We Don’t Get Fooled Again

After perusing a few Book 7 threads on the Lord of the Rings Online forums, I hit an interesting node.  It seemed that people were thankful of the fact that Turbine added content to their subscription game.  Now, I am a thankful customer whenever I get my product or service without a hitch, but these posts were more in line with getting a free bottle of wine at a restaurant.  I was really confused that these people believe that this content update was not part of the subscription fee they had been paying all along.  As more and more games (and game playing) becomes a service, rather than a product, consumers should be aware of the service they are paying for and the norms with similar services.

Of course some products and services are still extremely blurry.  Take a look at Valve’s offerings.  Team Fortress 2 was first offered in the Orange Box, which came with a bunch of Half Life games and Portal.  If a FPS player just wanted extremely fast multiplayer action, the player could buy Team Fortress 2 for a mere $20.  They have updated Team Fortress 2 to an amount where most players are surprised that there are no subscription fees.  Valve has created new maps, polished the most popular player made maps, added new functionality to the classes, re-balanced their maps, made new movies for the game, etc.

Then Left 4 Dead came out for $50.  Like Team Fortress 2, it was pretty much purely a multiplayer game, and many people believed that we would get similar updates.  Left 4 Dead shipped as a great game, but it only 4 campaigns of 5 maps each (campaign = approx. 1 hour), only half of which were available for versus mode.  People figured “that’s alright, it’s still a great game.  It will get updated.”  The consumers felt that $50 went toward the product and a service.  We are still waiting for the “missing” versus mode maps.  It’s not the result of the service being printed “on the box” for the given price tag, but it was still expected given Valve’s established history.

Coming back to MMOs, the confusion is no different.  ArenaNet’s business model for Guild Wars is very similar to Left 4 Dead’s assumed model.  They sold a product and a service for a flat fee.  The problem was that before the Live Team was created, it seemed that the service side of things was almost at the developer’s whims.  Sometimes we would get a new dungeon.  Sometimes a new PvP map.  Sometimes a skill update.  People were not sure how to value the added service, even if unlike Left 4 Dead, in my opinion, the initial product was worth the price tag.  Now, that Guild Wars has a Live Team the service has solidified to a high degree, and I hope Guild Wars 2 follows a similar path.

Full circle back to subscription MMOs.  It is no secret that game companies live and die based on subscription numbers.  Players pay $10 to $15 a month for a service.   And the controversy lingers as to what all that “service” includes.  Turbine publicizes it’s frequent “free” content updates.  Many MMOs simply patch and tweak their games in between paid expansions.  Both practices rely on little more than the conventional wisdom of subscription fees only entitling customers to regular server and software maintenance.  Mythic is one company that is doing things very right as far as presenting what players will receive as the service.  I have not subscribed to Warhammer Online in some time, yet I still read Mark Jacob’s letters to the community because he forthrightly values the subscriptions.  It is clear he wants people to value the service Mythic offers.

At the end of the day, your playtime and your money is what talks, and players have left MMOs for cruder things than a shady service.  Still as we move farther away from buy-the-disc games, the value of the services we buy should become more apparent.  It will save a lot of disappointment or misplaced thanks down the road.

an equal amount of blueberries

26 thoughts on “We Don’t Get Fooled Again”

  1. It is a interesting and widespread phenomenon. I think it might just boil down to the fact that anything a company promises is a gamble. They may potentially benefit from customers buying into the promised value, but they risk worse backlash if customers aren’t satisfied with whatever is actually delivered. And we all know that gamers are NEVER satified, rigth? ;-}

    Marc Jacobs in particular has run his mouth a whole lot about WAR, obviously believing that the product will satisfy on par with the hype enough to bring and keep the customers. So far I’d say it’d be generous to say that it may or may not have paid off for Mythic.

    So I think it remains that most companies play it safe. Let the customers assume that your product has more value than promised. That way you simulataneously lose little when their implicit expectations are not satisfied, and gain much when they are. What you give up is merely the potential business of those who MAY have been swayed by additional advertising.

  2. The initial EQ2 service plan/revenue model was a real kick in the teeth. You paid $15 a month and then $10 every 3 months to get a small content patch.

    Mythic’s content upgrades so far have largely been stuff that 6 months before lease they had said was going to be part of the release but took out at that time. They still have two main cities for each side to go.

    WoW adds dungeons and battlegrounds every so often without an extra charge.

    I think people are thankful to Turbine because they do appear to add more in a free patch than most MMORPGs but certainly not all.

  3. Turbine adds chunks of content with each free ‘book’ patch. Landscape, complete with quest hubs, art, *ugh* faction, items in addition to the usual rebalancing and maybe a raid dungeon.

    I’m pretty sure they like talking about how they added 33% or so new land mass between launch and the first paid expansion (Moria), which is rather unusual still in MMO’s. In the past, actual landscape additions were part of paid expansions to a game.

