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SWTOR and the F2P tango

Well, today’s big news in MMO Land is that Star Wars: the Old Republic is going free-to-play. That will gratify all the doomsayers who predicted failure for the game, and said “see you when it goes free to play in six months” — whether or not this represents a failure, it will certainly be perceived as one by many commentators.

Of course, one could argue that it was an oversight – or, perhaps, a stubborn adherence to an outdated model – that SWTOR wasn’t a free-to-play-game in the first place. Few big releases these days don’t include at least a cash shop of some kind (as TSW does), if not an entire free-to-play or buy-to-play model (as GW2 does). SWTOR was very much an “old school” MMO, and at the time of its launch many commentators claimed that if it failed, it would signal the demise of the subscription model MMO altogether.

I’m not actually convinced about that. The people who make those claims are, I suspect, those for whom $15 a month is a substantial purchasing decision. But that’s always been a factor; a monthly subscription hasn’t stopped WoW from succeeding. Most of us feel that $15 a month is worth it for the amount of entertainment we get from a good MMO, but there are plenty of people who don’t agree; the buy-once-play-forever model of Guild Wars 2 will suit them down to the ground.

But contrary to public perception, a game going free-to-play isn’t necessarily failing. The value of F2P isn’t in luring cash-strapped or thrifty customers (because let’s face it, they’re not particularly valuable customers); it’s in giving enthused players more ways to spend money.

The LotRO cash shop

As Tobold argued a year ago, MMORPGs are “too cheap”. The average American 1 spends $58 a month on their hobbies; for a dedicated MMO gamer, there’s just nothing to spend 75% of that leisure money on, without a cash shop. If you give people an outlet to spend their money, they will – when LotRO went free-to-play in 2010, its revenues tripled. Now, LotRO’s implementation of F2P was one of the best I’ve seen 2 and these days there are a lot more MMO cash shops competing for their share of player dollars, but the principle still stands: if you give gamers a way to give you more money, they will.

Along those lines, I’m personally a fan of the F2P + subs + cash shop model, because it lets me choose how invested in a game I want to get. I’m far from alone in this, but there are many gamers who cry that cash shops are terrible things and even their mere existence is an indicator that a game is terrible, especially if the cash shop exists as well as a subscription fee. It’ll be interesting to see just how much negative feedback BioWare attracts for their decision.

The thing that strikes me in all this is that SWTOR going free-to-play now looks like an admission of failure, whereas if it had launched as free-to-play, it would have looked like a canny business decision. SWTOR’s inability to succeed at the old model doesn’t prove that the old model is dead, but it certainly gives the naysayers a lot more ammunition.

  1. Okay, I’m not American, and neither is Tobold, but it’s a handy metric to use.
  2. …but that’s a post for another time

Why the fanboys, GW2?

Yet again – this time thanks to a discussion in the comments over at Spinksville – I’m struck by how zealous Guild Wars 2 fans seem to be. This particular post actually was a discussion about Guild Wars 2, but I’ve seen them popping up in virtually every discussion of upcoming MMOs to derail the conversation and start talking about how Guild Wars 2 is The Best Thing Ever and every other MMO is destined to fail (or is intrinsically terrible) for the terrible crime of not being GW2. I saw it happen a lot in pre-launch discussion of SWTOR, I saw it again in pre-launch discussion of TSW, and now of course with GW2 mere weeks away the fans are at fever pitch.

Look, I get it. Guild Wars 2 does look like it’s going to be a fun game. (I’ve pre-purchased.) But you’re not doing yourself – or the game you’re trying so desperately to promote – any favours by butting into every other conversation about MMOs. That sort of behaviour is usually the territory of door-to-door religion salespeople, and you know how popular they are.

I just don’t understand why GW2 has triggered such rabid, mindless zeal in its fans. Everyone gets invested in upcoming games that look nifty, but only the GW2 fans seem unwilling to let everyone else have their fun too. That’s particularly ironic given that GW2 itself isn’t trying to be all things to all people, and there are segments of the MMO audience – longterm hardcore raiders, for instance, or fans of open-world PvP – that it’s not even trying to appeal to. If ArenaNet are happy to focus on a particular niche, why must their fans insist that GW2 is the answer to every question?

