The SOEpocalypse is upon us

Have we ever seen a studio announce the shutdown of four MMOs all at once?  To my recollection, no, although sometimes these foreign studios do wipe out a bunch of tiny ones in one go.

But man… this is a huge event that SOE decided to cushion itself by (a) waiting until end of business on Friday to announce and (b) mix in some good (if not new) news with the All Access changes.

So we’re going to be saying goodbye to Vanguard, Clone Wars Adventures, Wizardry Online, and Free Realms come this March and July.  CWA and Wizardry don’t surprise me, especially the latter, but the other two do.  SOE poured in a lot of money and effort into a free-to-play Vanguard and to my knowledge Free Realms was doing just fine.  I guess the beancounters either saw that these properties were losing money, not likely to gain much more money, or would be better off not dragging the studio down as it looked to soar with DCUO, PlanetSide 2, and the EverQuest titles.

So Dragon’s Prophet made the cut?  Huh.  I mean… really?  Huh.

As many people have noted, this kind of puts an end to seeing SOE as the studio that champions and sustains MMOs that would have faltered elsewhere.  Maybe it’s just done with that, having cast off EQOA, EQMac, Star Wars Galaxies, and (most likely) PlanetSide, not to mention sending Pirates of the Burning Sea away.  It also lessens the value of the new All Access pass because fewer games.

It’s not the end of the world, of course.  Of some worlds, but not the world.  For most players, it won’t be a blip, as these aren’t the most populated and played games out there.  Maybe pruning the SOE tree of dead weight is needed to create a stronger company in the end.  But it’s still a little bit of a shock to see something like this hit all at once.

Guess it’s time to go update the Timeline page once again!

Six steps SOE needs to take in 2012 to survive

It’s hard to overstate just how brutal 2011’s been to Sony Online Entertainment.  From layoffs to hackings to a one-month shutdown of the game’s services to titles being axed to Star Wars Galaxies’ shutdown to botched F2P launches, it’s just plain sad for all those involved, including fans.  What once was the undisputed king of the MMO mountain is now struggling for relevance and even, dare I say, survival.

Now I don’t think SOE is on the verge of closing up shop or anything, but it certainly reeling from multiple blows and is suffering from poor public perception.  It’s hard to define what SOE is to the MMO community these days.  Is it the rebel upstart?  The aging Galactic Republic?  The ancient master in exile on Degobah?  Seriously, what’s with my Star Wars fixation today…

In my opinion, SOE needs to be bold and make significant progress in 2012 to overcome the nightmare that was 2011.  Here are six ways I think it could happen.

1. Pull out the stops on development of EverQuest Next and related publicity

After axing The Agency and announcing that SWG was going to join The Matrix Online in the MMO graveyard, SOE’s future roster of titles is looking thin and unexciting.  I’m sorry, but I’m starting to think that SOE assumes everyone’s going to go bananas over PlanetSide 2 when we’ve seen virtually nobody clamor for a sequel to one of the company’s lesser populated titles.

No, the focus right now needs to be on EverQuest Next.  Why?  EQ is SOE’s flagship franchise, and people ARE genuinely excited about what a new one could bring.  Yet since the 2010 announcement that it was happening, we’ve heard next-to-nothing about it since.  EQ Next shouldn’t be rushed, but it should be pushed to the front of the queue and the company needs to start releasing information about it to recapture interest.

2. Resurrect The Agency

Speaking of interest, people were pretty dang psyched about The Agency.  A spy-ish MMO hasn’t really been done thus far, and from what I saw, it was looking pretty good.  Forget PlanetSide 2 and pull a Lazarus here — resurrect The Agency not just because it had potential, but to show the world that you’re staging a comeback from 2011’s defeats.

3. For the love of God, stop rushing free-to-play conversions

I know Smedley now has a romantic “thing” for F2P, and that’s all well and good, but dang if pretty much every F2P conversion the company’s done so far has backfired in some way or gotten too muddled.  SOE’s currently trumpeting how many players are trying to cram in DCUO’s doors, but it’s overlooking how bad the company’s coming off by not being prepared for them.  EQ2X was a fine idea, but segregating servers and creating a needlessly complex “matrix” chart for it was not.

