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The Soapbox

The Soapbox: The horror of embargoes

Opinion, Massively Meta, Humor, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous

My Little Pony gets a gritty, realistic reboot.
We're right on the cusp of one big holiday or another. Festivus, I think? I don't really pay attention to the calendar. So we're going to take this opportunity to talk about something near and dear to our hearts that a lot of you don't even know exists because you aren't working here. It's the magical miracle known as the press embargo.

Embargoes work something like this. Let's say that Bungie is hard at work developing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Online, and the company wants to reveal a new piece of information on August 9th. The company sends a lot of different press outlets a release with all of the information on August 2nd, mentioning exactly when the embargo lifts. So on August 9th, everyone can cover it at the same time!

It sounds like a great way to ensure that the press knows things in advance and that every big revelation is nicely coordinated across all media. In practice, though, it's something less than beneficial due to failures to communicate and the very nature of the beast. Giving more time between the information and release just means more space for things to go wrong.

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The Soapbox: There's nothing wrong with easy

Culture, Game Mechanics, Endgame, Opinion, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous, Dungeons

Generally an easy game.  Also generally fun.  Coincidence?  No.
The word "easy" gets a really bad reputation in gaming, an unfair reputation, at that, because there's absolutely nothing wrong with something's being easy.

A while back, we hosted a great column about how we tend to call things easy when they really aren't. (Seriously, go read that.) That's all well and good, but that's also not what I'm talking about here. Gaming as a community seems to have decided that easy is just plain bad, that it's a horrible insult, and a game being easy is like saying that a game is worthless.

But easy isn't bad. Playing a single-player game on easy difficulties isn't a mark of weakness, and having an MMO that's easy on a whole doesn't mean it's a bad game. Having easy content isn't just an acceptable thing; it's an outright good thing for a lot of player. There is absolutely nothing wrong with easy.

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The Soapbox: World of Warcraft isn't back, and that's fine

World of Warcraft, Fantasy, Culture, MMO Industry, Opinion, The Soapbox, Subscription

Haven't you heard?  I'm new again!
So. That Warlords of Draenor, huh?

To take the narrative that a lot of people have constructed, World of Warcraft has been sort of floundering for the past few years. It released one expansion (Cataclysm) that consistently ranks as the worst expansion in the game's history, coming behind the launch game, The Burning Crusade, and Alganon. Then it released another one that turned out to actually be pretty good but with a premise that turned a lot of people off right out of the gate. Mists of Pandaria's quality doesn't matter in the face of the game losing five million subscriptions in three years.

But then, Warlords of Draenor was announced, and suddenly hope returned to the faithful. There's this thought that the game has suddenly returned from the brink, that Blizzard hit the big red button labeled "Save World of Warcraft" and the game will be catapulted back into prominence once again. Except that I think that portion of the story isn't just premature -- it's making a stab in the dark about a game that isn't back and can't, in fact, be back.

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The Soapbox: Seriously, we have enough fantasy MMOs

World of Warcraft, Fantasy, Aion, City of Heroes, EVE Online, Fallen Earth, Lineage, MMO Industry, Opinion, Ultima Online, RuneScape, Free-to-Play, DC Universe Online, RIFT, World of Tanks, TERA, EverQuest Next, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous, MOBA, Neverwinter, The Elder Scrolls Online, MMORPG, Buy-to-Play

Let's play a game. I'm thinking of an MMO that features magic, monsters, humans, and a vast fantasy world full of steamy swamps, grassy plains, and deep, dark dungeons -- can you tell me which MMO it is? If you answered RIFT, you're right. You're also right if you answered TERA. Or World of Warcraft. Or Guild Wars 2. Or Neverwinter. Or... you get the idea.

We're people who play MMOs. Our hard drives are practically bulging with games featuring wizards and warriors. We've plunged our swords into millions of orcs and gnolls. We've looted more imaginary copper pieces than anyone could possible imagine. We've even slain so many dragons that you have to wonder why dragons even bother showing up anymore.