(If you are a GW2 fan who is not acting like a rabid evangelist online, this was not aimed at you. I’m sure there are a lot of you about — it’s just the vocal minority who are making you look bad. Sorry.)

How TSW and GW2 break the mold

or, “Where Were You in 2010 When I Needed You, TSW and GW2?”

I think it’s fair to say that most of the major MMOs released since 2004 have a lot more in common than not. These days, they’re popularly called WoW Clones 1 but whether or not you appreciate the name, it’s hard to argue with the opinion that most of the last eight years’ worth of western big-budget MMOs have been more similar than different. WoW (and Everquest II); LotRO; Age of Conan; Warhammer Online; RIFT; Star Wars: the Old Republic — all of them feature similar world and quest design, character progression principles, and fundamental gameplay concepts. They all have unique features, of course — Warhammer’s PVP, RIFT’s soul system and world events; SWTOR’s companions and fully animated quest dialogue — but ultimately, if you’re familiar with one, you can pick another up and feel right at home very very quickly.

Obviously, this poses a problem for people who are looking for something different, and most of the MMOs above have been strongly criticised for not venturing far outside WoW’s well-worn territory. A few games have diverged from this path, but until now they’ve struggled to compete. SOE’s DC Universe Online was plagued with problems (and severely hampered by its nature as a console port) before the PSN hack took all SOE MMOs down for a month; Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons was widely criticised for the gameplay style that resulted from staying true to the pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.

And now, after years of all-but-identical choices in different wrappers, 2012 is bringing us not one but two very different high-profile MMORPGs — The Secret World is out now, and Guild Wars 2 is due in August. I’ve played in the beta weekends for both games, and am actively playing The Secret World at the moment, and I’ve been really struck by how they’re both substantially more different from the Generic WoW-Clone game than most previous big-budget MMOs, and how they’ve gone in completely different directions to achieve this.

Both are themepark, rather than sandbox, MMOs – in the sense that the gameplay is primarily objective-based rather than open-ended, the worlds are fixed and players can’t add their own buildings or alter their territory, and there’s no player-generated content. Both embrace the new model of limited character toolbars – instead of the 30-50 button toolbars common to WoW-esque MMORPGs, TSW limits you to seven choices, and GW2 to ten. But that’s where the similarities end.

TSW is a gritty, “realistic” urban fantasy/horror game. GW2 is a hyper-stylised, medievalish high-fantasy game.

A typical vista in TSW

A typical vista in GW2

TSW’s characters look approximately like real-world people. GW2’s characters … don’t. (If one wants to be charitable, one could describe them as “hyper-stylised” or “artificially beautiful”.)

A typical character in TSW

A typical character in GW2

(For that matter, TSW limits you to playing humans, which makes sense given the setting; GW2 offers you the choice of five races – humans, big humans, nature-oriented non-humans, science-and-technology small non-humans, and animalistic non-humans.)

TSW follows the “kill ten rats” model of questing fairly closely, but structures the quests to flow like a story instead of giving you a quest hub to steamroll at a time (and adds very nifty investigation missions, but more on those another time). GW2 has little overt “kill ten rats” style questing, instead placing their objectives within a framework of dynamic events and “hearts” (that is, a model where local questgivers just want you to help with any combination of tasks, although the tasks themselves are fairly typical MMO fare).

TSW uses a classless, skill-based character progression system, where GW2 sticks to eight fairly typical classes that define what your character can do.

TSW sticks to the tank/healer/DPS “holy trinity” of role balance, although its skill-based system allows a lot of flexibility; GW2 has done away with the classic trinity and differentiates character roles as DPS, support or control.

TSW gives you information immersively – one quest clue might look like scribbles on a napkin, where another will be a page from a phonebook.

A quest clue in TSW

By comparison, GW2’s interface is very homogenous. TSW tries to be transparent and immersive — it gives you all the information you need in an in-game context, and you even report quest success (and receive new missions) via your character’s mobile phone. GW2, on the other hand, shows you its mechanics up-front; the interface is themed appropriately for the setting, but it’s much more intrusive and chromey, and ultimately GW2 never lets you forget that you’re playing a game.

