Friday, 17 July 2015

Have I been wrong all along? #GW2 #FFXI #FFXIV

I came to Guild Wars 2 from Final Fantasy XI around August/September 2012. My relationship with FFXI was always mixed. I played with a bunch of great people (that I miss even today) and had a very strong bond with my character (Dibble). I'm not a huge FF franchise fan but I loved the world of Vana'diel too. What I didn't love was that the mechanics of the game never really changed with the times, development was slow and communication from the developers was terrible. It was also unforgivingly hard and anything worth doing needed a group.

But looking back at my blog from those times I'm overwhelmed by how positive most of what I wrote was. I did things in FFXI that I am still proud of today. An anecdote about how we were once pursued across a whole zone and slaughtered by an angry sheep even made it into my speech at my brother's wedding. Yes, really. It was subtle but it was there.

Hindsight is a great thing. When I switched from FFXI to GW2 it was if the lights had been switched on. Frustrations that I had had with FFXI vanished in GW2 and I wondered why I ever spent a good 5 years playing it. Admittedly my personal circumstances and expectations changed a huge amount over those 5 years of play and I think, ultimately, it was the birth of our first child that really put the nail in the FFXI coffin for me. The need to group, the gear treadmill, the sub: none of these things gelled with having a new baby. But as we approach the third anniversary of GW2 I'm starting to wonder if I did FFXI and Square Enix (SE) a gross disservice.

When I started out with GW2 buy-to-play seemed like the greatest thing in the world. I didn't have loads of play time so the amount of content was more than enough to keep me busy. At one point I was evening complaining that we had too much content. However, we've now been talking about an expansion for about a year and when, seven months ago, it was confirmed the content all but dried up. If GW2 had kept it's Living Story model I think I'd probably still be playing it. I never wanted an expansion and as soon as one was announced there didn't seem much point doing what I'd been doing as it would all change come release. That was a pretty astute prediction on my part.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I'm starting to wonder if B2P is suddenly not actually all that. I'm looking over in the direction of FFXIV and thinking the same as everyone else: it's bucking the subscription model trend. It's not just bucked it, it's out of the corral and over the fucking hills. From a distance it looks like SE has addressed most of my FFXI bug bears and assuaged my greatest concerns about FFXIV: that they weren't responsive enough to the player base and that they didn't communicate what they were doing at all well. They've not only sorted that out but they're a strong candidate for MMO PR done right. I guess they did have that blip with the housing...

This has all made me look back at FFXI and the time and money I spent in a different way. SE may not have gone about it in the best way but they RELENTLESSLY delivered more of exactly what people wanted. The amount of content in FFXI today is mind-blowing. The contrast with GW2 is stark and the most obvious difference is business model. Subs (should) mean content.

But then you have WoW. Millions of subs, zero/shitty new content (apparently). I think Blizzard's problem is plain greed. They're so used to having all that cash that they'll do anything to tap new markets and I just don't think it's working out for them in the long run. FFXIV seems happy to have a small player base that the devs completely understand and can meet the needs of. By necessity GW2 is in the same situation as WoW; they want new players. The new Adventures detailed yesterday? I don't even begin to understand who they're trying to appeal to with that.

Looking at it all from a distance I'm starting to see the huge benefits of the sub model and the obvious weaknesses of the Guild Wars 2 B2P model. I daresay The Secret World's B2P model would have been a nice fit for GW2 but it's too late now.

I've dabbled with the idea of re-subbing for FFXI for a month (especially now I have 37 "meg" broadband) but the barrier to entry is colossal even for me not just in terms of content and gear but the interface is actually archaic. Instead I'm content to look back today and realise that, far from being a disaster, FFXI was a great gaming experience and I have no regrets.

Well, not many.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Meat and potatoes #GW2HOT

Having established a bit of emotional distance from Guild Wars 2 I hope I can write about it without ranting.

I read this fantastic article by MMO Arlee about what is coming in Heart of Thorns. My first reaction was "wow, there really is a lot coming!" A lot more than it seems when you drip it out over weeks and weeks, which is why the article exists.

To recap, one of my main concerns about Heart of Thorns is a) "what will we actually be doing with all these new systems/mechanics/traits" and b) "is it different enough to be interesting?"

Arlee's post makes this really easy to get to grips with: it's the whole first section, "The Heart of Maguuma Region." Aside from Stronghold (meh) and the new Borderlands (meh) what are we going to use our masteries and specialisations for?

