Warhammer: Why pay full price?

Over at The Book of Grudges, spinks is talking about the difference between playing an MMO at launch, and playing an MMO after it’s been out for months or years.

A while back, I asked why we should be paying full price for MMO’s. Tabula Rasa’s price dropped dramatically in the first few months. I got LoTRO for $19.99 about 10 months after launch. Vanguard’s free trial…oh, wait, that holy mess still hasn’t offered a free trial to let players in to see “improvements”. I ain’t payin’ for McQuaid trash, sorry. Let me in for free if you suddenly believe so much in your re-designed game. If it’s that good, the subscriptions after the free trial will reflect it.

Sorry. Sidetracked. Vanguard still gives me hives.

Anyway, I was feeling like I wasn’t missing much by skipping recent MMO launches. In fact, I felt like I was saving a lot of money on so-so MMO’s by waiting for the price to drop significantly.  spinks had some good reasons for wanting to be in at launch, though, echoed what mbp said in the comments of my post. He said

  • because there is nothing like the first heady days on a new server in a new game
  • because the noobie zones are crowded and groups are easy to get
  • because the internet isn’t saturated with wikis and help sites yet and people have to work things out for themselves
  • because your discoveries about the game world actually feel important and not just stuff that a hundred thousand other players already know
  • because the game community is new and fresh and eager to talk about their new obsession. People will read your blog posts about the game and reply to your forum posts
  • because this honeymoon period doesn’t last very long for most games. Perhaps until the first hardcore players hit the level cap

Those are all great reasons, but they only apply to games I care about. I didn’t care so much about LoTRO or Tabula Rasa (or Vanguard, clearly), or Age of Conan.

WAR, though…you know I’m in the closed beta. Warhammer will be the first MMO I’ve been in at launch since…wow, has it been since World of Warcraft? I think this is the first MMO to get me excited enough that I don’t want to miss all the good things mbp posted, or spinks posted.

I’m absolutely planning to be there first day. I think, barring usual MMO launch issues, that Warhammer is going to be a lot of fun in zones packed with new players. It’s going to be chaotic. It’s going to be somewhat of a unique experience, given Mythic’s new game elements (Public Quests, RvR Scenarios and open-world PvP available from the very earliest levels). It’s something I don’t want to miss. It’ll be crowded and messy  and fun, and I hope the servers stand up to the load 🙂

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WAR vs. WoW, and DAoC vs. EQ

Think I could jam any more acronyms into the title?

This turned into quite a rant. Stick with me.

I just exceeded my tolerance for the term “WoW killer” in relation to Warhammer Online. The offending comment was actually delivered indirectly, from a post on Book of Grudges last Monday (catching up on my RSS feed after returning from Las Vegas, I’m behind!), called “Taking a Step Back“. arbitrary was checking reactions to the Mythic announcements about cutting classes and capital cities, and found this quote on Kotaku:

The so called wow killer is releasing half a product and expecting to compete?

I can’t take it any more. Who’s calling it a WoW killer? Who’s expecting it to compete directly with WoW? Mythic has already stated that they believe their game has different gameplay elements, will not outsell WoW, and they’re not directly competing with them. Has anyone at Mythic also stated that Warhammer will be a WoW killer, or is this giving forum blathering from burned out ex-WoW subscribers way too much credence?

I think some of us who follow MMO’s suffer from Compare-itis. Since there are relatively few MMO’s in the Western market, they inevitably get compared to one another, and I don’t think that’s healthy.

The first time I saw Compare-itis in action was when I started playing DAoC, when it first launched. I still had friends playing EQ, still visited message boards with EQ players, and there was far too much time spent talking about what each game lacked compared to the other game. It was like they had to be the same game somehow, and differences were bad. I’d try to tell my EQ friends what I liked about DAoC, and they’d sharpen their virtual pencils and tell me in detail why DAoC wasn’t like EQ, and hence, why DAoC was Bad.

The reverse was also true. There were plenty of people who liked DAoC who’d slam EQ for not having features like DAoC. Neither stance made much sense to me, but clearly, Compareitis is still alive when WAR’s being touted by forum posters as a WoW killer.

Saying WAR is like WoW, or DAoC was like EQ, is like saying Half-Life is like Quake, just because both games have weapons and multiplayer options. It’s like saying Company of Heroes is like Warcraft III because they’re both RTS games.

