Saturday, September 5, 2009

Quiting, not Quiting, Quiting again...

I'm coming up on the year aniversary of the first time I cancelled my Warcraft account and wanted to do a year-in-review of sorts.

Cancelling my WoW Account (September 08)
The straw that broke the camels back for me was when they decided to reset honor points and marks for the Wrath expansion. A decision they later reversed, but the damage was done and by that time I was fully embracing Warhammer Online.

That was the reason I cited at the time, but my MMO angst concerning WoW had been a long time building.

My love-hate relationship with Warhammer
I don't think any game ever highlighted it's potential as much as Warhammer during the Preview weekend which preceded the launch. Limited to the entry-level Tiers, players were all condensed down into a handful of areas and some of the really unique features of WAR (like oRvR and Public Quests) were on grand display.

I even wrote at the time that "[PQs] feel like a spontaneous 10-man raid at level 3." High praise indeed. Unfortunately, what became apparent after release is that many of these PQs were empty of any players 90% of the time.

Still, it was a great game and I had a blast leveling up TWO characters simultaneously to Tier 4. Tier 1 to Tier 3, even with the population issues, were incredibly fun. Then Tier 4 came to a grinding halt of suckiness.

On November 17th, I ended my relationship with WAR. Citing, at the time, that WAR peaked for me in Tier 3.

And then back to WoW...
I left WoW pretty bitter about the last six to eight months of my gaming experience. In particular, the flawed social engineering, the retarded reward system and the lack of significant content updates in a timely fashion.

However, since WAR ended up stalling for me, I needed to look for an MMO fix somewhere and turned back to the old faithful, bought the Wrath expansion and resubscribed.

My criticism aside, I'll give credit where credit is due and say that Blizzard has learned quite a bit over the years. If you liked WoW before, then you'll enjoy Wrath since it does a much better job of delivering the same things in a much better way. I give Blizzard all the kudos in the world for improving upon an already well designed model.

And that is where I think all the other MMO titles really end up falling short. It’s not that they can’t improve or what-not, but that they try to be clones. So you get 2004 WoW questing in a 2008 release of WAR. The irony being that even 2008 WoW players think that 2004 WoW questing sucks now.

My other big criticism of WoW, the accessibility of raiding content to casuals, was also addressed with the 10-man raid instances. It has really opened up even some of the hardest content to players that were never able find a guild with 24 other regular players.

The only negative effect has been that raiders are able to master the content much more quickly and easily (since they get two attempts each week; 10 and 25). In my opinion, this is largely responsible for the "raiding is ezmode" reaction by the more hardcore community.

And then I quit again...
BUT -- after seven months of play, Wrath just didn't have enough staying power to keep me until the next expansion. As I wrote over a year ago, the real "WoW Killer" won't be another MMO but stagnation.

Players are becoming more and more impatient for content updates and many of us are simply going to quit rather than grind out dailies, achievements or other artificial bullshit intended to consume my valuable time.

And that's the key: WoW competes with my time -- not just my gaming time -- but my free time that can be used on other activities. So instead of playing WoW, I'm reading a book. Or watching TV. Or going to BBQs.

At least until Cataclysm. :)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Micro transactions

Tobold is having an interesting discussion about micro transactions. The general thrust of his blog post is that micro transactions exist because our generational demographic can afford it. The premise is that our generation grew up playing video games and now that we are older, we have bigger incomes.

In other words, we can afford it now. And of course, while our incomes have increased, our available time has decreased due to work, family and other commitments.

All true. We do have a growing disposable income and have played video games our entire lives. Unlike a teenager or college student, I could afford to spend $5,000 to $10,000 on gaming related activities.

That's really not much different than a sports fan buying season tickets. In fact, many people my age easily spend much more than those sums of money on their primary form of entertainment (golf, skiing, boating, whatever). The gaming market is huge and is only going to continue to grow and grow. I agree 100% that this is why micro transactions EXIST.

Affordability vs. Expected Cost
HOWEVER, most people (including myself) have expectations about costs. In the last 20 years, video games have continued to stay in the same general price range ($40-$70) because that's what we EXPECT games to cost. It doesn't really matter that I can AFFORD to pay much more for a game if I won't pay more than what I EXPECT the game to cost.

