Category Archives: Geek culture
By the Numbers
By now, if you’re dedicated enough to read even this blog, you’ve seen this announcement from Activision / Blizzard. To wit: Activision / Blizzard has bought its financial independence from its corporate masters, Vivendi Universal.
I’d like to point out a few things.
First of all, note that it’s still Activision / Blizzard. Not just Blizz. Blizz is still joined to Activision via a cash-transporting umbilical cord. The pernicious influence of Activision and Bobby Kotick is still very much an active part of Blizzard’s future. Vivendi didn’t once enter into things, but Activision, well, that’s a very active threat to Blizzard’s moral well-being, and has been. I have no idea if they’ve managed to hold the line against the darkness over there at Pasadena, but here’s hoping they can continue, if so.
Second of all: I don’t care who they are, if they were valuated at EIGHT BEEEELYUN dollars and have over THREE BEEELYUN in cash reserves after that, they are not an "indie" company, any more than EA is. "Independent" and "indie" really mean two different things, and the people calling the A/B monstrosity "indie" should be hauled through the internet into 4chan by their lower lip and left there to suffer. Independent is fine. Indie is not.
Finally, this should send chills through anyone’s heart:
"The transactions announced today will allow us to take advantage of attractive financing markets while still retaining more than $3 billion cash on hand to preserve financial stability."
— Bobby Kotick
"Attractive financing markets" sounds suspiciously like "we’re going to invest our capital in things other than producing games." There’s an accountant in there somewhere urging little Bobby to put cash on derivatives or something.
Well, I hope not. But anything that is other than a direct investment in the game studios’ health is a misuse of funds, in my opinion.
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
— Mark Twain, who attributed to Benjamin Disraeli
You may have also noticed that in the same conference, they quietly released the subscriber numbers for 2013Q2. Aaaand the numbers are down again, down to 7.7 subs, which haven’t been that low since before BC launched..
These are based off of Blizzard’s reported subscription numbers, and represent roughly the paying player base – though the numbers leading up to MoP are probably artificially inflated by the annual pass numbers – though they seem to be interested in good-faith estimates, so maybe they’re based off of active logins or something.
But the interesting thing is, as you can see, the numbers form a bit of a bell-curve formation. If you fit a trend line to this, you end up somewhere between 2015 and 2017 for the day that the final WoW player logs out of Azeroth, never to return. This is of course not a real date, because this would never happen – Blizz would pull the plug at 100 players, obviously, and they’d all log off at once. Or something like that.
The variation on the curve depends on whether you take the whole data set, or start at 2010Q4 when WoW was peaked. One is an overall dataset, one is just a map of the decreasing trend. Take your pick, but I tend to favor the latter because it takes less of old and obsolete data into account. The fact that it yields the more favorable 2017 date has nothing to do with it.
Something else jumps out if you cook the data in a different manner.
This is a chart explicitly showing gains and losses, rather than just bulk numbers. Here are things about this chart.
- Up through the start of Wrath, the rate of growth was flat; that is to say, the numbers kept growing, but at a more or less steady rate – no glitches that weren’t understood.
- One of those understood glitches was the start of BC, when we got what is now considered the traditional "expansion bump". We see this throughout the game’s history.
- Sub data for most of Wrath is missing ((I’m guessing that Blizz thinks of reporting sub numbers in the same way it thinks of Blizzcon – if too busy, just skip it.)). In that gap there IS one quarter reported, and it had zero growth on the previous quarter (11.5 mil).
- From the start of Cataclysm, it’s been more or less a steady down trend, though I caution that the biggest down spikes are outnumbered by lesser down spikes (or one upward).
- But the data do suggest a pretty profound downslope, nonetheless.
It’s also impossible to say when Blizz started to sweat the losses. The huge gaps in the Wrath period reveal nothing. Maybe they saw a down trend at that point and decided to start compensating by nerfing up the game in Cata. Or maybe they thought of nerfing up the game as part of a grand strategy that started to be realized in Cata.
