Really, Sony? Order 66?

In the month of October, I’ll be giving money to two MMO companies that worked hard to regain my attention and my business. Both CCP and Turbine have excellent marketing plans designed to entice former players into resubscribing.

Sony Online Entertainment, on the other hand, basically just gave former players the finger. Instead of taking a cue from successful MMO’s and offer free time to encourage former players to check out the game again, they’ve decided to delete characters unless former players resubscribe to the game to initiate a character transfer (or if you want to pay a $50 fee past today’s free-for-subscribers character transfer option).

I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve encountered this kind of decision making from SOE ever since the days of Everquest. Still, today is a sad day, because I really enjoyed SWG prior to the CU and the NGE, and I know that I’ll never play in that world again. A free weekend, like Turbine is offering for LoTRO right now, with the option to initiate a character transfer, probably would have been enough to get me to resubscribe to SWG for a couple months and maybe get hooked for longer. Instead, SOE initiated Order 66, and my character will be gone forever.

Yeah, I could have paid to extend the life of that character, but in today’s MMO market, I don’t have to give money to a company that doesn’t cater to their customers. It’s like an abusive relationship at this point; if I paid to preserve my character, I’d just be setting myself up for more insulting decisions in the future. Today’s the end. I’ll mourn the good times I had, but it’s not worth enduring future dumb initiatives from SOE.

A tip of my hat to my Mon Calamari artisan/architect, to days spent searching for high quality resources, building a home, building furniture and crafting stations and harvesters and vehicles, living in a player city, and enjoying maybe the best sandbox MMO the genre has seen so far, before SOE decided to “fix” the game. I have such great memories of that character, and today she dies a final death. May the Force be with you.

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Sony MMO’s on Steam, and gaming behind the curve

It’s been about two months since I’ve played any MMO, which is probably my longest MMO-free stretch since Everquest released almost ten years ago. I’m really enjoy a bunch of different single-player games that I missed while I was obsessing over one MMO or another, but I still feel the occasional pull to log into a world.

I’ve toyed with the idea of re-subbing to LoTRO, and I’ve considered looking at Vanguard or EQ2, just because I never played them (aside from a short stretch in the EQ2 beta before WoW launched). I haven’t gotten past the “toyed with the idea” stage yet, because I think I’m still recovering from massive burnout.

When I opened Steam this evening to check the price of Bioshock ($19.99, sweet), thinking about using it as the subject for a paper I have to write about modernism and post-modernism for a grad school class this semester, I noticed that Sony Online Entertainment put their MMO’s on Steam.

First, it’s a damn good idea, dangling them out there like that, within easy reach of every gamer. Sony got their asses handed to themselves in the MMO market for quite a while, and I think they’re smart to use to Steam to reach a broader audience. Second, I was pleasantly surprised to see the prices (which I think are only good for the first 10 days they’re on Steam, which would be the 26th of this month if they were available the same day as the news item I read). Vanguard and Pirates of the Burning Sea: $14.99. Everquest 2, complete (all four expansions, plus the free adventure packs): $39.99. And you can even get the complete Everquest package, all the expansions ever released, for $14.99, although I’m not quite sure why you’d ever want to do that to your eyes.

Vanguard and EQ2 are pretty tempting at $15, with a free month of gaming thrown in. I’m still feeling the burnout, so I don’t think I’m going to bite, but I think it’s a good opportunity for anyone who started playing MMO’s with WoW, and hasn’t really dipped their toes into the Sony pool. If you’re burned out on WoW and want something completely different, it’s a pretty good deal to check ’em out.

I also noticed Mass Effect is $19.99. I know I’m way behind the gaming curve here, looking at Mass Effect and Bioshock, but I guess that’s one of the benefits of being absorbed with MMO’s for so long. There are a lot of solid single-player games out there that I missed, and they’re available at a bargain price.

I really need a job where I’m getting paid to play games. I can’t even keep up with PC games, and I don’t even own consoles. How the hell would I ever have time to keep up with all the good games out there? I guess the answer involves Powerball, a divorce, a personal chef and personal assistant. Barring that, I guess it’ll just be more nights playing until far too late in the evening 🙂

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 🙂

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