It's not the gameplay but the setting that can make the whole exercise so soul-crushingly boring.

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The Soapbox: Developers build MMOs backward

Business Models, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Endgame, Opinion, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous, Neverwinter

The Soapbox: Developers build MMOs backward
How many of you MMOs players have ever maxed out a character's combat level then stood around wondering, "What do I do now?" I would venture to guess that a vast majority of you at one time or another have done that, and I'd also guess that it's been recently. That's because developers have built your game backward. Far too many MMOs rely on the leveling process to be the primary content for the game, and everything after max level appears to be an afterthought tacked on to the game until the developers can come up with new stuff for you to do.

I propose that if developers would start building a game's endgame first, we would be looking at a very different kind of game, a more enjoyable game. If a game is intended to be played for months, then developers should spend the most time on the content that players will spend the most time on. It's only logical to me. However, if you ask most developers they will likely tell you that the most expensive or time-consuming part of the game is the leveling process. Why is that?

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The Soapbox: Instant high-level characters are a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good idea

Game Mechanics, Opinion, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous

The Soapbox Instant highlevel characters are a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good idea
While handing players the keys to a high-level character isn't something brand-new that studios are doing, it does seem to be more en vogue these days, from TERA to EverQuest II and now to World of Warcraft. It's a topic that has caused a lot of discussion and debate in the community, not to mention a lot of disquiet and dismay in my heart.

In last week's Soapbox, Massively's Mike Foster advocated instant leveling by saying, "There is no downside to giving players a chance to skip to the start of new content."

With much love and respect to my fellow Massively writer, I think Mike is completely wrong on this front, as are others that are giving a thumbs-up to any MMO that allows players to jump past content and into a high-level character. It has nothing to do with elitism and ego, as was suggested, but has everything to do with cheapening our mutual experience and the very foundation of MMOs.

There are many, many downsides to this disturbing trend, and I need to get this off my chest so that at least I've said it somewhere.

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The Soapbox: Instant leveling and the whining fringe

World of Warcraft, Fantasy, EVE Online, EverQuest II, Business Models, Events (Real-World), Expansions, MMO Industry, New Titles, PvP, PvE, Opinion, Free-to-Play, Events (Massively's Coverage), TERA, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous, Sandbox, Subscription, MMORPG

Warlords of Draenor
Over the weekend at Blizzcon 2013, Blizzard Entertainment announced the fifth World of Warcraft expansion, Warlords of Draenor. The content add-on brings most of the things one might expect from an expansion -- new zone, new features, new quests, new dungeons -- but perhaps most notably includes the option to instantly raise any one of your characters to WoW's current level cap of 90.

While you'll still face 10 levels of Warlords of Draenor questing, killing, and fetching if you opt to take the insta-level, the feature has re-ignited the argument among MMO fans as to whether offering players a maxed-out character somehow violates the core rules of the MMO genre. Should developers really provide high-level characters just to get/keep players in the game?

The short answer, of course, is "duh." Here's the long answer.

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The Soapbox: No, 'we' don't hate the subscription model

EVE Online, Business Models, Culture, New Titles, Endgame, Opinion, Free-to-Play, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous, WildStar, The Elder Scrolls Online, Subscription, Buy-to-Play

The Soapbox: No, we don't hate the subscription model
If you're a casual reader of Massively and read a post or two from a few writers about business models, then you might get the impression that the Massively staff does not like the subscription model. While it's true that some of us praise some games for the choices their publishers have made regarding pricing models, others of us believe still other games have missed the mark. Lately, the subscription model has fallen under some hard scrutiny, but that doesn't mean that all of us dislike the subscription model completely, nor should a few writers' opinions be misconstrued as the opinion of the site as a whole, as if the site were some sentient thing to begin with.