Either way, it’s pretty obvious where the decline really starts to gather momentum. So what are the possible reasons for this? Here are some possibilities.
- Players are getting bored and just come back for the new content. This seems like it would be a more gentle downturn, with sharper uptake and more gentle dropoff in between expansion lines. And we do see some of this, but it’s not the overarching pattern.
- Players don’t like the changes to the game’s difficulty. i.e. "Azeroth has been nerfed!"
- Players hate casuals. This goes with the above. Sure, I’m part of the quested-in-the-snow-uphill-both-ways crowd at times, but I don’t begrudge others the less difficult climb. I don’t need others to suffer to feel better about myself. But the haters, the ones that hate "casuals", well, if I hadn’t seen it myself I would say it was impossible for people like that to exist, but they do. WoW has its own virtual Civil Rights movement, in which the haters are played by Archie Bunker and the "casuals" are played by, well, actual people. More on this anon.
- Other games have come online that are clearly as good or better. I don’t know about better, but many have come online that might be as good in many ways. I’ve personally experienced Eve and Neverwinter and feel both hold up well. Where they don’t hold up is the people, in that the people I like to hang with aren’t in those games. I’m such a camp follower. And STWOR came out right in the middle of that big decline, so it’s not so much a "trigger".
- Free to play games! This too is a big one, and probably one of the biggest. Back when WoW came out, you could pay money to Sony or to Blizzard to get your fantasy on; these days, fantasy MMORPGs are all over the place, and free-to-play. Neverwinter, Rift, Aion, GW2, and more are out there just waiting for you to download a free client or buy one and then play for free. Even STOWR made the transition (not very well, I hear.). More on this in a minute, as well.
- WoW is old and crufty. Well, that’s about as subjective as it gets. I’ve played other games that have "better" graphics and I can’t really say there’s a lot going on there. I will say the armor and weapon models are, a lot of times, a lot more interesting to look at. The toons – player and NPC – however often hit that "uncanny valley" of near-realism that just turns off the brain. WoW makes no pretenses about how it chose to depict its characters, and it’s paid off again and again. Just … hurry up with those player model improvements, guys? Thanks.
So there’s two things I want to focus on.
The Nerfing of Azeroth
Over time, Blizzard has done a lot to nerf things in the game. I’ve generally felt it was a bad idea.
This harks to the recent Blog Azeroth shared topic of "is leveling too easy?". A lot of people confused "too easy" with "easier". Can we agree that the two aren’t equivalent? Yes? Good. Let’s proceed.
If you accept that "easier" and "too easy" aren’t the same thing, then you won’t feel locked into asserting that leveling in Azeroth is NOT "too easy" but it IS "easier". I can think of dozens of examples.
- Mor’ladim is a joke compared to his past self, who terrorized the Raven Hill cemetery with an iron fist. You always had to work your questing around his whereabouts or suffer the consequences. And don’t give me any guff about "it’s subjective". He was an elite.
- Stitches‘ epic journey from Raven Hill to Darkshire put terror into the hearts of travelers. Many’s the time I stopped to help someone else bring him down. Also many’s the time I hid to one side of the road until he passed. You needed a group; now the game supplies you with one.
- That horrendous run from Menethil to Ironforge so you could take the tram to Stormwind if you were an Night Elf or Draenai.
- That horrendous run to Booty Bay. Back then there wasn’t a Rebel Camp with a gryphon. And, as I found out on my first outing, even the grass was deadly.
- Even Princess was painful.
- You didn’t just waltz into the area outside of an instance; it was full of elites. People forget how terrifying it was to go into Deadmines the first time to do that quest for the miner’s guild.
These were all painful rites of passage that those of us that leveled up in early WoW remember and understand. They are all gone the way of the dodo, either because of new flight points, or new boats, or nerfed zones, or even nerfed NPCs. There are hundreds more examples like this, things that are absolutely, indisputably easier than they were prior to Cata. Anyone that says it’s just my experience in the game making it SEEM that way isn’t thinking it all the way through. There were real challenges that simply aren’t around anymore.
