How AoC and WAR might affect WoW: One player’s perspective

Lots of people are speculating how Age of Conan and Warhammer Online are going to affect World of Warcraft subscriber numbers. I could link to quite a few posts, but I’ll cheat and link to Tobold’s post, because he already did the linking for me.

I’m a tiny data point in a sea of MMO subscribers, but I suspect I represent some small percentage of WoW players (or former WoW players). Personally, regardless of the presence of Age of Conan or Warhammer in the MMO market, I’m done with WoW. I unsubscribed a couple months ago, and I don’t suspect I’ll be returning for the Lich King expansion. I don’t have any desire to level a Death Knight. I don’t participate in WoW PvP, and I have no interest in end-game raiding or dungeon crawling, even in smaller groups.

I may end up in Warhammer. If I end up enjoying Warhammer, that will likely be my MMO of choice for the forseeable future. But, even if I end up not enjoying Warhammer, I don’t see any reason for me to return to WoW. I’d rather catch up on single player games that I missed, or return to Eve Online, or try Vanguard, or return to LoTRO. I feel like I’ve exhausted everything I want to do in Azeroth. There’s no point in returning to WoW. There’s no housing, no meaningful economy, no PvP that affects the world around me. All I can do is consume their new content like a tourist, and I’m tired of that. Once I see it, once I level up, what’s left to do for someone who doesn’t raid? Not much, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be skipping the Lich King expansion because of it.

If I do succumb to Lich King curiousity and re-subscribe, it won’t be a long term experience. It would be virtual tourism, not a virtual home.

However, I realize that there are millions of players who do continue to enjoy what WoW has to offer, and will happily raid and PvP in the new expansion. I’m in no way predicting the failure of this expansion. In fact, I expect Blizzard to stay at the top of the MMO heap for quite a long time. I don’t see any possible successors to the throne in the upcoming generation of MMO’s. I’m just saying that I don’t think the chances of Blizzard regaining my subscription money is very high. I’m guessing there are other gamers who feel the same way I do, but I don’t think we’re going to make a very big dent in their overall numbers.

Anyone who wants to talk about AoC or Warhammer eating some of Blizzard’s Subscriber Pie has to also consider this fact: A major factor in Blizzard’s huge subscriber base is their worldwide appeal. Almost half (if not more than half) of their subscribers are outside the US and Europe, I believe. Please correct me if you have more current data! Assuming that’s close to correct, what are the chances of Warhammer or AoC drawing significant subscribers from beyond the US and European market? Do Chinese or Korean gamers care about WAR or AoC at all? If any MMO is going to seriously affect Blizzard’s stranglehold on subscriber numbers, it’s going to have to have worldwide appeal. You can’t compete with WoW unless you win over the Chinese subscriber market. Even if Warhammer won over all the current US and European WoW subscribers, I think think that would only be about 50% of WoW’s overall subscriber base. And what are the chances of everyone in Europe and the US choosing Warhammer?

I think Mark Jacobs is well aware of this, which is why he has stated that he doesn’t expect Warhammer to compete with WoW subscriber totals. He does, however, expect WAR to be second to WoW. Given this chart, that means WAR will need over 1 million subscribers (surpassing Lineage and Lineage II, and not counting Runescape). If Warhammer hits those numbers, I think it’ll be a huge success. But it still won’t affect Blizzard all that much. Even if all 1 million eventual WAR subscribers cancelled a WoW account to play, Blizzard would just go from Really Incredibly Freaking Profitable to Incredibly Freaking Profitable. I suspect they’ll continue their market dominance for some time to come.

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More NDA blues, and MMO evolution

I’ve been posting comments on various blogs concerning Warhammer, and I have to be careful not to let thoughts about the beta slip in to my comments. One drawback when that happens is I fear I sound like a WAR fanboi. I can’t offer an even assessment of the game, because I’m not allowed to talk about it. I can kind of talk around it, or comment on what Mythic’s released about the game, but even then I have to be careful. For example, Mark Jacobs released a video talking about crafting in WAR that I watched over on Keen and Graev’s site.

