Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Interactions with and by the community, Part 2

Let's look at a couple of representative interaction with the fanbase.

PvP
Love it or hate it, PvP, like PvE is large part of why people play MMOs. Currently PvPers in SWTOR are pretty unhappy with the state of PvP. (See http://www.xamxamsays.com/?p=1473 for an excellent post about why folks are unhappy with PvP).

The combat team has been trying to interact with the PvP community and explain what they are doing. Recently they explained their thoughts http://www.swtor.com/community/showthread.php?p=8122355#edit8122355 on the success of Sentinels/Marauders. They followed up with http://www.swtor.com/community/showthread.php?p=8127209#edit8127209.

Reading these after the fact it looks like a reasonable position. The problem is that the second post is two days later. If combat team had posted those two items as a single post with a sentence saying something to the effect 'That's where we aim our balance efforts (win/loss ratio), but we understand many of you look to the leaderboards for evidence of overall class balance…' they would have headed off much of the two days of vitriol.

Bioware has to be the ones who connect the dots from how they view things to how the fans view things. By saying, yes, we see that issue too and are working to change it for the better Bioware acknowledges the concerns of the fanbase (and demonstrates they are listening to the fans, to boot!) No fanbase is going to like every answer, but when you are listened to you have a reason as a fan to stay engaged with the communication instead of just grumping about everything.

And, yes, talking about the leaderboard situation might be a bit Captain Obvious and repetitious for the combat team, but repetition is crucial in communicating with your fanbase. You never know when any particular fan is paying attention so you want to make sure you keep your messages out there.

The Cantina
Depending on your point of view, the cantina event at Star Wars Celebration was either a success or just another Bioware screwup. Given the event was designed to promote the game, Bioware did a poor job of communicating what they would be talking about[1] to they most-engaged fans.

It would have been much better if they had stated something like, 'The SWC cantina event is for us to promote the coming patch (3.2) to the wider Star Wars, non-SWTOR-playing audience. There will be a few new things, but don't expect to see any huge reveals at this time.' That alone would have helped set expectations properly for the engaged fans. (The fans that read the forums, follow blogs and websites, listen to podcasts, watch the videocasts and Twitch/Hitbox streams. Basically, your front line influencers/tastemakers.) Knowing that Bioware was using the event to try to expand the player base would have given the engage fans a chance to help out. As it was, the lack of knowledge simple stirred the dregs of disappointment as Bioware 'failed' to wow the existing involved player base with a cool roadmap.

That disappointment then bred cynicism with the Q&A portion of the event. While the questions weren't supposed to be vetted, they certainly gave the appearance of vetting. Vetting to the point of hearing the same questions asked once again (playable Wookies, anyone -.-). Whether or not the questions were vetted, Bioware should have announced that they did vette the questions. Vette them to add hard questions. If you are going to be accused of something, make it work for you.

Here's a couple of questions the fanbase perceived as hard and that were vetted out of being answered. I've included hypothetical answers;

[Hard question]: PvPers haven't had anything new in over a year. Could we at least get a new map? We've shied away from new maps because we didn't want to reduce the chance of you getting your favorite map. Until we can implement a solution for faster queue pops we don't want to mess with PvP in a possibly negative manner. If you want more maps with the risk of seeing the ones you like less, please sound off in our forums on the issue.

[Hard question]: Why are we getting an Outfit Designer when we have adaptive gear? Why not make everything adaptive and just give us a real Gear Manage instead? First, making everything adaptive would require us to go back and redo the rewards for all of the old quests. That's a non-trivial amount of development time that we prefer spend elsewhere. Secondly, we want to do a Gear Manager. If you considered the Outfit Designer as a first step to seeing what kind of load such a system might put on our databases then you might be thinking like we're thinking. That said, we've had many requests for the ability to use non-adaptive gear for cosmetic purposes. While recognize this adds yet another cosmetic system, this was the easiest way for us to go, development-wise.

Again, dealing with questions the fanbase thinks you are going to just ignore is a great way to start building credibility again.


Solutions?

From the fan base, a goal should be to continue to talk about improvements fans want in the game including possible solutions. While folks are frustrated at many parts of the state of the game, being constantly negative just gives the developers and the community team the excuse to tune you out. Be fair, if they get it right, say so. If they make a mistake, say why it is a mistake without being person. There are enough trolls in the forums, don't be one. A critical, but fair fan is more likely to rise above the noise of the trolls and have their signal heard.