There are TONS of design decisions that go into making an MMO. You start with a massive world, either a level-based or skill-based system, put in PvE and maybe PvP combat, tradeskills, maybe housing…and it’s like those elements alone are suddenly enough to compare games like comparing apples to apples.

I think it’s time we start to look more at the differences between MMO’s, and the different design goals chosen by developers, instead of thinking that WAR and WoW are somehow wildly similar games. Or AoC and WoW, or LoTRO and WAR, or whatever you’re chosing to compare.

I played a ton of EQ, and a ton of DAoC. They had a common genre underpinning, but they were very different games. I’ve played a ton of WoW and quite a bit of the WAR beta. Mythic is shooting for a very different gaming experience with WAR than what I enjoyed in WoW.  Comparing them directly is bound to be inaccurate, because they have very different design goals. Yes, they share a common heritage, but I think the genre is maturing enough, especially with second and third generation MMO developers, to stop directly comparing games.

The paucity of choice in the MMO market contributes to the desire to compare games head-to-head. We probably have more triple-A MMO titles available right now than we’ve had at any point in MMO history, yet there are still only a handful of good choices for gamers. I guess it’s inevitable that the games are lumped together, but each developer puts their own spin on the genre, and comparing them directly just seems silly to me.

I don’t want to see any more WoW killer comments, or posts saying WAR ripped off WoW, or WoW ripped off the Warhammer IP before Mythic started developing the Warhammer IP, bla bla bla, yadda yadda. Mythic has their own design goals, and I think if you HAVE to directly compare it to any other MMO, it should be DAoC, and not WoW, or EQ2, or LoTRO. There’s a firm academic basis for comparison with DAoC; an evolution of development, ideas tried, evaluated, kept, or tossed aside. WoW, not so much.

It might be a little too early in the genre for an MMO cladogram, with each branch forking out different design choices, each game ending up as individual species with a particular evolutionary ancestry, but comparing MMO’s directly with each other is like bitching that a Stegosaurus isn’t just like an Ankylosaur, or that a 10 million Velociraptors must be superior to 1 million Allosaurs. It’s ok to be different. I learned that in high school. It’s ok to make different choices.

I’m not sure where this Highlander “There can be only one!” attitude regarding MMO’s comes from, but I do know that I’m tired of it. There are now quite a few companies making big profits from their first, second, or third MMO, and I’m glad that each game has its own personality, its own goals. We’ve got to get over the head-to-head, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots school of MMO fandom.

Listen to me. Suddenly I’m dipping into “Celebrate Diversity!” cheerleading. Well, hell, I like diversity. I like that Mythic decided to do things differently than Blizzard and Sony and Turbine. I’m glad that Turbine tried Monster Play and storyline quests. I like that EQ2 has housing and more developed crafting. I’m happy that WoW is so carefully crafted and detailed and refined. I like boobs in AoC. And elsewhere, for that matter.

I know it’s the nature of internet communication to square off in opinion-related cage matches, but I’m hoping for a little more nuanced appraisal of WAR when it’s released. It’s not WoW. It’s not trying to BE WoW. If you start your review of WAR with a comparison to WoW, you’re missing the point.

Do people dog R.A. Salvatore because his books are in the same section of the bookstore as the Dragonlance series? Do we have to sneer at Spiderman movies because there are already Batman movies, and they’re not the same movie? What is it about MMO’s that invites this type of comparison? Is it because the genre is still so young? Is it because it takes so long to make a triple-A title, and because we talk it to death while it’s being made and being tested? Is it because, unlike other computer games, you have to pay $15 a month for an MMO, and you want to believe that your $15 is going to the best game, and all the other games suck?

Maybe it’s a little of all of that. And I’m gettin’ tired of it 🙂

It’s all about the beta

I heard Michael Zenke talking to Julian Murdoch on one of his recent MMOG Nation podcasts, saying that he’s got MMO ADD and that he’s really only excited about MMO’s that aren’t out yet, and he hopes that he’s not let down when WAR comes out.

