just one possible answer to the problem.
  3. This is, for instance, the same reason Blizzard had to make vehicles scale with player gear in raid encounters like Flame Leviathan – otherwise there’s no sensation of progression because the content never gets any easier.

The GW2 final countdown

For once, being at the ass-end of the world (I’m Australian) pays off — while Americans are staying up til midnight or later for Guild Wars 2’s early access headstart, here it opens at a very civilised 5pm on Saturday.

Lion's Arch concept art

I’m not actually sure why I’m looking forward to GW2 so much. For starters, I don’t have enough time for the games I want to play already. And then there’s the fact that, Dynamic Events aside, GW2 feels kind of … shallow. I like immersive games, and GW2 is the opposite of immersive.

And yet it’s shiny, and I like the exploration and discovery aspects, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the beta weekends I played. So I’ll be queuing up with everyone else in an attempt to claim my small portion of Tyria (and, hopefully, my preferred character names), although I’m not sure how long it will hold my interest, or how successfully it will compete with other games I already know I enjoy.

I’m also trying to work out what to roll, character-wise, especially when it comes to playing with my friends. Most of them seem to be going for humans first, but the human females creep me out — the combination of “doll-like childish looks” and “exploitative armor” (especially for casters) is not a good one.

So, I think my first three characters are going to be:

  1. Norn elementalist — the Norns are attractive without the ick factor of the human girls, their starting area’s fun and beautiful, and elementalist is probably my favourite of the classes I tried. (Especially the lightning aspect. ZZZZZZAP!)
  2. Asura mesmer — I’m not usually a fan of the small races, but I loved the style and aesthetics of the Asura starting area.
  3. Sylvari guardian — I’m not set on the race for a guardian, but I enjoyed what little I played of one in the beta, certainly more so than the other melee classes professions.

I barely tried ranger, I didn’t enjoy thief, and necromancer was okay-but-uninspiring. I haven’t tried warrior or engineer, though I watched Kris play both of them.

I do have some qualms about GW2 (although admitting them is tantamount to inviting a dogpile from the GW2-can-do-no-wrong zealots):

  • Like Azuriel, I think Dynamic Events will lose a lot of their lustre after the first few weeks’ worth of levelling hordes have passed through the zones. Those that rely on larger player numbers will never happen, and for those of us who are completionists it’ll be frustrating to know there’s content we’ve never seen because there’s no way of going back to find something; it’s all random chance, or triggers we don’t know.
  • Although I like the fact that GW2’s system means everyone gets to share mobs and resources equally, I lament the loss of incentives to socialise. Commentators regularly criticise modern MMOs for promoting “together alone” solo gameplay, and I think GW2 takes it a step further than I’m happy with. It’s nice that people can’t grief you, of course (especially given the apparent toxicity of the GW2 community, based on their pre-launch behaviour), but it’s less nice that there’s no incentive to interact with anybody ever. No need for healing, no need to party up for a tough quest or challenging mob, just blast away next to a row of nameless compatriots without ever saying hello.

So, we shall see. I’m still looking forward to the game’s launch, and I’m interested to see how their innovations will play out, but I have to say — if this is what the new generation of MMOs will all look like, I think I prefer the previous generation.

What makes a good MMO setting?

The recent Shadowrun Online kickstarter prompted a bit of thought on my part, as — unlike to most Shadowrun fans — I’d always felt that Shadowrun would lose a lot in translation to MMO-land. 1

So what does make for a good MMO setting, when you’re talking about existing IPs from books, movies, television and existing non-MMO game franchises? I’m not sure I know, but I do think there are some important factors to consider. (Note that all these apply to themepark MMOs, rather than sandbox games, as they’re a rather different beast.)

Books! Image CC-licensed by A30_Tsitika on Flickr

1. What makes the original IP engaging?

This is something my tabletop gaming GM 2 and I have often thrown around as a criterion when thinking about what makes for a good roleplaying campaign, 3 and I think it applies equally to MMORPGs. Think for a moment about the original IP (especially for books/movies/TV) — is it interesting because of the adventures (or personalities) of the protagonists? Or because the setting itself is interesting? Could you imagine another group of characters having an equally interesting time in that world?

