Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hard Choices : GW2, Daybreak Games

As game director I have to make tough trade-offs. One thing I believe is that we have to focus on the core game first before taking on additional responsibilities. I wrote in the Guild Wars 2 Design Manifesto in 2010 that our vision was to create a living, dynamic world, where there’s always something to do. Let’s ensure we succeed on that front.
Mike O' Brien - President - ANet

With a primary, near-term focus on growing the newest Daybreak franchise, H1Z1, I look forward to pushing the boundaries of emergent gameplay and expanding on the competitive experience.

Larry LaPierre - Senior Vice President of Games - Daybreak Games

Chinese companies will scoop up 1-2 western publishers a month from here on. The lesson to be drawn from Chinese mining company Shandong Hongda in talks to buy RuneScape developer Jagex for $300 million is that it will happen again.

Superdata (via MassivelyOP)

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear

My outlook on the ever-changing MMORPG landscape tends to be relatively optimistic, some might say Pollyannaish. For all the never-ending wailing and teeth-gnashing that goes on and for all the predictions of the genre's impending crash and burn, nothing much seems to change from one year to the next. Since I've long been happy with what I'm being offered, that's a situation that suits me just fine.

MMOs tend to persist. As Wilhelm observed recently, EverQuest just turned seventeen. RuneScape, currently on the table for $300m, is fifteen. WoW will be twelve this year. For a long while it's been arguable that the biggest problem the MMORPG genre isn't change but stasis.

Behind the scenes, though, something is moving that can. as yet, be only dimly seen. The one thing that is emerging from the mists is this; the days when MMORPGs could simply drift along on a whim and a prayer may be coming to an end.

It's not, necessarily, all about resources. DBG, having been streamlined (some would say gutted) by its new owners, still seems, somehow, to be able to come up with solid, new content at a very reasonable pace. A dip into the current, rather frenzied scrabble toward launch for Landmark does test that proposition somewhat, but even there a decisiveness and determination to get the blasted thing finished and out the door at last seems preferable to an eternity in early access development hell.

If DBG seems able to do more than expected with less than it needs, then by contrast, ArenaNet somehow manages the opposite. There's a very big team working on GW2. Mike O'Brien laid out the numbers in a recent Reddit AMA : "We have about 120 devs working on the live game, 70 devs on Expac2, and 30 devs on core teams that support both." And yet, even with those resources, few would argue the game has been well-served over the past twelve months.

The Heart of Thorns expansion, much though I was pleasantly surprised by its quality and accessibility, enjoyed, at best, a lukewarm reception. It seems sales were under-cooked, much like the expansion itself in the opinion of many, while retention of those who did buy in has been more disappointing yet.

The bulk of development in the last six months has been directed at Raids, which, while they have apparently been better-attended than similar content in other MMOs, surely remain a minority interest for the playerbase as a whole. At least the Raid team has completed its work in a timely and efficient manner, though, unlike the team working on adding the rest of the now "indefinitely postponed" Legendary weapons. Those, of course, much like raids, are also of direct interest only to a minority of players. A hardcore, you might even say.

The Spring Quarterly Update, due some time in April, far from bringing the new content many feel is desperately needed, is mostly focused either on fixing things that the expansion broke (World vs World) or fixing the expansion itself. Heart of Thorns, which has now officially been deemed too difficult, too exclusive and insufficiently casual-friendly, is going to get nerfed.

Whether the players who have wandered off elsewhere in search of the kind of meaningful realm vs realm warfare or entertaining, inclusive, casual gameplay upon which GW2 originally sought to build its brand will return to see if things have been tuned better to their tastes this time remains to be seen. Certainly the decision to abandon development of the Legendary weapons has not been received with universal approval, as the ever-growing threadnaught on the forums demonstrates, but for my money it signifies a long-overdue recognition of reality.

Just as the cancellation of EQNext suggests someone finally popping the hatch on the bunker and blinking at the harsh light of external reality, so Mike O'Brien's open acknowledgement that things have gone badly wrong recognizes a painful but unavoidable truth: things just can't go on like this. Someone needed to say it. Someone needed to do it.

Despite Colin Johanson's upbeat exit it now seems quite clear that the rumors of his taking the opportunity to resign before it was taken out of his hands could have substance. Under his direction the game has felt increasingly rudderless, surging from each new idea to the next with barely any time to reflect on the failures or consolidate the successes.

He failed to hold the line on free, bi-weekly content updates or on not producing paid expansions. Worse, when forced to change direction on these and other key, structural positions, he failed to make a success of the imposed alternatives. It seems the relative failure of Heart of Thorns was the final straw.

It's a bit rich of Mike O'Brien to arrive as some kind of white knight, driving away the darkness, waving the banner of that infamous, thrice-denied "Manifesto". He was, after all, Colin Johanson's boss for the last three and a half years. Still, let's not complain too much about the presentation. Let's just hold him to this:

I will work to make you happy, and I’ll do it by making you happy with what we ship, not with what we promise to ship.
It looks as if quite a few MMO developers may need to make some hard decisions in the coming months. We live in interesting times, as I'm sure they're saying in the boardrooms of the great steel-producing corporations of China, every time someone stands up to make a presentation on why they should buy a bunch of digital orc assets.