Economists have made extremely persuasive arguments in favor of the subscription model, citing its cost-effectiveness with hard numbers and statistics. We've also seen free-to-play and buy-to-play models allowing companies to revitalize their game, and most importantly for the people employed by the developer, doubling and sometimes tripling their revenue. So at what point does the subscription work?

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The Soapbox: Free-to-play wasn't our idea

World of Warcraft, Fantasy, Aion, EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online, Business Models, Opinion, Free-to-Play, MMOFPS, MMORTS, Star Wars: The Old Republic, TERA, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous, The Elder Scrolls Online, Subscription, MMORPG, Buy-to-Play

Dota 2
Free-to-play is surging. In just a few short years, free-to-play has become the go-to mechanism through which studios broaden audiences, entice players, and build revenue. No other method of monetization has proven to be so lucrative and effective with such consistency, whether it be a monthly subscription fee, a one-time purchase price, or some combination of the two.

Free-to-play's growth has created a world in which non-free games are the exception, not the rule. Of the most popular MMOs and online games as of my typing these words, the vast majority are free-to-play. Games that are bold enough to buck the trend and launch with a sub fee are met with derision and suspicion from the online gaming community; the many thousands of words dedicated to ZeniMax Online's decision to require a subscription for The Elder Scrolls Online are likely the most recent and high-profile examples of this trend in action.

When players complain about a game launching with a subscription, their opinions are often countered by a self-appointed gaming elite who believe that things were better in the good old days, when games cost money and poor people didn't ruin everything by demanding free stuff. The argument summarized is something like, "I am sick and tired of lazy, entitled gamers wanting everything for free."

There's just one problem: Lazy, entitled gamers didn't invent free-to-play. Studios did.

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The Soapbox: Game companies exist to make money

Business Models, Culture, MMO Industry, Opinion, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous

You want a nice crib?  You'd better pay for it.
I'm going to start this article off with a statement, and it's going to be divisive, but not for the reasons you might expect. A good chunk of you reading this are going to read the line, roll your eyes, and immediately think that I've just written the most obvious thing ever. Some of you might even take to the comments to start calling for my termination just from this line alone. Ready for this?

Game companies exist to make money.

All right, so it was probably all of you rolling your eyes. This is pretty basic stuff, right? Except I'm willing to bet that some of you who rolled your eyes at that sentence still don't really get it. You understand that companies are trying to make money, but you don't really grasp what that means in a larger sense. So let's just accept that some of you are going to read this article and nod along the whole time without learning a whole lot. The rest of you will head to the comments and start demanding my head.

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The Soapbox: Stop hurting the people who love you

Betas, Business Models, Launches, Opinion, Free-to-Play, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous, Crowdfunding, MMORPG

Over the last few years, we have been witness to dramatic shifts in the way the video game business does its...erm...business. Crowdfunding appeared out of nowhere and turned people like Chris Roberts into money tornadoes. Digital distribution created an environment in which anyone with an internet connection and a laptop can create and release a game. Here in the MMO niche, early access, paid betas, founders packages, and extended soft launches became the norm.

My opinion on soft launching and paid betas has been well established on this site. I dislike the idea that players must jump in to aid a flailing development team while it buys time on a project the team clearly should have reigned in. I also hate the environment soft launching creates in which studios are not accountable for their mistakes; a game like Firefall can have its entire PvP system wiped while its developers say, "Oops, our bad, beta! But thanks for all the money."

However, there is another enormous problem with the prevalence of the soft launch system. Namely, it kills fans.

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The Soapbox: What's my motivation?

Fantasy, Historical, Sci-Fi, MMO Industry, PvE, Opinion, Free-to-Play, MMOFPS, Post-Apocalyptic, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous, MMORPG, Buy-to-Play

If you play MMOs, odds are good that you're familiar with the classic "kill ten rats" quest trope. Kill quests are one of the most fundamental elements of traditional MMORPG design, and a great deal of modern and classic MMOs would have little to no content without them. Whether it's ten rats, ten wolves, ten bandits, or ten dragons, the basic gist of the quest is always the same: You, the seasoned adventurer, must eliminate animals or enemies for an NPC who for one reason or another cannot handle the task himself.