It's all about perceived value. Raising prices simply because your demographic can afford a more expensive product is not going to get them to spend more money. And that’s the rub with micro transactions. At the end of the day, most of us just aren’t going to spend more for video games. Not because we can’t afford it, but because doing IT’S A VIDEO GAME.

Changing Perceptions
As a marketer myself, I can tell you that managing perception is arguably the single most important aspect of marketing your product. When new products are introduced to market, it’s the first thing that is marketed to you. Not where to buy it, how much it costs, or sometimes even what it IS. The first ads are all about image and what the marketer wants you to associate with the product.

How powerful are perceptions? What image comes to mind when you think of Harley Davidson? Most likely, a motorcycle. What if I told you they were coming out with a motor oil? That might not be surprising. It would likely be a special grade of oil for motorcycles, right? How about a Harley Davidson road map? Oooh! It would probably have all these cool biker bars and hangouts on a map of the U.S. How about Harley Davidson ice cream? OK, that’s disgusting. What about Harley Davidson soda pop? Eww, also digusting. Mac n’ cheese?

The point here is that it could be the best ice cream in the world, but our perception of the Harley Davidson brand is associated with motorcycles. Ice cream just doesn’t fit in our mental image of a Harley Davidson product. In fact, it’s so far out of our perception that it has a negative effect (i.e. it’s disgusting).

One of our expectations about video games is that they are a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment. In order for micro transactions to appeal to the broader market, they need to change people’s expectations about the value of what they are purchasing with the micro transaction.

That’s really really hard to do. It can be done, but it’s hard. Just ask Hyundai. They’ve been trying for 15 years to shake the perception that their cars don’t break down. Even going so far as to offer a 10 year, 100,000 mile warranty on new cars.

How clever are micro transactions?
In my mind, the real debate about micro transactions is whether or not they fool anyone. In the end, it’s my belief that micro transactions won’t make any significant impact on the gaming industry if gamers view the approach as a price increase.

So are they clever enough to avoid looking like a price increase?

I’ll freely admit that I dislike micro transactions, but like some of the more subtle approaches. Certainly, Blizzard’s fee based character transfer service is a useful tool for people wanting to hook up with friends. The character customization is a bit more borderline but also acceptable in that it doesn’t affect game balance.

And in this respect, Tobold is also right. Micro transactions in some form are going to be around for a while. Of course, these are also all special circumstances that could be termed more customer service than game altering.

The bigger question is whether the micro transaction model is going to be a popular choice when the transaction directly benefits your game character. Judging for blogger reactions, spending $10 for a “starter kit” that includes a larger backpack and another $5 for a horse is apparently also pretty subtle.

Of course, $15 is far less than the expected $40-$70 (or $15 monthly) cost that we associate with these games. But what about when the moment comes to spend the next $15? And the next $15 after that? And what if in order to “keep up”, I need to spend $200 on items or levels?

Spending $10 to get an item that otherwise would have taken you 40 hours of work would seem like a deal to many people. In fact, when you consider the power leveling and gold selling services available from third parties in other games, the perceived market price on some of these transactions has already been set.

The perception of fairness
Fairness is the other major perception that needs to be overcome in micro transactions. Who is willing to play a game in which their effort can be invalidated by someone else that is simply willing to pay more? As I alluded to previously, some micro transactions are subtle in that they appear to be more like customer service requests than game altering.

It’s hard to object to something that ultimately only impacts the quality of the play of an individual. But in an online persistent world, the value of your individual effort is often relative to the achievements of other people within the game. For many people, this is what provides a sense of accomplishment.

Micro transactions have the effect of devaluing the perception of that accomplishment because people who did not put forth the same level of effort are benefiting from the same rewards.

Nickled and Dimed
Tobold’s blog is one of the few that provides an international view on these topics. One thing I recalled from several discussions last year about internet usage charges was that Europeans seem to be very comfortable with the idea of variable rates based on usage.

In the US, we’ve had a long history of overage charges that has led many of us to simply prefer a flat monthly fee. I think we simply prefer the simplicity of the plan to the potential for deceptive charges.

Americans even have a term for getting charged bit by bit by bit, it’s called getting Nickled and Dimed. We hate it and do everything we can to avoid it. Micro transactions strike me as the “pay-as-you-go” type of model that is just another form of getting Nickled and Dimed.

