Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More From the Heroes of the Storm Technical Alpha

Cooperative PVE in Blizzard's technically upcoming MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, has quietly taken a high spot in my gaming rotation due to the game's polish and familiar faces. 

I got into the "technical alpha" for Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm MOBA back in June and promptly did not play it.  Given a business model in which matches played translated into characters unlocked, it made little sense to play before the beta reset.  The game remains technically in alpha despite a functioning cash shop and allegedly over 2 million concurrent users during my gaming hours, but Blizzard announced earlier this month that hero and skin purchases and unlocks will be permanent. 

Gameplay
Yes, the chat claims there are 2,000,000 players online.  This has to be both the biggest "alpha test" in software history and the biggest abuse of the term "alpha test".
The game has largely met my expectations.  Compared to League of Legends, the game is more cooperative - your team has a shared level, so you never risk hampering your team by damaging foes and thus "stealing" experience or resources.  You unlock talents at fixed team levels without the need to return to your base hub to spend time shopping - and opening the door for a team to hit level 10 mid-battle and suddenly bust out a bunch of newly unlocked heroic abilities. 

Collectively, I play this game much like I play Marvel Heroes - the maps are the same but my approach to the maps is different depending on who I am playing.  The huge advantage of setting the world among Blizzard's various properties that the characters are already established - they look and sound like they should so even in the space of a few lines, ability animations, etc, you can recognize and appreciate that you're playing a familiar face. 

Business Model
My current roster
The business model will be familiar to League of Legends and Marvel Heroes players, but with a few quirks. 
  • Players will have access to a weekly rotation of 5-7 heroes (the final two are available at higher account levels, and typically have more complicated kits) for free, and earn currency that can be used to unlock characters permanently.  One possible issue for people looking to jump in with their friends is that this roster is applied to the entire game, so you and your friends will be stuck with exactly those five characters on your first play sessions. 
  • You can pay between $4-10 to unlock characters immediately, with better "exchange rate" compared to in-game gold for the more expensive heroes (and a huge premium for brand new releases).  
  • There are hefty one-time bonuses for your first few account levels (so you can unlock at least one character and be less at the mercy of the weekly rotation) and for trying each character to account level 5 (to encourage you to do so).  
  • Beyond these, Blizzard is very likely tuning gold gain, which is currently very heavily slanted to daily quests.  These quests effectively offer up 100 bonus gold per match for playing a certain type or franchise of hero, compared to 10-30 base gold depending on the game mode and whether you win.  Very rewarding to log in once a day (or every 2-3 days, as you can hold up to three dailies in your quest log) for an hour, significantly less rewarding to continue playing after you've cashed in.  
  • At the moment, it looks like you can expect to unlock a new hero every month or so depending on which price bracket you are aiming at, which is not bad.  
Blizzard is also offering some bundles, which can be a good way to establish a baseline stable of heroes to run your daily quests with.  I put $43 into the game when the tech alpha reset happened to snag some limited time offers.  The current bundles aren't that impressive but I assume that more promotions will happen as the game is actually open to the public.  

The shop also includes cosmetic skins, most of which are $10 though some are as low as $5 or as high as $15.  Cosmetic mounts are also available for $10-20.  That said, Blizzard has an unusual number of free visual options, including color variants for every skin and mount in the game (unlocked free with character experience) and exclusive gold-only cosmetic skins to sink some of that gold so that players will pay for heroes with cash instead. 

Outlook
There are definitely some bugs left to sort out - for example, losing a cooperative match awards no money or exp and does not display a match results screen so you can determine how you did - but overall this game is looking solidly like what we would have called a beta before marketing people killed that term.  For the moment, I am logging in whenever I have daily quests available, and sometimes playing beyond that.  Given my calendar and the fact that I haven't really stuck with a MOBA in the past, this is relatively high praise. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Playing on Their Schedule

Syp has posted his latest action plan for fitting four separate MMO's into a week.  I don't have anything so specific - no one is expecting multiple weekly columns about different MMO's from me - but I am starting to arrive at a decision tree of sorts for my MMO time.  For better or worse, non-subscription titles combined with daily/weekly/monthly quest rewards often leave a clear-cut choice for my limited gaming time. 

