March 2009

Something For Everybody!

If you’re a “glass is half full” kinda guy: Warhammer Online released patch 1.2 today with a small paperback book worth of design tweaks and two new classes, the Slayer and the Choppa, melee DPS classes both similar in mechanics (berserker-style, hit things, do more damage, hit things too much take more damage).

If you’re a “glass is half empty” kinda gal: Warhammer Online finally released the two other classes that were dropped from the release schedule, still did not completely roll back the traditional last-minute XP nerf. But hey, you can complain about it now on the official forums! (note: currently down, hi Patch Day!).

If you’re a “glass is broken on the bar and stabbing at my neighbors” kind of person: Darkfall is up, sometimes. I think. The forums are down.

Punching Babies: Why Darkfall Can, Should, And Must Succeed

Punching babies is one of my favorite turns of phrase. It is probably most popular from Penny Arcade, but Old Man Murray had the ultimate explanation of sucker punching a baby in the gut to get it to be quiet… it’s easy and it works, but you don’t want to advertise the habit. Which defines a lot of my posting habits about, well, events like Darkfall’s launch. It’s easy, it works, it’s kind of fun, but it’s not something you particularly want to *brag* about.

In the midst of the multi-post baby punching threadnaught that has consumed this site out of, well, a lack of anything else going on, a comment I made that upon reflection I think deserves more attention and fleshing out:

Yeah, I think [Darkfall] will spike at around 100,000 and then settle down to around half that. I even made a blog post to that effect! I could be wrong… and if they can sustain growth at 50k and then get 100k and sustain it, well then they get some financial reward for staying up till 3AM on launch week.

And I’m all about niche games succeeding. I really do hope these guys succeed, even if I personally recoil at the community and think the design has serious issues. Niche games can, will, and do work in the market.

So, why do I believe that, despite the obvious glee I have at punching this particular baby over and over? A few reasons.

It can succeed… because the market is there. The “no rules! extreme carnage! total domination of the weak!” PvP str1cktly-hardc0r3 may not be particularly a market *I* want to service, but it does exist and is quite capable of funding a realistically budgeted MMO.

It should succeed… because most previous attempts to service this market have failed. The most prominent of these, Shadowbane, clearly had a market, one lovingly sustained over years during the game’s development (much like Darkfall later), and which abandoned the game due to technical, not design issues. This same market was a significant subset of Ultima Online’s early adopters (albeit one that limited the early growth of the service, which is why they were eventually tossed over the side). And one game, Eve, has in fact prospered by serving this market, albeit with a radically different product and a different genre. This is what people who have more money than I do call “market opportunity”.

It must succeed… because the big-budget MMO business model is killing our industry. World of Warcraft’s success has been wonderful for exactly two companies: Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts.

The reason for Actiblizzard’s good fortune is obvious – WoW is such a huge part of the PC gaming market, that it effectively IS the PC gaming market now. To the extent that World of Warcraft’s revenue is sustaining Actiblizzard through the recessionary spiral that is consuming many of its competitors.

Electronic Arts’ good fortune is less clear, and more dangerous. To be specific, WoW has effectively raised the barrier of entry to the classic kill-things-loot-pants-grunt-twice MMO market, to the point that only megacorporations like EA can afford to compete with WoW on its own terms. Smaller companies simply will not be able to raise the tens-of-millions budget required, and more importantly not have access to the huge reservoir of art teams, content pipelines and engine technology readily available to large corporations like EA. This is something I ran into even at NCsoft, which is not by any measure a small company. We are coming to the point where there are literally only two companies that can make successful MMOs – if we define successful as “competing with WoW”.

So, how do you kill a giant? By being agile and hitting the giant where it’s not looking – underserved market segments that may be willing to overlook that your game doesn’t have the breadth of content and years of production polish that a game such as WoW has, because it delivers on innovative – or even different – design.  And for all the myriad problems Darkfall has had in its launch, for all the head-scratching technical design decisions made, and for the completely justifiable lampooning of its hilariously overwrought community – it still is a great example of this concept made manifest. Darkfall isn’t a game for me, or for many readers of this blog – but it is for a given market segment, and that market segment, if it embraces that, will make the game a financial success – and be another case for being able to succeed in a post-WoW apocaplypse.

And if that given market segment does NOT embrace that, due to technical failures or simple boredom or the worst possible case of all, “You know, I could be playing WoW right now <cancel>”, that is also another case. A case that only $100m+ budgets can create a successful MMO. A case that only two companies are in a position to make MMOs.

And for those two reasons alone, if I were able to, I’d buy Darkfall. I wouldn’t PLAY it mind you. I’d put the box on my shelf alongside the other MMOs I don’t play. But risks deserve rewards.

Probably not the ringing endorsement Aventurine was looking for, but they shouldn’t be looking for one from me in any event. They have their own market segment to serve and they had better get busy serving it. For the good of us all.


Eve Lead Designer: Drama Is Cool!

Eve’s lead designer (you know Eve, it’s that really hardcore PvP game that we at Broken Toys are honor bound to despise because, um, I’m sure there’s some reason that can be found in any 200+ comment thread on Darkfall) was interviewed by MTV and I bet you can guess the first question!

When you give players freedom to do whatever they want, then you’re going to have these sorts of massive political scandals — and the players really love it. The largest alliance in the game was broken up by a trader on the inside and when this happened we were really worried at first because we were like, “Oh no! Everyone’s going to quit!” And it was really horrible for us.

That was in the morning, but a couple hours later the buzz on the forums was crazy, subscriber numbers were growing, and everybody was really excited. Because everyone was becoming complacent and bored with being the biggest alliance, and then all of a sudden now there’s war and turmoil. People who used to be in the alliance were re-subscribing and everyone was really excited about it so it’s not necessarily always a bad thing when this sort of stuff happens. Somebody on the other side was interviewed, and he was saying “When you beat the biggest raid in World of Warcraft you don’t get an interview in The New York Times but when this sort of thing happens it makes real-world news.”

Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Ninjalooter

Ten Ton Hammer has braved the rocks and shoals of Darkfall, this month’s MMO kinda-sorta-maybe-launch.

I’m proud to report that no player has managed to kill me yet (though a few have tried) so I haven’t had my body looted. Instead, what these players will do is wait for you to get jumped by more than one mob, then loot the tombstones (mobs become tombstones instead of corpses) while you’re fighting for your life. This is old school EverQuest ninja-looting brought back tenfold. I can’t count the amount of times this happened to me.

Just in case, for some unimaginable reason, you were planning on allowing your teenager to play this game… there is no filter. I don’t mean there’s no filter in the chat channels, I mean there doesn’t appear to be a filter with the naming system either. A sizable number of the players I ran across had names that I quite literally cannot type here and still keep things teen friendly.

Speaking of things non-filtered, let me step back and describe the general chat channels (Public and Racial) a little better. You know how people like creating various drinking games based around the concept of a phrase or action being repeated? I strongly encourage you to resist this urge when it comes to Darkfall. If you had to take a shot every time someone said newb, carebear, gay, or a smorgasbord of other words I simply won’t repeat here, you would be dead from alcohol poisoning in less than an hour. While the game is still very much in beta, what I experienced in the world is still the worst example of an online community I’ve ever encountered, without question.

Despite all of this, the combat model and the reviewer’s “inner old-schooler” makes it a basically positive ‘preview’. Which goes to show you how much community matters in a game!