Archives for September 2012

Waiting for Pandaria, WoW-Killers and Other Stuff

So I am sitting here waiting for Mists of Pandaria to drop. I am not wildly excited by the thought of Kung Fu pandas but I expect Blizzard to do a decent job and I am curious. I strongly suspect I will end up playing more Guild Wars 2 than WoW in the near future. A lot of people are saying the same. That got me thinking about how many games have been called a WoW killer and how silly this tendency is in our media and not just in how it applies to games.

Way back when I worked in the pen and paper RPG and tabletop miniatures game business, there was always someone explaining how their game, or their favourite game, was going to be bigger than D&D/Warhammer/Magic:the Gathering, or at least it should be because it was better designed or more fun or whatever. This is one of those things, like calling a game a WoW-killer, that ignores the reality of how these things actually work in the market.

In hobby games it is very, very rare for a major game that occupies a certain niche in the market to be overtaken by another one. There are a few simple reasons for this. Usually the biggest games become synonymous with their fields. When the average non-gamer thinks of roleplaying games, if they think about them at all, they probably think about Dungeons and Dragons. Ask the average non-tabletop miniatures gamer to name a minis game and they most likely will name Warhammer, if they can name any. These are the brand names that people recognise. If your dear old granny who knows nothing about gaming thinks about giving you an RPG for Xmas, she will probably get you D&D.

There is usually a reason why the big dogs are the big dogs. If they are not the first in their field, they are usually the ones that broke out first and biggest. They took the top slot before it was occupied. It becomes infinitely harder to become the new D&D after D&D exists. The same applies to Warhammer. These games became so big in the first place because they did not have to compete with anyone. They found an unsatisfied desire among their customers and they met it. And once they were in the market, they had a huge headstart not just in brand recognition but in execution. They are already in the distribution chains. They are a safe bet for retailers to sell.

The next reason is what is known as network effect, basically the more people who use a product, the more valuable and/or useful it becomes. Think of Facebook—it’s not very useful if only a few people are on it, but once everyone you know is, it becomes invaluable. If you are a Warhammer gamer or a D&D player, the chances are you can go anywhere in the world and find a gaming group for your game. You’ll always be able to find other players and for social games that is very important.

The third effect is vendor lock-in. If you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on rulebooks and minis, you usually want to get some use out of them, and most people on a limited budget are not foaming at the mouth to spend the same amount of money again just to play another game.

All of these are things that work in Blizzard’s favour and make it unlikely that there will ever be a WoW-killer. They basically own the subscription-based MMO slot. The network effect is very strong because these are social games. I have friends, family and Guild in WoW. One of the reasons I play is simply to hang out. Unless all my friends move at once to another game, things are likely to stay that way.

In terms of vendor lock-in, it’s not a question of money. It’s a question of time. I shudder to think of how many hours I have put in levelling and grinding gear. This is a huge investment in time. I am not mad keen to replicate it in another game. 

In the foreseeable future I can picture a long, slow decline for WoW but it’s hard to imagine it being toppled. I can picture it eventually becoming technologically outdated but not destroyed by a competitor operating on the same basis, not unless someone at Blizzard royally screws up anyway.

So where does this put my new favourite Guild Wars 2? It has its own slot—it’s buy once, play forever, no subscription, no need to buy anything for the full game experience. It is offering something different from WoW. It has already hit two million sales. Can I imagine it hitting 12 million plus sales — the number of subscribers WoW had at its peak? Yes, but these need not be active players—people can buy the game and stop playing still count as a sales. Presumably ArenaNet has factored all this into its revenue model. Making twelve million sales is still not the same in terms of revenue as having twelve million subscribers—that is 12 million sales plus a monthly income stream.

One last point I would like to make is that some of the same factors work in publishing, which is why it is a bit silly to imagine that you can become as big as J K Rowling by writing young adult stories about boy wizards at glorified public schools for magic. That’s already been done and J K Rowling owns the spot.

Obviously this has not stopped people trying and it has not stopped publishers publishing such things, but I suspect that is more because the success of Harry Potter has proven that there is a market for such books than because they will equal Harry Potter’s sales. It’s one reason I don’t shrink from trying something new like the cyberpunk reboot of Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian books in Sky Pirates or the weird gunpowder military fantasy of the Terrarch novels. They are not only the books my personal demons drove me to write, they are something different. There may be no breakout market for them, but if I am ever to find one, I won’t do so by copying what’s popular right now.

Anyway, Pandaria is now go and I am off to take a look at it.

Postscript— yes, I wrote the above while waiting for Mists of Pandaria to go live last night. As fate would have it, Blizzard activated the expansion five minutes earlier than they said they would on my server at least and I was there.