My decision tree (in rough order starting from 30 seconds total in front of a computer all day, down the list as time permits):
  1. Log into Marvel Heroes to collect the daily login bonus (+1 daycount towards exclusive pets, team-ups, and other goodies). May immediately log out depending on which of the below is available. 
  2. Log into Neverwinter once daily for 2-3 minutes to invoke (+1 token towards an epic quality healer companion at the end of a year) and send my profession minions off to farm cash store currency for me.  If possible, check the web portal roughly twelve hours later to refresh completed missions. I've bought an account-wide cash store mount this way, time will tell if all this farming eventually pays off in actually playing the game itself.
  3. Time-critical content (will be gone or massively harder forever, may need daily attention).  Last week, that meant several loose ends in Pandaria that I feared would be prohibitive after the patch; in particular, I pushed to finish all of the of the Siege of Ogrimmar LFR wings once so I could say I'd done them, as I feared this could be a huge mess after the patch due to nerfs to "smart" healing abilities.  
  4. Time-sensitive content (typically not unique/not gone forever, but significantly more valuable to play this game at this time).  Last week, this meant the Heroes of the Storm Alpha, which was offering double experience.  I could also see Heroes of the Storm occupying some time every 2-3 days due to how its daily quest rewards and weekly rotation work. Some of Marvel Heroes' weekly events qualify because I like either the event or the rewards.  A monthly visit to the Darkmoon Faire if I have a WoW subscription active falls into this category. 
  5. Other content.  Marvel Heroes has typically fit in here, but this accounts for less of my time as I finish leveling more and more of the game's playable characters.  Expansions - WoW? Rift? would fit here.  I.e. anything else that would ordinarily fit under the category of playing the games normally.
  6. Oh right, I have a blog that I used to post on, don't I?  Funny how you don't get this far down the list when you have a toddler.  See also, not getting around to new MMO launches.
Most of these trends have been around for a while now, and there are definitely days where I feel like some daily incentive is pushing too hard in the direction of having to play a certain type of content a certain way.  Then again, I suppose there are days when having a good idea of the most valuable use of my time can help dodge decision paralysis from having too many options.  It is what it is. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Pay Not To Play, Revan Style

"The sad truth with SWTOR is that I'd pay Bioware a fair amount of money - possibly as much as I've spent on the game during sporadic subscriptions - if they just removed the gameplay and offered an interactive movie version of the story in which my character just wins all the fights after I've chosen my dialog.  I suppose double exp is the next best thing in that at least I don't have to do any side quests, but this also does NOT motivate me to get back into the game when the exp drops back down to the normal rate."
- Me, back in March
Bioware has launched SWTOR's latest expansion pre-sale campaign with an odd pre-order exclusive - pay to get out of playing anything but your class story. Customers who pre-purchase the digital expansion for $20 and ALSO subscribe to the technically subscription-optional title will gain more than 12 times the usual rate of experience from their class story missions.  The boosted missions grant enough experience to reach the maximum level of 55 without doing any side-missions, PVP, dungeons, or other content to supplement their experience gain. 

Bioware's decision to offer eight distinct class stories - each with writing, production, and acting costs to rival a reasonably sized game - added significantly to SWTOR's notoriously high budget.  The investment largely failed to pay off, as players burned through the one-eighth of the story content available to their characters inside of a month and canceled their then-mandatory subscriptions.  The concept of movie-quality stories for each additional character sounded nice in principle, but in practice I was never able to get excited about taking characters to the same worlds in the same order to do (or work around) the same planetary storylines - sometimes with classes that played similarly - just to eventually earn a minute or two of conversation towards the class story plot. 

And thus the compromise - you still cannot get out of playing at least some SWTOR to see the story, but you can get out of playing most of SWTOR.  Only trouble is, that may still be more SWTOR than I'm willing to play, much less pay for.  Such is the peril of marketing NOT playing your title. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Waste of Draenor?

I'm on the fence about the schedule for WoW's upcoming expansion and 10th Anniversary celebrations.  I've long since ceased to make purchasing decisions a matter of principle, but I am concerned and a bit puzzled by the rushed pace that the calendar seems to be dictating.  

