Free-to-play or how to Spread Around $15 per Month

Posted by on Aug 8, 2012 in Blog, Rift, SOE, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft | 4 comments

How to split moneySo we are talking again about the free-to-play model, after SWTOR has announced they’ll be using it soon for their game. Syp started this with a simple list of various free-to-play models and others have thrown in their opinions. Ocho elaborates a bit more on the various pay models and Sente looks into the cost side of the business.

Guess I’ll throw my opinion in as well. If I look at my own gaming habit I see a couple of things, and I can assume being the average Joe, that many other games will do exactly as I do. I more or less have a gaming budget, as I have already dissected a while back. So does everybody else. That’s the MMO market, the sum of the budgets of all players.

Back in the days of Everquest and Ultima Online, that market was small, since so many people

  • didn’t know about MMOs
  • didn’t have the hardware
  • didn’t have friends who played
  • just found the game to hard.

Along comes Blizzard and blows up the market size from a wild guess of 1 million players for EQ and others to 13 million at its peak, say 15 million to add in the other games, hell make it 18 million. They were able to do this because they pulled in the player base from other Blizzard games and at some point it started to snowballed.

It’s different nowadays. Remember, each player has his budget. And there aren’t that many people left who don’t know about MMOs. There are probably only hardcore MMO deniers left. Each new game, in order to gain traction has to chip away from other games’ player base, or has to find a way to bring in their own fans. But that gets them usually only 1-2 million subscribers like Rift’s and SWTOR’s numbers show. SWTOR actually pulled in the Bioware fans, many of them solo offline gamers, while Rift probably had to steal their subscribers elsewhere.

So what’s a smart company to do if it’s so hard to get new people to put down $15 each month and other players hand their money to Blizzard or Sony? Answer: what every business man does, they ask for less. I think there was a company who actually had $9.95 subscription rates. But that didn’t fly. And even smaller rates won’t work to well, because the cost of handling those transactions eat up the money.

And that’s why the folks running the business end of the MMO’s had to come up with a way get their share of the market. Instead of having somebody play 30 days for $15, they end up with somebody playing 10 days and paying $6 (see what I did here?). The players love it, since they have so many games to pick from. By the way, that’s what it looks like from the players point of view: So many games, so little time. And many want to play them all.

In the end all those free-to-play models are business vehicles to be able to offer smaller pieces of the market to the buyers. Sony’s 3 day pass comes to mind. With F2P you get somebody to pay $20 for in game currency now and recharge 4 month later. However, one reality seems to be that many players have a main game where they are subscribed to, and many others were they drop by every now and then, leaving traces of money behind.

Makes you wonder if F2P is the right way to divide that market into more equal pieces. Plus, the $15 a month Blizzards have to let them chip away.

 

Photo by: Images_of_Money


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Why Still Have Shards or Servers

Posted by on Mar 9, 2012 in Blog, Everquest II, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Uncategorized, World of Warcraft | 0 comments

Some of my posts are triggered by the blogs I read, but end up looking only remotely related to the original content. This is one of them. A couple of blogs started to complain about WOW’s revamped “Scroll of Resurrection” (Bio Break, MMO Quests, Corpse Run). Among other things, players returning to WOW can get an instant character at level 80.

Which leads to the question, why would it be advantageous to have an instant, content skipping, nearly painless level 80? Of course the assumption is that players, and in this case returning players want to play with their friends. And an instant level 80 might just be the solution for some of the returning players, some of them having gone through the content way to many five times.

Multiple Servers

Others would love to go through the WOW-Cataclysm content, but fear they will face empty or low populated zones on their mature servers. Of course new players face the same problem if they pick a mature server. WOW offers the LFD tool as a partial solution, where it matches you up for dungeons with players from other servers. Which doesn’t help in non-dungeon areas, especially if the zone is structured in a way where it is advantageous having multiple players adventuring nearby. For instance, to quickly drop a tougher NPC together and continue soloing. Rift’s zone events and open grouping or WAR’s area quests are similar, since you will need more people in the same zone. Disclaimer: I haven’t been playing Rift lately, so I don’t know if there is a solution in place.

Competitive players and guilds face also problems with a multiple server environment. The major one being recruiting. A server is usually to small to sustain many high end guilds and recruiting often happens cross server. A server transfer costs money, but is usually not that much of a problem. Cross server communication is harder. It usually happens offline on forums and can become clumsy, if those forums are spread out. The EQ/EQ2 cross server chat is nice, but you still need to know on what server you’ll find your partner.

