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Microcosms – Phoenix Rising: How Free-to-Play Will Save a Dying Genre

Updated Thu, Sep 02, 2010 by Medawky


From the title of this week’s article the last thing you would probably expect to find in the opening paragraph would be a plug for a WoW addon, but it’s not as strange as you might imagine. One of my least favorite aspects of WoW is the current trend which sees players defined by something as arbitrary as a gear score (an amalgamation of the total value of your equipped armor, weapons and jewelry based on an item level system), but this new mod brings a much needed depth to the equation. Like it or not gear scores, or some derivative thereof, are a part of the game and aren’t going away. Ten Ton Hammer’s PlayerScore adds achievements, past experience and the ability for other players to rate each other, giving raid and group leaders a much clearer picture of the largely intangible factor of a player’s skill. If you play WoW, I recommend you pick up PlayerScore and read last Monday’s Loading for even more commentary.

Last week also saw some innovations in free-to-play gaming as well. The recently released Allods Online patch has proven to be both popular and polarizing because  some of its aspects have drawn the ire of players. Rather than simply shrug their shoulders and turn a deaf ear to the fans, gPotato recently invited fans into a discussion on how to improve the patch. Associate Producer Darren Allarde and his team took to the phones, ran a survey and even hopped on Ventrilo to chat with guilds in an effort to make the game better. The result is a region specific update to the patch that went live this week. Would your current game’s publisher do that for you? Keep in mind that gPotato isn’t the game’s creator and it becomes even more impressive.  That is going the extra mile for a player base that doesn’t even have to pay for the product. My hat is off to them and I hope their efforts are rewarded.



wow

Harbinger of genre death?

From the outside looking in the MMOG genre has never appeared to look healthier, but looks can be deceiving. Developers are launching new games at a record pace and overall subscription numbers are higher than ever before. Could the segment’s flagship franchise, World of Warcraft, which is credited with this unprecedented explosion in popularity, also be the cause of its ultimate demise?  And if MMOGs really are on the verge of a decline, how could they possibly be saved by a segment vilified by the vast majority of players?

Prior to WoW’s launch in 2004, MMOG players were a fairly unique breed, even in the already marginalized realm of PC gaming. While most dedicated PC gamers had an above average understanding of the inner workings of computers and had been forced to gain troubleshooting skills in order to play their games, by the end of 1999 the majority of PC games and the machines that ran them were stable and featured simple install instructions. The one area that still remained daunting to all but the most tech savvy was networking and games that required an internet connection. Popular video game reviewer Yahtzee once noted, “MMORPGers are the nerds that are to other nerds what nerds are to normal people,” and that description was born from these early days.

wow

We were always LFG

This mindset led to a group that was a bit more patient, a bit more forgiving, and spoke a similar language. This commonality helped create a group that reveled in their new found social medium and, within this new structure, many formerly recluse individuals embraced community. Creativity flowed as developers were given previously unheard of amounts of time to build and expand their gaming worlds. EverQuest showed that these undertakings could be profitable and allowed other companies to begin development and launch their own visions of persistent world games. It could be argued that there wasn’t much innovation - most of these games were fantasy based, but that is owed to technological limitations and ease of implementation instead of lack of vision. Without these early models of success, Blizzard’s ambitious undertaking would have likely never have seen the light of day.

Taking the genre mainstream may have never been the prime directive of the WoW team, but it certainly was the result. The explosion of popularity that WoW brought with it is undeniable and its level of visibility spans across all aspects of modern life. This heightened awareness allowed even more companies to sink even larger budgets into developing MMOGs and soon everyone was trying their hand at the newest fad in gaming. But something happened to the forgiving and patient crowd that once allowed this fledgling genre to blossom; it was invaded by console gamers and a new breed of PC owner that had little desire to give even an inch of latitude when it came to game development. It’s hard to fault them, though, because their past experiences were of products that were load and go, not load and hope.

AoC
A vicitim of unrealistic
 expectations
While an unheard of number of games were released to the newly swollen masses, an even larger percentage began to fail at an alarming rate. Games that at one time would have been hailed as innovative were kicked to the curb by the end of the 30 day trial because they weren’t as polished or as developed as WoW. The mantra of the WoW masses was that they would never pay a monthly fee to play a game they considered to still be in beta testing mode. The same crowd that once signaled the onset of a new market and unparalleled growth has now become its most stifling opponent.

An act of both brilliance and desperation to save a failing title has shown developers the key to saving MMOGs. Turbine knew they had created a great game in Dungeons and Dragons Online; not only was it innovative and fun, it was based on the cornerstone IP of all role playing games. While the court of public opinion may have ruled against DDO, its backers knew that if they could just get it back in front of the jury, the premature conviction would be overturned.  In order to do that, however, they had to remove the biggest obstacle: the subscription fee. It’s a fact that people love to get things for free, and DDO would prove no different. The turnaround that DDO experienced has been unprecedented. That success will likely be replicated as two other critically acclaimed titles, Lord of the Rings Online and EverQuest 2, follow their lead. It isn’t just existing franchises that are reaping the benefit of free-to-play, however; many riskier and more innovative ideas are now being brought to market based on these successes in games like Black Prophecy. Removing the up front cost factor and allowing a game to reap its rewards over time are the keys to long term health and survival.

The unrealistic expectations propped up by WoW’s unprecedented success could have very well extinguished the flame of MMOGs just as it began to burn the brightest, but free-to-play gaming will be the spark that keeps it going. Remember to keep checking in with Microcosms, the weekly free-to-play feature here at Ten Ton Hammer for all the latest news, and be on the lookout for some exciting changes in the near future.



EQ2X
 EverQuest2 Extended could be an even bigger hit than DDOU



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