Most original tabletop RPG settings succeed against this criterion (because it’s their job to provide interesting adventure and challenges for any group of characters); TVs and books and movies are more of a mixed bag. As an example: Star Wars and Star Trek both succeed, because the world is full of interesting adventure for anybody. Doctor Who, on the other hand, fails; there aren’t that many Time Lords out there, and for everyone else, life’s going to be pretty mundane. There are some cases where the story is about the protagonists yet there’s a rich backdrop behind them (such as Farscape, Firefly, or Babylon 5), but in general most character-driven stories aren’t likely to be very interesting for the people in the background.

2. Is there a power scale?

Unless you’re talking about entirely sandboxy games where players make their own fun, you need a sliding scale of antagonists. You need mooks for the characters to wade their way through, and you need Big Bads who pose a serious threat to civilisation/the world/your way of life, requiring cooperation to take them down.

This is where horror and fantasy settings shine, of course; whether classic high fantasy like the Lord of the Rings or modern fantasy horror like Buffy, the monsters can always be bigger and badder. By comparison, other genre staples like espionage thrillers or procedural crime stories fall down here — who would characters in an NCIS MMO actually fight? Other ordinary humans? That doesn’t sound compelling.

3. Does the setting suit MMO story needs?

Because of the way quest-driven MMOs are constructed, you need to be able to assume that most characters (not players) are willing to let questgivers tell them what to do, whether because they’re all motivated to be heroes (as in typical quest fantasy) or because they’re the kind of people who will accept orders from their superiors (for instance, military types).

Again, this works in most fantasy settings, because the archetype of the fantasy hero saving the world is fairly strong; even if there are plenty of characters who break the mold, it’s reasonable to assume that protagonists are heroes or champions, and to write quest and story dialogue with those assumptions front and centre. If your setting is full of characters who look askance at disinterested altruism or blindly trusting in The Man, though, that puts a lot of constraints on how characters are motivated to do your quests. This is a criterion that dystopian settings like cyberpunk and espionage tend to fail; in a grim and gritty near-future where people will do whatever they have to to survive (such as Shadowrun or Dark Angel), hoo-rah heroism tends to look somewhat out of place.

4. Does the setting constrain normal MMO mechanics?

“Death” is the obvious problem here. In high-magic fantasy settings a plethora of revival spells make sense; in science-fiction futures, cloning and personality transfers are a reasonable explanation. But in low-magic low-tech settings, you need a plausible way to explain how Joe isn’t dead any more.

LotRO got around this problem cleverly. Healing magic in the canonical setting is slow and subtle, and has no provisions for returning from death (unless you’re Gandalf, and even then he had to get help from Eru himself). So Turbine re-cast traditional health pools as Morale; when you run out of Morale you’re not dead, you’re just too demoralised to continue, and this of course allows for healing and buffing effects from those who improve your morale (such as Minstrels and Captains).

But this dodge won’t work for every setting — it’d be jarring in a pseudo-realistic urban fantasy setting like Buffy, for instance. And there are plenty of much-loved science fiction properties that don’t have handwavium-levels of technology to allow for functional interchangeable clones, such as Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica.

Similarly, if the setting comes from an existing tabletop game or video game, does it come attached to game mechanics that don’t translate well to MMO gameplay? WotC’s D20 system is a good example here — it’s the mechanical system behind tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and fidelity to it served singleplayer computer games like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic very well. But it didn’t translate very well to an MMORPG, where players have different expectations of the gameplay. Dungeons & Dragons Online — a sloggy clickfest — is living proof that mechanics permanently attached to a setting can be a millstone around the neck of an MMO based in that setting.

5. Does the setting still make sense when there are ten thousand protagonists?

This is where Star Wars Galaxies ran into problems when people started unlocking the ability to create Jedi characters — set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, it was hard to explain away the existence of half a dozen Jedi, let alone a server full of them. SWTOR avoided this issue; in the Old Republic era, there are canonically thousands of Jedi, and seeing a party of Jedi working together (or even a space station full of them) isn’t jarring in the same way it was in SWG.

