Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Open-world economics

Being right is awful sometimes. I predicted that Funcom's dark urban fantasy MMO The Secret World would struggle, and struggle it has according to Funcom's 2012 second quarter financial report (via Rock Paper Shotgun).

Is anyone surprised by this? They're charging full triple-A retail price plus premium-price monthly subscriptions (higher than premium, in fact, for UK players) for an experimental, work-in-progress, niche-genre game without an established IP or a standard free trial, competing with Guild Wars 2 and a new World of WarCraft expansion - not to mention the fact there are now more free-to-play MMOs in existence than there are people.

The Secret World is a good game, if perhaps not a great one. I for one enjoyed it probably more than any other MMO I've encountered. But I'm not going to spend £100 to play it for six months, especially not when getting the same length out of Rift or Guild Wars 2 would cost me significantly less. Gaming's typical price-based snobbery ("if you think it's too expensive, it's your fault for being poor") is alive and well in The Secret World's community, but that attitude completely misses the point - sure, if you can't afford it then don't buy it, but market forces work both ways and each person who either can't or won't play due to the pricing structure represents one less subscription. A balance must be struck. If a game's takeup is low, it doesn't bode well for that game's future.

At 200,000 accounts, The Secret World's takeup is low.

It was never going to compete with WoW or EVE in terms of market share, so it shouldn't be placing itself in economic competition with those titles. A friend of mine said she was interested in The Secret World, but not interested enough when she was also paying for EVE and Rift. I'm not suggesting that The Secret World should move to a free-to-play model, but if it was cheaper, might she have been interested enough to try it? And while some of The Secret World's players may not like to hear it, any subscription-based MMO is in competition with free-to-play equivalents, and comparison is necessary. Every gamer draws their own line in regards to where they're willing to start paying a subscription, and if someone can get almost as much enjoyment out of a free game as a paid game, how many will realistically fork over £12 a month? Maximising what one gets with one's money is as much the consumers' prerogative as it is publishers' prerogative to charge, and publishers have a lot more to lose than consumers. On reflection, I think that's why many Kickstarter backers get so up in arms by a perceived lack of communication with the developers; it's seen as a form of investment, with the ultimate return not being liquid capital but rather a game.

I've seen it argued that the likes of GOG, Steam sales and free-to-play MMOs have spoiled players into expecting to pay under the odds for games. But that's economic reality. Developers report that during sales on sites like Steam and Green Man, their profits increase. Not just sales, profits. Why, then, shouldn't that trend continue for as long as it makes developers money and lets gamers buy their games cheap? You can argue about whether it devalues games as a desirable commodity, whether it negatively affects purchasing decisions, whether it brings down the incentive to experiment in big-budget titles. But you can't excuse publisher actions with the free market defence if you then lambast players for doing, fundamentally, the same thing. And yet some people try to do just that.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

We did kickstart the fire

Now that Kickstarter's no longer this Shiny New Thing, and is increasingly becoming a standard part of gaming culture, it's interesting to see how the crowdsourcing concept is progressing. The sheen hasn't dulled, if a couple of recent titles are anything to go by; Reaper Miniatures' Bones closed today and became the third highest grossing Kickstarter project ever (and achieved the highest ever funding percentage over its original target), while the much-hyped Oculus Rift is doing pretty well for itself - almost a week to go, and it's on target to make 1000% of its initial target. Neither of them were ever in danger of knocking off Pebble (which seems inherently superfluous to me, but I'm not a gadgety person, so what do I know?), but they're still both runaway successes.

Friends of mine, even skint ones, have pledged hundreds of dollars to Bones. A few have hyped it to me, too, despite the fact they know I'm not a wargamer. I suppose you could use the figures for D&D 4th Edition too; sadly, I know about two roleplayers within gaming distance of me currently, and neither would touch D&D with a ten foot bargepole. Also I still prefer 3.5 (I accept 4th is the better game, but 3.5 is geared more towards my personal preferences). All that aside, I know that for those who would make use of the miniatures, the deals Reaper are offering are outstanding value, and they seem to be good sculpts. And hey, one of the low-tier rewards is a naked succubus on a motorbike... they obviously know their audience.

Personally, I'm more interested in Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse. The first two Broken Swords were excellent, and the third was good. I never played the fourth, sadly. The new game will be returning to the 2D, hand-drawn style of the first two instalments; it's broken the halfway mark on its target after less than two days live, further proof - after the success of Double Fine Adventure - that traditional adventure gaming still has a commercial market.