I’m not saying don’t DO free-to-play, just do it right.  Rethink the stupid mess of EQ2X and consider integrating free and paying players together.  Make the payment structure a lot more simpler and easier to access.  Don’t make it worse, though.

4. Keep experimenting and having fun with EverQuest

If there was one triumphant story from SOE this year, it’s that EverQuest stayed pretty relevant in the news.  It got into the Hall of Fame at the GDC Online Awards, it’s going to release a new expansion, and its new progression servers were the talk of the town for several weeks.  EverQuest is a perfect place for SOE to experiment with different server types and promotions, as it’s pretty established and can only benefit more from publicity.

5. Acquire a hit franchise

In the past I admired how SOE snagged struggling MMOs into its growing Station library.  Players could enjoy a whole host of titles for a single monthly fee, and SOE enjoyed its status as a genre unto itself.  But with many of its current titles aging, being cancelled or otherwise not being played at all (Vanguard?), it’s time to get some fresh blood in there.

Why not take a cue from GamersFirst and snap up some promising MMOs that have already done most of the development?  Or what about getting a hot MOBA-style game as part of the team?  It’s got to be cheaper than starting from scratch, and if Smedley is serious about F2P, there’s plenty of promising prospects out there.

6. Focus on cornering the kid MMO market

You know what are two of SOE’s biggest successes right now, both financially and reputation-wise?  Free Realms and Star Wars Clone Adventures.  You know what SOE should do more of?  These.

They may not be the type of MMOs (or online experiences) that you and I go for, but they’ve proven to be a huge hit and have tapped into that same exploding kids demographic that Wizard101 enjoys.  So why not specialize in this instead of trying to butt heads against World of Warcraft, RIFT, Guild Wars 2, and Star Wars: The Old Republic?  Just cut your dead weight and refocus on what’s making your company successful.  Again, I’m saying that “PlanetSide 2” isn’t the answer here.

Fishing! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

Okay, if fishing in MMOs was like this, I'd be there in a heartbeat

I just don’t get fishing.

I don’t.

To my mind, fishing is a holdover from RPGs and MMORPGs of the past, a vestigial activity that was supposed to represent a “daily life” activity that was something other than killing ten spiders (or spider-monkeys).  And so, MMO after MMO, fishing sneaks its way in — usually in the fantasy genre — and players torture themselves into liking it, just because it’s there.

Hey, you know me, I’m all for MMO activities that aren’t directly tied to pig slaughter, but we’ve had a decade of developers trying — and failing — to make fishing an amusing, entertaining and attractive side hobby.  What ends up going in is usually a soul-sucking grind that has two buttons: one to cast, one to click when the bob bobs.  Then you get to see if you caught something cool or (more typically) not, like you’re playing a slimy slot machine.

I’ve seen enough friends torment themselves with WoW’s idea of fishing to know that it’s akin to walking barefoot on a glass-strewn floor, in agony every step of the way.  WoW tries to justify fishing with a couple rare rewards and a tie-in with cooking, but at its core it offers a paltry payout for a repetitive, dull activity.

Not that LOTRO is any better, mind you, nor Free Realms’ Fisherman job.  Some even claim that earlier MMORPGs, like EverQuest, did fishing better than anything we see today.

Some appreciate that fishing is something you can do while you’re waiting around, kind of like pulling out a ball of yarn and knitting a sweater until your friends arrive.  Its convenience is probably the strongest thing going for it.

I’m just curious why, even though fishing endures in MMOs, devs have clearly stopped trying to do anything different with it or making it more enjoyable.  It’s not as if we lack for video game fishing simulators, sold on every computer game aisle at Wal-Mart and Dan’s Country Discount & Liquor Store.  Apparently Star Wars Galaxies and Vanguard at least attempted to make it more skill-based, but I guess it hasn’t caught on.

And I’m wondering why we’ve stopped at “fishing” for the go-to second hand activity — there’s got to be a lot of other hobbies out there for a character just lounging around.  Origami, perhaps?

When CCGs and MMORPGs Date

Happy Day-After-Valentine’s Day!  I hope yesterday was either a great day to express your love to your sweetie or a bottomless pit of anguish and torment as you gnashed your teeth while you wallowed in your single state — because, either way, you have something to talk about to friends today!