  4. You have to think of two things: What your own playerbase wants and is used to get, as well as what the other kids are doing.

    Turbine gets kudos for (arguably) light updates – in type of content and how meaty it is – because that’s largely the kind of playerbase that sustains the game, and that’s the kind of content they want and have come to expect. I’m fully aware this is an unfair observation, but I’ll throw it out anyway: Turbine churns out content fast, but (some/half/most of it) is what other MMOs would rightfully consider fluff. Or at least, borderline fluff.

    So yeah, keep bringing the light white wine. Of course they’re gonna get compliments. On many other games, some of the content Turbine has released would be valid grounds for torches and pitchforks. (I don’t think Blizzard would have ever released into the wild something as ultimately irrelevant and bland as Evendim was*. They command a huge mob that must be kept as far away from fire and sharp objects as possible).

    The second thing is more nebulous and difficult to quantify, but it exists: You’re also judged by what the other guys are doing (corollary: … and you are not). Turbine will get kudos from the majority of their players as long as someone else doesn’t come along and does it better, faster and meatier elsewhere. As soon as that happens you will inevitably see the choir of “But so and so manages to do it…” forming up.

    Conclusion: It’s all well as long as your guys like your light white wine. If you start offering it too watered down, or someone else comes along and delivers it in a fancier bottle, or convinces people to switch to red, you’re done and we’ll see how many kudos you get.

    *: In my humble opinion, at least. Evendim made me stop playing LOTRO when it came out, so I fully admit my bias against a zone which is 75% made of water.

  5. Julian the 2nd half of your comment, while soothful, renders the first half (disparaging Turbine) complete nonsense…. I mean “light” content is better than no content, right? And as you point out the only current alternative is no content…

  6. @Julian: Save for DDO, AC, and CoH I honestly can’t think of any MMOs that have received more content outside of paid expansions than LoTRO (telling that most of those are Turbine games). Players in LoTRO are sure as hell getting a lot more “free” content than players in the market leader are.

    If by “light” content you a creep class, raid dungeons, zone expansions, new zones, and player housing I despair for any developer that attempts to deliver free content at a pace you’d call “meaty.”

  7. Turbine has always been very good about regular meaningful game updates. It’s part of their whole MMO design ethos. I often wonder what Asheron’s Call 2 could have become if it had been given a bit longer.

    I’d take issue with CoH being used as good example. Considering it has been out for 4 years or so now, and they’re just getting ready to release their 14th update, and some of those have been pretty light. Some have been cool, but still, especially with the absence of full paid expansions, the unpaid ones are far too far apart to keep things feeling fresh for me.

    It might have been Everquest that first released anything like a meaty content patch as part of the regular subscription fee, when they added the Warrens zone. We were all pretty excited by that at the time, but our expectations are higher now.

  8. I’m not really disparaging anything (other than Evendim, which I already did I guess). When I say ‘light’ I’m obviously not referring to Moria and the like… are those expansions? Updates? Something in-between? No idea. That’s where they put the gravy.

    But for every Moria and elven tree city, people can rightfully throw back ‘chicken play’, the irrelevant festival of something or other and so on. Those were very much touted as ‘updates’, not in the sense of updates proper, but given in a sort of ‘look, here’s more “content” for you guys”.

    If Turbine is going to put everything inside one bag and call it content, I think we should make a distinction between the meaty stuff they put out -and they do- and the stuff that in other dev houses pretty much may die at the veto table. Even if they don’t say it, we as players know what content is meaty and what isn’t so let’s not kid ourselves.

    I’m not coming down on Turbine. I’m glad there’s someone out there that delivers content periodically. What I object to is their tone of “content is content no matter what it is” just to throw whatever out there and keep riding the ‘look how fast we are with the content’ train.

    One or the other.

    And just to show I’m not picking on Turbine, CoH was also mentioned and that’s a good example. From what I understand, many of their updates were on the lean side, but hey it’s ‘content’ and we’re throwing it out there.

    I’m not the one giving the same value to Moria than to chicken play (extreme example), but by Turbine’s tone sometimes and the tone of some of that playerbase, they are.

  9. @Arkenor: I have to agree with you that the pace at which content has been added in CoH is not nearly enough to keep the game fresh. I’ve never been able to sub for more that about two months without getting bored. However, over the four year course of the game there has only been one paid expansion. Tons has been added to the game that was free for all subscribers.

    Power sets are analogous to classes in other MMOs, no MMO that I am aware of has added so many “classes” for free. You also have super group bases (and the oddball PvP game that came with it, and almost no-one plays), the invention system, and the “pick a job and let it earn you stuff while you are offline” system (haven’t the foggiest what they called it). And finally, in a month or so the Mission Architect is going live. It’s potentially the most significant “free” expansion in the history of MMOs to date.