Of course, like previous Kickstarter successes Shadowrun, Wasteland and Carmageddon, Broken Sword is a fondly remembered cult classic with legions of fans to this day. The Great Giana Sisters? That's, well, the videogame equivalent of pub quiz trivia. Oh, sure it has its fans (some of whom hilariously believe that it's better than Super Mario Bros.), and it had a fairly low-key DS remake, but do enough people care about a Giana comeback for it to hit its target? With just under a week to pull in $35,000, probably, but I bet a fair chunk of Project Giana's backers are in it more for irony value than for a genuine love of the original.

As for the new game, it too looks like a close, ahem, "homage" of a popular title, although not Mario this time. The visual design, the physics puzzles, and the instant switching between multiple characters with different skills - the whole thing screams, to me at least, 'Trine clone.' Now Trine was a fine game, and in its defence Project Giana looks like a mixture of Trine and the kind of traditional, old-school platformer which doesn't really get made anymore, so there may be something worthwhile there. I think I'm interested enough in Project Giana to get it when it comes out, but not enough to back it.

Perhaps I'm picky about the things I back - or perhaps more people than I thought see Kickstarter as way of pre-ordering a game for cheap. Carmageddon's campaign closed two months ago, and some fans are up in arms about what they perceive to be a lack of updates since then, never mind the fact the game was still in pre-alpha when the Kickstarter closed. They already released gameplay footage far earlier than almost any developer has ever done, and surprise surprise, a portion of the backers complained about it looking ugly. Um, it's pre-alpha build, so yeah. Every game looks ugly at that point in its development! That the modern gamer's sense of entitlement is present on Kickstarter is straightforward; that crowdsourcing feeds said sense of entitlement so strongly is both inevitable and sad. I still believe that crowdsourcing is a good thing overall, it's just that some people need learn to to STFU, for totes.

It's easy to forget that Kickstarter isn't all smashed targets and commercial success. There's one project I saw which had only a single backer after almost a week live. The pitch was awkward all round, trading on the fame of a name I for one had never heard of, and poorly written both syntactically and informationally. How many people are going to back a creative project when the blurb is full of grammar and punctuation errors? As an intersection of venture capitalism and web 2.0, it seems inevitable that Kickstarter would come with a significant volume of projects which are nowhere near ready for presentation, and it's surprising that said volume isn't much, much higher than it currently stands at. I know there's a lot of legal tape involved in a Kickstarter project, but that doesn't usually stop people.

And the blurb CAN make a difference. It's the main reason I didn't back the OUYA. As interesting as the concept is, the pitch came off as condescending and elitist. No indie creativity in the traditional console market? XBLA's waving hello. If Braid, Limbo and Super Meat Boy aren't your idea of success stories, your standards must be bloody high.

Finally, I'm sure Planetary Annihilation is very good, for those weird people who care about real-time strategy. You know who you are... freaks. Nah, seriously, I dig what they're trying to do and if I was into the genre I'd probably be backing it. But I'm not, so I'm not.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Massively multiplayer; also, secret!

Taking advantage of a free trial weekend, I recently spent a couple of days in The Secret World - the new urban fantasy MMO from The Longest Journey creator Ragnar Tørnquist.

I'm not really an MMO guy. I've toyed with Spiral Knights, Rusty Hearts, Fallen Earth and Dungeons & Dragons Online - adding up to a grand total of about fifteen hours - and spent enough time watching friends playing World of WarCraft, EVE Online, EverQuest II and Rift to know that I'm not interesting in trying those myself. Oh, and I was accepted for the Auto Assault beta, but couldn't get the damn thing working.

The setting and the creative director are what attracted me to The Secret World. I adore The Longest Journey and enjoyed its sequel, Dreamfall. The worlds, characters and stories of those games display wit, energy, originality and an impressive level of internal consistency. The Secret World paints with broader brushes, and isn't afraid to borrow elements of other properties, but it's still a well-realised take on the modern fantasy-horror concept. The tropes are put together in a way which is both logical and entertaining, enough that instead of spending my time going "Oh, this bit is like Mage: The Awakening," I was investing directly into The Secret World to a degree I didn't expect. One big YMMV thing to note: the cutscenes are frequent and marathon. They're well directed and mostly well acted, but my god are they long.

There wasn't much roleplaying going on, which is a shame as a purported strong roleplaying environment was one of the other things which caught my interest. But there was more roleplaying than in most MMOs, which is to say, there was any roleplaying going on at all. And at least in a modern setting people talking about other MMOs in the chat window can be taken as in-character conversation.

