Category Archives: Marketing

Crowfall: False Modesty is for Nubs

Today, after an update by the ever-timely folks over at massively, I was made aware of a title I had never heard of: Crowfall. A new MMO with very little to herald its coming, potentially exciting given the genre’s current outlook. Of course that warranted further research and so I ended up on their fledgling webpage, eagerly looking for a vision or mission statement which turns out, is impossible to miss –

WELCOME TO CROWFALL.

If you’re here, it’s because you’re looking for something.

Something deeper than a virtual amusement park. More impactful than a virtual sandbox. More immersive. More real. A game where decisions matter.

We are, too. We’ve been looking for years, and we still haven’t found it…. because it doesn’t exist. Yet. [source]

…Now, not so eager anymore. BARF? Quite a mouth full for something that hasn’t even begun to earn some street cred. And look I get it, creators need to market their games with big words that inspire even the most disenchanted and cynical audience to new hope, but promising weathered MMO players a game that is deeper than any themepark, more impactful than any sandbox and erm, more immersive, real and meaningful than anything that was before (because of course no one has really tried hard enough yet!), that’s not just an amazing summary and quasi denial of almost every persistent MMO conundrum ever – it’s setting yourself up for failure in the most comical ways. This introduction speech just made me feel ancient.

Virtually the only proof this is even a game.

Virtually the only proof this is even a game.

Of course there’s nothing to back up the astronomical claims as the front page goes on to explain how Crowfall is “not THE game; the name of THIS game is “rampant speculation” – I don’t even know what that means. Is THE real game called Rampant Speculation….? AND WHAT’S WITH THE CAPSLOCK? But fret not, if there’s any reason to doubt the developers sanity at this point, there’s a few heavyweight industry names at the forefront which is all you early adopters require to know, anyway.

If such a thing is possible, I am now even less interested in Crowfall than I was before I heard of it. Maybe I am just having a very grumpy day – or maybe going bigger isn’t always better.

[Landmark] The Endless Beta

Two nights ago I logged back into Landmark for the first time in months, after what seemed to be the world’s slowest patch. I left Landmark towards the end of the closed beta, for lack of things to do and being fed up with the claim upkeep system and continuously losing my Inn of the Last Home. Much has been added since April: the crafting system and building tools have been overhauled completely, water and caves were added as well as fall damage and arena-based PvP.

Logging back into the game and hearing Jeremy Soule’s beautiful music made me painfully aware of the feeling and atmosphere this title is still able to create, its world’s beautiful potential. Yet, Landmark to me is a changed game, as I also mentioned to Belghast a few nights ago over at Bel Folks Stuff (Bel’s awesome new podcast for merry blogosphere banter, check it out!) – so overwhelming have been the changes that I might as well learn everything from scratch and start over. Ugh.

Thus my re-visit was short-lived. Frustrated with all the controls I couldn’t remember and the still pretty poor mailbox overflow system, I took a tour around some shards/islands only to find most of them empty. The few that still had builds on them were so large and bursting with detail that my PC got very unhappy every time I got too close. I’ve no clue what optimization SOE are still planning to do for Landmark but at this rate, it’s just as well that islands aren’t crowded. Of course that also makes Landmark a game of ghost towns and, few die-hard community builders aside, a game of non-existent player interaction. To quote an earlier Syl: “Landmark needs a purpose for all the housing, needs trade, quests, guilds and cooperative content if it’s meant to last down the road.”

Vast empty space.

Vast empty space.

To be fair, SOE never promised anything in terms of traditional PvE that exceeds hunting and gathering for resources as well as crafting. According to the latest blueprint, monsters and achievements are incoming this November and December. Beyond that, in lieu of server-based player markets / auction houses or any need thereof, Landmark remains a solo experience. All the while the beta testing stretches on with more and more players leaving to “return at a later date”.

Maybe.

The Endless Beta

Landmark’s alpha started in January 2014, followed by closed beta two months later. The game is yet to enter open beta and launch officially at an undisclosed time in 2015. Until then, every last person who’s been into Landmark at some point will be completely fed-up with all the pre-release play (some players don’t even realize anymore that it’s actually still in beta right now) and those that haven’t joined over the course of an entire year most likely won’t ever. That just makes me wonder if SOE haven’t done Landmark a tiny bit of disservice for having it out there in the open for so long, including players every step of the way and through so and so many rollbacks and revamps. Who wants to still play a game with such limited content after a year of beta? Who’s dying of excitement for such a launch?