Via Twitter, Spinks shared the news that Blizzard looks as though they’ve wiggled out of their contract with Upper Deck in regards to their trading card game (TCG/CCG), because it looks as though they’ve been working on an online version of the game. From MMO Champion:

About two years ago, Slouken slowly left World of Warcraft to start working on an “unnanounced project”, at this point I just assumed it was the unannounced MMO. I was wrong: Blizzard created a new development team in 2008 to work on an online conversion of the World of Warcraft: Trading Card game and Slouken seems to lead the project (or at least the recruitment, according to a few offers he posted online). This new game is most likely why the partnership between UDE and Blizzard died.

It’s really hard to get more details on the game but I wouldn’t be surprised if all the old cards were revived online to give new players a chance to acquire them. Of course, just like everything else, nothing is official and you shouldn’t believe me until someone in blue actually confirms that.

If true, this opens the doors for a lot of speculation.  Will it tie into the WoW game proper — will you be able to sit down in Stormwind or Orgrimmar and play a couple hands with friends while you wait for a raid to start?  Will they form a symbiotic relationship that will award WoW players cards as loot drops?

It’s not as if we don’t already have a precedent for this sort of collaboration (double negatives FTW!).  SOE has CCGs for Free Realms, EverQuest 2 and Star Wars Galaxies, making them a separate game that can be played within the MMORPG, which in turn gives players of the MMO opportunities to get cards while they go about adventuring.

I’ve never been much into SOE titles, but I love that idea.  Many MMO players have a history with CCGs, whether they be Magic or Pokemon or Warcraft.  At Gencon Indy, the sheer variety of CCGs available just boggles the mind, and I don’t think they’re going to go away any time soon.  I’ve said in the past that it’s a shame that Magic Online didn’t do a better job, because breaching the online market holds lots of potential — and profits — as players who love CCGs want the added convenience of playing at home with people across the globe.

The collaboration between MMO and CCG makes sense both ways.  People who are big fans of a particular MMO really can never get enough of it, so an online CCG using the same IP (man, count all the acronyms in this article for a big reward!) is going to be well-recieved — and the CCG gets a boost from latching onto that IP.  Having a CCG accessible in-game makes sense, because you can easily justify it as your character sitting down with other characters between being mass murdering the local fauna and kicking it with a card game.

Synergy!  Love it!

P.S. – I would kill for an official online Munchkin card game.  Just sayin’.

Bio Break and the Year That Was

This is as good a picture as any to encapsulate this year

2009 was a big year for MMORPGs, even if you can’t pinpoint a single game that defined the entire year.  There was certainly more than enough going on to fill up a solid year of discussion, and if you want a brief recap of the year’s hottest MMO stories, I suggest you read this two-part article.

I began this year primarily playing WAR and writing for WAAAGH!, but neither would last for long.  Bio Break quickly became my blog o’ choice, as I wanted to branch out into discussing the MMORPG world at large, and I’m certainly glad I did so.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a year where I’ve played so many MMOs, met so many terrific people online or had so much fun as this one, and for me personally, 2009 was the year that gave me permission to stop being a monogamous gamer and go where the gaming was good.

So I wanted to end 2009 by going through my year in gaming and blogging.

iPhone Games

In June, my brother-in-law gave me his old iPhone 3G (he’d upgraded to the new model) and I discovered the sheer joy of this techno-Swiss army knife.

Although the app store is simply loaded with games, I’ve found myself to be a bit picky in what I want from the platform — it has to be quick to pick up and put down, work well with the interface (I really wish the device had a physical D-pad), and be worth my time.  This boils my game list down to the following:

  • Dungeon Hunter – A generic but wonderfully-done Diablo clone
  • Desert Chronicles – A tower defense/RPG hybrid that I still play months after downloading
  • Peggle – Because… it’s Peggle
  • Bloons TD – I love Bloons, but its reliance on cannons over all else has dampened my enthusiasm of this title
  • Civilization Revolutions – Civ in a pocket format
  • Skee-Ball – Dude, it’s SKEE-BALL
  • Star Hogs – I loved me some Scorched Earth back in the day

Single-Player PC Games

As I’ve long since moved away from console gaming, so am I starting to drift far away from single-player computer titles.  Even though many of them are fun, there’s something about the persistence and connectivity of MMOs that makes me miss them when they’re not there.