  10. I’d have to disagree. Turbine is usually pretty clear on what is a major content update and what is just a “normal” MMO patch (class balance adjustments, bug fixes, ect.).

    In book ten we got chicken play (which got the most press because it was so zany), roughly 100 new quests, a new 6 man party quest hub in the south part of Evindim (the armor that you could earn there was on par with the very best you could craft or raid for until MoM launched), and the entire reputation reward system. Chicken play was a small part of book ten.

  11. @Julian: having re-read your last post, I have to essentially agree with you. I think the basic problem is that the PR guys feel that they need to toot the horn of MMO X at max volume constantly. For some reason they don’t seem to get the fact that they lose credibility when they tout a minor update at the same volume as a substantive update.

    CoH is actually a great example. Over the 4 year course of the game there have been some great free updates. However, updates that were pretty small potatoes were trumpeted just as loudly as the major stuff. Having seen the PR on CoH “cry wolf” so many times in the past, does Joe Average MMO enthusiast even realize how significant the update that we have coming is?

    For the first time in the history of the genre, players have tools to generate and distribute content in a sub based MMO. Based on the communities I keep a tab on, it’s pretty low on the radar right now. I wonder if things would be different if updates that added mainly costume choices hadn’t been pimped so hard.

  12. Well it’s the same PR guys that brought us “LOTRO now has over 5 million characters created!” so I don’t know what they’re drinking over there.

    CoH (the mission builder notwithstanding) has always been lean on the content. Guild Wars is dead and they do it (did it, rather) via expansions. I refuse to count holiday stuff as meaty content. Blizzard adds whatever, whenever they want to because they can afford it and they outsource their PR to their playerbase.

    I guess the question is if Turbine are the best delivering content because they’re that good at it, or because all the rest suck in comparison. I’m talking about both the weight of that content and how fast it’s delivered.

  13. This subject came up back in the UO days and EQ too, when players still had to be convinced as to why they would pay a subscription fee in the first place. The era was different: Players would outright own their games, online mulitplayer was considered minimum requirements for a PC game to be successful and consoles weren’t well connected or selling downloadable content.

    I still feel that my subscription fee damn well better be paying for ongoing content. I shouldn’t have to accolade Turbine for doing so (yet I do, very happy with them), because this should be a default expectation. As far as I’m concerned, it’s what we were sold as a major benefit to this genre, so when a game charges a subscription fee and then doesn’t keep up on the updates, I feel trust is broken.

    Attitudes in the general public have changed however and I fear I’m in the minority with my expectations.

    Downloadable content with services like XBox Live are probably the biggest driving force in the changing opinions. Players are no longer attached to the idea of owning their games. And they’re paying for updates.

    Meanwhile some of the MMOs have been giving us misdirection when it comes to ‘content’. Balancing and metagaming are far easier to produce than real honest-to-goodness maps, mobs and quests. Repeatable content (raiding especially) stretches further.

    New players don’t expect real updates and existing players have been slowly weaned off of their original expectations. Still, I find myself often asking myself: Why am I paying a subscription fee?

    It’s only a matter of time before games are treated like the cel-phone industry. There’s more profit in piling up small charges than letting you own something outright.

  14. How was no one brought up EVE, which over 5 years has delivered more ‘free’ content than most MMOs today launch with, including a graphics overhaul that did some rather amazing stuff. Plus all the actual MMO innovations rather than just ‘100 more kill x quests’.

  15. I am unfamiliar with CoH and EVE, but it definitely sounds like both MMOs are working for your subscription on some level much greater than mere maintenance.

    My only strong disagreement with all the comments (besides no one echoing my sentiment about L4D ;)) is about Guild Wars being “dead.” I agree that it’s day to day player base is definitely going down (negatively, “dying”), but their Live Team is, has been, and will be pumping out more upgrades and content. They have 3-4 big updates set for this year.

  16. Moondog: From that link, more than half of those entries are patches, bug fixes, class revisions, minor updates and so on.

    What I would count as worthwhile updates (just personal opinion) are:

    Book 9: Evendim (even if I hated the zone I’ll be the first to admit it was a large update)
    Book 10: Annuminas
    Book 11: Housing (and I’m being generous here. Housing is all well and good, but doesn’t really compare in my view to new zones and a bigger world)
    Book 13: Forochel
    Book 14: Eregion
    (However Moria is designated. Is it Volume 2?)
    V2 Book 7: Lothlorien

    So it’s gonna be 2 years old in April and in these two years people got one pretty large update (Moria) and five zones with their accompanying questage. Is it good? Yes, of course it’s good when a dev updates his game. All I’m saying is that it’s not as stellar as some people make it look.

