Tuesday, 6 January 2015

I despise guessing games

The MMO community and predictions go together like pigs and tapeworms.  It's my least favourite aspect of the community.  That's mainly because a "prediction" is just a guess, which may or may not be well educated.  A prediction could prove to be right but for none of the reasons cited by the predictor.  Worst of all reasons and detailed explanations are seldom given by developers.  So it's all kind of fruitless, self-abuse...

So, to the poorly concealed elephant: the Guild Wars 2 expansion. In the past I poured (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) scorn on the widely discussed notion that ArenaNet must be working on an expansion because only 20 people were working on the Living World content.  In that post I said:
I am absolutely certain that a good portion of Anet's staff ARE working on things for the distant future and that MAY include an expansion.
So, yes, I myself have also "predicted" an expansion. In fact, anything that ANet do from this point on that isn't LW I've predicted. See how easy it is?

Anyway, in my last post, I flipped that LW team argument on it's head and asked the question: what is everyone else doing if not an expansion?  It was intended to be rhetorical but I want to consider that a bit more.

First, I will say that I don't think we're heading for a "boxed" expansion pack. Based on the announcement of the announcement ("a new framework for how an MMO can grow its universe") I think we're looking at self-contained, episodic content with a gem store fee, kind of like that other B2P game, The Secret World, does its updates.

My position has always been that we'll see more of the same.  In short, I believed ANet when they said very clearly a while back that the Living World was the future and they weren't working on an expansion pack. Admittedly that was nearly two years ago and they also said they'd certainly consider an expansion when the timing was right.

However, games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us have shown that episodic content is a viable revenue option.  The current demand for "comicbook" TV shows (Agents of SHIELD, Gotham, Constantine) demonstrates that the LW release model is in keeping with the Zeitgeist. I like the model and I think it's working.

Maybe the future, story-wise, is similar to Guild Wars 1's self-contained campaigns.  But wait, aren't they generally referred to as expansion packs?  Well, hang on then. The last few Living World updates have added new zones, new content and expanded lore and some people have paid a fee.  Isn't that an expansion?  In writing this it occurs to me that whether GW2 has an expansion or not probably comes down to semantics (mega servers anyone?).

Ultimately, though, I think it's the size of these updates that decides whether they can be described as an expansion.  Since impact is proportionate to size if you want a big splash use a big rock and I think a large part of the pro-expansion lobby is concerned that GW2 needs to make a big psychological splash in the minds of gamers. They think an expansion in name will deliver that.

The fact is, though, that a big portion of GW2 players are from the US and the US is world renowned for being inward looking.  I have actually emailed Massively in the past and complained that they use the MMO term "the West" and "NA" interchangeably.  Well, newsflash, the EU is a Western market.  However, there is also a huge number of second world players that are lumped in as EU that maybe aren't exactly "the West"; there is a massive gamer population sat between "the West" and "the East" (in MMO terms).

I hear a lot of Guild Wars 2 players that want other people to play.  They're concerned that other people will stop playing and that means the game will die. So it follows that they want ANet to pull more people in.  The funny thing is they never talk about quitting themselves.  I'm not seeing people say: "we need an expansion or I'll quit".  They're saying "we need an expansion or everyone else will eventually quit". The psychology is interesting.

"Western" Guild Wars 2 players are thinking we need an expansion to pull people back from say ESO, Wildstar, Archeage or even WoW.  That's their mindset, the MMO market relevant to them.  However, Guild Wars 2 (and NCSoft) is in a global market place.

So, what are ArenaNet busy doing? I don't think they'd put all their eggs in the proverbial expansion basket.

Expansion into new territories is a major consideration, in my opinion.  That takes a lot of people.  I think the China release is what everyone was working on and why Season 1 sort of assumed a holding pattern.  Japan, Korea and Russia are all decent "top of my head" candidates for future expansion.  That's the best way to grow the player base.