I spent a chunk of the year deep in BioWare’s domain — KOTOR, Mass Effect and Dragon Age all commanded weeks of my time, and were well worth it.  Dragon Age wasn’t quite the be-all, end-all gritty fantasy experience I’d hoped for, but it was excellent, and I hope to go back and finish it some day.

Torchlight… I’m still divided on this.  It’s a decent diversion, but it never really hooked me, and I was a bit turned off by its FATE 2.0-ness.  I do need to go back and give it more of a fair shake, tho.

Games I have on deck that I’ve yet to try — Majesty 2, Borderlands, Tropico 3.

MMORPGs

I’ve probably annoyed a few of my readers by MMO hopping, particularly when I’ve left a game that they care about for one they did not.  In my defense, I’m not suffering from gamer ADD or WoW tourism syndrome or whatnot — I just had the urge this year to explore, to play new and old titles that seemed fun and appealing, and I wanted to get as broad of a base of experience for writing about MMOs in general.  I don’t see 2010 as being any different, to be honest.

So what are the titles I’ve dipped my toes in — or dove deep into — this year?

  • Warhammer Online – I began the year in WAR, but even back in January I knew that my time in the game was coming to an end.  It simply did not have what I was looking for in a MMO, and it never felt quite right.  I think that WAR is one of the biggest disappointments in my gaming career, because I had such high hopes for it, and because it really had so much promise and potential.
  • City of Heroes – Yes, I actually played CoH a bit earlier this year, partially because I was looking forward to Champions, and partially because I just missed the simplicity of the combat/missions grind.  Fun and amusing, it wasn’t to be for very long.
  • World of Warcraft – I played a month of Wrath then canceled my account, to what I publically declared to be the last time.  Which it wasn’t, so egg on my face.  Due to a great guild, the dungeon finder tool and a more laid-back approach to the game, I’ve found myself in Azeroth once more.
  • Lord of the Rings Online – 2009 was the year that I gave LOTRO its second big chance, and ironically, it ended up just like the first.  I had a great time, enjoyed the Captain class, found a terrific guild, and simply burned out somewhere in the middle of North Downs.  I like the game, but the setting and feel of it just isn’t *me*, which is one of those personal things that can never be resolved on Turbine’s end.  Speaking of Turbine…
  • Dungeons and Dragons Online – I hadn’t planned to play this, period, except for the announcement of the free to play version that got me thinking about DDO again.  And once back in the game, I found that there’s a lot to love and admire about this quirky, unique MMO.  While I’m not in it at the moment, I won’t hesitate to recommend it, especially since it costs you nothing for a good chunk of the content.
  • Free Realms and Wizard101 – Both of these I played and tried to get my wife into; both of these were too “kiddy” in tone for a long-term stay.
  • Champions Online – Had high expectations for this following City of Heroes, which were not met.  CO is an odd bird to me — I will stand by my statement that it’s a fun game with great combat, but it’s also shallow as all get out, far too linear and suffered a plague of embarrassing snafu’s in the first month.
  • Fallen Earth – Need I go into much detail here?  Hooked me after a great deal of positive word-of-mouth testimonies, and I agree with them all — this is a rough-and-tumble MMO that earns its stripes with a fantastic setting, deep gameplay and rewarding crafting.
  • Guild Wars – I had a copy of this sitting around, and I was determined to really get back into this game.  Unfortunately, my time restrictions forced my attention elsewhere, and my general feeling was that I’d rather start fresh with GW2 than plow through the first.

En Kankluzion

With no huge WoW-like breakout hit in 2009 (or 2008 for that matter), it’s easy to casually dismiss this year as so-so for MMO gaming.  Except that that does disservice to huge breakout hits like Free Realms, the growing success of EVE Online and Wizard 101, the more-than-adaquate subscriber base of Aion and Champions, and the thriving indie titles such as Darkfall and Fallen Earth.  It was a year that many spent eagerly anticipating titles that are still yet to come (TOR, Cataclysm, GW2, Star Trek), a year in which we saw many projects canceled and MMOs close, a year plagued with layoffs and debate and controversy, but it never was one thing.

2009 was never boring.