I understand his concern. Those of us who have played MMO’s since EQ (or earlier) tend to look toward the next great thing with anticipation, hoping to recapture the magic of our first forays into online worlds. In the recent past, for me at least, and it sounds like for Michael as well, the honeymoon period for a new game gets shorter and shorter. It’s not that the games are bad, at least not all of them. I still feel like LoTRO is the best MMO I haven’t really played. I just couldn’t muster the energy to level out of my 20’s in LoTRO. Age of Conan caused a massive “Meh” reaction. I’m in the WAR beta, and excited about the WAR release, but is that only because I can’t currently play it? Am I going to become bored with WAR once the time to actually play arrives? Will I switch toward anticipating the next big game?

I’m wondering about this, because I just signed up for the Jumpgate Evolution beta. Instead of putting time into Eve Online, I’m signing up to test a game that’s not even out yet. Instead of giving Vanguard a shot (one current MMO that I haven’t even peeked at, mostly because I think they should be giving out a free trial after their nightmarish launch), I’m playing Civ 4 and Team Fortress 2.

The WAR beta is in a non-testing period, which is good because it’s summertime and there are plenty of other things to be doing with my time. It also gives me time to re-evaluate exactly what I’m looking for in a game. During the MMOG Nation podcast linked above, Julian mentioned that he plays MMO’s because he’s an explorer. He enjoys traveling through new virtual worlds, and he gets excited about experiencing a new one. That’s pretty much how I’d describe myself as well. I’m not an end-game player (except DAoC, which had, for my money, the best end-game of any MMO), I’m not a dungeon raider, I’m not much for static groups. I’m an explorer, I’m a crafter, and I really enjoyed the shared PvP experiences of DAoC and Eve Online.

I guess I’m getting pretty specific about what I want from an MMO, and I think my patience is short with games that aren’t going to provide good gameplay experiences for my tastes. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, but I find myself wishing that there was a different type of MMO available, and quickly tossing aside those that don’t meet my desires. Perhaps that’s the WoW effect, simplifying things I didn’t want simplified (crafting, the economy, meaningful PvP, no housing). Whatever it is, I find myself looking forward, hoping for something breathtaking on the horizon, instead of enjoying what’s already available here and now. I might be fooling myself, or maybe I just need the industry to shake things up a bit.

Is anyone else doing this? Looking forward to future games, more than playing current games? Are you feeling blah about an MMO you’re currently subscribed to, just killing time until the next big thing arrives? Does Team Fortress 2 feel more satisfying than any MMO?

Massive AoC battle lag: I had a bad feeling about this

I just read Massively’s story about big battles in AoC having performance issues.

The main issues are identified as those of client performance, and those of content and collision. Client performance is apparently the biggest problem being reported…

Some of the ways in which Funcom hopes to improve the performance in these battles is to tone down some particles, stylize the view distance to a shorter setting, and change how some spells and abilities propagate.

I’d love to go back through my posts here and identify which ones talk about AoC’s graphics versus WAR’s graphics, like a real blogger does, but I’m at work (and lazy!), so I’ll sum it up quickly.

When I saw how good AoC looked in the beta, I had concerns about the client performance in big battles. I had been through that before in DAoC, where a fairly reliable way of predicting the arrival of a group of players into your area was the hesitation your client experience as it drew in the new mobiles. There were a variety of client-side tricks to help performance, like turning off spell effects, and disabling cloak animations (I think, it’s been years now, and I’m older and forgetful and…hmm, what was I saying?)

I think, from a screenshot point of view, AoC is prettier than WAR. All along, though, I thought that might be on purpose, from Mythic’s perspective. They’ve already been through the changes, fixes, and adjustments that Funcom is talking about now. I haven’t heard it confirmed by anyone at Mythic, but I’m guessing they were very careful with their pixel counts in their models, and that affected just how fancy they could make the characters look.

I’m looking for a certain type of game experience for my next MMO, which definitely includes big battles. I’m totally willing to put up with a client that might be a little less fancy if it performs better when two armies come crashing together. If WAR launches with big battles running smoothly, keep that in mind when you want to complain about the graphics and how they don’t look as good as LoTRO or Vanguard or AoC. That was probably a deliberate decsion by Mythic.

Of course, if keep raids in open-world PvP crash zones in Mythic, then they’ve screwed up in other ways that need fixing 🙂 Hopefully they’ve at least learned from DAoC the lessons Funcom is about to learn with AoC.

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.

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.