MMOs are built on combat. It's difficult to design a full-featured MMO that engages players for years on end without some sort of PvE killing content; only a handful of MMOs have even attempted it. And while some would say the days of the kill quest are coming to an end, modern MMOs certainly aren't cutting back on killing in general. As a primary mechanic for advancing a character, slaying seems to be the most popular design choice.

I don't have a problem with the bulk of my progression coming from throwing fireballs or bashing shields. I don't mind obliterating monsters in multiples of five. What I do mind, however, is being asked to kill without a good reason.

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The Soapbox: Maybe it's time to admit that you don't like MMOs

MMO Industry, Opinion, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous

The Soapbox Maybe it's time to admit that you don't like MMOs
I've learned a lot from my time at Massively. I've learned that a team of writers can work together without being in the same office; I've learned that the MMO genre is one of the most interesting in all of video games, despite the negative stigma sometimes attached; and I've learned that people love to read and comment about MMOs even when they don't play them.

This last point has always fascinated me the most. I have several hobbies and interests, and I don't read forums or websites about every one of them. But one thing I certainly don't do is spend time reading about topics that hold no interest for me.

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The Soapbox: The case against The Elder Scrolls Online's subscription model

Betas, Fantasy, MMO Industry, New Titles, PvE, Opinion, Consoles, The Soapbox, The Elder Scrolls Online, Subscription, MMORPG

The Elder Scrolls Online
The Elder Scrolls Online is one of the most anticipated online titles of 2014. Marking the first true massively multiplayer incarnation of the venerable Elder Scrolls franchise, ESO has the rapt attention of fans, developers, and industry watchers. It is the latest attempt to leverage an existing franchise into MMO territory, one that will without a doubt see a huge launch and immense media coverage through its first few months.

Despite the hype, ZeniMax Online and Bethesda raised a few eyebrows last month when they announced that ESO would require a monthly subscription to play. According to game director Matt Firor, the subscription is required to ensure the game is a true "Elder Scrolls experience." Firor contends that predictable revenue streams generated by monthly subs are necessary to guarantee players the massive amounts of high-quality content they have come to expect from games in the Elder Scrolls universe.

There's just one small problem: The history of the Elder Scrolls franchise directly contradicts the idea that expansive, interesting content is intrinsically reliant on monthly payments from players.

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The Soapbox: Actually, that really isn't an MMO

World of Warcraft, Fantasy, EVE Online, Guild Wars, Business Models, Culture, Game Mechanics, MMO Industry, Endgame, Opinion, Free-to-Play, Massively Meta, MMOFPS, MMORTS, World of Tanks, The Soapbox, Miscellaneous, MOBA, League of Legends, Diablo III, MMORPG, Buy-to-Play

Game title image
In last week's edition of The Soapbox, Mike Foster argued that online gaming has evolved over the past few years and that the term MMO should be expanded to cover other online games like MOBAs. He examined the blurred dividing line between new online games and the classic MMOs of yesteryear, and he made the controversial argument that Call of Duty and League of Legends should now fall under the MMO umbrella. I found myself disagreeing with many of Mike's arguments and wanting to make additional points of my own, so this week I'd like to offer a few counter-points on the same topic for debate.

The MMO market has certainly evolved since Massively was founded, with some pretty big innovations in gameplay and new ideas like the free-to-play business model taking hold. As much as people like to complain about a lack of innovation in the games industry, the same level of experimentation and evolution has hit industry-wide. Call of Duty has borrowed unlock and XP systems from the world of orcs and dragons, and League of Legends came from nowhere to be at the forefront of a global MOBA revolution, but neither of them is an MMO by any stretch of the imagination.

In this in-depth opinion piece, I break down the definition arguments surrounding the term MMO, offer a reasoned view of where the line can and should be drawn, and look at why Massively covers games other than MMOs.

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