I will admit, I’ve criticized other developers for not creating enough of a hype around their games as opposed to SOE. The fact that they’ve included their player base as much as they have is commendable. All too often do we see MMO betas that aren’t so much betas as they are two-week stress tests. And yet, how long is too long for a public beta? Maybe I really don’t know what I want but a year of playing early access is an awfully long time to get bored or burned out in my book!

Three future Kickstarter MMORPGs the World almost forgot

Or maybeee it’s just me but really, what’s going on with Shroud of the Avatar, Camelot Unchained and that Pathfinder MMO? Are they still happening, where are they in development and who’s holding their breath? Let’s have a look at some status quos!

shroudoftheavatar.com

shroudoftheavatar.com

Shroud of the Avatar
The assumed comeback of Lord British was successfully funded on Kickstarter in April 2013 and has since raised a total of $4,852,936 according to the official front page. For a while after Kickstarter, there wasn’t much to look at except for some worrying ingame “footage” of its pre-everything development stage, accompanied by an excited Garriot’s commentary. In general, lots and lots of Garriot appearances on twitch hangouts and other outlets. The official forums hit it off ever so slowly, with veterans of UO glory days tossing around ideas about features that should go into this new title (naturally, lots of notorious player killing and housing). Lo and behold, already at the end of last year the first playable build was announced to backers and more updates have followed since. This September 2014, the latest test build was released with promises of new polish and stability improvements. I’ll say no more than that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and SotA should probably suit a diehard UO or Darkfall audience just fine. The game was recently approved for Steam via Greenlight and you can read all about its spin on “single-player narrative meets sandbox MMO” there. According to the Wiki, we are looking at an official release end of 2014.

Camelot Unchained
Camelot Unchained’s Kickstarter followed one month later in May 2013, beating SotA by 300k in funding raised by significantly less backers. After closing, an additional $3 million was contributed to the project by private investors, including $2 million directly coming from studio founder and MMO legend Mark Jacobs. From the very beginning, MJ made clear that this was gonna be a very PvP/RvR-centric title that welcomed an oldschool, non-compromising approach to player versus player. Over the course of this year, features such as the combat and crafting system and the somewhat uninspiring RvR map were revealed to assure the playerbase in wait things were moving. In the latest September 2014 update on their official page, MJ was happy to announce the imminent first round of non-public pre-alpha testing, with access for backers on the horizon soonish. In his words, the team has stuck to schedule thus far and having reached this first milestone, CU finally looks like a “real game rather than an engine build”. While this is probably welcome news to some, it also means that for the time being fans of the project and DAoC-hopefuls must remain patient for any actual glimpses of the game.

https://goblinworks.com

https://goblinworks.com

Pathfinder Online
Possibly the least visible title of the three, Goblinworks’ and tabletop Publisher Paizo’s Pathfinder Online only just made its second Kickstarter goal in January 2013, raising $1 million. Yes, lots of “fantasy open world pvp sandbox”-funding going on that year! After creating an initial buzz with a fairly decent looking and playable tech demo (also previously kickstarted), dazzling artworks and interesting details such as limited small-size servers, PO soon dropped below the radar. Undoubtedly the last year was spent “doing things”, polling the community on core features like respawns and permadeath, revealing war towers and the crafting system. That last one always seems high on any developer’s list. Finally in June 2014, the first friends & family alpha was announced and a trailer soon followed. After delaying the original date, the Alpha 9 patch finally went live this October 6th with future stress testing and “early enrollment” aka early access in mind. It’s safe to assume that Goblinwork’s FAQ page will see several more updates in terms of the still far off official launch date sometime in 2016.

It’s interesting to see several Kickstarter MMOs that were all crowdfunded early 2013 making their individual journeys. Shroud of the Avatar has taken a clear lead in terms of official launch at least, with Pathfinder Online closing in on that early access. As for Camelot Unchained, fans will clearly interpret slower updates as a sign of the devs taking time that will pay out in the long run. I keep my fingers crossed for everyone curently waiting; having no intentions towards either SotA nor CU, I remain at the most mildly interested in Pathfinder, assuming I can still remember its name in 2016. And then it’s probably still going to feel and look like something that should’ve come out 10 years ago.

