Tuesday, June 9, 2009

DDO Goes Free to Play, Sony to Follow?

DDO just went free to play. Subscriptions are optional, but still have benefits. So you have a free tier where you can play the entire game from level one up to the cap. As you level up you'll find more and more adventures and areas locked unless you pay, but you can still play the game without paying. And they are introducing Turbine Points, which are a microtransaction system like Sony's Station Store.

Free Realms and Runes of Magic have proven that this model is attractive to players. And now with AAA titles like Dungeons and Dragons Online getting into the freemium game, who is next?

I have a suspicion that it will be Sony, with EverQuest II.

They have been hinting for a while of major plans in the works. They are adding lots of new content to the low level areas. They are adding content like Research Assistants that reward people for nothing more than subscribing (which most players don't want -- but would probably enjoy as a "premium" feature for subscribers in a freemium game). They are going to great lengths to finally fix the graphics engine (why bother in a game this old?!) We have the Station Store that no one asked for, which makes the most sense in a game where people aren't already paying you. And they have taken a rather sudden and unexpected interest in simplifying the more complex game mechanics (such as the spell naming conventions), which is a lot of work for very little gain, given that the current player base are already accustomed to the old names, and a game this old doesn't normally get a large influx of new players.

By going with a freemium model, EverQuest II just might gain that influx of new players that would justify all of this work.

At least that's what I'm hoping... I'd love to see new life breathed into my favorite game (at the moment :) ) by adopting a freemium model.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

FFXIV Online Will Be Casual Friendly

From the Square Enix E3 Live Blog:

Q: What influence have games like World of WarCraft have on the development of FFXIV?
A: As with WoW, we want to aim a bit for the casual user. However, we don't want to make a copy of WoW. We believe we will have things that are unique and will stand out from that game.

Thank goodness. Hopefully it will retain the unique qualities of FFXI without becoming a second job that *I* pay for.

I am a happy man right now.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Final Fantasy XIV Online

One of the surprise announcements at the Sony Press Conference that just completed was Final Fantasy XIV Online. This excites me, particularly because Final Fantasy XI was a game that I still sometimes think fondly of.

Yes, most people consider Final Fantasy XI to be an unrepetant grindfest, and it is. I didn't even level past 50 with my highest job since, after completing the first limit break quest, I no longer had the stomach for insanely long camps.

But Final Fantasy XI had some insanely great features that I haven't seen replicated nearly so well in any other game. We have no details about Final Fantasy XIV, and it is a completely different game, like all Final Fantasy games, involving its own unique game mechanics. However, I can only hope that they manage to retain these successful features from their previous online endeavor, while correcting some of the more unforgiving aspects of the game.

My favorite feature of Final Fantasy XI was the job system. This allowed you to change classes at any time. I played a Paladin (up to level 50), and leveled Beastmaster and White Mage into the 30s. Naturally I had a decently levelled Warrior job as well. All of this was done on one character.

In some games, like EverQuest II, I feel like I need a stable of alts to keep playing. I get bored playing the same class all the time. But the problem with alts is, as far as anyone else is concerned, you're a completely different person. Also, you have to do the same quests all over again.

With the job system, items I earn on one character that I can't use because they are for a different class, can be used when I change jobs. Quests that allow you to access restricted parts of the game or unlock special content don't need to be repeated over and over again for each alt. And, most importantly, my friends know who I am and what I'm playing, without forcing me to keep them updated or hog up half their friends list.

The skillchain and magic burst system was also an incredibly fun part of gameplay. It allowed multiple players to combine abilities to set off a powerful effect. EverQuest II tried a similar form of interaction with its Heroic Opportunity system, but failed, because their effects weren't worth the trouble.

The auction house was also a great feature. It used a blind auction where sellers posted an item for sale at a specified price. Buyers then attempted to purchase it, usually starting at the low end and moving up. The buyer doesn't know what the asking price is. If there are multiple sellers, the seller asking for the lowest amount gets his product moved first. There is a relatively recent price history you can use to get an idea of what recent sale prices were. This system helped reduce undercutting, since people generally undercut from the last actual sale price, instead of the last ask price.

I also loved the itemization. In Final Fantasy XI, statistics were relatively rare on items. Sometimes, it made sense to earn very low level items, simply because they had a stat bonus you wanted. In most other MMOs I've played, the progression is usually pretty linear.

