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Knights of the Old Republic Deathwatch

F2P or Free to Play is supposed to be a booming trend, but to me it means that you can’t sell monthly subscriptions. When an MMO that started out as pay starts exploring Free to Play, it means it’s in big trouble.

“I think it’s more than the free-to-play model – it’s more that there is a lot of competitive offers,” suggests Lusinchi. “If it was

darth vader chokes bioware

I find your lack of players disturbing

just free-to-play games and they weren’t very good it wouldn’t even be a question but there are definitely good games out there and good games coming out, so of course all of this competition impacts your plan with what you want to do.”

Still, the advantages of free-to-play haven’t gone unnoticed by the developer. Asked whether it would be feasible to adapt The Old Republic to a free-to-play model, Lusinchi coyly suggests that the wheels may be in motion for a drastic change.

“The MMO market is very dynamic and we need to be dynamic as well,” he says. “Unless people are happy with what they have, they are constantly demanding updates, new modes and situations. So we are looking at free-to-play but I can’t tell you in much detail. We have to be flexible and adapt to what is going on.”

That’s not quite a statement that Knights of the Old Republic is going free to play, but it is a statement that the KOTOR MMO is struggling and that they’re looking at options.

Knights of the Old Republic was supposed to be a World of Warcraft killer. It’s not. Guild Wars 2 might be. But my best guess is that World of Warcraft will just kill itself. Mists of Pandaria is a case for that.

The MMO market is suddenly getting glutted. Guild Wars 2 is coming, Tera is aggressively pushing for players and even Elder Scrolls is coming out with its own MMO. Knights of the Old Republic desperately tried to be a Star Wars version of World of Warcraft, but with WOW fading, maybe that’s not what people want. Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls are promoting themselves as finding new ways to play.

But the good news here is that when the Knights of the Old Republic MMO goes the way of Star Wars Galaxies, maybe we’ll finally get a Knights of the Old Republic 3 RPG. And maybe they’ll even let Obsidian develop it again.

The Two Types of Games that will define Gaming

The split has been coming for a while, but it looks like it’s almost here. I’m not talking about RPG vs FPS or casual vs hardcore gaming. This isn’t a gameplay split, this is a design philosophy and business plan split.

One is polished and heavily locked down. A game that’s practically on rails in its gameplay, high end graphics and little user agency, and plans to monetize players outside of the purchase price with DLC and in game purchases. Its designers like consoles and apps better than the PC, and if they do publish it on a PC, they include crippling DRM and always on connections. They’re pushed into the social with user accounts and co-op and multiplayer.

The other is troubled, but ambitious. It has big ideas, big bugs and room for users to explore, expand and transform the game world. The flaws get fixed by mods, the mods expand the game beyond what it is. This type of game is PC oriented. Sometimes marketplace realities mean it’s a port, but it’s the type of game that only really makes sense and fulfills its promise on a PC.

There are plenty of examples of the first type of game. Diablo III, which is really Diablo as reimagined by Zynga, or the latest AAA FPS shooter, practically on rails, with amazing graphics, and a game where you don’t do much except push a button to make something cool happen, and then dive for cover, while your real or AI teammates yell things at you. Or something really silly like Assassin’s Creed.

On the other side, there’s Skyrim, a shambling grand mess of snowy peaks, bugs and mods that make the game something else. There’s Minecraft, which is ridiculous and ridiculously appealing. And the newest Game of Thrones game. And there’s a hundred obscurer and smaller games coming in through the cracks.

The marketplace, wedged into a handful of big companies, is aiming for the first type of game. Spend a fortune on marketing it, roll it out the door, brag that you sold more copies this hour than the entire GDP of Thailand, bribe and wow the game jornos, and pick up that bonus from the board.

The PC is being abandoned, not because it isn’t a huge profitable marketplace, but because it doesn’t fit into this business model. It’s not secure, its hardware is unpredictable, its players want more, its hardware is capable of more, it has too much piracy and too much chaos. Easier to just plan for the day when everyone who matters has an XBOX 720 or a Playstation 4 or a Nintendo DooWop or an iPad or something equally gated and shut in.

Microsoft doesn’t know what to do with PC gaming because it’s not in the business model. Neither do most companies. All they can do is tell us that the future is consoles, apps, cloud gaming, always on connections, crippled games with lots of user accounts that are always going down, no used games, lots of fees and no fun. And we better get used to it.

They have a point. If Microsoft, Activision, EA and Ubisoft want it this way, what choice do we have? What are we going to do, make our own marketplace? Invest in games that we like? Nuts. Go buy Diablo III and learn to enjoy it. Go play Frontierville and Angry Birds and Medal of Battlefields and all the rest.