Single Shards

If WOW puts already player from different servers together temporarily, why not drop the shard concept all together? Why did we have them to begin with? Part of the transition from multi user dungeons (MUD) into Massive multi player role playing games was the need to spread the players out across multiple servers, simply to handle the need for server capacity. The games architecture just couldn’t handle more. The ability to multiply the name space and have multiple versions of “Chug Noris” was nice to have as well. And lastly, new players could be sent to newer servers to get a better social experience with people in the same level range.

But, as EVE and the zone instancing of EQ2, Rift and SWTOR shows, modern architectures can handle more than 2500 players online at the same time on a single server. (2500 used to be a common assumption for server capacity). Zone instancing, were a zone gets duplicated once a certain number of players is reached, was introduced with EQ2. This eliminates one big problem, the number of interactions between multiple players. It just won’t work well if your graphics card has to draw 200 characters around the bank in Stormwind and it causes similar problems on the server side as well.

On a single server all players in the same level range can play together in a zone appropriate for this level. They will be split into multiple instances of the same zone as the number of players increases. New players, returning players, and players leveling an alt would all be together and could certainly achieve objectives meant for more than a single player. The highest number of instances I’ve seen was 10 for the New Halas area on the Freeport server in EQ2. It can still happen that a zone is empty at the wrong time of the day, or, what’s worse, if the game is in full decline.

Player Chat

Which leaves the problems with chat. Multiple instances of the same zone should share a chat channel, otherwise it becomes harder to find groups. This will meet limitations, once the chat channel becomes an unreadable scrolling stream of text. But at that point, it is probably fine to have multiple instances of zone chat as well, perhaps mapping 2 chat channels to 5 zone instances each.

There shouldn’t be global chat for the same reason, it will just become a huge scrolling wall of text, populated with attention seeking trolls, looking for the widest audience. Guild recruitment and other recruitment for social activities will need a different medium. Again, look at EQ2’s guild recruitment tool and the LFD and LFR tools in WOW.

Another effect which I have become aware of just recently are native language chat channels. Especially in Europe, the chat on the English servers is actually international: for instance Russian, Hungarian and English all together. Which makes things complicated. People have declared certain servers as unofficial Russian servers, which causes problems for the remaining native English speakers. A single server concept helps, since it just needs to create chat channels for each major group. And with a single server, it is easier to reach critical mass for a single new language channel.

The World is Round and Technical Realities

There is one limitation to the single server concept: Geography. Just to throw out a number, a latency of more than 200 ms becomes unplayable, less than 100ms is desirable. Internet architecture and physics make it nearly impossible for an Asia Pacific player to have less than 200ms round trip time to an US based server. Thus, if the subscription numbers allow for it, there should be at least one server in each major region: EU, NA, AP. Brazil is also an option to place another server.

And finally, WOW, with 13 million subscribers at peek has 4 data centers in the US and 2 in Europe to handle the load. I don’t have any hard evidence, but it’s hard to believe that a single server architecture could handle 13 million subscribers. Thus, some division is needed in the end, but not at 2500 online players (wild guess: translates to 20,000 subscribers), but at a much larger number >300,000 subscribers.

PVP is different

One problem remains, but EVE  has a solution for it: fleet battles or epic scale PVP with thousands of participants. I don’t have much technical insight how it is being solved, but I am sure there will be certain hard limits as well. Space battles are probably easier to handle, since the ships won’t get to close to each other, but your graphics card still has to draw at least some dots and laser beams.

However, a multi shard concept won’t even attempt fleet battles.

Conclusion

I just don’t see why the MMO makers stick with the multi shard concept. They face the challenge of long queue times during the opening weeks, and empty servers thereafter. I googled a couple of questions to research this article, but there wasn’t much of an answer to “Why multi shards”. I have only one conspiracy theory to offer: the game companies make money with server transfers, but I just can’t bring myself to taking it to serious.


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Why Are We Playing MMOs?

Posted by on Mar 1, 2012 in Blog, Guildwars 2, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft | 1 comment

I’ve been reading various blogs this morning and this post by Keen caught my attention and triggered a couple of thoughts on the subject. Why are we playing MMOs? Why do we drop some of them so fast and why do we stick with others way beyond a point where it seems reasonable?