I want to talk about what he’s talking about, and my experiences with it, but ya know…can’t. So I sit here talking to myself about it, mumbling and hoping I remember what it is I wanted to say when the NDA is lifted at some point in the future. I’m not an unabashed fan. I have opinions and concerns and differences with some of their design decisions, just like I did with LoTRO and AoC. But with all three games, my opinion has less and less to do with execution, and more to do with my personal preferences in MMO gameplay. The execution in all three games is pretty darn good.

What I’m noticing about MMO’s lately is how much the design choices are branching into quite different game styles. For a while, everyone worried about post-WoW MMO’s just being clones. I have to say, from what I’ve seen of the the triple A titles released or in the beta over the last year or so (LoTRO, Age of Conan, and WAR), they’re definitely not clones. Each game is taking their own unique direction.

Mythic is iterating on the RvR idea, running public quests, and perhaps making PvP attractive by letting PvE players seeing it go on around them and see how much fun it can be to fight alongside your realm mates. Jeff Hickman did a great job explaining their efforts in an interview over on Big Download today.

I can tell you that my wife, who used to not be a PvP player, came into our game and enjoyed the crafting and questing. But because of how our game is designed, she was led near an RvR area, and she could look down into the battlefield to see what was going on. This kind of demystified it for her and she decided to try the RvR. She then spent the next two hours on the keep pouring boiling oil on people and having a great time. There’s no fear in it. Enemies can’t talk, yell or make fun of you. It’s the easiest PvP you’ll ever play, and it’s so much fun.

We’ll see how that plays out after release, but given how much fun some of my non-PvP-fan friends had defending relics in DAoC, I’m hopeful Mythic delivers on their promise for WAR. The Hickman interview gives you an idea how thoughtfully Mythic has approached their entire game design. NDA, bla bla bla, more to say eventually!

Age of Conan has the single-player storyline, mounted combat, the most serious fantasy-based FFA PvP seen in a while, and guild city combat. Definitely not trying to rip off Blizzard.

LoTRO just made a great game off a great IP. They included housing, more nuanced crafting, and all my friends who made the effort to PvP in Monster play said they did a good job with that as well. It’s perhaps the most WoW-like of the three, but it’d be tough for me to make an argument that it’s ripping off or copying WoW.

I don’t think any of them are perfect games. I can’t talk about WAR, Age of Conan has had a few stumbles (although Funcom should be commended for improving over Anarchy Online), and LoTRO has quirks. I think, though, that they’re all pretty solid games. Most of the complaining I see about the games in online posts has less to do with gameplay and execution than with game design decisions. LoTRO gets dinged because it doesn’t have Mythic-style PvP, or FFA PvP. Age of Conan has too much FFA PvP, or not enough open-world PvP, or the starting 20 levels are too repetitive. It’s easy to ding a game for what it’s not. Instead of complaining that these titles haven’t accomplished things that the developers never intended to accomplish, maybe we should be happy that three AA A titles can diverge pretty widely from WoW’s example, and try to extend the genre in new and exciting directions.

For a while, I think we all might have feared that WoW would stunt the industry as everyone tried to jump on their design bandwagon. I’m pretty sure I can put those fears to rest, at least for LoTRO, AoC, and WAR.

Why I don’t get tattoos

When I was a kid in college, I had ample opportunity to tattoo myself with whatever symbol/theme/thing I happened to be into at the moment. I went to school outside Philadelphia, and Philly has a ton of wicked tattoo parlors. High-quality artists, lots of people with seriously interesting ink on their bodies.

I always hesitated, though, because I didn’t trust my ability to choose a design that I wouldn’t think was a friggin’ stupid idea 3 years later. Thankfully, that self-knowledge is the reason I don’t have Grateful Dead dancing bears or skulls on my body, or some Chinese characters that don’t really say what I thought they said, or that headshot of Winona Ryder. Some people see cool and recognize that it’ll look good on their arm or back or leg 30 years later. Me? It’s a dangerous idea. I always told myself that my “great ideas” needed at least a six-month waiting period, to see if it still seemed cool. Somehow, they never did, and I’ve remained ink-free.