But users have voted with their dollars at Kickstarter, funding the games they want to play. Forget the lame player boycotts of Mass Effect 3 or Diablo 3 that can never quantified and never get taken seriously. Boycotts don’t accomplish anything. Supporting an alternative marketplace does.

Kickstarter isn’t the solution, but it’s part of the solution, along with Skyrim mods, the whole indie game scene and an entire user created and often user managed marketplace. There’s no point in berating Activision for turning Diablo III into a Zynga game or complaining that Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2 are crap that were rushed out to cash in on the goodwill from earlier games.

The marketplace is splitting into two types of games. The AAA title that costs a ton to make and needs to hit the broadest and lowest common denominator target. And a range of games from big to small that are creative and unpredictable, that need work, but that open up worlds. Some are released by the big boys, but quite a few are coming in from the margins.

PC gaming isn’t dead, but it’s going to be defined by the second kind of game, more than the rest. The big boys will still dump Diablo XXXVI’s and Battlefield 61’s on the PC, while making it as miserable an experience as possible, but PC gaming will be a different place that will be defined by a different kind of game that values user agency, that is built for user modification from the ground up and that taps into the culture of PC gaming and its past.

It’s not hard to believe because it’s already here.

Is Activision Spamming Forums with Diablo 3 Talking Points?

I didn’t buy Diablo 3. I barely made it through a third of Diablo 2 before getting bored (Diablo 1 was awesome though) and an always on connection and no pause button just to play single player for a game whose style is so common there’s an army of clones just seemed stupid. But looking through gaming forums, the same talking points were being repeated.

Players complaining were being “entitled”, “spoiled” or “whiny crybabies”. There’s no such thing as “single player” in Diablo 3, even though there obviously is. “Be an adult”. Take a “Realistic Attitude”.

Basically, “Suck it up and take it.” That seems like the kind of message a corp would put out, not people.

How much of this was just fanboy craziness and how much of it was talking points from corporate stooges? An AAA game has a marketing budget that easily covers hiring a few hundred people to flood forums with the same message. Companies and governments already do it.

How can you tell? Patterns. Organizations do things in patterns. The pattern draws attention to itself.

if people could use some perspective, maybe you’ll stop taking these minor setbacks so bitterly and coming off as awful spoiled children.”

Stop being childish, immature, and a spoiled brat. If you’ve played Blizzard products before, you know that hotfixes, patches, and delays are a natural part of the game experience.”

It’s getting to the point where childish entitled brats are making so much noise that they drown out the more sensible and realistic people.

There is frankly nothing to apologize for Sometimes things don’t work. Particularly in situations like this. You mean you really weren’t anticipating server issues in the first few weeks? Have you even played any videogames before?

There’s about a million more of these and they all sound the same.

1. Diablo 3 is the best game ever and I love it

2. You’re a selfish, immature, crybaby child who makes me embarrassed to be a gamer

3. It’s normal for a game to be broken on launch. It’s normal for a game to have single player tethered to servers. There’s no such thing as single player in Diablo III anyway.

Now if you had the job of dealing with an explosion of customer anger, you would profile your users. How would you respond to that anger? By introducing talking points aimed at them. Are your customers young adult males? Tell them that they’re immature for not being okay with it. Tell them that they’re missing out on the best game ever.

Does that prove anything? No, but patterns are patterns.

Bioware and Game Design Hubris

“Fundamentally, we don’t consider the player’s experience to be more important than the ideas we’ve had or the expectations” for the genre.”

A one sentence explanation for everything that Bioware got wrong with Dragon Age 2… and it comes from Obsidian, a company, which for all its faults actually gets what games are supposed to be.

There are good designers out there, but few of them understand the dangers of hubris. Every creative person confronts the gap between what he creates and how other people experience it. But many never adapt to it. Writers who refuse to read reviews and listen only to positive feedback. The producers of Battlestar Galactica and Lost who got so carried away by the toys they were playing with that they forgot to tell the story and give viewers what they wanted.

Bioware fell prey to it in Dragon Age 2, besides the consolization, it got too caught up in its own cleverness to realize that its story was muddled and unrewarding. It substituted its own ideas for player choice and it lost. And the players lost out.

Is Bioware Going Down?

Both of Bioware’s last two game releases, Dragon Age II and Mass Effect III have run straight into major fan backlashes. DA2 underperformed in sales. ME3 probably didn’t. The expansion for DA2 has been cancelled and Bioware has tried to backpedal. It’s also backpedaling from the ME3 ending which was just as lazy and dumb as the DA2 ending, except that to add insult to injury the ME3 ending was just set up to sell more DLC.