A setting passes this criterion when you can imagine that any character could do what the protagonist does — Star Trek, for instance, succeeds handily because we know that there are tens of thousands of Starfleet officers out there; there are thousands of witches and wizards in the world of Harry Potter. There aren’t that many Time Lords, though, or Vampire Slayers, or D’ni, or Tarzans. When a setting features a single protagonist whose uniqueness is the linchpin of the story, it’s almost inevitably going to fail as an MMO – what works for the Chosen One becomes nonsensical for the Chosen Ten Thousand.

…Obviously I’m not an MMO dev,4 and MMOs are based on fresh IPs as often as not, but at least these rules help to remind me that “no, that might be a great book but it’d make a terrible setting for an MMO” when I’m having pangs of wishing I could adventure in my favourite fictional worlds.

  1. I do have reasons for this opinion, but they’d be something of a digression. That’s a post for another day.
  2. Who may very well be the best GM in the entire world. Seriously, you other gamers only wish you had a GM this great.
  3. Because we are obsessive nutbags about gaming and RPGs.
  4. More’s the pity.

Steam’s biggest missing feature

Nathan Grayson over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun comments today about Steam’s community revamp and asks about the features it’s still missing.

Steam and its Tools

And yet, somehow, he missed the thing that Steam needs the most (IMO, of course): better Friends communication tools.

I suspect that most users see the Friends list and chat interface an order of magnitude more often than any other part of the Steam community, and yet it’s woefully lacking in some areas. There’s no way, for example, to appear offline while still playing games that rely on Steam for multiplayer. If you want your Left 4 Dead match with a small group of pals, you have to be visibly online and accessible to your entire friends list. And there’s no way to appear offline to one group of people, or individual friends, without being offline to everyone. (And there’s no chat log, either, which is endlessly frustrating to me, especially given my friends’ tendency to send me links via Steam that I then lose next time Firefox crashes.)

These are, in general, pretty standard features for most chat systems. I realise that Steam’s not trying to be a competitor to a more general chat service like MSN, but these features seem like no-brainers, and adding them would help to keep more gamers within the Steam ecosystem. And, more importantly, they’d be a serious quality-of-life improvement for those of us who don’t want to have to be equally accessible to all their contacts at all times.

I’m not holding my breath, but I’d happily trade all Steam’s new community upgrades for a more feature-ful chat client.

A letter to game designers everywhere, #1

Dear Game Designers,

If you write events or quests that prompt us to try to capture or defeat an NPC…

…and if that NPC gets multiple cut scenes in which he gets to gloat about how clever he is while standing easily within range of our firearms…

…and if that NPC then gets to run off without us getting an opportunity to stop him at a sensible juncture…

You got me monologuing!

…you have only yourselves to blame when we players complain that we should have been able to shoot him in the face while he was monologuing at us.

This is a lesson that every pen-and-paper GM learns early in their career. Just because there are thousands of miles between your ears and our jeering doesn’t mean you should pretend it’s not happening.

Bad writing, designers. Please, please stop doing it. It’s not exciting or inspiring; it’s weaksauce and mockable.

Love,

Siha,
on behalf of frustrated genre-savvy gamers everywhere.

(This letter brought to you by the Star Trek Online “Diplomatic Orders” mission.)

F2P: SWTOR, you’re doing it wrong

Inspired by the recent discussion of SWTOR’s move to free-to-play in the blogosphere, I went looking at F2P offerings from other MMORPGs. While implementing F2P is often a good move for an MMO’s revenue, I think Bioware have got the wrong end of the stick with SWTOR’s model, and I’m honestly concerned that it’s going to do more harm than good to the longevity of the game.

(I’m not actually obsessed with F2P MMORPGs, contrary to the recent spate of posts. It’s just a hot topic right now, and there are a lot of interesting discussions happening thanks to SWTOR’s recent announcement.)

If you look at the different games with F2P options (shown in the table below, or neatly formatted on a standalone page), you’ll see a lot of similarities. Almost all games restrict your character creation options, for instance, usually in terms of access to classes and number of character slots. We’ve got no information about SWTOR’s plans in that arena, but there’s been no mention of such limitations yet. And most restrict at least some of their levelling content (which is the meat and potatoes of what a game has to offer to all except the most involved players), yet SWTOR has promised to give all theirs away for free.