That’s why I simultaneously love and fear the Eve-themed computer cases. Want. I’d love the Minmatar case. I’d be so geek-happy setting that up next to my desk. But…how long is it going to be cool? Would it turn out being dumb like tattooing your shoulder with your Tauren warrior in epic gear, only to realize 10 years later that you hadn’t thought about WoW in 7 years? Or worse, having the new WoW expansion launch and realize your epic tattooed gear has poorer stats than green drops in Northrend?

At least the Eve cases aren’t permanently inked onto your body. Although, hmm, I can think of some pretty cool Eve tattoo ideas…check back with me in two years. If I still think it’s a fine idea, maybe I’ll go ahead and do it ๐Ÿ™‚

I hate NDA’s

I hate NDA’s, but I have to respect them. Or at least try to respect them. I pretty much click off on the NDA with my fingers crossed and saying something like “I swear I’m not going to talk about this game…unless someone is buying me beers.” I’m not cheap, but I think I might be easy.

So. There’s a Warhammer beta. I’m in the Warhammer beta. That’s all I’m allowed to say. But damn it, I want someone to buy me beers so I can spill out everything about the game that’s bubbling inside me.

Stupid NDA’s ๐Ÿ™‚ “Fall 2008” seems much too far away!

License to print money?

For years following the release of Everquest, the prospect of developing and releasing a massively multiplayer online game based on a licensed intellectual property (IP) was viewed as a project fraught with difficulty. Star Trek MMO’s were discussed, development was begun and stopped, a game was never released. Star Wars:Galaxies famously underperformed expectations (although I think they did have some great mmorpg ideas). The Matrix did poorly.

There was plenty of scuttlebutt on MMO forums about the reasons for the failures. People wouldn’t want to play in a licensed IP universe if they couldn’t play Han Solo or Boba Fett. Everyone would want to be Kirk (or Picard, preferably, Kirk’s corset looked uncomfortable in later years), no one wanted to be a red shirt ensign. With the successes of Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, and World of Warcraft, creating and developing your own milieu seemed a much safer endeavor.

The first MMO based on a licensed IP that didn’t seem a disappointment was (I think) Lord of the Rings Online. Turbine has quietly built a goddamn good MMO, and their method of having players shadow (get it? Shadow? I kill myself) the storyline through instanced quests was a great way to make the players feel involved in the unfolding events of the books.

Age of Conan, while not a game that grabbed me out of the gate, certainly has the potential to be another successful MMO based on a licensed IP. Warhammer seems like it also has a lot of potential for success. I know I’m enjoying the heck out of the beta lately. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the end of 2008, we’ve got three successful AAA MMO’s based on licensed IP.

What’s the difference? Have MMO developers matured, and figured out how to offer players a compelling place in a known universe? This is the second or third trip around the MMO development block for Turbine (Asheron’s Call, AC2), Mythic (DAoC, Imperator…*cries*), and Funcom (Anarcy Online, plus they make great story-based adventure games). Of course, the “we’ve got experience, we can make a game based on licensed IP” argument breaks down with SOE and SW:G. And SOE and The Matrix.

Hmm, trend? Has Sony touched another licensed IP since those two disappointments? Did their failures lead them to only work with new IP, and are they going to miss the boat as three other experienced developers bring MMO gamers into familiar universes?

Another licensed IP that I’m very excited to see is the CCP/White Wolf World of Darkness project. Experienced MMO developer, cool universe…more win? God, I hope so. Someone get Ryan Verniere drunk and make him start talking on camera, please.