Also, some of the promised changes will have deep structural impact on the game.  For example, the promised pre-cursor crafting needs to be handled extremely carefully in terms of the economy.  I don't think Legendary armour will be far behind.  Also, I see a lot of people speculate that people buy gems, to get gold, to buy pre-cursors.  If that's the case expect pre-cursor crafting to tie directly to the gem store to maintain that revenue stream.  Whether it's a legendary crafters license at 800 or 1600 gems or a 125 gem item needed for each of 10 components we'll see.

Legendary armour with swappable stats (aside from skin the only real benefit of a legendary weapon) would mean only needing one set of gear, which means less storage need, again impacting on gem store sales.

PvP has had an overhaul and that will continue.  PvP is the big thing in some markets.  I think changes to WvW are coming.  GvG too. These are all big changes that take a lot of research and development time before any coding even starts.  PvP balance is probably the biggest hindrance to the introduction of new classes and weapons.  Throw in the fact you have to balance across WvW and PvP and that there has been a new PvP mode discussed all adds to the complexity.

What about player housing? Surely someone is working on that?  How is that going to work? People want open world but can a non-sub game sustain the server infrastructure for that?  That would probably mean a gem cost, possibly rental; would people pay it? Research and focus grouping is required.

The overwhelming impression I get from ArenaNet, above most other MMO stables, is that they aren't making it up as they go along.  Developmentally and financially they run a very tight ship. Since launch they have adapted to run all of these development strands concurrently.  I think this will limit the amount of story/lore/zone updates, being just one of many streams. They can't afford to drop everything, work on an expansion for 18 months and then pick it up again.  Also, they avoided layoffs in the recent NCSOft cutbacks? Guild Wars 2 revenues are in decline but clearly there is not much fat to trim.

Having said that, a big benefit of a boxed expansion is you can place it anywhere in your financial year and watch your stock price soar.  Finish the year on a high, have a great end of year report and a fat dividend for your share holders. Make no mistake, this is a business and this is perhaps the most compelling case for a boxed product in stores.

I believe a lot of people think you need an expansion pack with new zones and new story to introduce new classes and races.  That's certainly how it's been done in the past.  My touch stone is Final Fantasy XI and these things formed the backbone of their releases.  Let's look at Seekers of Adoulin, the last expansion.  That added two new classes, new zones and a whole new story line.  But that story line was continued and concluded in subsequent updates over 21 months.  So, the "cost" of that storyline to the player was the expansion pack price + 21 months of sub time.  That's about $200.

Guild Wars 2 doesn't have that subscription business model.  It doesn't need to be sticky it just needs you to buy from the gem store.  So we might see new classes released without any story at all. 1600 gems, please.  A Season 3 season pass.  A 1000 gems, thanks.  Story and Class bundle. 2400 gems, and ta very much.  Some people might just want the classes or access to new weapons, especially for PvP, and I think ANet wants to cater to them.

In terms of AAA popular success, Guild Wars 2 has broken the mould with regard to business model, cadence (even if it isn't every two weeks, fifty-two weeks a year) and actual play style (active combat with no trinity).

Guild Wars 2 is a modern MMO in a global market place and I think we should expect bigger things.  Wildstar failed because it tried to cling to the past in terms of content and business model.  A boxed expansion would be a step backwards for Guild Wars 2.  ArenaNet will not make that mistake and it has two huge challenges.

Firstly, convincing players that content released through the gem store is not a "scam" to get money out of you.  Those sales keep the game going.  It's not double-dipping.  Also, it's a digital market place.  Are you reading this on a phone? Would you prefer to go to a store and buy a cardboard box containing each an every app you currently have on it? It's 2015.

The second, and biggest challenge, is selling their vision to a bunch of people predominantly fuelled by nostalgia for the halcyon days of MMO gaming where everyone came back for an expansion and stayed 'til the next one.  Those days are gone. Long, long gone.

Of course, I could be totally wrong.  It's just guesswork.

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