Then there’s Knights of the Old Republic which has a mixed record and is about to head straight for the tornado of Guild Wars II and some other next generation MMORPG’s, something which KOTOR isn’t. It’s not clear if KOTOR hit its numbers, if the anecdotal stories about falling server populations are true or if the leaks about the project costing 200 million are, but Bioware can’t afford failure on that front.

Bioware hasn’t lost the 1 percent, the reviewers and Penny Arcade, but it has alienated a lot of its fans, the flip side of passion is anger and there’s a lot of resentment over the company quickly cranking out consolized dumbed down games on an EA schedule. Its output has become low quality, heavy on marketing, self-indulgent cut scene oriented crap. And it only takes one major failure for EA to decide that maybe the studio isn’t worth it anymore.

Mass Effect 3 and the User Effect

How big is the split between reviewers and gamers getting? The Metacritic raids are a major sign of trouble. While reviewers are giving Mass Effect 3 the same sloppy kiss they gave Dragon Age 2, the user revolts on Metacritic are severely unfavorable. The huge gap between a 92 pro rating and the 3.3 user score says bad things.

I haven’t played Mass Effect 3 myself, so I can’t say which side is right, but the criticisms that I can see on Metacritic echo many of the problems with Dragon Age 2. That’s enough to get me to opt out of Mass Effect 3, even if I wasn’t still playing Skyrim. What’s strange is that the reviewers don’t really deny those criticisms, the discontinuity between the previous games, the lack of user agency, the pointless grind, weak graphics and the lack of a meaningful story. They just go on praising the game anyway.

After the Jennifer Helper hype, it doesn’t seem like Bioware can do wrong in the eyes of the pros, they will excuse anything the company does. I don’t know the industry well enough to make the accusations that some users are making, but the fanboyism really has to stop and until it does that Metacritic gap will go on haunting reviewers.

Three Reasons Why Half Life 3 Isn’t Coming

It’s not impossible that Half Life 3 will show up at some point, but despite the fan campaigns it probably won’t. Why not?

1. Valve doesn’t need Half Life 3. The most obvious reason to make Half Life 3 is for the money and between Steam and its other successful franchises, Valve doesn’t need to invest a lot of time and money into making HL3. It can do other things. If it does HL3 it will only be because it chooses to, not because of fan pressure or financial pressure.

It’s been five years since anything Half Life has come out. Before then Valve didn’t have much going on that wasn’t Half Life or one its spinoffs. Since then it has two new franchises and a huge success with Steam.

2. It’s not the kind of game that Valve is interested in making. Half Life 1 and 2 were single player shooters with some puzzle action. Valve has switched to social co-op and multiplayer games with larger puzzle solving elements and more humor. Valve isn’t interested in spending a lot of time on a single player first person shooter. Not when it can do things like Portal or L4D.

3. There’s nowhere else to go. That’s probably something Valve decided around Episode 2. Half Life 2 turned the entire world into Half Life 1. What is Half Life 3 going to do?

Valve isn’t all that interested in pushing graphics to the limit. It’s already done a planet overrun with aliens. It can do more of the same. It isn’t interested in incorporating the RPG elements that gave depth to games like DEHR. It can Portal it up all the way, but that would be redundant.

And here’s a bonus reason. Half Life 2 was released in 2004. That’s eight years ago. Today’s teenagers never played it. Half Life was released in the last century. Fourteen years ago. Sure Valve could still roll out Half Life 3 with a tweaked engine and some more puzzles and co-op. They might have in development right now. But they probably don’t.

The Best Trailers are for Games

The movie trailer is almost a dead art. Look at how clumsy the Green Lantern trailers were. Movie trailers either give away the entire movie or are so generic that you can’t tell one from the other.

And games are stealing the trailer crown. Take a look at the trailers for the new Tomb Raider and Prey 2. Not only are these better than the latest trailer for a 200 million dollar movie, but it’s saddening that these are game trailers. I want to see these movies. Especially the Prey 2 movie.

What’s the secret. Game trailers are outsourced to studios which specialize in them. Your games aren’t made by the same people who make their trailers. Which is why the trailers are so much better. The good news is some of these studios are either on track to doing a movie or thinking about it.

More trailer goodness. The Knights of the Old Republic trailer which is about 50 times better than anything George Lucas has done since the Death Star blew up.

Movie Box Office vs Video Game Sales

These comparisons started with the Call of Duty series and its blockbuster sales. Take this from the Economist

“Black Ops” is not a film or a book: it is a video game. For comparison, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”, the current record-holder for the fastest-selling film at the box office, clocked up just $169m of ticket sales on its first weekend. “Black Ops” stole the crown from its predecessor in 2009, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”. The latest instalment, “Modern Warfare 3”, released on November 8th, set a record of its own with $750m in its first five days.