    The initial game world at launch was on the smallish side (and Angmar was halfway finished, by the way). The above mentioned releases were juxtaposed with lean stuff. And so on. When you average it all (subjective, I know) considering how heavy the new content is and how long the game’s been out, I don’t think Turbine is better or worse than any other house in this regard. They might disguise this fact by offering it all in smaller chunks, faster than others (Blizzard and ArenaNet come to mind) but in the end when you look at it, it doesn’t stand out that much.

    We -could- start arguing what’s a ‘worthy’ update and what isn’t, but I purposely remained clear of that becase it comes down to personal tastes and we could be here all day.

  17. Oddly, while you skipped Book 12, that was one of my favorites in terms of the epic books. It is a shining bit of gameplay in the late-Volume One visual novel. Book 7 has added a zone, but in terms of gameplay, it is a far lighter addition than Book 12.

    And the numbering is going to get weird for people who do not know that Book 7 comes after Book 12. We’ll need to start calling them 1.12 and 2.7 or something once the later Volume Two books start coming out.

  18. The numbering is gonna get a little confusing, yeah.

    Anyway, just to be fair and to take a look at the dark side too (from here: http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/info/underdev/implemented/ ), from November 2004 to August 2006, a similar time frame to the one that we’re dealing with here, Blizzard released Maraudon, Dire Maul, Battlegrounds (AV and WSG), Blackwing Lair, the Darkmoon Faire, Zul’Gurub, another battleground (AB), Silithus, the four world dragons, Ahn’Qiraj, Naxxramas and cross-realm battlegrounds.

    We didn’t give Blizzard the lap dances Turbine has been getting in some places. Personally, I pass on the lap dance, but fair is fair and if we’re gonna count “Hey they added a whole dungeon here!”, we need to count it when the bad guys add their whole dungeons too.

  19. If you ask me, this whole debate reeks of subjectivity. Especially once we go down the road of “was the money I paid worth this new change the developer implemented, as cross-referenced with what the PR dept hyped.”

    Different people value different updates. A huge PvP change is meaningless for folks who don’t PvP, as a random off-the-cuff example. Part of the fun juggling act is to see how varied companies handle this.

    To me, Turbine does a good job in its games of presenting regular changes/patches with a 1-3 month turnaround time, with the meatiest documented patch update ever (funny asides included). Now how far they reflect actual reality, and how often they break things accidentally in their patches, I’m not so well aware of as I haven’t played LOTRO or DDO in a while, but I admire the professionalism displayed in the regular schedule/documentation.

    Turbine also has a habit of offering “something for everyone,” most player types will find something they like or appreciate in reading the meaty notes, be they soloist or group-oriented, an achievement-bar chaser or RP-focused. Tradeoff, any overall significance becomes diluted with this strategy.

    CoH stretches their Issue updates a little longer, 3-4 months between them, and tends to devote each update to a specific theme. Sometimes it caters more to Heroes, or to Villains, or to PvP etc. Most involve getting one new innovative system or major tweak out – the success of which can be overwhelming or less so, depending on each player’s personal preference. (Arena focused issue for non-PvPers = “worthless,” Villain epic ATs for someone who refuses to play a villain would be equally so, etc.)

    My personal preference is for companies that will check regularly for the pulse of their community and react with quick (not more than 1-3 month stretches) changes if need be, and display dedication in constantly correcting the direction of the game. Hence, I’m happy to offer money to Turbine and NCNC.

    Other regular updated games like Eve and Warhammer also match this criteria of mine, if I felt like playing the games in question. I’m far more wary of MMOs who offer blockbuster change in big blue-moon packages, mostly because I don’t like being bored for long periods of time and then caught up in a mad scramble to adjust. For others, this might be perfect, enjoy a stable professionally built game for a year or so, and just as things get stale, enter a massive patch to shake things up, readjust the rules of the game and turn it into something new to learn and master. S’ all subjective.

    Ultimately, the real issue seems to be that players need to be aware of what they are paying for. Really aware. Not just listening to any hype, but checking if the service/content the company is liable to provide matches up with one’s expectations.

  20. Every two to three months, my subscription is enough to pay for a whole new video game. I understand servers cost, but no one can tell me that they cost more than a small percentage of my subscription.

    Further, I will pay somewhere around $45 ever quarter to my MMO of choice. That is better income than a single box sale of any game to the developer. There are server costs, yes, but no packaging, no distribution, and no marketing to keep me paying.

    So I still ask the same question from UO days… if I am going to pay $15 a month, then why would I not expect enough content added to double the game world at least every 4-6 months? After all, I can take that $45 and instead buy a whole new game.

    I look at non-subscription games from Bioware and I think if those guys can create such compelling gameplay with only a single box sale, then what in the world are MMO developers spending their money on? Oh yea, rocket trips into space.

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