For me at least, I can’t help but look at it as a price increase. It may not even BE a price increase. It just feels that way because of the bit-by-bit nature of it. It’s also probably the number one reason I’m against micro transactions.

Friday, February 13, 2009


A few weeks ago (after almost 2 months exactly of Wrath), my Rogue was level 80 and the only available upgrades are located in the 25-man instances.

Even those upgrades are few and far because most of my non-tier pieces are iLevel 213. My current guild runs 25-man content on Saturday (we full cleared Naxx 25 last Saturday for the first time), so my Rogue really only has the opportunity to “progress” one or two days a week.

That’s pretty unusual. In Burning Crusade, I ran a lot of Heroics. The badge gear was good and it seemed I could never have enough badges for the gear I wanted to buy. But in Wrath, Heroics are quite a bit less important.

In fact, the Emblems are so useless to me nowadays that I haven’t even bothered to do any 10-man or Heroic content outside of Sarth and Malygos in several weeks.

The Mage
And so about three weeks ago, I decided to burn all those excess emblems (and Stone Keeper shards) on some of the Bind on Account items that you can mail to an alt on the same server.

The problem was that all I had on the server was a level 58 Deathknight and a level 2 Bank Alt. I also have a 70 warrior I could have transferred, but I really had no interest in playing another melee class.

Ironically, I fell back to my Warhammer days when I dual-leveled an Archmage (healer) and Bright Wizard (range DPS). The Archmage was my “main” in Warhammer, but if I was being honest with myself – I kinda sucked as a healer. I’m a bit hard on myself, but my good buddy has been playing a healer since Everquest and compared to him I was pathetic.

But on the Bright Wizard... Well, I was epic DPS on the Bright Wizard. And nasty as hell to fight in the Warhammer Scenarios. I loved simply loved playing Range DPS.

The only problem is that WoW doesn’t really have a class exactly the same as a Bright Wizard. Particularly since I was DoT-specced and the closest thing that WoW has to that spec is an Affliction Warlock. And honestly, the idea of playing a Warlock didn’t have a lot of appeal to me. The pet seemed like a pain in the ass and even worse, you need to carry around and collect all these stupid soul shards. Ick.

And so I decided to cash in all those Emblems for gear for a newly created mage. And I have to tell you, with the BoA shoulders and a BoA staff at level 5, I was a pretty badass little mage. I’d like to say that I had the gear at level 1, but I picked up a few quick levels before making it to a mailbox. Eventually, my little mage got the BoA trinket as well, but not until about the mid-30s.

That was on January 12th. One month later, I’m just shy of level 74.

Early Levels
I didn’t use any refer-a-friend tricks for leveling, so outside of the 10% exp bonus from the shoulders, leveling has been fairly “normal” for my mage.

Surprisingly, the old world leveling didn’t bother me that much. In part, I think this is because I specifically focused on NOT doing any of the Neutral faction questing. I had a goal to get the wolf mount for my blood elf by level 60 (since I hate all but the birds except the black one), so I pretty much avoided any Neutral quest that wasn’t really convenient.

Basically, this amounted to doing the Ratchet quests and ignoring Shimmering Flats, Mudsprocket, Gadgetstan, Everlook and Booty Bay. I actually hit Exalted with Org well before 60 (around 51 or 52) in part because I also started picking up Coins of Ancestry which provide +75 faction to all five major Horde factions.

Burning Crusade
I made the transition to Outlands at level 58. Perhaps the most fascinating part about leveling this mage is how completely insignificant the whole BC expansion felt to me. It was just something I tried to level through as quickly as possible.

On previous characters, I painstakingly completed 80-90% of the quests in each Outland zone (usually before going to the next zone). In large part, this was because I wanted the faction. And more importantly, I wanted to save some of the higher level quests for when I hit 70 and could use them to farm some gold for my flyer.

But with BC faction and quests irrelevant at level 80, I tackled the content instead with the objective of getting through it as quickly as possible. That meant skipping any lengthy or pain in the ass quest or chain. I only did about 50% of those zone I quested. I didn’t even visit Blade’s Edge Mountains or Netherstorm (I still don’t even have the flight paths).

At level 68, I left Outland and went to Northrend. It reminded me of how you skip all the old world Level 60 content to jump into Outland at 58. Likewise, I just skipped all BC level 70 content (including entire zones) and just hopped over to Northrend.