Suggest solutions to problems you see. Bonus points if you explain why the solution is a win-win for both sides. Bioware is going to expect any solution a fan makes to be a win for the fan – it takes an unusual fan to suggest a needed nerf – but a fan that can show how the solution helps Bioware gives ammunition to the community team and developers to push through changes. Yes, Bioware may have already considered the change themselves, but when can point to community support and acceptance of a possible solution the effort needed to 'sell' the resources required to implement a change becomes that much less.


From Bioware, more openness. Let us know if a cantina is going to reveal new, major information, or if it is going to be aimed more at casual player. (Engaged fans tend to seriously underestimate the lack of knowledge the casual player has about upcoming changes.) Explain why you do things from a developer perspective, but always, always, ground those explanations in what the player base is looking at.

If you want an example of what can be done, just look at what Greg Street (Ghostcrawler) did for Blizzard. His willingness and tenacity at engaging in a much larger, more vocal fan base changed the tone and amount of interactions Blizzard has with its fanbase. It wasn't easy, it took a lot of time, but engaging with your community pays huge dividends. Dividends a smaller MMO can't afford to miss out on.


[1] Remember the basics you learned in Speech class where a simple speech should be in three parts? The first being about what you are going to talk about, the second being the talk, and the third summarizing what you talked about. The idea is to be redundant with your communications because you can't tell when someone will be paying specific attention to what you are saying.

Interactions with and by the community, Part 1

First, a bit of history

Bioware built a strong PR hype machine based on the strength of their games. The Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic, and the first two Mass Effects are all strong RPG games. They delivered content that their fans loved. Bioware could be cocky and swagger because they had shown they could deliver results.

The first crack in the Bioware PR machine came with Dragon Age 2. While the developers naturally wanted to do something different to stretch themselves and expand their new franchise, the fans generally wanted Dragon Age: Origins, only better.

The second crack was the launch of SWTOR. While it wasn't said explicitly, you could see that the Bioware devs were gunning for World of Warcraft. Wow was on a slow decline at the time and Bioware was touting their Fourth Pillar (storytelling), while building a game that hewed closely to the Wow MMO model[1]. The problem was that folks expected a game that was Wow, only better with more or, at least, equal content. The endgame content wasn't there and Bioware didn't grasp just how fast folks would level to get to endgame. After all, Wow has conditioned people to sprint to endgame, that leveling is a nuisance designed to reset gear/teach new skills, that the endgame is the 'real' game. Try as they might, Bioware's PR couldn't keep people paying a monthly subscription, The game crashed from a high of 1.7 million paying subscriber down to roughly 500,000 paying subscribers. The Wow challenger had basically dropped to EQ1 (at it's height) numbers.

When Bioware had to consolidate servers – the initial rush caused them to create too many new ones – it couldn't be PRed in the mind of the larger potential playerbase as anything other than a failure of the game. And who wants to commit serious time to playing a failed game? Which was terribly ironic given that EA continues to support Ultima Online after two failed attempts at a sequel.

Then we have the Mass Effect 3 ending major fracture. From a developer being quoted in a magazine as saying Bioware wasn't going to have 'A, B, and C' endings to the trilogy, to their continued statement of how many awards they had received, Bioware had a real disconnect with their paying customers and fan base. The majority of normally silent customers displayed they annoyance with the endgame as it existed. These customers sat on the normal forum trolls and gagged the white knights. Most of them are working adults so they dismantled and explained all the stock PR steps Bioware tried to use to shut up their customers.

In the end, the bulk of the fans 'won' as they forced Bioware to create a new ending. (Whether you liked the new endings is a different issue). Bioware's PR machine was not only de-fanged, but ME3 became a target for studies on how to screw up a major franchise right at the finish line. That hubris is still alive today.

The consequences of these PR mistakes would be pretty strong. After a face-saving amount of time, Bioware's two founders left. While these events may not be the sole cause, they certainly had to be a factor. After all, it is common for American CEOs of subsidiaries to resign after a series of bad events. It is also common for the parent company to pull a broken department (perceived or otherwise) back into the corporate structure.

Hopefully, this (wordy ^_^) reprise of Bioware's PR gaffes shows some of the reasons why their current SWTOR PR is lacking. Some of it is from them being gun-shy with their PR because of self-inflicted wounds. Some of it may just be the fact they have to work through more levels of corporate management to say things. Certainly any Star Wars related property is going to have to get the blessing of Lucasfilm and Disney.