Anyway, I hope we’re over the “MMO’s based on licensed intellectual property can’t be successful” BS of a couple years ago. A good game is going to sell, regardless of whether you can actually be Darth Vader or Neo. A good developer is going to let you have fun in the universe you’ve come to love, even if you’re just being yourself

Searching for trouble in Age of Conan

Hey, for those of you playing Conan, how’s the performance? If you’re reading AoC forums, what’s the general opinion? My blog has been getting hit pretty heavy since the 18th or so (the day after the pre-release access for AoC started), and my top 10 searches that brought readers to my page all have to do with Age of Conan performance. Here’s an example of searches I’m seeing:

  • age of conan problem/problems
  • age of conan video settings
  • age of conan lag
  • performance issues age of conan
  • problems with age of conan
  • age of conan settings

Are there that many people having trouble with performance? It could be typical for new game releases. The one drawback of PC gaming versus consoles is the need to muck around with your system to maximize performance. And maybe I’m getting a lot of hits because posted about performance quite a bit during the open beta.

Then again, Funcom did try to go top shelf with the appearance of the game. Maybe people using last year’s computers are searching for a little extra oomph to push the graphics a little further.

Packed like lemmings into instanced little boxes

Apologies to Sting (who should actually be apologizing to us for the majority of post-Police pop crap foisted upon the world) and the Police, but when I look at MMO’s these days, I’m seeing compartments of gameplay, and I’m not liking it. I want a virtual world, not a holodeck. I want a place to live in, a place that changes because I’ve been there.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to divide an MMO timeline into “Star Wars:Galaxies and earlier” versus “World of Warcraft and later”. There were gameplay issues in Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot and SW:G that World of Warcraft addressed in a way that has changed or limited the way virtual worlds are being created since WoW.

First, the EQ problems. Static spawns, camp checks, kill-stealing, non-instanced dungeons. WoW addressed a lot of this with instances. It definitely eliminated some of those issues, but not without consequences. On a recent episode of The Online Gamer’s Anthology, Jonathan talked to an ex-DAoC player named Sean about life before instanced dungeons. Sean commented that life before instances did have some drawbacks, but that players did develop relationships as they formed groups and waited for spots to open within the dungeon. That was definitely true in the PvE dungeons, but it was crucially true in Darkness Falls, the shared PvP dungeon that was accessible to the realm that held the most frontier RvR keeps. When Darkness Falls access changed hands, and you knew a horde of enemy players was about the flood their entrance area, everyone got friendly real quick!

I don’t miss camp checks in Lower Guk, but I do miss the social aspects of open dungeons. I don’t miss trains out of Crushbone Castle, or the basement of Unrest, or Mistmoore (god, I could go on and on about EQ trains), but I do miss that sense of shared adventure when pulls went Really Frickin’ Bad. You definitely got to know your neighbors when you forgot to snare a runner in Sol A and wiped out everyone in the place. What you did in those dungeons mattered.

Let’s look at what might be considered a DAoC problem that Blizzard addressed through instancing. When you entered the RvR frontier areas in DAoC, you were never guaranteed a fair fight. In fact, you weren’t guaranteed a fight at all. There were a lot of nights where I’d go out solo, and I’d only find groups of enemy players, orย  vice versa.ย  While I enjoyed the unpredictability of the frontier, and found that my fights were often more memorable for their lack of organization, I know that some players were frustrated with the process. I passed the time looking for fights, or waiting for fights, by getting to know my realm mates who were also on the frontier around me. Those friendships increased my enjoyment of the game quite a bit, much more than Blizzard BG’s increase my enjoyment of WoW.

It’s clear that Blizzard devs played DAoC, and they “solved” that lack of an instant-on fair fight with Battlegrounds. Like instanced dungeons, however, that solution had consequences.

First, you never get a sense of rivalry like DAoC had. Despite the fact I couldn’t talk to my opponents in DAoC, I still felt like I knew them after fighting them night after night. I knew the guild names, the players to be feared, and the buff botters (hated you! ๐Ÿ™‚ ). There was talking back and forth on the forums, and an in-game respect grew from those out-of-game conversations. Your reputation mattered, not only to your realm mates, but to your enemies as well.