At the moment, based on the info we have, I'm very much thinking of Wildstar and their Path system, which when announced seemed like it would be a wealth of "content". It's quite telling that the first three links in Arlee's article are to the Youtube video of the initial announcement. We've had very little information about where were going.  I've mentioned before that they might be saving the best for last because I am sure that these aspects are the meat and potatoes to the majority of players. But I am concerned that we've heard so little because, like the Wildstar Paths, the devs have put more time into other things and haven't put much flesh on the bones.

What am I really looking for from this content? To be satisfied it would have to be:
  • at least three to five zones the size of the original zones
  • on three levels
  • with skill points, vistas, POIs (hearts make no sense because they're intended to guide levelling players and we're all 80)
  • have regular, side quest-like, dynamic events
  • have World boss dynamic events
  • have these Adventures
  • have these Quest Hubs (sorry "outposts")
If the Outposts and Adventures replace the Dynamic Event system, that's no good.  If there are less than three zones or they drip feed them in the way they have through Season 2, that's no good. That covers concern a).

What about b)? Well, the specialisations should herald a whole new playstyle for every class. Whether that will be the case remains to be seen. The Condition Damage changes should have improved build diversity but, as I understand it, they haven't. New enemies and encounters in the jungle should introduce new combat mechanics.

I don't know about you but this is all the important stuff for me. Doing the same old sh-stuff just for mastery points is not going to cut it.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

"Change is good, no?" #GW2 #WHFB #AoS

Most of my fears about Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns could be ascribed to simply fear of change. I wouldn't blame anyone for levelling that finger at me. Change is obviously a tricky thing to manage hence Change Management is an entire professional discipline and career itself.

Lewis Burnell recently askled:
My, reply was simply "bad PR". I don't mean in the sense of that whole pre-purchase non-event, where people who'd already spent hundreds of dollars on a game were placated by ten bucks worth of bytes, but the whole information management of this release. As I mentioned last time out, where is the news about the "meat" of the expansion?  I suspect it's all being held back for a big "wow" just before release. That'll prolly work but it seems like a gamble. They have to be banking on people like me who have done nothing but nay say just screaming "All is forgiven!" and buying the expansion in droves when we finally see... well, I dunno what they're actually holding back.

Elsewhere in the world of immersive, time consuming hobbies, the realm of Games Workshop, and arguably wargaming itself, is experiencing a seismic event.

A bit about Games Workshop

In case you don't know, Games Workshop is a wargaming minatures manufacturer based in the UK. It started in 1975 (even older than me) but it was a while before it became the business as it is now known. As a company, Games Workshop is notoriously tight lipped. It has no community team or even a corporate/customer service presence on social media. There is a YouTube channel, which is quite good, but all comments are disabled. The individual retail stores have their own Facebook pages but that's about it.
See? They had geeks in the seventies and, damn, those geeks were chic.
If you venture into the unofficial GW communities you will find a lot of vitriol aimed at the company, generally themed along the lines of profiteering, bait-and-switch, etc. I hope you are starting to see the similarities between the Games Workshop "hobby" and MMORPGs with regard to business modelling and "player" relations. Games Workshop continues to make a healthy profit so it must have legions of fans but I suspect it relies very heavily on the same "whales" that keep the lights on in F2P and B2P games. Like MMOs, Games Workshop is for people with a lot of disposable income or generous parents.

In 1983 Games Workshop released Warhammer, a game of fantasy battles (straight off the box). Warhammer is GW's longest running core game but, by most accounts, this ancient behemoth had been in decline*, especially when compared to it's sci-fi cousin-brother Warhammer 40k. One of the biggest (suspected) problems with Warhammer is that it is not drawing enough new players. This is, again, something we're familiar with as MMORPG players: the business makes the bulk of its money from follow-on purchases, not upfront costs i.e. the box price. You need players to literally and figuratively invest in the game.

In the last few months Games Workshop's solution to the Warhammer problem has been creeping into the light by way of leaks, more leaks, rumour, cock-ups and out right lies. However, at last the truth is in sight: the Age of Sigmar is upon us!

What's this Age of Sigmar, then?

So is Christmas
We're still not absolutely sure but it's either a completely new system to replace the old Warhammer system, or it's a boxed introductory game that will pave the way for a completely new Warhammer system***. Either way the old Warhammer system is done for. It's not the 9th edition of Warhammer.