The character sheet overlay in TSW

The Hero screen in GW2

Even in-game action in GW2 breaks the fourth wall, with crackles of ice or splashes of water on the ‘camera’ – reminding you that there’s a barrier between you and the action.

Ice on the 'camera' in a GW2 fight.

Whether you prefer one or the other is, ultimately, a matter of taste. 2 I can point to a lot of things I love about TSW to explain why I’m having so much fun in it. I’m a little less certain about what it is about GW2 that appeals to me so much, but I know I’m definitely looking forward to August. I’m just constantly surprised at how they’ve both – successfully – solved the problem of differentiating themselves from WoW in such different ways.

  1. Which downplays the fact that WoW itself had a lot in common with the previous genre juggernaut, Everquest; the MMO genre is very much iterative.
  2. Regardless of the behaviour of the GW2 fanboys who have been, for over a year now, derailing pretty much every discussion of other MMOs to tell you why GW2 will be the Best Video Game Ever. The GW2 fans made me extremely hostile to GW2 many months ago simply through their behaviour, and it was only the fun I had in an early beta weekend (with thanks to Dee of 6D for the beta key) that convinced me to order it.)

What makes good crafting great?

Blacksmithing - CC licensed image by caravinagre

Recently I’ve been interested in the news coming out about The Repopulation, an indie sci-fi sandbox MMO in development (with a Kickstarter that ends shortly, if it’s your cup of tea). It seems to have been something of a surprise hit at E3, and commentators are making much of its similarities to Star Wars Galaxies. Massively, in particular, quotes the devs as saying “if players do not wish to partake in combat, they can still be a successful crafter”. ArenaNet designers have stressed that you can level exclusively via crafting in Guild Wars 2. And even BioWare’s James Ohlen said you could be a level 1 crafter in Star Wars: the Old Republic (although, for the record, it’s not actually true).

This focus on avoiding combat for crafters seems to be grasping at the wrong end of the stick. I don’t know many MMO players who actively dislike combat and would prefer never to do it — and those who are in that boat generally care less about levelling and XP than they do about other aspects of gameplay anyway. 1 Being able to level up through nothing-but-crafting is presented as a sop to lovers of MMO tradeskills, but in fact it’s not really much of a selling point to me any more. It says nothing about the quality of the crafting system: the complexity, the reward, the fun factor — all it says is that it gives you XP. Well, guess what, farming for herbs in WoW gives you XP, too, and you can level all the way to the cap without combat just by mining, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re compelling gameplay.

I’ve been thinking for a while about what makes for an engaging crafting system. I talked about it with Dee over at 6D. I expanded on those ideas at Crew Skills, my SWTOR crafting blog. I’ve debated this with guildies, too, and for many people their measure of whether a crafting system is worthwhile is whether it makes useful gear at a range of skill levels. If it makes gear that’s actually useful as you’re playing, and continues to make gear that’s relevant at endgame, that’s enough of a success for most players. However, that’s not enough for people who want engaging crafting systems. It might be a good enough reason to invest time in leveling your character’s crafting skills, but it doesn’t make it a fun or engaging path of gameplay — it’s just an useful accessory to ordinary PvE or PvP.

So now I’m having another go at explaining my thesis on What Makes a Crafting System Fun.

    1. Player skill should matter.
    Dedicated and knowledgeable crafters should be able to set themselves apart with better crafting output, in the same way that the game rewards expert PvEers or PvPers with better gear and in-game recognition (titles, cosmetic rewards, etc).

    2. Character skill should matter.
    If I’ve got a character with high-powered crafting skills, I should be able to produce better gear than Joe Average who’s just starting out — not just higher-level gear, but better versions at every level. Otherwise there’s no incentive for a crafter to put effort into anything other than ‘endgame’ crafting recipes.