The question of whether it is too easy is another matter because it addresses Blizzard’s actual decision to make the leveling game go easier at lower levels. Starting as far back as Wrath, maybe sooner, they started taking the starch out of expansion zones as we got near the end of the expansion. A journey that might take you all the way to Storm Peaks at the start of Wrath, for example, might end somewhere in Sholazar – if you got that far, even! Faiella managed to get to 80 in Dragonblight ((The plural of data is not anecdote, of course, so take that for what you will.)).
Did they go too far? There is a fine line between challenge and chore; did they cross it? That’s at the heart and soul of this issue, I think.
When they redesigned Azeroth for Cataclysm, many zones were reworked completely – quests redone, levels changed, elites nerfed, and so forth. And yet people felt like they were on a conveyor belt; you couldn’t start quests at hub "B" until you finished all the ones at "A" and were directed to "B".
My feelings are that they went too far, and did a poor job on the redesign of Azeroth, and that this legacy has carried forth into other aspects of the game, including MoP.
They’re *trying* to understand user feedback, but I think they’re letting their game designer’s instincts be subverted by management’s insistence that they "make the game more accessible", and it’s backfiring because people don’t want to be spoon-fed stuff. After all, if you just want to look at the assets (("Asset" in this context is the artwork, character models, sounds, music, and anything else even remotely "arty" used by the game itself.)), there are tools that let you do that without actually playing!
Here’s an example of a designer going against what he knows is right; flying mounts take you out of the world and make you an observer of, rather than a part of, that world. When he speaks elsewhere of the importance of "exploration", he’s referring not to the act of flying all over the place to clear areas of the map – that’s "mapping" – but being down in the world’s nooks and crannies and discovering things about it.
Granted you can’t currently fly in a zone until you hit max level. But even that’s an arbitrary rule imposed to overcome the hinkyness of being able to just fly all over the place. It was a bad idea in BC, it was a hakneyed idea in Wrath, and it was a hideous idea in Cata, so now that we’re in MoP, it’s pretty much a given that you’re going to get it one way or another.
When we played one of the old Gold Box or Black Box series, exploration – the peering into corners, the poking at things and the pulling of levers ((Wait, no, not THAT one!!!)) were integral parts of the games. This is part of what made them fun. Games without a few dead ends and red herrings were generally received with a gigantic yawn.
Blizzard game designers know this, but in an attempt to make the game "more accessible", some of this aura of mystery and magic may have been lost.
I think that if they plan to turn things around, they may have to address this. Put back some of the danger. Make a few things not pan out exactly the way the user wants. Require a little bit of effort in some (non-critical) places. Give people a reason to want to explore places like Winterspring, which is otherwise pretty useless since nobody ever sees it.
Answering the Threat
The one-two punch of new and prettier games, along with the F2P model, are another concern, and one which I think Blizz is dealing with.
Improvements to the gaming assets – character models, scenery, and so forth – have been taking places incrementally since Vanilla. But to many, that’s not good enough. They look at the character models presented in Neverwinter, for example, and complain that "all they have to do" is add some polygons.
But overall, I don’t think anything major will happen in WoW concerning the game engine. They’re working hard on "Titan" for the next big thing, but since it’s been set back, don’t look there for help.
For good or ill, we’re going to have to make do with incremental improvements in our game assets until WoW is sunsetted ((It’s a word, now.)).
The other threat is the F2P model.
Early on, F2P pretty much meant "free to play but don’t expect much in the way of updates". I encountered F2P first in Anarchy Online, which is still going strong on that model – well, as strong as an out of date game can go strong.
The advantages of F2P is that the barrier to entry is pretty low. All you need is a game client and an internet connection. In some cases you have to pay for the client, but that’s a one-time expenditure that few would argue with. Others will even give you the client for free. Some have turned that around and give you the client but charge you to play – we won’t talk about them for now, they’re small and okay with that.