[1] That was actually a good idea. Many of Wow's systems work well for an MMO shooting to be a major, mass-market game. Don't reinvent the wheel if you don't need to, when that wheel is successful.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

A modest suggestion for 8-man ranked and Huttball League

(I originally submitted this as an email to the podcast Star Wars: Beyond the Stars. They read it on episode 28, but I thought it would be nice to memorialize it here it case it sparked any additional discussions.)

I would like to see Bioware take two fan requested pvp features and combine them into one marquee item: a ranked eight-man Huttball league.

Because Huttball is closer to what a non-gamer sees as a sport – taking possession of a ball, running the ball, passing the ball, scoring at an endzone, etc – I think a ranked Huttball league would make an excellent esport to promote the game. With the new Appearance Designer you could even have the players dressed as Rotworms or Frogdogs.

If Bioware added three more Huttball maps they could start running tournaments where the best 3 out of 5 matches won. Each server could have a ladder to win the pvp rewards Bioware already creates for ranked pvp play. Instead of a rating teams would win based on their winning ratio.

Add in a tournament server and you are ready for something worth promoting on a large scale, prize- and publicity-wise. Let teams register for the tournament, have a season of play to set a ranking / seeding chart and then let the best 8 / 16 / 32 / etc. teams duke it out for the top prizes. If they set the prize rewards to something equivalent to what you would get at a major esport tournament I can guarantee they will get plenty of teams.

The reason I suggest a tournament server is that would fix the issue of cross-server queues with the least amount of effort from Bioware. It would also give them complete control over what the players had access to before and during the matches.

A side benefit to three more Huttball maps would be that for unranked games Bioware could have the option to queue for A) Any pvp map, B) Any Huttball map, and C) Any non-Huttball map. This would handle the issue of people preferring one type of game map over another. It would also allow informal player run Huttball or Warzone tournaments.

A possible downside could be longer queues, but if Bioware made the pvp Daily and Weekly quests be only doable with the “Any pvp map” option it should mitigate most any possible queue time issues. I'd suggest leave the normal, participation-based, warzone commendation rewards alone. That way folks could still get the comms their preferred way once the daily and/or weekly quest was finished.

 Well, these are some of the thoughts I've had about making pvp something that helps promote the game to a wider audience for Bioware. I don't think either an eight-man ranked or a Huttball league by itself is going to happen, but if we combined them and showed Bioware how that can make the game appealing to people not currently playing we have a chance at seeing something new and cool. Heck, if ranked eight-man Huttball were to be a good publicity boost for Bioware to the larger gamer community they might even consider bringing back the old eight man ranked.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Shuttled




I've been enjoying the expansion. Because of the reports that Makeb itself wouldn't provide enough experience to hit level 55 I picked up the Macrobinocular and Seeker Droid. I enjoyed the traveling around to older planets. It keeps the game from feeling limited as only focusing on a new area makes any expansion feel small. (Even the large area of Pandaria in WoW felt small in time when it was the only place most of our quests were at.) Because of all the travel, it is nice when time is short to have lots of options to move around quickly. One of the options that gets overlooked are the old Fleet Shuttles because they aren't being used for their original purpose.

The fleet shuttles are from the earliest days of the game, pre-Group Finder. The ostensible idea was that while you quested on a planet you'd be in general chat looking for a group while you quested. Once you had a group put together your group would travel to your planet's fleet shuttle, pick up the feeder quest, shuttle, and then head to the instance portal on the fleet. Profit!, and thus a server community would be built. At least in the minds of the Bioware devs.

Unfortunately it didn't work that way. As a practical matter, unless you were in a static group or had a guild of were folks were at the same level (mostly) this tended not to work. It was hard enough putting together a group for the planet's heroics - everyone seemed to be trying to hit the endgame - as it was to find an instance group. Even worse, if you were on the wrong side of a faction imbalanced server, say, Republic on the late Keller's Void, you were even more screwed. I never saw instances on my Republic toons until the server merge to Jedi Covenant and the emergence of the Group Finder.

The nice thing about the Fleet Shuttle is that it doesn't have a cooldown nor does it cause a cooldown on your Emergency Fleet Pass or legacy Fleet Priority Transport. That's handy when your Emergency Fleet Pass is still the 18 hour one or you haven't unlocked the legacy one.

Here's a list of what taxi location you need for the various shuttles for each planet.