Northrend – The Hell Levels
Entering Northrend at level 68 with what amounts to level 65 gear from Nagrand was a bit difficult for about half a level. Once I started getting some quest rewards, things got a lot easier and by the time I hit 69 I was pretty well geared with iLevel 134 or higher items. Tier 4 epics in BC were around 128, so that’s good enough gear to be decently equipped.

Then a really startling thing happened at Level 70. The game sloooowed down.

I mean I was really leveling quickly. I think on average, when I look at the achievements, I was pretty consistent and gained about 10 levels every 4 or 5 real life days. That’s better than 2 levels per day.

I hit 70 maybe a week ago and I’m only now turning Level 74. That’s a bit better than half a level a day. If you think of “progress” as levels earned, my average gain decreased by 75% from my pre-Wrath leveling average.

On the plus side, I do know that things will speed up again at or around level 77 when I get the flyer. Still, these levels in the 70s are a pretty big and unwelcome change.

Wrath Gear
One thing I "am" enjoying about leveling up my badly geared mage is that I actually *do* find upgrades. Pretty frequently too.

On my epic geared Rogue, it really bothered me that my level 70 gear was better than almost every piece of gear I could find until level 80.

It really sucks to watch your gear degrade due to itemization scaling and being offered no replacement gear. I'd rather my "epic" just go into the bank at level 72 than to see it go through a slow, painful, and ultimately desperate death.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Un-Heroic Dungeons

There’s a lot of talk about how Raiding is “easy” in Wrath and as I wrote previously, I think the main cause of that impression is that people are generally more experienced with 25-man content they have already done in 10-man.

However, what’s been really bugging me is that Heroic Dungeons are anything but Heroic.

No Crowd Control Needed
Unlike Burning Crusade where most Heroics required one or two mobs to be CC’d on most pulls, crowd control is a rarity in the current Heroics. In fact, in the last 10 or 12 runs I have made, I think crowd control was only every used one time during one pull out of all dozen or so runs.

Tanks and Healers just don’t need the crowd control anymore. In fact, a single Tank seemingly has no problem keeping aggro on more than a dozen mobs and most Healers have no trouble keeping a single target up against that many mobs.

Wrath of the AoE Spam
Everyone spams AoE during trash pulls. The Tank spams his AoE aggro, the DPS spam the big AoE damage spells like Blizzard and Rain of Fire. But mass chaos doesn’t ensue – the mobs all just die.

A great example of this is the Gauntlet run in Heroic Utgarde Pinnacle. The encounter is intended for you to fight your way through groups of 2-4 mobs until you reach the end and can harpoon the boss. However, one of the more popular strategies is to get an early run and fight ALL the mobs from the very start right next to the harpoon. The tank picks up maybe 16 mobs and then the whole group just gets AoE’d down.

And you see the same thing on the smaller 4 and 5 mob pulls. And you see the same thing in Raids during trash pulls.

Where’s the Skill?
I think what really bothers me about this trend is that whatever skill was actually required to play the game has dropped even more significantly. This game has always had a “gear > skill” equation, but with all the changes in Wrath, whatever “skill” was needed is almost non-existant.

Consider this: Is any Heroic dungeon in Wrath as difficult as Heroic Magister’s Terrace? Or Heroic Mana Tombs? Even the easiest of the Burning Crusade Heroics, the Slave Pens, could use a bit of Crowd Control.

It’s a bit ironic actually. One of the Wrath changes I was most excited about on my Rogue were the changes to Sap that allowed it to work on mobs other than Humanoids.

Woot!, I thought. A “real” CC that will actually be almost as useful as Polymorph. Of course, it turns out that its actually less useful because it’s not needed. The net effect is that, in PvP, Druids can now be sapped in Cat Form. That’s the only advantage to the new Sap.

But why?
Perhaps it was intentional. The new class, the Death Knight, has no CC effect to speak of and giving them one would have severely imbalanced PvP.

And yet, Blizzard must have known that the DK population would be so large that those players would want to do instance runs. Particularly between levels 58-70 where they might outnumber other classes pretty significantly.