WoW's fifth expansion has taken so long to produce that it has bumped into the game's 10th anniversary.  An announcement this week clarified how the schedule will work - the expansion launches on November 13th, the anniversary window begins on November 21st, and the last opportunity to get the goodies will be on January 6th.

The centerpiece of the festivities is a revamped level 100 version of the classic Molten Core raid from WoW's launch.  Getting there will require that players purchase the expansion box - at an increased price of $50 compared to past $40 boxes - and gain the ten new levels in just under eight weeks.  (The preceding 90 levels are a moot point, as the new box includes one instant level 90 character upgrade credit.)  On a shallow level, this is a way to sell boxes and game time, but I wonder if this was a missed opportunity.

I sat out Pandaria's launch due to newborn, and thus incidentally got the expansion box for half off on Black Friday and got to experience the game with the 5.0 jitters polished out.  While I'm not opposed on principle to paying full price and showing up at launch, I probably won't enjoy the journey nearly as much with the deadline.  I also don't understand why it's in Blizzard's best interest to rush players to the new max level before month two of the new expansion cycle when they have yet to release an expansion in under 22 months.

Finally, there's the nostalgia factor.  The 10th anniversary should have been an opportunity to bring back millions of former players to see what Blizzard has done with the game in their absence.  Perhaps the cynical math says that $65 for the box and a month of game time is the best outcome Blizzard can expect from these customers.  Otherwise it would seem like slapping a large upfront purchase and a deadline is not the best on-ramp for people who may be one or more expansions behind the times.  Does it really make sense to take players who last saw their characters three talent overhauls ago, catapult them past all the current expansions, and rush them through the new one, landing them right back at the endgame that may have driven them from the game in the first place?

If anything, I'm thinking I might enjoy resubscribing for a month or two now with no particular pressure to do anything but play around in Azeroth since everything meaningful will be reset in two short months anyway.  There are pets to battle, stories to finish, mounts and achievements to collect, and any number of other things that I'll be rushing past if I do take part in the expansion rush. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Cost Of Letting Go

Scott Jennings' pretty slideshow about the lifecycle of an MMO player already lured Spinks out of several weeks of retirement, so I suppose there's no harm in joining in.  His bottom line is that MMO design is not set up for players to come, enjoy the game, and leave.  I'm inclined to agree, but I don't see how to address or ultimately solve this problem. 

It's been a less-than-great news week in MMO's.  Wildstar, which by Tobold's estimate sold fewer than half a million copies, announced that they were dropping pre-launch promises of monthly updates and consolidating their remaining players onto "megaservers".  Most people who are actually playing Wildstar seemed to agree that something had to be done to consolidate the remaining playerbase, but objectively it's hard to see this as anything other PR-speak to avoid saying that they are merging servers.  No designer goes to the bother of launching with the 2004 server model and realizes out of the blue three months later that it might be better if everyone playing the game could actually play together, with the added bonus of removing pesky dedicated servers for roleplaying, non-English language EU servers, etc.  Meanwhile the Elder Scrolls, which was the other late spring release that was going to save the big budget subscription MMO business model, has announced layoffs

So why haven't the presumably intelligent people behind these projects caught on to Scott's simple advice to "let it go"?  Or perhaps is that exactly what Zenimax has done?

Re-defining MMO's to have a beginning, middle, and end and a tidy way for scaling as players come and go hits basically all stakeholders in the current genre. 
  • As Scott's slides describe, many old school MMO players are playing to be with their friends, not for the game on its own merits - for these players, accepting churn means that the experience they wanted is already gone.  
  • For investors funding these hundred million dollar projects, the reality that you won't turn each copy sold into $200/year in perpetual subscription revenue means that you can't recoup your investment.  
  • And for the developers - I assume this was Scott's audience - the logical consequence of his modest proposal is the ship-and-layoff-the-team model that single player games publishers have done for years. Some number of players will continue to pay to rent an online version of the Elder Scrolls to use like a single player title, it may not be possible to retain the rest no matter how much you spend on continued development, so why NOT launch with a solid base to monetize and then cut your losses on any continued development expenses?
I've spent the majority of my gaming time and budget in 2014 on Marvel Heroes, which I play functionally as a single player title, so I suppose I'm the market that you gun for under Scott's approach.  This approach, however, has its costs.  In over a year post-launch, Marvel Heroes has added only a single new story chapter - the new one for last year's Thor movie takes me about 30 minutes to replay - so the beginning, middle, and end may be closer together than most players will be prepared to tolerate.  It does not appear that the team has suffered layoffs, but hero releases and events feel increasingly rushed, while everything else is routinely delayed by weeks or months as the team focuses on additions that actually bring in more revenue.