GW have been building up to this for a while. They had this whole Warhammer campaign thing called "The End Times", which was accompanied by several hundred dollars worth of Black Library fiction alone. There were also some amazing minatures. I don't play Warhammer, in fact I don't play any GW tabletop games, and I haven't read the End Times novels or source books, but I understand that the old Warhammer world was literally destroyed, then some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff happened and boom: retcon of the whole system.
Nagash - because I wanted another image
Now, I am surely not the only person that can see the symmetry of this new Games Workshop release and what we've seen from ArenaNet with Heart of Thorns or even Square Enix and FFXIV:ARR. What happened in Warhammer could have been inspired by what they did to FFXIV for all I know. It certainly proves that this sort of total reboot can work. Two more good examples, with the "trousers of time" in action, are the new Star Trek movies and the retcon enabled by X-Men: Days of Future Past. You should know from my Thunderbird fandom I'm not opposed to reboots that work. Obviously Heart of Thorns isn't actually a reboot but most systems have now been changed beyond recognition from launch. There's been some pretty huge changes when you think back.

Needless to say this reboot/relaunch/retcon has got the Warhammer community in a right two and eight. Some people are pretty optimistic. They see the need for the game to draw new players and accept that some change is inevitable. Others are in a wtf-bbq, table-flipping rage. Others still are just a bit sad.

Where has PR gone wrong? Has it gone wrong?

I can't help but think that an MMO-esque community team could have paved the way for Age of Sigmar release a bit better. I don't understand why Games Workshop have (officially) kept EVERYTHING under wraps until pre-order day (4th July) when everything will apparently be revealed in White Dwarf. On the surface it looks like Games Workshop's notorious secrecy may have backfired (again?)

Personally, I'm excited to see Age of Sigmar. For me, Warhammer has always had a high barrier to entry but then I generally prefer a board game. I can appreciate the sentiments that, in short, this is the Warhammer 40k version of Fantasy Battle, especially when you see the "Sigmarines" (clever that), but do existing 40k players really want to play two major systems? Is this really aimed at them?
A Sigmarine
The real question is have they completely alienated the tournament-playing Warhammer core? In terms of keeping veterans on side they have done a smart thing. The rules for the new system will be completely free, as will everything you need to play the new system with your existing Warhammer armies. They have also promised that all existing minis will be supported, though I suspect a statute of limitation applies. Huge, innit? Existing players don't need to buy anything, at least that's how it looks at the minute.

With regard to Heart of Thorns, well, I've been predicting the ongoing "PR" fail but I don't think I believed it would just run and run. Just when will they announce that killer tidbit that makes HoT a must have? How much longer do they really think they can string people along for? It boggles my mind. A vocal part of the player base said GW2 desperately needed an expansion and, lo, one was provided but, damn, those vocal players were bored THEN! I have no idea how they must feel now. I actually think the pre-purchase nonsense actually helped ArenaNet. I think they've probably earned some goodwill back after that and it was a small concession for them.

I still believe that community hype is a valuable tool for promoting a product but community hype isn't the same as traditional publicity. If your community hates a proposed feature and starts tearing it to pieces you CAN'T sit back and say "hey, at least they're talking about it!" That's bad "publicity" and it looks worse when you don't address it. In a post-gamergate** world players don't really trust the mainstream gaming press any more. They know it's all spin and expertly worded non-statements.

So, having said that, maybe Games Workshop is actually doing it right. They don't do press. Their own press, White Dwarf, is very little more than a product catalogue. They have a nice steady stream of releases and associated information but they don't drip feed teasers for big releases. There is no "it's ready, when it's ready" because it's all be planned out in minute detail. You have to do that when you have a range of physical products and a supply chain.

Maybe this is the way forward? As video gamers we've all become accustomed to the hype train and the seemingly endless trickle of pre-release non-information. I guess when you don't know when something is going to be finished this is a good model but do they really not know when HoT will be done? I'm sure the investors would want to know so I find it hard to believe the date is THAT fluid. Also, you'll never see GW buttering up the "community" with meaningless platitudes about what a great bunch they are. They simply have customers that they intend to sell a product to. There is little pretence that we're some how part of the team and shaping the direction of the product.

So maybe GW does have it right. Refuse to be drawn into debate, stick to your guns and be honest about what you're doing: making money.

* Personally, I suspect this is due to them getting the Tolkien license and peeing on their own chips. I mean, why have two core systems set in a fantasy world? Especially when one heavily riffs on the other and doesn't have a multi-billion dollar movie franchise backing it up? I expect players will tell me that the two systems are so different they are not even comparable. Well, that's as may be but... new players.
** If you believe it was actually about that, which I don't
*** We know it's the former. A lot happened between 1st and 2nd July!