What did I think?

Well…I got exactly what I expected; a lot of lag, crowds so great I could not see the quest givers and the realisation that WoW certainly does not look dead to me. It reminded me of the Wrath of the Liche King launch in most every way. It wasn’t a lot of fun though so I decided to wait until things calm down a bit and went to bed. I’ll give you my thoughts on the land of kick-boxing Pandas once I’ve had a chance to explore.

Celebrate!

I was watching my nine month old son this morning. He has just taught himself to stand by grabbing the struts of his cot and pulling himself upright. When he achieves this, he burbles and howls with happiness, does a little staggering dance and raises his hand in the air like a footballer who has just scored the winning goal in the last seconds of a World Cup final. He is clearly very happy indeed with the achievement of standing upright. Needless to say, I don’t feel (or behave) the same way when I drag myself from my bed and plant my feet on the floor in the morning. Achieving the vertical does not fill me with glee the way it does young Will, although I most likely felt the same way about it back in the day and just cannot remember.

Will in cot

This got me thinking about how often this happens in life. When I sold my first story to a professional magazine way back in September 1987, I was over the moon, buzzed for days. It felt like a titanic achievement and a huge personal validation. Needless to say, I don’t feel quite that way when I sell a short story now. It’s nice but it’s just part of the business.

I felt the same gigantic burst of enthusiasm when I sold my first novel. I don’t feel anything like the buzz now that I have sold more than twenty.

Yesterday evening, quite late, I somewhat unexpectedly finished a novel I have been writing, on and off, for over six years. I was very happy but I was not ecstatic the way I once would have been.

It’s kind of sad, isn’t it? We get accustomed to what we have and we lose sight of the fact that it was once so important to us.

I know I am not unique in this. It happens to everybody. You get a raise and you’re happy but the happiness does not last. You buy a new computer, a car or a house and you are happy for a bit but then it fades as you get used to your new treasure. Scientists even have a phrase to describe this process, hedonic adaption, which is basically just a fancy way of saying our minds adapt themselves to our surroundings.

Watching the baby this morning I started to think that it is wrong to be so blasé about our triumphs small or large, that it might be good to stop for a moment and remember where we once were and how far we have come. Looking back 25 years to when I sold Visiting the Dead to Interzone and remembering how happy that made me is a cheering thought. Maybe now is a good time to celebrate the fact I am living the dream I had when I was little more than a decade older than my son and to remember that I got here a bit at a time, in small stages, like a baby pulling himself up the side of a cot and that sometimes it was difficult but I got here in the end, and I should be grateful for that.

Today is a good day to celebrate even a small achievement like writing a thousand words or selling a single e-book or getting out of bed and standing upright. It’s even better if there’s something large to celebrate like finishing a book. Now, excuse me, I am going to go and do a little dance and punch my fist in the air and maybe shout and burble a bit. 

Guild Wars Third Impressions

I am a couple of weeks into Guild Wars 2 and have had time to poke around a bit, get over the initial glitz of the launch and see a bit more of the world. What do I think now?gw003

I am still impressed. If anything I am more impressed now than when I started. An incredible amount of work has gone into this game, giving it a level of polish in the world-building that I don’t think I have seen in an MMO before. It’s not just that the game is beautiful; it is clearly a labour of love. Look at the way your characters head turns to follow your target in combat. Listen to the children chatter away in the background in the city. It’s also that the game is very much itself– the lore is its own, the world is its own, it does not remind me very much of anything.

GW2 is very clearly the work of people who have given a lot of thought to what works in MMOs and what does not. A simple example of this is tagging of nodes and monsters. In most games, if someone hits a monster, it is theirs for the xp and the loot. No one else gets either. In GW2 anybody who takes part in a fight gets the xp and loot if there is any.

In Guild Wars 2 anybody can collect resources from any node. One of my least favourite things in World of Warcraft is clearing the area around a mining point only to have some scumbag drop from the sky and ninja the ore while I am fighting the monsters who were defending it. The people at ArenaNet have chosen not to allow this to happen.

Indeed one of the nicest things about GW2 is that you are not locked in some sort of furious Darwinian competition for every kill and find. It actually encourages you to stop and help. It encourages cooperation.

The dynamic questing system is a refinement of many of the trends of the past few years in MMOs. Believe it or not, back in the day, in Burning Crusade, when I first got into WoW, I used to read every bit of quest text. I did this not only because I was interested but because it was usually the only way of working out where to go and what to do. This was before I had ever heard of Quest Helper or the successor system that Blizzard built right into WoW. Back in those days your targets did not simply appear on your map with bosses helpfully mapped. You actually had to figure out where they were from what the quest giver told you.