Traditionally, DPS classes with no form of Crowd Control had difficulty gaining entry to groups. Ask any Fury Warrior, Ret Paladin, Enhancement/Elemental Shaman how easy it was for the to find a PuG in Burning Crusade. Certainly compared to a classes like a Mage, Hunter or even Warlock/Rogue they were not nearly as desirable.

Alternately, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Blizzard didn’t realize that people would stop using CC effects in instances. The lack of foresight they have historically shown certainly leads me to believe that this might be the likely reason for the net effect.

It’s what comes of listening to people whine on forums. Tanks have been complaining and asking for better AoE threat for years. Well, now they have it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Warcraft Endame

In my last post, I wrote that I had temporarily left WAR and started playing Wrath of the Lich King.

That was almost two months ago.

I've put some thought into my lack of blogging and the only conclusion I can draw is that WoW just isn't all that inspiring to write about anymore.

While I've enjoyed Wrath and many of the changes, it's still pretty much the same game. That's nothing new, but on this blog I've always liked writing about exciting ideas and while Wrath is *new* it's not exactly a fresh breath of air.

Anyway... what I wanted to write about today is...

Wrath "Raiding" or "Endgame"
Whether or not Raiding is EZ-Mode in Wrath is a hot topic in the blogosphere at the moment. Or rather, most people believe it to be easy and the debate is whether or not it SHOULD be easy.

The debate seems to funnel down into the age old "hardcore vs. Casual" debate that's become MMO's greatest cliche.

However, what I don't read much about is WHY it appears to be easier.

10-man vs. 25-man
I have currently seen all 10/25 man content except Malygos. That's a stark contrast to Burning Crusade in which there are still several 25-man raids I have never entered.

Two versions of the same content really makes a big difference on raiding. Not because it allows people to gear up, but because it provides people knowledge of the fights.

If you have done the 10-man version and know the fights well, then it's not much of a leap to do the same fight on 25-man.

Pre-Wrath, the biggest challenges for a raiding guild were a) maintaining a 25-man roster and b) getting everyone to learn the fight. However, in Wrath, someone can do the 10-man version with the guild and then easily transition to the 25-man.

The net result is that MORE PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THE FIGHT. Two version means you can practice each fight twice a week. Two versions means you can learn with a small group before attempting with a bigger group.

It's not so much about the fight being "easier" as it is about more people possessing knowledge about the encounter.

Pugging 25-man Naxx
Pre-BC, very few people would ever have attempted to PUG a 25-man raid like SSC or Tempest Keep. But in Wrath, a small guild that has mastered 10-man Naxx can pick up 15 other players with Naxx experience and easily do three wings in 25-man.

An elitist would argue that is exactly why raiding is easier. You shouldn't be able to PUG it they would argue. However, what they neglect to understand is that the only reason such a thing is possible is because both the small guild and the PUG had previous experience in the 10-man version.

It's that knowledge of the fights that makes the content easier.

Gearing up a fresh 80 is faster, too
If you were like me going into Wrath, you had some nice epics at 70. I had a nice combination of badge loot and PvP epics that lasted me well into my high-70s before I started replacing it.

The simple fact is that the delta between a level 70 epic and a level 80 blue is not nearly as significant as it was from 60 to 70. Heck, I didn't even find a replacement for my level 70 badge pants until Naxx.

What this means is that players can enter Heroics as a fresh 80. Even tanks who kept themselves defense capped can do some of the easier heroics right away.

Do a bit of research on the right Heroics and with a relatively small amount of effort, you can be geared well enough to participate in 10-man Sarth (a short raid) or even two of the 10-man Naxx wings.

However, this doesn't really make the raid content easier -- just more easily accessible.

Heroic Dugeons
One impact of the quicker gear-up and the easier access to raiding is that Heroic dungeons quickly become irrelevant.

I started playing Wrath two months ago. I am now level 80 and Heroic Dungeons offer me no upgrades.

Ironically, I enjoy running Heroics but the Emblem rewards from the bosses don't even provide me with anything worthwhile (except for Alts).

Sadly, this means that anything outside of a raid is a "waste of time" if you are measuring success by in-game rewards.

They really need some way of converting Heroism Emblems to Valor Emblems. Maybe 10 Heroism = 1 Valor or something. No one would every try to get 600 Heroic Emblems for a shoulder piece, but they would farm 10 or 20 to get those 1 or 2 last badges before the weekly reset.