Planet Taxi location
Alderaan (Imperial) Outpost Bolym
Alderaan (Republic) Wardpost Duval
Balmorra (Imperial) Glorinth Imperial Outpost (landing location)
Balmorra (Republic) Bugtown (landing location)
Belsavis (Imperial) Imperial Command Post
Belsavis (Republic) Republic Watchtower
Corellia (Imperial) Imperial War Camp
Corellia (Republic) Republic Outpost
Coruscant Senate Plaza Taxi
Dromund Kass The Wall Speeder
Hoth (Imperial) Leth Outpost (Fleet Shuttle is on the other side of the base)
Hoth (Republic) Outpost Senth
Nar Shaddaa (Imperial) Lower Promenade
Nar Shaddaa (Republic) Lower Promenade
Quesh (Imperial) -None-
Quesh (Republic) -None-
Taris (Imperial) Toxic Lake Garrison
Taris (Republic) Waypoint Station Aurek
Tatooine (Imperial) Toxic Lake Garrison
Tatooine (Republic) Waypoint Station Aurek
Voss (Imperial) Fort Kodentha
Voss (Republic) Ken-La Outpost

Monday, April 1, 2013

WoWed out


[Given the date I'm posting this, I do have to say this isn't an April Fool's joke.]


Today I cancelled my WoW account. The game has reached a point where it isn't fun and I don't have the desire to login and complete those few things I still had some interest in. (A couple of titles, a couple of older legendaries.)

Now, WoW is still the wildly successful 800 lb gorilla in the MMO market, so I don't want to come across as if I was saying it was a bad game. It's not. What has happened is that what I want out of WoW isn't there and probably won't ever be there. I've finally gotten tired of the Red Queen's racetrack of gearing, WoW-style. Gear has become this short-term consumable that's ongoing irritant. You hope to get a drop from RNG, then you have to enchant it, gem it, reforge it. Then if you get another piece of gear you might have to redo it all once again. Long gone are the days of just equipping something and going. Of getting a drop meaning something special because you knew you'd be using it for a long time. Add to that the mentality of 'You Must Be This High of an ilevel to raid' and gear is an unpleasant stick.

(I am aware of the irony of dropping WoW and playing SW:ToR, given SW:ToR heavily imitated many WoW systems. While it isn't particularly logical, all I can say is that I'm having fun in SW:ToR whereas I'm not in WoW.)

Another issue is that I've played WoW for a long time now. I've been playing since 2006. That's a long time for anyone not in a guild with strong social bonds. Over the years I've all the boss fights, quests, battlegrounds, done a large number of achievements, and so on, and so forth. It's become difficult for Blizzard to do anything fresh. Even when they do something fresh (the new talent system, for example) that thing isn't enough by itself to attract me. Sequel-itis wears out even the best games. Even your favorite eating place would get boring over time if that's the only place you ate at.

At this point it is time to focus my attention on other games. Time to try different eating establishments and broaden my tastes, as it were. Perhaps one day I might go back and try my old favorite -- they nicely keep my seat available to their credit -- but maybe not. We shall see.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Late to the event


I finally got around to do doing the Gree event the second time around. The first one I skipped as I was a bit busy at work. I was also pretty burned out on any sort of dailies after doing a bunch of them in WoW to get my main there exalted with all of the factions. (Since my main there works on the reputation achievements the grinds were effectively mandatory. Having been the primary tank for my guild unlocking the valor gear was a motivator, as well, for the reps.)

The rep grind has been pretty relaxed for me. By the time the event goes away again I should have enough rep and rep tokens banked to get me all the way to Legend. Not bad for a two week event. In future I'll be able to just focus on the dailies that give me the item tokens.

I started out at first doing the dailies on three characters, my Jedi Sentinel, my Jedi Consular, and my Sith Warrior.  Once I hit Friend and could do the Grey Secant quests I stopped doing the dailies on my Sith Warrior. I did do the one-time quest on all three. That one was fun, other than a few hiccups on Voss, as I got to get out and about on the planets instead of sitting on my ships or on the fleet. I even skipped doing dailies a couple of days when I just didn't feel like logging in. It has been nice to be at the point I do dailies when I feel like it and not feeling like I "have" to login and do them to keep up.

The pve quests were generally painless, though the pirate one could be a pain when you went for the 'end boss'. Having him spawn next to another gold mob can be problematic for a healer with a tanking companion. Still, it was a bit reassuring, in a twisted way, to see that Bioware still screws up mob placement even now. ^_^

The pvp dailies were the most surprising. On my server, Jedi Covenant, very few people were doing them. Turning in the orbs was quick and painless for the most part. I think the most I ever saw in line for the orbs was three people (including me) on one occasion  Other than that, it was pretty much wait a minute or so at the pylon and turn in your quest.