There are three main reasons why we play MMOs: the achievements, the socializing and the storytelling. MMOs and many other games give instant rewards for all kinds of in-game achievements. It’s part of our nature that we grave recognition and rewards even if they are only given by a machine. The socializing aspect of the game is obvious as well. Humans are social animals and tend to do things in groups and tribes, guilds or clubs. And there’s more to it than just storytelling: The immersion, escapism, exploration, role-playing and the fun from customizing your characters looks, in game housing and even whole dungeons. (See this article by Nick Yee )

According to this article, not all players are built the same. Some are in it for the achievements, others spent their evening in the game chatting and yet another group will move around carpets in their virtual homes until it is perfectly matched with the hobbit painting on the wall. Obviously we will play a new game to find out how it will satisfy our tastes and quit as soon as we find out it doesn’t do it at all, or not as well as the old game, or after a while it just won’t be able to satisfy your needs anymore. You’ve reached max level, all achievements, know in your sleep that a 21/2/18 build is inferior to 23/0/18 for leveling purposes. Or the socializer, troll or extrovert is sitting in the games main hub all night talking to himself without any feedback, because the world has grown stale to most people and nobody feels like talking.

As the Gartner graph posted by Keen shows, an MMO  will go through these phases:

  1. Trigger: “Game of Thrones MMO announced”
  2. Inflated Expectations: “Play GW2, meet hot chicks and win the nobel price”
  3. Trough: “SWTOR has no endgame”
  4. Enlightenment: “Rift has cool features, is well implemented”
  5. Productivity: “WOW, 13 mio subscribers”

As time moves on, competing games will offer new features, like SWTOR’s voice overs, Rift’s and GW2’s dynamic content. If WOW can’t keep up with it, people will move. Should Blizzard come up with feature people don’t like, lets say pandas, people will turn away.

However, and now we are getting more into people issues and toward an answer to the third question, players tend to stick with the things they know. Like old shoes, unfit to walk in the rain with, or an old hoodie with a hole the size of a DVD in the sleeves, people will not leave their game because it is safe.  They know it inside out and know how to get their kicks out of it, even if they have to get higher and higher doses of it to be happy. They fear the new game, don’t know how it will react to their whims. And that’s why Everquest is still around. The game has changed ever so slowly, just enough to not alienate the remaining base of players. And that’s why the frog stays in water that’s slowly heated, but jumps out when thrown into boiling hot water. (so they say, don’t do this at home)

Back to the pandas. I strongly believe that the pandas are scapegoats for the general dissatisfaction with WOW. People have become bored with the game and see the need to justify their decision to leave their partner (game) of seven years. And that’s why they bash pandas, because the real reasons are many fold and much harder to explain.

 

Attribution: Gartner hype cycle and the panda picture are copied from http://wikipedia.org

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The Moat Around World of Warcraft And How Bioware’s SWTOR Gets Around It

Posted by on Jan 5, 2012 in Blog, Current Games, Featured, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft | 0 comments

Investor Warren Buffet has coined the term economic moat as an almost insurmountable advantage of one company over another company in the same industry. Typical names that come up in this discussion are Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart. Any new company that wants to compete with these two is looking at a very long time with minimal income before they will be able to come even close.

Does this mean World of Warcraft has a moat? You bet. Just look at all the features it offers and how many of them new games like Rift or Star Wars had implemented at their release date. Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Dungeon Finder
  • Raid Finder
  • Extendable User Interface
  • Accomplishments
  • Guild Perks
  • Plethora of Pets
  • Flying Mounts
  • WOW Armory
  • Class Balance
  • Economic Balance
  • In Game Events

Of course, at first, this list doesn’t look to bad, but these features have to be implemented, tested and rolled out and balanced. How hard will it be to implement a cross server dungeon and raid finder for SWTOR? It’s my gut feeling, not backed up by many facts that they’ll have a harder time to do that than Rift.

While playing Star Wars, of course I notice issues where I can clearly say, that Bioware will have to either take some lessons from Blizzard or learn them the hard way. For instance I am not sure, if the economy around the Galactic Trade Market will ever become viable. The auction interface is certainly not up to it. The bigger problem there will be the underlying supply and demand of raw materials and finished goods. I can see for instance that there’s far more metal for armor and arms available than there are crystals for synthweaving and artificing. It is open where it will find a balance, but I question if the Bioware designers have put much thought into the subject. But that is part of the moat I described.

Having said that, Bioware might not need to conquer the moat, simply by building their own castle. Bioware’s loyal customers are RPG fans who’ve kept their distance to MMORPGs. But the way it looks, with Bioware’s story driven approach and a lot of voice acting, that barrier is torn down. The ingame chat has certainly seen its amount of WOW comparisons, but they’ve actually died down relatively fast. Thus, Bioware isn’t taking away much of WOW’s market share. Bioware is expanding the market. Something everybody in the industry will be grateful for.

 


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