Money is money, but in the number of customers, Harry Potter Whatever beat Call of Duty Whatever. Movie tickets these days are still mostly under 15 dollars (or maybe I’m wrong) and the price for something like COD MW 3 is probably going to be around 50-60 dollars. There are still theaters where you can see movies for 10 bucks or so. So Harry Potter scored several times MW3’s audience, MW3 just made money off a smaller group of people.

But box office sales count ticket sales no the total money spent, which with snacks is probably going to be double that, at least. Movie theaters make their money from snack sales. Studios make a sizable chunk of change from later DVD and Blu Ray sales. None of this shows up front. Games do have DLC sales but they’re still a fraction of the total. So the picture isn’t as unbalanced as it seems.

Games still cost less than movies to make and turn a larger profit. Especially with growing direct sales to customers and no need to split the profits with a theater chain. MW2 cost around 40-50 million but had a launch budget of around 200 million dollars. MW3 probably had an even bigger launch budget.

That 250 million for MW2 is Harry Potter and the DH2’s film budget (though not its promotional budget) which helps put things into proportion. Its total worldwide take was over 1.3 billion, most of that foreign. MW2 had over a billion in sales, but took in most of its sales in the US.

MW2 has the lead because it extracted more money from individual customers, but it has fewer of those and they are more localized. It probably has the lead in revenues since movie studios don’t make nearly as much from box office, especially foreign box office, but it also has to spend something like the budget for making a Potter film just to get those customers.

Skyrim, the Initial Impressions

Skyrim is to Oblivion as Windows 7 was to Vista, the basic guts are the same, but the surface has been polished, it runs trimly and there are so many pretty things that you overlook the old problems.

Oblivion’s biggest problem was that it lacked a reason for being. It was just another generic fantasy world where bad guys were trying to do senseless things and you were supposed to run around stopping them because there wasn’t much else to do. That isn’t true of Skyrim which gloriously brings a Nordic fantasy world to life with hot springs, waterfalls and angry people who sound like a certain former governor of California.

But there’s more to it than that. In Oblivion nothing really mattered, Skyrim puts you at the center of a conflict from its opening cinematic and asks you how you feel about it. Do you sympathize with the Stormcloaks who are resisting a brutal empire or the empire which maintains a certain order in a land where the native population might easily turn on the elves and other minority races. It’s not the deepest question in the world, but it adds layers to the landscape and the landscape adds layers to the people.

The engine still has many of the faults of the old, and the faces still need work, and up close the landscape doesn’t always look as good, but details are for nitpickers. It’s the bigger problems that are the problem.

You can spend hours running past streams that flow with the perfect ripple of glacial water, but your tasks mostly involve stumbling into the same old caves and fortresses and clearing them slowly of generic bandits who distribute themselves at one or two to a room in massive complexes of caves. The only way to make this any less fun would be for combat to still be the same pointless bash and blast, which it is.

Dual wielding makes combat more fun, but it doesn’t make it any less pointless. Set on Adept, the combat is almost too easy. The designers want you involved and killing things, which helps delay the moment when you notice that the combat isn’t really any fun and the missions are boring.

Then there’s the interface, designed more for consoles than PC’s, forget conventional inventories, you get to fumble with keyboard and mouse to scroll past lists and then try to figure out if you’re wearing them or using them. Right mouse button equips weapons or magic to the left hand and the left mouse button to the right hand. Use whatever is in your right hand with the left mouse button. This isn’t just counterintutive, it’s irritating to the point of breaking the immersion.

The consolization of Skyrim shows up in other ways. The RPG element is almost gone without anyone noticing. You can still build up skills and pick up perks and some of the numbers are still under the hood, but like Dragon Age II, it’s blended and simplified so that it hardly matters.

The water flows that have been lavished everywhere, even in some dungeons, are amazing, but the character animations and faces are weaker. Lydia, the first NPC, you’re likely to spend any time with is infuriatingly generic as a character and compares poorly to any of New Vegas’ companions. The voice acting hasn’t gotten all that much better. The guards still insist on saying stupid things over and over again. Some of the voices sound a little too much like Arnold Schwarzenegger, whether intentionally or not.

So what’s my initial feeling on Skyrim? So far it’s still amazing as an open world game. As an RPG though it’s far weaker. Still there’s no denying its spectacular vistas or the romance and legend that its designers have managed to infuse into that landscape. And if it’s not quite Morrowind, it’s much closer to it than it is to Oblivion.

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