In some ways I kind of miss those days, at least until I imagine wading through pages and pages of quest text, but the truth is that not many people do read the text these days. They show up at the NPC with the exclamation mark over their head, collect the quest, do what’s needed and return. If you’re going to have a system like this, better it is done the way GW2 does it. When you are in an area where a quest is active, it shows up on screen automatically and a progress bar fills as you achieve objectives. When you’re done, a message shows up and the rewards are given. You don’t need to run back across half a zone just to turn in the quest and get what is coming to you.

A lot of this is simply a result of GW2’s financial model. You buy the game and then you get to play it for as long as the servers are online. You don’t need to pay a subscription. This means the people at ArenaNet don’t need to find make-work work for you, just to keep you grinding away. (My least favourite example of this ever was the way WoW used to make you walk across huge zones just to deliver quests and pick up new ones. Yes, I’m looking at you, long trudge between Ironforge and Menethil harbour.) They don’t need to delay the epic stuff till end game either, a carrot dangled in front of you to keep you motivated. There’s plenty of epic stuff in the early stages of GW2, monsters like end game raid bosses show up and ravage towns just for the hell of it. Small armies of PCs gather to take them down.

Map travel is a blessing that comes from the lack of grind. You want to go somewhere? Call up the map (push M on your keyboard) and click on the waypoint and you are there. You don’t need to spend ten minutes flying across continent. (To be fair, when I first played WoW I loved this. I loved the sweeping views of Azeroth as I skimmed over its war-torn lands. It got old the hundredth time I had to do it though.)

I like also the fact that in GW2 you get experience for pretty much everything. Crafting, healing other players, exploring. It all feels pretty dynamic and keeps you progressing. It’s a big world too with lots of interesting systems that I feel I have barely scratched the surface of.

gw002

This is a game that makes it easy to be a casual player. You can just drop in and drop out. I can already hear a few diehard grinders shouting, this is a symptom of the dumbing down of MMOs. I prefer to think of it as taking the boring bits out. So far I have been playing GW2 in relatively short bursts, a half hour or an hour at a time, rising to a couple of hours on the weekends. I log out where I am standing usually and re-enter the world where I need to pick things up.

As you can probably gather I would still recommend Guild Wars 2 on the third impression.

Computer Migration

Last week I upgraded my PC computer. Since my games machine often doubles as my work machine, it normally being the most powerful computer I own, I had to migrate my work stuff to the new machine this week.

Back in the bad old days, I used to dread this. I would needed to have locate a large number of disks and activation codes and installed my software onto the new computer. I would have had to burn CDs, DVDs or used an external hard-drive to shift my data. There would have been a lot of fumbling as I tried to locate various essential items, failed and had to find a workaround.

One of the great appeals of Apple’s Macintosh machines is the ease of migrating to a new one. Once upon a time this was done with firewire cables and Migration Assistant. These days all you need is a time machine backup on an external hard-drive. There is similar software available for Windows apparently but I don’t own it so I was going to have to do things the hard way.

The App Store is great for migration as well. Being able to automatically install all the software you have paid for on a new machine without the hassle of license keys is appealing. Since there won’t be a Windows App Store until Windows 8 I was going to have to do things the old fashioned way. Sort of. A few things were different. This time it was actually a lot easier.

That is mostly down to the Cloud. The first thing I did was install Dropbox on the new machine. Since I keep all my work files in Dropbox, it meant all of those were synched in pretty short order. Also in Dropbox I keep my encrypted 1Password files and backups of my Firefox Preferences. I imported the preferences, installed 1Password and its browser extensions and I was back up and running in a perfect replica of my normal browser experience. I could, of course, simply set up Firefox to synchronise my bookmarks over all my machines which would make this even easier.

(For those of you who have never used it, 1Password is a password vault, a program that memorises your various logins and passwords and keeps them in an encrypted format, then produces them securely for you when you try to log-in to your Amazon account, Gmail, whatever. It started life on the Mac but is now also available for Windows. It works very well. I used to use Lastpass, which was also excellent but there was a minor security scare a couple of years back which got me to switch to 1Password.)

Anyway, with my internet connection up and running it was time to install Microsoft Office. This went as straightforwardly as usual. I use Excel and Word constantly and Outlook is a pretty decent email client let down only by the primitive way it interfaces with Google Calendar. I had to break out the disks and the Licensing codes for this one. I copied the passwords for my email accounts from 1Password and downloaded my email using IMAP which keeps everything in sync across all my machines.