In EverQuest II, for example, it's pretty uncommon to lust after a level 15 item at level 80. When EQ2 first came out, most every item in the game just had a random assortment of + modifiers to various statistics. Most items felt the same. The difference was usually whether it had +sta/wis or +str/int.

In Final Fantasy XI, however, it was common to see level 75s waiting around to smush Leaping Lizzy for a level 7 drop. These items sold for millions of gil. And people would go to great lengths just to get a rare drop that was identical to the common item, except with a "+1" to some stat.

Of course, none of this mattered in the long run for this consumer. The grind eventually forced me to quit and move on, and I eventually found a new home with EverQuest II. But I think there is evidence that Square Enix will not be making yet another grindfest. Over the years, they have made Final Fantasy XI far less 'hardcore.'

They introduced Fellowship NPCs, who act like Mercenaries or Guild Wars henchmen. They have even added "solo" quests to a game known for being an unrepentant group-only grind. They also added a Level Sync system which essentially makes everyone act as if they are the same level, eliminating the penalty for grouping with higher level party members, and making it easier to find a group.

So hopefully this is a sign that Square Enix understands that the MMO playing demographic has changed. But I guess we'll find out for sure in 2010.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Easy Breezy Server Transfers

Another feature in Free Realms that I hope will become more commonplace in the future is the fact that characters are not bound to a single server. You actually select the server you want to play on after logging in. The same character can play on any server. It's not the most ideal solution: I prefer Guild Wars' implementation better, where everyone is in one shared reality and you can change instances at will.

But however it's implemented, disassociating the character with the server removes a significant obstacle in playing a game. It's always rather frustrating when I run into someone who plays an MMO I'm playing, whether its EverQuest II now, or City of Heroes in the past, or even World of Warcraft. And then you realize they picked a different server.

So I pretty much have to hope all the friends I ever make will be on the server I rather randomly selected on day one? And hope that that server's population doesn't dwindle, leaving me playing an online game with NO ONE to play with? And hope that I don't discover that the culture that developed on a different server might be more compatible with my playstyle -- but after I've become too invested in my existing characters to simply abandon them and reroll?

An MMO gains strength by getting its players to feel invested in their characters. That means getting them to NOT want to simply abandon the toon and reroll. Preventing easy transfers actually makes it more likely for players to QUIT the game (if you have to abandon your character anyway, you may as well play a new game, rather than simply mimic your previous steps for a month to bring your new clone on the new server back to a similar level of progression.)

I'm not sure I understand why the game developers bind us to a single server anyway. Why not let us transfer between servers freely? Why have exorbitant character transfer fees ($50 a character is outrageously expensive for one, let alone the dozen I have)?

Part of it is technical, of course. Each server probably has different data centers associated with it, not all of which are collocated. Am I wrong in thinking that the benefits to player retention would most likely outweight the costs of developing that tool?

If all my friends on server A quit, I might have friends on server B that I could play with -- but I'm not paying $50 a character to move them, and I'm probably not interested in leveling from 1-80 all over again. Or let's say I pick a server and suddenly find that the population is low and it's hard to find a group. I would be more inclined to quit the game than start all over somewhere else; while I can't speak for anyone else, I can't imagine most people would find "reroll a new character" (which takes a few days /played, and therefore several months for the majority of players) to be a viable solution. Our time is money and most of us would rather spend it doing something new instead of repeating what we've already accomplished, just somewhere else, which might itself suffer from a population issue by the time we get back to the same level of progression we started out at.

Another obstacle is name collisions, due to game decisions like forcing characters to have unique first names, but allowing multiple accounts to pick the same name so long as the characters are on different servers. But that's a decision that players can choose to make. OR, an even better solution, would be to ALLOW duplicate names, just like the real world allows. And like Champions Online will allow.

Preventing easy server transfers doesn't really help prevent griefing, especially when there are cheap name change potions available.

So there's all that. What other reasons remain for making it difficult to change servers? What wouldn't Sony have to gain if, for instance, they took their character transfer service, and got rid of the fees, making it free for everyone to transfer between servers with compatible rulesets (even if it had a few reasonable time limits, like restricting characters to moving once per month)?