MMOs & Investor Confidence: How Business Concerns Affect Your Gaming Experience

Bear with me on this one, as I will be referencing a couple of different articles in order to make comparisons between some popular MMOs and the companies behind them.

I noticed today that a few articles have popped up regarding Star Wars: The Old Republic and the accusation that they have too many active servers. According to the squeaky wheels on the official forums, several servers are relative “dead zones” where players have a difficult time finding other players to group with. It has been stated that while SW:TOR only has 10% of the subscriptions that World of Warcraft currently has, they have 50% of the number of servers that the MMO giant has. If this is accurate, then it is easy to see where some of these concerns are coming from. The easy solution would be to consolidate servers and bring players closer together.

Unfortunately, the suits on Wall Street don’t see it that way.

The plain truth is that nothing shakes up investor confidence in the companies who produce MMOs like server consolidations and/or lower subscriptions. I don’t think it is a great stretch to imagine that most of those investors are only vaguely aware of the products their investing in, and perhaps overreact to these kind of metrics. As a result, despite the fact that consolidation would make the experience better for YOU, the player, and may in fact keep you playing and paying, server consolidation is a measure of last resort. This is especially true if you’re Electronic Arts and you just shelled out an estimated 80 million dollars to make the game, and it has only been out for a few short months. I don’t think SW:TOR is in dire straits just yet, although they certainly could be if their big April patch falls short of expectations, but they’re certainly not the only MMO who’ll play the numbers game for a better quarterly statement.

Take a look at World of Warcraft, the 800 pound gorilla in the MMO market. They’re certainly not above this kind of sleight of hand either. A very interesting article I read back in 2009, and one that is still relevant, highlights some of the ways that Activision Blizzard manipulates statistics in order to market their game and keep their investors happy. You may hear that WoW has 10 million subscribers, but that number doesn’t take into consideration that many players in the asian market aren’t playing or paying quite the same way as their American and European counterparts. For instance, at the time of the article, the Asian market made up 50% of the WoW player base, yet only accounted for 6% of the total revenue. Other areas where WoW has been historically accused of fudging the numbers is keeping servers online that have huge faction imbalances; servers that would greatly benefit from mergers with others that could balance them out and improve the overall player experience.

The WoW annual pass scheme has certainly been an effective tourniquet on WoW’s bleeding subscription numbers. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the short version is that if you agree to purchase a one year subscription to WoW, you get a free digital copy of Diablo 3 as well as an in game pet and beta access to the next WoW expansion. Seems like a great fan service! The reality is that no company would make such a move unless they had already reached the decision that doing so was the best financial decision possible. They’re essentially giving their players a $60 game in order to guarantee they spend $180. And when I say guarantee… I mean it. Apparently is it almost impossible to cancel the annual pass once you’ve paid for it. For anyone in the Blizzard Finance Department, this is a huge win. You’ve essentially locked in a large portion of your revenue stream and marginalized the future subscription losses you would have suffered otherwise, buying you a year to prepare for the announcement of Blizzard’s next MMO, code named Titan. In the meantime, you just hope and pray that people still love pandas and Pokemon.

Going back to the Old Republic and their server issues, it is really nothing more than a corner they’ve painted themselves into by failing to plan. Every MMO, especially those with monthly subscriptions, see a huge population swell at launch. Players are eager to try something new, and the first 30 days is generally included with the price of the game. This means that almost no reasonable amount of servers that would sustain your normal expected population post-launch will be enough to handle this kind of traffic. Server queues begin to back up longer and longer as players try in vain to all get in at once. After the initial 30 days, however, the population starts to fall off to a more manageable level. If you’re artificially increased your launch servers to minimize queues, or if your content is relatively stale or buggy and players start leaving, then server populations start to dwindle and thin out. It is important to note that this happens to every single MMO that has ever released (or at least it has happened to enough to be considered the rule even if an exception or two actually exists).