Second, there’s never any unpredictability in a Battleground. Blizzard has definitely made it possible to instantly find a fair fight, but that feels stale, sanitized, and impersonal to me. What you do in a WoW BG has no affect on the world around you (other than personal gain), and I’ve never enjoyed that. It doesn’t build a sense of community, banding together to protect realm property, or working together to get your realm access to dungeons, or experience/ability/loot drop bonuses.

Star Wars:Galaxies doesn’t have a clear-cut gameplay issue that Blizzard attempted to solve through instancing. However, Blizzard definitely decided to limit what world elements would be included in WoW, and they stripped out a lot of SW:G elements that created a vibrant world, a thriving community. I don’t think I’ve ever played an MMO that had the sense of player-created space that SW:G had. From player cities, to owning your own house, a fine crafting system, and method of marketing your goods, there was an interdependency that I sorely miss in most MMO’s since. Eve’s a bit of an exception, as I really enjoy their “players make everything” economy.

WoW has no housing, little complexity in their tradeskills (OK, no complexity), and an alt-itis “I can make that with my other character” situation. While I occassionally chafed at the one character per server restriction in SW:G, it did make the tradeskills much more vibrant and social.

I don’t want to make this sound like I’m saying Blizzard was wrong in their design decisions. They’ve made a brilliant game. It just doesn’t draw me into a community the way EQ, DAoC, and SW:G did. It doesn’t feel as worldly. Blizzard’s one saving grace for me was the excellent NPC world that surrounds you in WoW. While I never felt compelled to interact with other players like I did in the earlier games, I did enjoy experiencing the static world of Azeroth.

Looking forward to Age of Conan and WAR, I’m wondering how much influence Blizzard’s instanced design will affect those games, and how much Funcom and Mythic might try to incorporate gameplay elements that Blizzard took a pass on.

Tobold has already commented that Hyboria lacks that worldly feeling. I sensed the same thing during my open beta experience. Dividing the PvE areas into instances, instead of an interconnected world, isn’t a direction I wanted to see Funcom take. I do think that Funcom is cognizant of WoW’s stale BG problem, and they want to make PvP more meaningful. I don’t know how truly open-world the PvP will be. I’ll have to look more closely at the process for attacking guild cities, but I hope it’s a more open than closed model. There are choices that every MMO developer has to make about what features to include, and at what depth. Time will tell if Funcom tilted too far toward the WoW model for my tastes, or if they tilted even further in some areas, like instanced zones and teleport travel between them.

I’ve been playing the WAR beta (was in for quite a few hours last night), but I can’t talk too much about their direction. First, I’m under the NDA. Second, since they chop their testing up into fairly small parts, I don’t yet have a sense of the overall world. I’m not grouping with people who will fight alongside me at release. So, even if I wasn’t under NDA, I couldn’t talk about answers to some of my questions.

It seems like the smart path for both Funcom and Mythic is to provide both instant-on balanced gameplay for players who like Battleground-style combat, but also create a DAoC-style open world combat system for players who prefer a more dynamic and unpredictable PvP experience. Easy to say, damn tough to accomplish. It remains to be seen if a balance can be struck between instances and open-world interaction. Neither game seems to be taking up the SW:G housing/player city/crafting/economy complexity benchmark, and that’s a shame. Marry a good PvE and PvP game to the social and economic aspects of SW:G, and you’ve got a heavyweight MMO. I don’t think either Mythic or Funcom are reaching that far this generation.

I just hope that, in the future, good MMO design doesn’t slant too severely toward instances. I certainly understand the value of an arena, but those become just games to me, not virtual worlds. It’s like logging in to a Battlefield server, or going to play Counterstrike. I know as soon as the round is over, nothing has changed. There’s no player-created narrative, no effect on the world around you, no virtual home. I want more world in my MMO, not more mini-games.

I wonder if I hope for too much. When games take years to develop, and modern MMO’s have only existed for 9 years (using fully 3D EQ as that benchmark), it’s easy to sit here and wish for features and some sort of convergence. It has to be a truly daunting task to design a WoW Pve +DAoC/Eve PvP + SW:G crafting/economy game. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I can keep hoping ๐Ÿ™‚