I'm not disagreeing with Scott, as nothing about the decade post-WoW suggests the old ways work - clinging to shipwreck debris might seem better than nothing but won't save you from the whirlpool threatening to suck you to the bottom of the ocean.  The challenge is that from where we are today the cost of letting go is obvious - either you end up somewhere completely different from old virtual world MMO's (as I have), you jump on a bandwagon likely headed for catastrophic failure, or you gamble your money on a crowd funding project that will take years before potentially ending in catastrophic failure.  It's just not clear where the other side of the maelstrom leads. 

(P.S. On that cautionary note about crowd funding, Camelot Unchained announced this week that it was delaying its alpha by six months, with a vague promise that the over nine thousand backers who pre-paid for alpha access over a year ago will be compensated with some combination of founder's rewards, in-game currency, and game subscription time if it slips further.  The unspoken assumption is that there will eventually be a launched game in which to grant these compensation measures.) 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Canada Day Resolutions for 2014

Despite not being Canadian, Canada Day Resolutions used to be a thing here on PVD, since I often found myself reviewing my progress on my New Year's resolutions on a day that coincided with the Canadian national holiday.  Last year I didn't cover Canada day due to being on summer vacation, and this year I was in the middle of an international move and didn't feel postured to write New Year's resolutions in January, but no need to let these details stand in the way of tradition.

Pursue 2580 Total Hero Levels In Marvel Heroes

Through a combination of purchases, promotions, and in-game awards, I'm rapidly closing on unlocking every hero in the game. Thirteen sit at max level and another five have hit at least level 50 for their second tier synergies.   Without specifically trying, this puts me over halfway to the game's current total level cap (2100 for the 35 current heroes at 60), and just shy of halfway when you include the eight announced characters (six remaining Advance Pack characters, Nova, and X-23 for a total of 2580). 

I'm hesitant to commit to this kind of goal for fear that I will get tired of it, and perhaps that's a fair concern, but clearly chain-leveling characters in Marvel Heroes has managed to hold my interest.  Meanwhile, later characters are definitely getting easier due to steadily increasing amounts of bonuses as the game keeps adding new systems.  We'll see how far I can get.

My current roster: I can immediately purchase four of the seven greyed out portraits, as I currently have 1400 splinters.  I will need 1000 more for the other three, plus 600 for Nova and X-23.
Neverwinter - To 60 But Actually Playing?
Level 30 in Neverwinter was enough of a headstart to get working on the several out-of-game minigames, similar to Star Trek Online's duty officer system.  These are good fun, and it seems highly likely that I will hit the game's level cap through experience gained from these mini-games alone.   A better, and unanswered, question is whether I will ever get back to playing the actual game, or just stick to the minigames as I did in STO.  Not sure if that's good or bad feedback for Cryptic, but there you have it. 

Clear out the PS3 line-up
I passed on the PS4 last year, in part because of looming move and in part because there wasn't much on the release calendar for the holidays that I couldn't just get for my existing PS3 instead.  A year later, the math is flipped - many of the older PS3 games I had yet to beat are now available in re-mastered editions on the PS4, so it's only a few last hold-outs between me and retiring my PS3, possibly for the shiny white bundle with Destiny.  The titles in question are the last few chapters of Uncharted 3 along with all of Infamous 2 (both of which I already own) and Batman: Arkham Origins (which I technically could purchase on the PC if push came to shove).

I have a new set of multi-platform gaming headphones, so I'm feeling good about my odds.