How does a F2P game keep the servers running? Well, there are a few ways, such as ads in-game (I first saw this in AO), and, and … well, there’s the "cash shop".
The "cash shop" is usually an external web site that you go to to purchase items to use in-game. In most cases you buy currency, then use that currency in-game, such as "Zen" in Neverwinter. For the most part you can only purchase cosmetic and non-game-changing items, though in some very poorly implemented instances, that’s not necessarily true.
So what have we seen implemented recently? A cash shop.
I know dozens of bloggers and opinionators have said that Blizzard would never go F2P. I have never heard anyone from Blizzard say that.
WoW is Blizzard’s "cash cow". For those that have never heard of such a thing, a "cash cow" is something that’s not really top of the line, but keeps bringing in money in a reliable stream. So you keep "milking" it until it runs dry. For example, at one place that Grimmtooth Actual worked, he worked on a lot of bleeding edge server systems, but over in a dark corner was a guy named "Dave" that worked on some pretty archaic looking stuff. He explained, while it was far from state of the art, it was being used by thousands of banks across the world, and any time one broke down, they needed a replacement. So he was the guy that farmed our cash cow while we went and burned off that money with our splashy R&D.
So WoW’s kinda like that right now. And Blizz wants to keep that cash cow on the farm for as long as possible. With today’s numbers, that’s over 100 million bucks a month of solid income. At TWO million players it’s 30 million a month, so even that can’t be sneezed at – would it actually cost that much to keep the servers up?
Unfortunately, that’s where I run out of steam, sort of. I have no idea of what kind of numbers a big F2P title ((That doesn’t suck.)) brings in. I don’t even know how to guess. SWTOR claims that shifting to F2P "doubled" its income, but given its draconian implementation, let’s hope for better if WoW ever goes that route.
At the moment I think it’s likely they will, especially since the wait for "Titan" is probably going to be well past 2015, and possibly even 2017.
The question becomes, then: will I play an F2P WoW?
It’s going to depend on the implementation. A Neverwinter-like implementation MIGHT work, assuming the restrictions aren’t too annoying. One like SWTOR would see me drop out in a hurry, however.
At the moment we can only hope for the best.
NOW IS THE TIME AT GRIMMLABS WHEN WE DANCE
Everybody knows how awesome Hunters are ((This is why we keep telling people, to get the word out. It’s one of many services we provide.)). But nobody’s actually put it to song, as far as I know.
The merry miscreants at Warcraft Hunters Union ((I don’t usually link there because, you know, gold ads. But I had to make this exception.)) have come up with a little something. Consider it the hunter community’s Winter Veil present to you. Go forth and thank them.
I guess I made an impression
I was saying just the other day how the game can catch you unawares with little things that make you chuckle or simply laugh out loud. I’m going to classify the quest Hozen Love Their Keys as one of those. I can help but wonder if the end of the quest was a subtle nod to the ending of a certain movie that came out this year.
I very often see long mournful faces gathered around a mournful CEO as yet another MMO was closed for cash-flow problems. Equally so, I often see angry players complain that whatever game they’re playing is advancing in areas that they have no interest or appreciation for, such as a bunch of those F2P Korean grindfests that people play because, well, they’re free.These sort of things embody what’s wrong with the MMO game market – not design, balance, subscription model, sharding approach, or what-have-you. What’s missing is focus on what a game’s all about – having fun, or, more precisely, caring about having fun.
Here’s a thought: I’ve never heard of an MMO closed because it wasn’t fun. As long as people show up for a F2P grindfest and buy powerups at the cash shop, that game will keep on going no matter how miserable the experience.
I’ve seen many closed that were fun, but not meeting cash flow requirements. City of Heroes and Tabula Rosa are just two among many; games that people adored, but weren’t given the chance to get traction, or find its feet after changing to F2P, or whatever other transitions it just weathered ((Well, to be fair, it’s been over a year since CoH went F2P, but it doesn’t seem like it!)).