It was more disks for Dragon Naturally Speaking. If you feel like using this speech recognition software, here is a quick tip from a guy doesn’t read the manual unless forced to. You absolutely must install this program inside an Administrator account otherwise you are setting yourself up for an afternoon of sheer frustration and bizzaro error messages. Simply giving the installation Administrator permissions from the account control box will just not cut it. I must have known this once because I have installed Dragon Naturally Speaking successfully many times. I did not remember it this time though. Not fun.

After Dragon, I downloaded and installed Evernote, which I use for clipping and keeping my notes in. This synchs with your existing account over the net. Pretty soon I had all my notes back with me.

My computer came with Windows Live Essentials installed so this just meant setting up an account on Windows Live Writer so I could blog. I copied the details from 1Password and was good to go. It’s what I am writing this on.

After this, it was Scrivener for Windows. I normally work in Scrivener on OSX but I like to keep the Windows version on-hand in case of need. In any case, thats it. I am ready to work on pretty much anything that comes my way. It was all relatively painless. Use of cloud based software like Dropbox and Evernote certainly helped with this. I would imagine a Windows App store will make the process even easier in the future. There might be something to this cloud thing.

(I have talked about a lot of this software before here.)

Guild Wars 2: Second Impressions

On Friday, I upgraded my computer just so I could play Guild Wars 2 and I am glad I did. As the owner of one of Asus’s Republic of Gamers laptops I am now in a position to really appreciate all the work that has gone into this game. The world now looks like all the screenshots on blog posts and magazines. It’s jaw-dropping. The special effects when you use a spell or skill are lavish. When you get a group of people fighting together it’s like an explosion in a fireworks factory, and I mean that in a good way.

Graphically GW2 is stunning but that’s not what excites me. It’s that the world is so damnably well done. This is the first game in a very long time where I have sunk serious amounts of time into simply exploring, walking around, climbing on things, looking at views. I am excited by this in a way I haven’t been since I first got into Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy back in the 90s. There is a real sense of visiting a place that is strange and different. For the first time in a very, very long time the Sense of Wonder glands in my gamer’s brain are being tickled.

The Black Citadel, the Char capital, is simply boggling to wander around, a vast half-finished Steampunk metropolis built on the ruins of what looks to be the former human capital of Ascalon in Guild Wars 1. Remnants of the older human structures, litter the place, like bomb-blasted remnants of an earlier war, while gigantic steel and brass structures loom over them. There are vehicle parks full of monstrous tanks, huge balconies that give you sweeping views over the city and the surrounding lands, giant statues of heroes that speak of the history of the place. People wander everywhere, players and non-players alike.

The other night I found the Asura Gates that lead to the other main cities and took a brief jaunt to the capitals of the different races and to the Free City of Lion’s Arch. I saw them only briefly but they all appear to be just as detailed and just as striking as Black Citadel. In particular I was struck by the Sylvari capital where what looked like helicopters of swirling leaf carried heavy loads overhead. For the first time in a long time I have been boggled by something I have seen in a game.

In terms of gameplay I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is that I find so appealing about this game, and I haven’t quite got there yet. I have seen elements that I have liked in other games. Dynamic questing most notably in Rifts and in Warhammer Online. I think that in part its because the game system is different. Both of those other games had interfaces and game mechanics very much like World of Warcraft. In the end, I felt that if I was going to play a WoW clone, I might as well play WoW where I have guild, friends and family, and a huge investment of time.

GW2 is different enough a game so that it does not feel at all like WoW. The combat is more dynamic and the way things work is different enough so that I have a sense of novelty. One example of this is the way weapons work. As I’ve said before you get different skills on your hotbar depending on what weapon is equipped. One nice touch is that if you equip different combinations of dual wield weapons you get different combinations of skills on the hotbar. These even vary depending on which hand you have the weapons equipped in so, for example main hand sword, off-hand axe gives you different skills from main-hand axe, off-hand sword. My Char warrior has settled down to using a rifle for his ranged weapon and a main-hand sword, off-hand axe combo. This gives me the speed and mobility of the sword, and allows some excellent area effect attacks when needed, at the cost of some protection.

Some of the appeal is simple novelty. There is a lot to be said for not knowing exactly how everything works and not being forced to shoehorn yourself into a certain build to achieve optimum DPS efficiency. Right now no one has any real idea what optimum is, and so there is a sense of discovery about the whole thing. I don’t know how long this honeymoon period will last but its enjoyable right now.

One thing I find interesting is that I am enjoying the process of levelling, a thing I long ago got bored with in WoW. I am not simply grinding through things. I am having fun exploring the world, teaming up with other people and going through my personal story. I have not even dipped into PvP yet which was my main reason for being interested in the game. GW1 had the best and most balanced PvP of any MMO I had experienced. There was no need to grind gear. GW2 duplicated this. I’ll doubtless write more about this in the future.