I'd kind of prefer those decisions were made by people who at least know the names of the games in question as something more than lines on a spreadsheet.


  1. You have intimated problems in this discussion, but have largely left them unelaborated. I am curious. Can you please consider following this article with another which details what you had in mind with these issues, especially in regard to 'popping the hatch... and blinking at the harsh light of external reality". It would be interesting to read your insights on the systemic nature of these problems in the MMO landscape. Appreciate your thoughts.

    1. I'd love to, if only I had the time - the eternal complaint of the blogger who also wants to play the games he blogs about. The problem we all have, writing and talking about EQNext, is that none of us ever saw it. It never got even as far as one of those "Early Access Alpha" builds such as Landmark enjoyed when there was barely anything there at all and certainly nothing that could be called a game.

      Moreover, there was never any genuine "in game" video of EQNext, even in a rough state like the footage we've seen of Camelot Unchained or Pantheon. All we ever got to see were a very few marketing videos and some concept art.

      On that basis it's impossible to parse a statement like "it was cancelled because it wasn't fun". All we can do is read the runes. The game was in development for, what, six years? Maybe longer. It was scrapped and re-started under new design briefs at least three times, maybe four, or was it five? Virtually all of the key personalities and individuals driving the project were released, sacked or forced to leave by outside circumstances.

      Whatever EQNext was going to be or could have been, as an MMO that didn't seem likely even to go into public alpha before 2017, what chance was there that, if it finally reached release status sometime in 2018 or 2019, it would have a hope of finding a place in the market? The world changes fast, especially where technology is involved. What seemed like the bleeding edge back when EQNext was setting the blogosphere on fire three years ago would most likely have landed like a clump of wet cardboard when it finally limped out the door five years on.

      But, as I say, we really can't know. My guess is that, rather than simply being out of its time and "not fun" EQNext simply didn't work. Landmark doesn't work, not really, not well. It's getting closer but it's still awkward and clunky. Over the years a lot of video games have been released that didn't really work all that well so perhaps we should be glad that someone had the good sense and the good grace not to follow those unhappy examples.

      As for ArenaNet and their seeming inability to make up their minds about, well, just about anything at all, again we end up on speculation street. I would just say, though, that having worked for a number of medium and large corporations over the years, it's quite surprising just how much the ideas and opinions of one or two key individuals can affect the direction of the whole business. cf WildStar. cf Firefall.

      The next six to twelve months of GW2's development should tell us a lot about the last four years, I think.

  2. Do you know how players complain devs rarely listen to the players?
    Arenanet might listen a bit too much.

    I could bet you that when GW2 released the plan was to go with expansions while adding some stuff here and there to the online game.

    But the cash shop numbers were just too good. The cash shop was generating more money than their GW1 expansions.

    I'm getting ahead of myself though. Arenanet was simply not prepared for Gw2 to have 2 million plus players at release. Maybe they shouldn't have because the decline of the player base after the first month caused Arenanet to panic and to try to cater to those leaving players.

    Lets face it, those players that left in the first couple of months were not the target audience of Gw2.

    Living Story season 1 worked in an epic scale. Living Story season 2 left some interest content (with nice challances ans of course 2 zones) but it didn't replace season 1.

    It needs to be a mix of season1 and season 2.

    Hot is good but only catered for 1 type of play (which was basically only represented by Dry top and Silverwastes since Orr never worked as intended).

    1. That's very much how I see it. I've always put the fault line at the first, big post-launch event, the Karka Invasion. My feeling is that that represented the direction the game was intended to take - genuinely "dynamic" one-off events that, because they *were* one-offs, could also have very significant rewards attached (in the case of Karka, a good chance of a precursor and a guaranteed 20-slot bag).

      Sadly, as happened a few years earlier when Rift tried the same thing, ANet discovered that MMO fans get out the tar and feathers if they are told other people might get something they can't have. One-off, "be there or miss out" events, always cause a massive backlash from everyone who, for whatever reason, can't make the date. Personally I love them and I'd be ecstatic to miss 9 out of 10 just for the chance to "be there" for the tenth, but that seems to be very much a minority opinion.

      Ever since then they have indeed appeared to be trying to give players what they say they want, not what the developers want to give them. Unfortunately players have no clue what they want and rarely want what they asked for when they get it so that approach has largely been a disaster. I really hope we are finally going to get so actual leadership, where the devs make the game they want to make and then get Marketing to sell that game to people who want to play it. I'm not holding my breath.

      I also very much agree that what we need now is an intelligent blend of what worked in Season 1 and 2 (big events like Marionette and zone invasions and lots of small gobbets of lore all, plus coherent Achievement paths and some decent, replayable instanced content). If they get that right it should help retention enormously.

      I'm also with you on HoT. I like it a lot but it is indeed very one-note. If you don't like those long event chains there's not much else there and there clearly needs to be. They had better get that right for the second expansion or they could be in real trouble.


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