Let’s be clear – there’s a line between "a gigantic money pit" and "not as profitable as WoW." On the side of the former, well, yeah, you’ve got to close out a game that’s bleeding cash, especially if you’ve done all you can to keep it going.
But that’s not always what happens. Often a game is doing badly, but adjusting expectations downward, adjusting the schedule – horrors, adjusting the workforce! – often these things can take a bleeding property into moderate profitability.
"Moderate profitability" is of course opposite of what the CEO was pitching to the money men last year – he was probably pitching "dirty stinking rich" – so the money men – the CFO especially – are questioning whether it’s valid to keep the game open.
But the one thing they almost never ask is whether the people that play it think it’s worth saving. Or if they have fun when they play it. And that’s a shame.
The Flip Side
In a moment of serendipity, Lonomonkey at Screaming Monkeys is having similar thoughts, but he’s focusing on the responsibility of players to reward those those games worth saving. In his case, he’s looking at The Secret World, which is indeed in dire straits because of what I think are premature expectations of success. Lono figures people aren’t coming to it because they’re hung up on sword-and-board fantasy settings, which TSW is assuredly not.
I mentioned premature expectations; a lot of people, including people at Funcom, had pie in the sky expectations that this game would take off right away. I looked at it, and it looks fun. But it will take time to get traction because it’s not easy to gauge a game without a common frame of reference, and this one doesn’t have one ((BoingBoing’s obsession aside, the majority of the gaming world is not in love with Lovecraftian horror fantasy. Though they might learn to like it given time. C wut I did thar?)).
Quite honestly, this game is going to need a few months, maybe a quarter, to get enough traction to even keep the servers paid for. Funcom did a disservice to everyone by giving false expectations there. They should have seen this learning curve on the gaming world’s part coming a mile away. Hell, they have the poster child for this sort of thing in the form of Anarchy Online. It also faced indirect competition against EQ, and it took going F2P and a couple of years before the system was really self-sustaining.
But it was worth it.
For the regular denizens of Rubi-ka, it was well worth it. AO’s Rogue-like personal instances, it’s shifting warfront, its wide open spaces, etc. The designers had a game they believed in, they convinced the suits to hang in there, and they’ve kept that thing running for more than a decade as a result. The players came as the bugs were ironed out, the servers were stabilized, and things were fleshed out.
Imagine if WoW had gotten the short shrift that some of these other games are getting. WoW 1.0.0 was a mess, about as stable as a cab driver stuck behind two old men in a 1977 Buick Skylark. But people loved the game, the lore, the spirit. They had fun playing it, when it stayed up, and the developers wanted people to have fun playing it, so WoW got a chance. Oh, I realize that Blizzard had deeper pockets than anyone else at the time, but in today’s environment, such an unstable game, even from Blizz, would be in jeopardy ((I’m looking at STWOR here. Big studio. Bit distro. Big release. Unfortunate issues. Outlook uncertain.)).
First things First
Even in my most cynical moments, I believe people like Greg Street when he says that they’re trying to find ways to play the game that are "more fun." They know that fun games bring in people, and those people bring money. But they prioritize the fun first, not the monies.
Contrast with such cynical properties as Zynga ((No link. I’m not an enabler.)). They don’t care about fun or innovation. They care about clicks, and keeping people busy. This is not a guess. The CEO has said this on many occasions. Such companies don’t deserve to be called "game companies" in my opinion. They aren’t interested in making games. They are interested in prying money out of your wallet, and the game is the tool they use to pry with.
A Challenger Appears
Lono got rebuked by Tobold over the post I referenced earlier, claiming that TSW’s problems were that it was a bad game, not that it wasn’t receiving the support of the people that loved it. Or more to the point, it wasn’t receiving support because it was a bad game. To Tobold, the innvation of the story, environment, and genre were insignificant compared to the technical shortcomings. Need I point out that this is another Funcom property, and we’re all pretty well aware that Funcom may not get the technical aspects right on the first try, but that they do eventually clean it up.