    3. Crafting should have a barrier to entry.
    For crafting to be an engaging activity in its own right, rather than just an accessory to gameplay, you need to not have a million PvEers mindlessly grinding crafting skills because they ‘may as well’. That devalues the skills of the crafters who are actually invested in crafting gameplay, it puts pressure on the devs to eventually simplify the crafting system (to cater to the ‘may as well’ crafters), and it almost always creates a glut of crafted items, the byproduct of a million ground-out skill points. This tends to damage the economy, making it impossible for crafting-centric players to support themselves. Crafting should always add value, but how often do you find crafted items selling for more than the raw materials? Not often, not in most games.

    Instead, crafting needs to have a cost involved. Not monetary, but a sacrifice of other potential. In EVE, time you spend working on your industrial and production skills is time you can’t spend on training combat skills. In UO and (pre-revamp) SWG, skill points you spent on crafting professions were skill points you couldn’t spend on combat professions. And, as a result, the mechanics of supply and demand actually work; crafters’ skills become valuable to the community, because they’re not just something any Joe Average can run out and replicate with a few stacks of raw materials and a crafting skillups guide. 2

    4. Crafting should not be tied to PvE or PvP play.
    The classic version of this dilemma is when a crafter has to raid to get crafting materials or recipes. It’s fine if endgame activities are required to get these things, but they shouldn’t then be bound to the raiding characters. PvErs wouldn’t like it if they had to complete some herculean PvP objective to get into their raid; PvPers wouldn’t like it if they had to complete some epic multi-part crafting recipe to get into their PvP zones for the day. Let people decide how they want to consume their peanut butter and chocolate, rather than mixing it all before you give it to them. 3

    5. Crafting should involve meaningful choices.
    Meaningful choices are really the core of the issue, because they’re what make a game a game. You need to have the chance to succeed or fail, otherwise you may as well be playing Farmville. 4

    There’s no choice involved in any aspect of the crafting system of most MMOs, beyond “do I grind the cheap recipe or the expensive one?”. Everquest 2’s original crafting system was an interesting example of this concept implemented in a themepark game. Crafting a single item was a mini-game that could take a minute or two; you’d have crafting abilities with different effects and you’d use them at various points in the minigame to affect the quality of the finished product. Now, it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was a good example of how to implement meaningful, skill-based non-combat gameplay in a themepark MMO, which is a concept most people scoff at.

Unfortunately, most mainstream MMOs opt for the lowest common denominator and position their crafting system (if they have one at all) and player economy as an adjunct to their core gameplay of PvE and PvP content. WoW is the best example of this, where crafting is a homogenised, grindy and entirely un-fun affair with little to recommend it 5. I might be missing an obvious example but I can’t think of a single major MMO since WoW’s release with a crafting system that wasn’t, fundamentally, just the same as WoW’s. LotRO and SWTOR have the most differentiated crafting gameplay – both systems are deeper than WoW’s, in the sense that there’s more potential to spend time gaining access to rare recipes – but there are still no meaningful choices to be made, and no real way for a crafter to set themselves apart by greater knowledge or skill.

Still, who knows what the next crop of MMO releases will bring? The next wave of MMOs in development – including Funcom’s The Secret World and ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2 – do seem to be diverging from the “WoW-clone themepark” model in more meaningful ways than most of the AAA titles of the last half-decade; perhaps we frustrated crafters and economists can finally find a niche somewhere. 6

  1. Admittedly, there are plenty of people who’ve bemoaned themepark MMOs’ tendency to restrict the crafting endgame to players who participate in the PvE/PvP endgame, but that’s a separate issue.
  2. Heck, a sociology student even did his thesis on the way SWG’s division of labour mirrored the real world.
  3. Not that I have anything against PvE or PvP. I’ve been raiding in WoW and SWTOR for seven years; I’ve got tens of thousands of PvP kills under my belt. I just don’t want peanut butter in my chocolate any more.
  4. Not that there’s anything wrong with Farmville, for those who enjoy it. I still enjoy a casual Zynga game, Cityville – but it’s not a game, it’s a computerised Lego set with less freedom.
  5. Obviously, this is a personal opinion, but I’d love to hear from people who think the system is engaging as-is.
  6. Other than EVE. Which is interesting, and might be just the game for me, but I don’t feel qualified to talk about its crafting system yet! I’ve only got 1.5 million skill points; I am but the tiniest of minnows.