That modern setting is well integrated. It's not just a gimmick to make it stand out, although of course, that helps. There are the simple things - energy drinks in place of mana potions, shotguns instead of crossbows - but clever use of the real-world setting goes much deeper, from jumping on cars to set off the alarms to attract zombies, to espionage using webcams mounted on remote controlled helicopters, to an NPC suggestion to look something up on Google. In fact, it may even be too clever at times - I got stuck on one mission, briefly, because I wasn't familiar with a certain element of how church services operate.

I didn't get to do a lot of the much-vaunted investigation missions, which are geared more around codebreaking and old-fashioned adventure gaming than traditional MMO kill/fetch quests, but from what I saw they were well-designed and offer a great change of pace. Indeed, with stealth missions, puzzle-solving missions and even escort missions which don't entirely suck, The Secret World has more variety than any other MMO I've seen. I can't comment on PvP or trading because I did little of the latter and none of the former, but the bread and butter adventuring is solid.

The combat didn't blow my mind but it felt no more or less weighty than any other MMO I've encountered, save perhaps the enjoyably frantic Spiral Knights. It's a little on the 'clicking on things until the health bar hits zero' side of things, but aren't they all? The tactical options didn't seem tremendously deep in my time playing, but I understand that a lot more open up as the game goes on, and they offer a lot of scope for playing your character the way you want to play them. However there's not much visual character customisation (it's mostly punk chicks with blue hair and lots of cleavage, or tough guys in shades) and while there's a lot of skills and abilities, they're all ultimately different lighting effects for doing the same handful of things. The big thing seems to be inflicting and abusing various status ailments, which is interesting, but I'm not convinced about how much depth there is to it for a long game. That said, my main problem with combat and character progression was that to really understand it, you need to have already played the game - again, a common MMO failing.

In fact, most of the things about The Secret World which reminded me of other MMOs were the things I didn't like, the same issues which keep me from enjoying the rest of the genre. The interface is pretty illogical, and in a fashion which means remapping it doesn't help much. It certainly doesn't make any strides towards solving the "requires three hands to play" syndrome ubiquitous to MMOs. One gets used to it, of course, but it took me a while and never really felt properly intuitive. Some elements of the control scheme and menu system aren't explained very well, either.

Overall I must say I quite enjoyed The Secret World - when it worked. Unfortunately the weekend was plagued by server-side connection issues, so much so that the trial period was extended by six hours. There were also a couple of moments of bugged quests, and a driver conflict which wasn't resolved when I updated my drivers. Not a great advertisement, and I have to wonder how happy Funcom and EA are with the free trial given the technical problems which plagued it.

And while I enjoyed The Secret World, I didn't love it. Not enough to pay full price for it when I don't have many friends interested in it, and when things like Spiral Knights and D&D Online are free to play. If it comes down in price, or moves to a microtransaction model, I'd probably take it up. I also think The Secret World would make a great pen-and-paper setting, and perhaps surprisingly I think it would feel quite different to the World of Darkness lines.

Yet I must question the logic of launching a premium-price MMO without a strong, established IP, and without a standard free trial period, even before you factor in the technical kinks yet to be smoothed over. Ragnar Tørnquist has a big cult following, but I don't believe he's someone who can sell a game to a mainstream audience on his name alone. The marketing campaign has been aggressive, but it's being marketed in the same way - and in the same places - as Zynga titles and other free to play games. Will The Secret World entice people enough that they're willing to drop £40 on it, plus a monthly subscription? The game has been modestly well-received, with review scores mostly clumping in the 70% range, but those aren't the kind of numbers to set the world alight.

I'm torn on The Secret World. I want to see it succeed - it's trying new things, and it's bringing a much more interesting approach to storytelling and world building than most MMOs I've seen. But I think it's merely a good game rather than the great game it could be, and that the final leap to greatness won't happen without some necessary negative feedback. Takeup figures aren't out yet - I guess we'll have a better idea of what changes might be made once it's been out a while and the subscriptions stabilise. I have the awful feeling that if it underperforms, EA's solution will be to dial back the elements which make it so unique in a bid to bring it more in line with the field's leaders.

I hope I'm proved wrong there. Selfish as this is - it's not my job on the line - I'd rather see The Secret World as a glorious, ambitious failure than a homogenised, generic hack and slash fest, if that's the choice it comes down to.