So what is a developer to do? What kind of solution can you come up with to account for the perfectly normal and anticipated launch rush, while at the same time minimizing or hopefully eliminating the post-launch purge and merge?

It appears that ArenaNet may have the answer.

As part of their design of Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet is implementing something called an overflow shard. This server acts as a buffer against server queues, allowing you to temporarily play on a separate, dedicated server while your remain in queue for your home server. When your queue is up, you hit a button and after a load screen, you magically reappear logged on to your home server and standing in the same spot you were in on the overflow server. That is forward thinking and innovative. No two ways about it. The real genius is that it doesn’t matter if you have a single overflow shard or two dozen of them. It will be seamless to the player who is playing, and post launch you can still reduce the number of these overflow servers without sending up red flags to your investors. The suits remain happy, and your players come away with an even better playing experience.

Seems odd that someone at a company the size of Activision or Electronic Arts didn’t think of it first.

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The Myth of Video Game Addiction

Contrary to some, I don’t believe there is such as thing as video game addiction. My gut feeling has always been that while games (especially MMOs) are designed with the intent of keeping you playing and subscribing, the vast majority of players are able to live normal and productive lives while gaming. It is just a hobby like any other. Those people who do run and hide from the real world inside of video games are no different from those who hide inside their other hobbies or in their work. Maybe it is a sign of stress or depression somewhere else in their lives, but the gaming in that case is a symptom – not the cause.

It seems I’ve found an expert who agrees with me.

Doctor Peter Gray is a professor of psychology at Boston College, and he wrote a very interesting article for Psychology Today entitled:

Video Game Addiction: Does It Occur? If So, Why?

I highly suggest giving it a read, especially if you’ve been tempted to use gaming as a scapegoat for your own problems and insecurities.

Setting the stage: My love/hate relationship with MMOs

Everything has a beginning.

My experience with MMOs began innocently enough. After relocating to yet another desolate fly over state as part of my job, I didn’t really know anyone outside of work, and I didn’t really care to. Rather than spend my money in local dive bars on Saturday nights, I spent them on my couch, blowing up my friends playing Rainbow Six 3 over Xbox Live. In some ways, it was like I never moved at all. It was the same group of guys getting together the same way we always did. The social experience was better than the actual game. It was my version of poker night.

Then, out of the blue, I got the bright idea that I needed to ditch my piece of shit laptop (which was good enough to run the Baldur’s Gate games on and not much else), and buy a REAL PC. As I was discussing this with one of my friends, he suggested I try out this new game called World of Warcraft that has just recently released. It was February of 2005…

I still haven’t completely forgiven him.

Fast forward to today. I haven’t played WoW in over a year. Cataclysm was less than enjoyable for me, and offered little after the new goblin car smell wore off. Looking forward I just see pandas and Pokemon, and it makes me physically cringe. All complexity has been stripped from the game, and even some of the tried and true mechanics that helped make it a juggernaut are really showing their age compared to other games in the genre. It still may sit at 10 million subscribers, but I think it has far more to do with people being creatures of habit and their need to preserve virtual friendships within the medium they all have in common, rather than the quality and current state of the game. I know I kept my subscription rolling long after I was tired of the raiding grind just to keep interacting with the people I enjoyed hanging out with.

I’ve enjoyed other MMOs outside of WoW in that time as well.

Warhammer Online still holds a special place in my heart because it had a PvP scenario where scoring a point meant setting off the fantasy equivalent of a tactical nuke that would wipe out both friend and foe in its radius, and because guarding the battlements of a keep in a game with collision detection was amazingly fun. There is nothing like slamming a shield into the face of another player and sending him off the edge of a ledge to his death; especially if that player was a healer and ended up being the first domino to fall in a failed assault attempt. It also introduced me to the murder ball style of PvP in which each team would try to control an object that slowly kills the person holding it.