Marketing and the Hype

As somewhat of a connaisseur of MMO hype machines, I’m also not convinced the fairly low profile approach all these projects seem to follow is such a good thing. Sure, some players are tired and disillusioned with alpha/beta and MMO launch hypes but keeping things down is risky business (hello TSW) and really takes much of my personal enjoyment in Vorfreude away. Carbine/Wildstar and SOE/Landmark have taken a very different road in making their games visible and transparent to a wider audience early on and that’s still something I personally appreciate. Sometimes the best thing about an MMO launch is the rush and excitement that goes on beforehand. Right now, I’m just not feeling any of these upcoming titles.

What the players want – who can say?

In a recent comment over here, blogosphere buddy Bhagpuss made an unsuspecting remark which at its core is a most familiar sentiment to all longterm MMO players, I’m sure:

[…]But that’s just what GW2 has become and, as people are prone to say, it is what it is. It could have grown into something very much more but apparently that’s not what the majority of players wanted so there you go.

I am going to blatantly take this quote out of its specific context and write a longer, more generalized post about it (sorry Bhag!).

What’s what the players want?

“What the players wanted” and any variation thereof is a commonly used phrase and reaction to MMO design, more often MMO design changes, that vexes me on a personal level. And oh, I have done it myself: how many times did I not do the “now reap what you sowed! (and I hope you suffocate on it)” fist-shake in gloomy retrospective whenever WoW changed for the worse over the years since 2004, in my very personal opinion? In a less considerate moment I’d love to blame all of you out there who are still playing for the state of the game. You ruined WoW for me or something.

But let’s get back to more rational debate. Every time MMOs change/evolve design direction the way so many have, the way GW2 has done from a non-commital “grind-and endgame-free” vision to what it is today, are we really in the position to say that it’s what the players wanted? If so, how do we know? More importantly, where would developers get such corroborated information?

(*)Not once in my 12 years-and-ongoing MMO career did I ever receive a developer letter asking me what I wanted. Not once did I receive a legit, official request or poll along the lines of “Dear Syl, please vote now if you would like to see achievements introduced to our game” or “…please let us know if you’re happy about another +5 level-cap increase with more gear grind at its end”. That would be spelling it out of course (and not a bad thing either).

Not once did anything remotely similar happen to me. And unless there is a secret society of select MMO players out there that receive these kind of emails when I’m not, other players don’t either. So, where and how exactly does the playerbase actively get to decide over an existing game’s direction? Surely not on chaotic message boards that no CM can effectively interpret and where it’s only ever the loudest voices that get noticed. Everyone should have figured that out by now.

DustSpeck

So maybe it’s the silent majority? Only, how does one speak on behalf of a silent group of people? Are they just “everyone else that is not on forums and twitter” that you therefore get to refer to easily for any given purpose since hey, it’s not like they’re saying anything to oppose you? Are we a homogenous mass of people just because we don’t scream and shout?

For me, it doesn’t work that way. It won’t do to retrospectively declare that things are the way they are because they went along with it. There’s a big difference here for me to actively shaping a process. To clarify: I’m not saying that developers should be telepathic and my main point is not to blame any particular group in the gaming industry for this situation (although clearly someone is to blame) – but you don’t get to tell me it’s what I wanted when it clearly wasn’t what I wanted and I never told you that it was.

Voting with your wallet blah

Here’s another catch-phrase I’ve come to dislike over the last few years: just vote with your wallet. The reason for my dislike is the simple truth of it and yet, it falls so horribly short in taking reality into account. I’m a part of a collective whose power is only as big or small as that same collective. I am also an enthusiast in a changing industry and on a wider scope, a human being in a constantly changing world. I’m not generally opposed to change; I’m constantly trying to evaluate which changes to embrace and which not to. Do I pay for an alpha? A beta? A collector’s edition? Do I pre-order? Kickstart? My head hurts.

I did vote with my wallet and unsubscribed from WoW at the end of WotLK, after a 6 years run of raiding madness. It has clearly made no impact whatsoever. If anything, Blizzard has become even less of a company I like to endorse than I did back then. But hey, I have the grim satisfaction of voting with my wallet, right? At least I don’t appear to be agreeing with this product anymore.