Free-to-play, as a concept, exists to get money from customers who aren’t willing to commit to a subscription. A good implementation of F2P will encourage non-subscribers to give you their money. A bad implementation will encourage current subscribers to stop giving you their money. If current subscribers are looking at your upcoming F2P and deciding they can afford to unsubscribe, it rather suggests that you’re giving away the wrong stuff for free. And I’ve heard a lot more people saying they’ll go from subscription to F2P than the other direction.

SWTOR’s publicity and advertising all focused around its impressive quest content, story and character development, and fully-voiced-and-animated NPC dialogues. And yet Bioware has decided that that’s the stuff they’re going to give away for free, while restricting the raiding and PvP endgames (which are, let’s be honest, the parts of the game that are most interchangeable with other MMOs) to those who pay up.

Unless Bioware plans to implement extremely stringent limits on the number of characters a free account can have, 1 I don’t see this ending well for their balance sheet.

Other thoughts from the blogosphere on the same issue:

Financial analysts, on the other hand, seem to think this change could make SWTOR more popular than WoW. Good luck with that.

Follow the link for the full table of F2P comparisons.

  1. Which will be seen as a bait and switch as any mention of it has been omitted so far, and will thus provoke a lot of unnecessary hostility

The false economy of Free-to-Play

I spent a while this weekend in The Secret World (surprising, I know), which is currently having a one-month-iversary free play celebration weekend. That meant that the chat channels in the first few zones were full of people trying out the game, and most seemed very positive about it. That said, there were a surprising range of sentiments about the costs of subscribing.

Image credit: Twid @ Wikimedia, licensed under CC-BY-SA

The most common refrain I heard was “I won’t bother subscribing, I’ll just wait til it goes free-to-play” (often with the addendum “because Funcom games always do”). That was closely followed by “the lifetime access pack isn’t worth it, it’ll be free-to-play soon”.

Given that a Grandmaster Pack (which bestows the lifetime sub) costs the equivalent of 13.3 months’ subscription, that’s a gamble that TSW will go fully free-to-play in a year or less 1 and it’s assuming that the free-to-play mode won’t lock you out of content you’d otherwise want to do.

Now, different games have different free-to-play limitations. SWTOR, for instance, will allow you to complete the entirety of the quest content, and will just restrict the number of instances, PvP warzones and space missions you can do every week (and restrict you from raiding). 2 LotRO, on the other hand, only opens some questing areas to free-to-play users; if you want to progress further, or explore more widely, you need to unlock regional quest packs with microtransactions in their store. (As well as a range of other restrictions.) Many games restrict free-to-play players to more vanilla classes and races, leaving the interesting and exotic stuff for the subscribers. And almost every F2P game restricts your character slots, bag space, bank balance and/or concurrent auctions/sales if you’re not a paying subscriber. For comparison, check out the free-to-play models offered by SWTOR, LotRO, EverQuest 2, DC Universe Online, City of Heroes, Age of Conan and Star Trek Online.

So “waiting for F2P” is a gamble that it is coming sooner rather than later, and that its implementation won’t be so restrictive that you’ll feel the need to pay anyway. Remember, the whole point of F2P is to lure you into paying, and one way devs do that is by restricting what you can do as a free player. Which is fair enough — they’re not a charity, after all. In most MMOs, if you’re a non-subscribing player, buying access to all the features of a subscription costs as much as months of subscribing.

Now, if your gaming time is already full and you just can’t see you’d get value for money out of yet another MMO sub, or your budget is creaking and you can’t afford it, that’s another matter (and waiting for F2P seems an entirely sensible choice). And F2P modes work well for people who get very little regular gaming time — you’re not wasting subscription time and you can still get months of entertainment out of the limited content they offer for free. But if you’ve got the money and you’ve got the time – and you like the game – why not pay for it? Waiting for a free-to-play implementation that may never come seems like false economy to me.

  1. And for comparison’s sake, Funcom’s other two MMORPGs both took three years to offer a free-to-play option.
  2. Which is why I’m concerned about SWTOR’s implementation of F2P — there aren’t enough restrictions to encourage a free player to subscribe. I don’t think it’s going to do good things for their revenue.