Other MMO's?
And then things are open ended. 
  • I own some prepaid time for SWTOR that I won't use until the next mini-expansion that has adventuring content (apologies to those who are eagerly awaiting the housing mini-expansion).  
  • Honestly, I'm more likely to jump on the Blizzard MOBA than the next WoW expansion, but I'll keep my eyes out for steep Black Friday discounts.  
  • I won't look at either TESO or Wildstar until they offer a free trial, and honestly neither is likely to make the cut with me as a subscription title. 
  • EQ2, Rift, TSW and the Turbine games also seem to be out by default.  EQ2 has the best shot at a come-back, but since they went digital only their expansions are no longer available at a discount, and I'd need to buy an expansion to continue playing my character.  
  • FFXIV is a possible contender.  I left that game with generally favorable impressions, but also feeling that I was starting to need more structured group content to advance.  This would be a deal-killer with my schedule these days.  Maybe in a patch or two, as I hear they are going to have ninjas. 
Could actually be a year where I do almost nothing in traditional MMO's?  We'll see.

Happy Canada Day, and/or best mid-year wishes as appropriate!  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Technically Alpha Of The Storm

I've never heard of a "technical alpha" before an email from Blizzard indicating that I was now part of one for the upcoming MOBA Heroes of the Storm.  My first take was that it was a Phishing scam, as I had not heard of anyone else in this test, but I typed in battle.net by hand and sure enough, my account was flagged for what it described as a "beta".  There's probably a definition somewhere that isn't "this is what used to be called a beta, but that term now has so much marketing hype that we have to technically call it an alpha", but no matter.

(Also, despite being technically alpha, there is no NDA - Blizzard continues to show admirable lack of fear of showing their cards with extended public testing.)  

The Game
So far, I'm liking what I'm seeing.  I was never the core MOBA demographic, but for the occasional pop-in PVE against bots I can see little reason why I'd ever use League of Legends for that purpose now that Heroes of the Storm is arriving.  I'm sure the competitive players greatly enjoy the strategy of forcing the other player out of lane to heal or finding a time when it's safe to return to base to spend your accumulated gold on necessary item upgrades.  I'll take Heroes' talent system (pick one of several abilities every few levels) and healing fountains (which the enemy can destroy) any day. 

The engine is smooth, the UI is clean and polished, and the game is full of Blizzard's attention to detail and sense of humor.  In an era where we show players stories rather than telling them, I'd much rather be playing characters I know from over a decade of Blizzard's lore than possibly deep League backstories that never really intrude into the game itself. 

The game starts with a tutorial in which Uther explains quickly to Jim Raynor how he has ended up in a world of cross-franchise battles, and then it's off to the races. 

The Business
 
A testing bundle of ten heroes for just under $30

The "invite" (there was no key or I would have considered raffling it off, they automatically applied it to my account) is somewhat wasted on me due to how the game's incentives work.  Like Hearthstone and League of Legends, you earn rewards including an alternate currency for unlocking stuff as you play the game.  Thus, there's little to no reason why I'd invest significant time on this test only to see my progress reset when the game goes live.  Likewise, there is a partially functional cash shop up and running for in-game purchases, but these purchases will be "refunded" dollar for dollar in Blizzard credit; there's zero reason I'd take that deal since I might want to spend more or less money if offerings change between now and launch.  


What is in the cash shop will be relatively familiar to League players.  Characters run for $4-10 or some amount of in-game currency.  These are allegedly based in part on the complexity of the character and seemingly with little basis in popularity - Raynor and Malfurion sit in the $4 tier, most characters including Tassadar, Illidan, and Diablo sit at the $7.50 price point, and only a handful, most prominently Kerrigan, occupy the $10 tier.  Cosmetic skins are pricier, generally either $7.50 or, $10 and not available with in-game currency, but are reasonably well done and very clever.  In addition to minor or comedic variations, there are cross-franchise outfits -  Kerrigan as a WoW succubus, or Uther as a Starcraft Terran Medic - and alternate realities such as Arthas as a human and a fallen demonic Tyrael.  Once you own the skin, you can unlock color variants in-game only.  There are also apparently cosmetic mount variants (everyone gets a free basic horse), including a $20 rainbow unicorn, because why not. 
You can take the healbot out of Azeroth....
A promising first look....
It may be technically alpha, but it looks well polished.  League will survive fine due to its massive userbase, but I'd be very worried if I was running any less prominent MOBA when this game hits wider release.