Whatever the silent player is supposed to do, I can’t seem to win. That’s why I object so strongly to the sentiment of absolute player/customer responsibility. As far as game design and development goes, the powers at work are way more complex and obscure than what any of us could influence. As much as players love to think they’re shaping games and as much as we love to blame others for when things turn badly, the much more likely scenario is that somewhere in an office, someone in a fancy suit with too many spreadsheets has figured out exactly which design directions to push in order to maximize monetization or subs or co-dependence. Sure, every once in a while a developer will ask us directly what we’d like on some social media platform, usually years or at least months before launch because that’s a good time to crowd-source and get cosy with fans. But videogame design is not a democracy, first and foremost it’s business and sneaky psychology.

wallet

BLAH

And players tend to go along with stuff. There may be some fluctuation but overall we are a flexible bunch when it comes to franchises we’ve come to love or where we’ve simply invested so much time already that it’s hard to leave behind the trophies and fancy dresses. Design directions don’t change over night either; they trickle down ever so slowly until we’ve all but forgotten where we came from and one small change at a time seems as harmless as the last one. That’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a way of doing business and shaping your audience to fit your product.

In summary to this conundrum I will say this: I never wanted achievements in WoW, the cross-sever dungeons or flying mounts. And I certainly never ever asked for an achievement tab greeting me at the login screen of GW2 – game of too many back items and weapon skins. I didn’t ask for that, more importantly didn’t vote on that. Maybe others did consciously and some unconsciously and I could blame that second group’s lack of action but it tires me to do so. As long as nobody is sending each and every one of their paying customers an official, transparent and individual request to vote on a game’s direction, I am sure as hell not going to take responsibility (or credit) for the way that MMOs are changing and neither should anyone else. Sorry developers but that one’s still on you!

(*) Clarification: I’m not saying I want these kinds of democratic player votes on game design; I don’t for various reasons. What I’m saying is since I am clearly not in a democracy here, you don’t get to share responsibility or retrospective blame with me democratically, either (let alone putting it all on players).

Defining Good Value and Price Limits for your Games

The other night when listening to the latest GameOn episode #30 with Chris (he’s back!), Adam aka Ferrel and Liore (who has permanently joined the podcast!), the hosts made an interesting comment that got me thinking about the long way we have come in terms of general affordability of games and our willingness to pay for them. As for what piqued my interest, this is how the conversation went down [00:16:40 onward]:

Chris: …’cuz there is no game out there that is going to live up to a ten thousand dollar investment, or even one thousand. I would seriously doubt that.
Adam: I don’t even wanna spend sixty dollars on a game.
Chris: Yeah right? Right. With these days, I go to this website [name] because sixty dollars is too much. Pretty much any brand new game I get, if it’s over forty-eight dollars, I’ll wait a little while.

I remember the times when I paid an average 120 bucks for my console RPGs. While PC games were always cheaper, as kids we would usually pay around at least 100$ for console modules, in the late 80ies and early 90ies. Naturally, it took months to save up for new games and both our anticipation and appreciation was accordingly high. Those were different times altogether as far as single game value went. There’s no such thing as scarcity to make you aware of what things are worth – or could be.

modules

quake.ingame.de

Today, I would of course concur with Chris and Adam. 60 dollars for a game is something to think over. I don’t actually recall when I paid that much for a new title ever since moving on to PC gaming and videogames becoming generally more mainstream and thus cheaper, and it’s not even that I avoided them on purpose. The most expensive games I’ve bought (digitally) were possibly Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite right after launch although “expensive” is a very relative term; I don’t consider 40-65$ for a full-package title with 20+ (in Skyrim’s case more like 80+) hours worth of game time expensive. Also, my budget for games is a different matter than it was twenty years ago.

This is of course where our notion of good value (or biggest bang for the buck) comes in and generally, it’s fair to say that with a growing supply our expectations of videogames have drastically increased. As Liore also mentions later on the podcast, the expectation of things like Steam sales further influences player purchases. Now, when are we still willing to pay more than the usual 5-20$ on Steam for single games and how do we determine that value? And how do we determine the absolute limit of an acceptable price? Is there any?

Personally, I detect a variety of factors influencing my investment decisions for games: reputation / trust in an existing brand, genre expectations, overall preview impressions, word of mouth, total game time, extras – they all play a part. As far as hard limits go, I wouldn’t pay several thousand dollars for any game (alpha/beta access for that matter) upfront; even if I had that type of small change, there is no one game with enough value that could justify such a price to me, certainly no non-MMO. After playing WoW for 6 years, I must have paid around 1000$ in installments and subscriptions. All that said, the prospect of playing a game like Skyrim with Omni and Occulus Rift hardware is highly appealing. If this is the future of gaming, wouldn’t I be willing to pay for that? I know I would.