Rift held my attention for a couple of months. I appreciated the dynamic nature of their world. Rift invasions were like the Public Quests I enjoyed in WAR, only far more frequent. Unfortunately, the world itself felt fairly generic. I didn’t know why I should care about what I was doing or who I was interacting with. I just knew that sometimes my map lit up with green swirls and arrows that meant invasions were happening, and other times the swirls and arrows would be red, purple or blue instead. I enjoyed the ability to mix and match classes and create functional hybrids. It was a breath of fresh air after the cookie cutter build design that WoW has, but it soon became apparent than a lot of this freedom of choice was just an illusion.

In December of last year, I was giddy with anticipation over the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and with good reason. First off… Star Wars isn’t exactly an intellectual property that requires a lot of explanation. If you are even remotely interested in science fiction, chances are you know more about Star Wars than you do about actual nations on our planet. Secondarily, it’s BioWare. I’ve been BioWare’s loyal follower since the days of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. More recently, the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games have only reinforced my faith in their abilities as a developer (aside from the Mass Effect 3 ending, which is a whole other post). When you add those two things together, you should end up with the single best combination since chocolate and peanut butter or Tango and Cash. Unfortunately, I (and many others) believe that Electronic Arts exerted a great deal of pressure to release the game by Christmas of 2011 before it was ready. The game just wasn’t as robust or polished as it should have been. In early April they’re releasing Patch 1.2 that contains a lot of content BioWare is on record as saying they wanted in the game at launch, but only time will tell if it is too little and too late.

Don’t get me wrong. What SW:TOR does well, it does very well. The voice acting and emphasis on personal story was amazing. I identified with my bounty hunter far more after only a few days than I did any of my WoW characters after several years. Unfortunately, a lot of the end game PvE was far too simplistic and buggy and the end game PvP was either completely broken (Ilum) or suffered from other issues such as terrible frame rates in warzones or the faction imbalance making for nights of endless Huttball matches. As a casual game, something to be enjoyed so far as leveling all of the classes on both factions goes, I think it is probably worth the price of admission and the subscription. I’m just skeptical about whether or not the next major content patch will be enough to breathe enough new life into the end game to make it sustainable. As it stands, raiding is just stale.

And come to think of it, perhaps that is the underlying problem to all of this… Raiding is stale.

I look on the horizon to Guild Wars 2 – a game I will pre-purchase in April, and it doesn’t have any end game raiding at all. None. There are world bosses and huge dynamic events that will require the cooperation of dozens or even hundreds of people, but you don’t need to form into smaller, rigid groups in order to experience them. In fact, you don’t really need to group up at all for most of the content. You just wander the world and get into adventures… like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. If something catches your attention, you are free to explore it. If someone needs help, chances are you’ll know it without the need for a giant, yellow exclamation point floating over their head. If you come across a group of people fighting for their virtual lives against a group of bloodthirsty bandits, you can just wade into the fray and help them. You’ll get full credit for your efforts without needing to join their party beforehand. There are five man dungeons, and there is organized PvP, but there are no raids – and therefore no need to adhere to some preset raid schedule and predetermined raid roster. I don’t need to set aside 2-4 hours a few nights a week in order to bang my head against the same static content. I can just log in and play. I don’t need to worry about if enough tanks or healers will show up on a given night because there are no tanks or healers in Guild Wars 2. Traditional roles are interwoven into each and every class so that you can fully experience any and all content regardless who is participating or what their chosen profession (class) is. The whole experience really looks like the true next generation in MMO design, one that frees you from the traditional grinds and gives you more reasons to play than simply to raid so you can get better gear to use on the next tier of raids.

I’m still learning about all that Guild Wars 2 has to offer, though I know it will be a subject of future posts. I just know that I can’t go back to old, static MMO design. I’ve passed my trials, snatched the pebble from WoW’s hand, earned my kick ass arm brands, and now must leave the temple of those traditions behind me – never to return.