6 MMORPG Mascots

leet

1. Anarchy Online’s Leets

Anarchy Online’s a “serious” scifi MMO with serious high-tech soldiers running all over the place, proving how awesomely buff they are by subjugating an entire planet.  Among them frolics the Leets, little groundhog-looking things that exist for no other reason than to subtlely mock the “elite” or “1337” players that feel as if they’re all that.  Dude, you might as well give up — these little guys are already leet!

They come in different varieities: Leets, Eleets, Leetas, Soleets, Phear Leets, Supa Leets, Santa Leets, Wereleets, Godzillaleets, Frankenleets and Draculeets.

murky2

2. World of Warcraft’s Murlocs

Across WoW’s two worlds and four continents, there is a truly mind-boggling array of creatures, beasts and beings, but none are so infamous as the beloved and (often) beheaded Murlocs.  “People fish” is how their character creation process went, and if you can get used to toothy fish walking around, that’s only the start of their oddity.  Most of the Murlocs’ fame come from their insane aggro radius and their unique gurgle war cry, the latter of which is often imitated by fans and people choking to death.

For their part, Blizzard has embraced the cult of the Murloc, giving these fish men even more personality and culture in the most recent expansion pack, as well as handing out two non-combat varieties of murloc pets: a baby murloc and a space marine murloc.

150px-Gwen_(Prophecies)

3. Guild Wars’ Gwen

Like several MMO mascots, Gwen wasn’t created to be one, but for some reason players had such a strong connection to babysitting this 10-year-old in the prologue of the original game that it soon elevated her to the figurehead of the game.  As a child, she is playful and talkative, skipping around you as you go about your business.  Although she was assumed dead in the post-searing Ascalon part of the game, fan enthusiasm for the character prompted Arenanet to bring her back in an expansion pack — both as an adult character, and as inspiration for the expansion pack’s name: Guild Wars Eye of the North.

180px-Chatty

4. Free Realms’ Chatdy

So I guess by the time Free Realms came out, SOE was hard-pressed to think of a mascot animal that hadn’t already been used to promote various products ten times over.  Thus, the rare blue-mohawked flying squirrel applied for the position and was accepted without a moment’s hesitation.

I’m not that familiar with Free Realms’ expansive lore, so I’ll just assume that Chatdy also burrows into the skin of /AFK players, lays his eggs, and watches with glee as small flying squirrels burst of their chests a week later.

karl

5. Dungeon Runners’ Karl

German demons might be a dime a dozen, but players of Dungeon Runners were partial to Karl, whose ever-present head sat at the bottom of your screen and got obscenely excited when you leveled up.  While his throne was briefly supplanted by the popular Bling Gnome, Karl will be the once and future king of our hearts.

cohimage

6. City of Heroes’ Statesman

Although it’s tempting to call a flagrant ego foul on this one, admit the truth: if you had created your very own superhero MMORPG, wouldn’t it be irresistable to Mary Sue yourself into the role of the lead character?  So let’s not blame Cryptic’s Jack Emmert for doing something we probably all would do.

Statesman even prompted a lawsuit by Marvel Comics, who found the character a bit too like Captain America for their liking.  Actually doesn’t Betsy Ross own the copyright to red, white and blue with stars?

Game Cards

nexon-game-cash-10000-nx-card-origWhenever I pop in to the 7-11 around the corner, or swing by the CVS down the block, I always notice the large display they have for gift cards, including an ever-widening selection of MMO game cards.  Sure, a lot of these game cards are for kids’ games, like Wizard101 and Free Realms (not to say that only kids play them, but that they’re targeted at that demographic), but I also have seen plenty of cards for WoW, Guild Wars and City of Heroes as well.

Oddly enough, I’m a huge fan of game cards for MMO payments.  If my kids ever get into online gaming, there’s just about no way I’m going to be forking over my credit card number for them to potentially abuse with microtransactions and whatnot.  Game cards come with a built-in limit: you get X amount of play time, or can spend Y amount of dollars, and then that’s it.  No more.  It’s like an allowance for gaming that can’t really be abused.

Personally, I’ve used game cards a couple times this past year, mostly as a way to circumnavigate our household policy of only one MMO subscription at a time.  Maybe I want to jump back into a MMO, but only for a month or two — game card.  Not only does it open up access, but it comes with a set cancelation date as well, so I don’t have to remember to nix my sub or else end up paying another month past what I wanted to.