Skyrim-v7

How do we determine that sketchy variable that is value when purchasing new games and how much weight is given to qualitative (for ex. gameplay innovation) vs. quantitative factors (for ex. overall play time) respecitvely? Can a rewarding and fun one-hour indie platformer offer the same or more value than the average Mario game on console? If not, how do we break down value proportionally to arrive at a “justified price”?

Is there any time when you still want to buy a video game right after launch, no matter the higher price? [random question]

Judging from many heated pricing debates on forums and message boards that I’ve seen, there is clearly no consensus among gamers about these matters. It is very interesting to hear anyone talking about 60$ being “too much for any game” though, considering I just had a dinner last night that cost more. In the end, games are experiences to me and even in 2014, I will still be very willing to pay good money for well, the good ones.

Reverse Psychology

http://www.perrinwatchparts.com/images/prod/73.481-300.jpgSome people wonder – how does this B2P or F2P model really work? How can they give away so much stuff? There’s gotta be a catch, I bet the game is just bad!

…Of course it isn’t. Of course they don’t just give away stuff for free. Well, they do – but not in the way one might think. They’re way more devious than that.

If there’s something to be said for GW2 by now, then that it’s a master of opposite effect. Scores of players who never knew the word journey before are suddenly confessing to putting on that explorer’s hat every night, looking to climb mountains or swim down the deepest caves, for another vista, a point of interest, a jumping puzzle – or just one more stunning land mark discovered. Because the world is vast and beautiful like that and the next bend of the road is rewarding. To anybody.

Players proud to be die-hard soloers, sick and tired of stale grouping mechanics, find themselves partying up with strangers on a regular basis, chatting and cooperating more than ever – even crossing half a zone just to get a fallen player back on his feet. Finally, an ally. Not somebody to race to that next node.

Those sworn off questing permanently still enjoy the more random, dynamic events that spawn around heart areas, following narratives up to the big baddie at the very end. Maybe there’s a chest, maybe not – either way it’s fun and while it’s still questing, it lacks the orchestrated linearity to actually feel like it.

Then, there’s people like me – done with the holy trinity. Done with setup gripes and inflexibility, to a point where the idea of tanking or healing has become appalling. Lo and behold, GW2 brings back some of the fun about these jobs. Why? Because roles aren’t strict and nobody expects you to stick to one of them.

“Hear me, I am a fickle creature! I don’t want what I have and I crave what I have not! That which I am forced to do, I loathe – that which I choose freely, I cherish. I am homo sapiens!

The ultimate move

So, by that same rule of reverse psychology, how would a smart MMO developer (with the whole package) go about his B2P (or F2P) business model, getting his audience to spend a little more than just what they “have to”?

….But of course –

ColinJohanson.2394:
“No need to buy them, Gw2 will feature consistent free content updates and in-game events going forward. Our goal is to make it so you get more from Gw2 for free than you get from a game you pay a subscription for.
On top of a large amount of free bonus content, we will be expanding on offerings in the Black Lion Trading Company going forward, as well as be doing large-scale expansion content down the road.
We’ll cover a lot of the details on the kind of support and plans we have in place over the next month or so on the Gw2 blog and with our press partners.
We do appreciate that you’d like to buy lots of new content, but we’d prefer to give a lot of it to you for free, cause that’s what we think a responsible MMO company does!”


“Thanks for the response and I’d just like to say that the attitude you just described is why you guys are my favourite games company! It’s also why I’ve bought bank space, dye packs and 2 character slots already, even though I normally spend nothing in cash shops & never buy dlc.”

Of all the comments and articles on GW2 I have come across these past two weeks, this forum conversation is the most remarkable, awe-inspiring and uncanny one of all. Love or hate this MMO, think of ANet whatever else you like – this is free-to-play marketing done to perfection. This is convincing your audience that they’re making such a superior deal, they might as well re-invest those imaginary savings! And all delivered with an air of casual frivolity. My god ArenaNet, you do know what you are doing!

In that same spirit of effectiveness, I wish you all the most horrible weekend and many awful adventures in Tyria! I know you will have lots of them.