Now, nobody needs to tell this to Tobold. He’s been around the industry long enough to know this. But he chooses to interpret things differently ((There are many reasons he’s no longer in my blogroll. This deliberate obtusnes of his is one of them.)). Maybe he’s one of those people that still holds a grudge over the AO launch fiasco. I don’t know. But what is apparent is that he’s chosen to judge this game on the technical aspect rather than the part that matters in good game design – the core concept behind it.
The rest of that technical stuff is a solvable puzzle. Software has bugs. Balance issue happen. That sort of thing. This is all just the technical frosting on the core design cake.
The core design – that’s for life. Get that wrong, and it’s all over. Get it right, and a passionate playerbase will sustain you for years.
"Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes down to the bone." – some guy
They done done it again!
Felicia Day and the mighty troops of The Guild are back to serenade us with a new music video, and it rocks, as you might expect from such a fine group of geeks.
Seriously, what’s not to like about a song with the phrase "ass-hat jocks" in the refrain?
A word of support and appreciation
Not too long ago I was pondering over how I find myself enmeshed so often in feminist causes. I’m a dude, as has been noted, I started out that way and I plan on ending up that way, hope that’s all right with everyone. Yet I find myself very sympathetic to feminist causes.
Eventually I realized that usually what got me going was the topic of harassment, sexual or otherwise – but, obviously, in the context of feminism, sexual harassment is a huge issue. Harassment is key here, and something I find common cause in, I realized. This all forms a huge layer cake of misery, in which the layers we’re looking at are sexual harassment, harassment in general, and bullying – which is where I came in.
Bullying has gotten a little bit of attention lately due to some deaths brought to light by the families of the victims and others. It’s interesting watching the reactions across various strata of society. It is generally agreed that the deaths are regrettable, even tragic, and wrongful. Less prevalent is whole-hearted support for the victims. There almost seems to be a feeling from these people that the victims did something … wrong.
A lot of the people that can’t somehow find a way to fully support the victims (now and future) perhaps are bothered by the past, maybe they are ashamed of being victims in the past. Or maybe the regret implicit support of the bullies, by just going along with it. Just letting it happen. Watching that poor kid open his mouth in protest just one more time and getting floored for having the temerity. And doing nothing, because it’s the highest blade that gets trimmed first.
Harassment, then, and especially sexual harassment, are nothing more than bullying. I was lucky. I was bullied for years, and it was often submitted that I was the problem for not submitting to whatever demands the authorities thought I was rebelling against. I’m not sure what demands I was to submit to when I tried to go home and six burly rednecks blocked the school gate and dared me to try to push through.
One day I left home and started choosing who I kept company with. I was able to get myself out of that bad situation, and, eventually, return back home without fear. But not everyone is so fortunate as I. If I had not been able to help myself as I did, I shudder to think what my life would have been like. I may have well surrendered to despair, as well, like those poor kids on the news.
And that right there is my point of solidarity with the feminist cause, because one key is to create a world where women can stand proudly in the world without fear of being targeted, harassed, and bullied just for being female, any more than I was for being short and nearsighted.
A long time ago (relatively), I named the blog Empowered Fire as one of the best-named blogs in recent times; a blog centered on feminism and magery, an excellent combination. That blog fell silent. I didn’t find out until later that one of the two bloggers there was undergoing a serious bout of sexual harassment from a former friend in WoW, and that in the end the bully won a small victory and shut them down indirectly. It could have easily turned out far, far, worse, and almost nobody would have known.
I am thrilled and gratified that the blogger now known as Apple Cider decided to pick back up and rejoin the WoW blogosphere, to blog on the same topics. She is brave and wonderful and fights the good fight.
Harassment in-game or out is serious business. It gives us all a black eye if we let it happen around us, for fear of reprisal or just out of a desire not to rock the boat. We are diminished every time we lose someone to the bullies. Friends will find other things to do if they feel uncomfortable around our fabled halls.
If you are not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem ((Or the precipitate.)).