Actual pvp was limited to a few times when my group was doing the heroic in the pvp area for speed and once on the pylon/orb quest. The pylon pvp was actually funny as a there were several Consular involved and they kept blasting people back from the pylon. No one was hurt and I was just laughing at my keyboard as I had the image of a school ground shoving match going on.

I do hope Bioware brings back the other events. Even if they were once a year things, that would be nice. Definitely the Rakghoul plague because re-occurrences of a plague makes sense. The Grand Acquisition might not make sense, but being a bit selfish I would like to see it because I wasn't able to work on it while it was here.


All in all, I liked the Gree event and I'm ready to start working on the other reps (as I feel like it) when the Gree event is over. Kudos to them for a successful event.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

By the numbers


My son and I were talking about Richard Garriott's Shroud of the Avatar Kickstarter game.  We were specifically discussing the 'personalized multiplayer' aspect of the game. He mentioned he wished he had more money to help support nudging the industry more towards this direction. I mentioned that even if the title was more of an indy hit, you didn't need big numbers to be profitable. Ultima Online is still running and it has around 100k subscribers. (Which, swtor fans, is good news. EA will keep a profitable MMO running for a long, long time even if it doesn't have a WoW-sized player base.)

Later on I thought about how World of Warcraft effects everyone's perceptions of success, especially the ardent defenders of the game. Now, to be clear, I am *not* saying that WoW is dying. Far from it, but there are things in the subscriber numbers to notice and watch. At its peak WoW had 12 million subscribers (Blizzard press release for October 2010). As of date of this post the official subscriber numbers are at 9.6 million subscribers. The numbers have been lower, surged a bit at the release of Mists of Pandaria, and have dropped back down. Most of the defenders tend to focus on the raw numbers. To be fair, they rightfully say that WoW's numbers are still impressive (they are) and that most MMOs would love to have a player base equal to what WoW has lost. 2.4 million subscribers would stellar for 99% of the MMOS out there.

The thing is, the defenders haven't discussed the dip in subscribers from a business perspective. Any business (and Blizzard is a business first[1]) would be very concerned to have lost from 20% to 25% (at one time) of their market. Losing that many people means something has gone wrong. It could be internal mistakes or a failure to adapt to external changes. When you look at Mists of Pandaria from this angle you can see why some of the design decisions were made. Perhaps not as a primary factor, but definitely as a significant one. The loss of subscribers helps explain why Blizzard went back and recycled some of the concepts from Vanilla and Burning Crusade (tiered raids you have to progress through, alt-unfriendliness, etc). Going back to systems, albeit with a fresh coat of paint, which originally brought in a lot of subscribers is worth trying.

If we look at that loss a bit differently it can actually be positive for WoW in the long run. In some ways the loss is permanent. People's lives change and they just won't play an MMO, any MMO again. In other ways that loss is good if it means people went to a different MMO and are having fun. Ignoring the inevitable WoW-bashers in other games, most of the people playing other MMOs are having more fun with their current MMO than WoW. This is good for the industry as a whole when each MMO can find its (profitable) niche. More experiments, more successes, more people playing MMOs (or MMO-likes, such as Shroud of the Avatar), even WoW. Having WoW (or any big MMO) can be nice because it gives us a common language to talk about MMOS in game terms. It isn't so nice when to succeed people try to imitate WoW or call themselves WoW-killers *cough*sw:tor/warhammer*cough*. As players we need those experiments to push the genre. Without it we're stuck with Blizzard trying to reinvent WoW each expansion and the inevitable stagnation and player-base decay that will occur. So the next time someone gets defensive about WoW's decline in subscriber, introduce them to the idea that it could be a good thing for WoW in the long run. :)

[1] Blizzard is a very competitive, very hard-nosed business-oriented company. If you look at when they release cinematics, patches, expansions and when their competitors do the same you'll find a fair amount of matching up on the dates. While they disingenuously say they develop on their own cycle without paying attention to competitors (a tactic Apple uses all the time) there are too many coincidences for them not to be trying to compete. Now if I was an Activision-Blizzard shareholder I'd be happy about this. If I was a competitor I'd try to make sure I was ready for Blizzard to mess with me.