Friday, September 12, 2014

TESO, Wildstar and Archeage Walk Into A Bar

In the red corner, Wildstar.

In the blue, The Elder Scrolls Online, commonly abbreviated as either TESO or ESO.

Two up and coming subscriber-based MMOs with aspirations of greatness. Or at least, a decent market share. The former is banking on a zany sci-fi aesthetic, a telegraph combat system, player housing and an appeal to old school attunement raiding as its foundations for victory. The latter is riding on the coattails of a beloved IP and comes on the heels of one of the most popular single-player games of all time. Skyrim was voted by Australia as its most popular game in a recent poll conducted by ABC's Good Game television series, and TESO has attempted to leverage this popularity to attract subscribers to it, with mixed results.

The Champion.

At ringside sits the champion, a massive panda puffing on a fat cigar. His greatness is unquestioned by all, regardless of whether they love him or loathe him. He'll be in the Hall of Fame one day, and his records (12 million at his peak, and over 7 million currently) may never be broken. But for now he is taking a respite from training, and watching these two contenders slug it out in the ring before him. He is unimpressed with either – his contempt for his competitors is evident by his long lay-off, and his refusal to release his new expansion until November this year, more than two years after Mists of Pandaria. He knew new contenders were coming in the interim – he just didn't care. But now he is back, and if you look closely enough, you can see his fur giving way to green skin and rippling muscle. Warlords of Draenor is coming.

Final Fantasy 14.

If you scan the ringside a few more prominent figures emerge into focus from the smoky, raucous gloom. Final Fantasy 14 is dressed in classical Japanese “cool” - a mixture of denim, leather, fur and dark shades. His crazy hair style belies the gaunt face and the glittering eyes – he is a respected fighter, having garnered more than two million subscribers in his early career. His mixed heritage – Western and Japanese subscribers on PCs and consoles – give him an exotic look. Behind him sits an older woman of Scandinavian descent in a form fitting bodysuit adorned with tech. Cold blue eyes peer out behind a face streaked with implants and silver geodes, and combined with her reputation for hostility, ensures that no one comes near her without an explicit invitation. EVE Online is old, formidable, and unique. Her 500,000 followers come from all walks of life, but it is her acolytes in null sec that garner the most attention from the press and the outside world with their massive, record-breaking bloc wars. Her attention is not directed at the fight, but with two up and coming amateurs sitting across the ring from her. Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous will be making their pro debuts next year, and she will be their chief rival.

EVE Online.
There are others too, not belonging to the subscriber-school of fighting, who have chosen to grace ringside with their presence. Guild Wars 2, Marvel Heroes, Lord of the Rings Online and Star Trek Online stand clustered together in the aisle, laughing loudly at some shared joke, while The Secret World sits with his back to the wall in the far recesses of the stands, eyes never still. These F2P fighters, free agents without recurring monthly payments, were once derided as has-beens, over-the-hill fighters trying to hold onto their glory days, no better than hawkers and used car salesmen in their frantic attempts to peddle off whatever content they had left. No longer. Star Wars: The Old Republic looks hale and whole in a simple brown and white cloak commonly worn by the Jedi. Described as one of the greatest failures in MMO history, her clear brown eyes show only calm and detachment. She made a spectacular debut, racing to over 1 million subscribers in the first three days of her release. This was followed by a more spectacular fall from grace, a transition to a hybrid F2P model, and predictions about her eventual demise. She has shocked them all by her resilience and heart. Since switching to F2P she has recouped her costs, and generates a steady income stream for her manager, Electronic Arts. But the stigma remains, and the fight tonight, while not necessarily meaning the end for either TESO or Wildstar, is in many ways one for prestige. Critics of both fighters have harangued loudly about their eventual demise to F2P. Only time will tell if these critics were right.

SWTOR.

But back to the fight.

The two contenders pace in their respective corners and receive their last minute instructions as the ringside announcer finishes the last vestiges of pre-fight pageantry. There is a moment's silence for the fallen – Warhammer Online and Vanguard are honoured and remembered - and then the fighters are introduced to tumultuous acclaim. The referee gives them their final instructions, and then steps back.


TESO came out swinging first, having been released on 4 April. Almost immediately it was sent reeling back under a storm of criticism. Scorn and derision were piled on the title, and the knees buckled and bent, but did not fall. Forbes went ahead and predicted that it would be “the biggest video game disaster of 2014.” The Errant Penman wrote A Farewell to TESO, a beautifully written elegy to the the game TESO never became. Review after review lashed it, bloodied its face, gashed its skin, and broke its nose. Comparisons to the great Skyrim invariably led to damning reviews. Worse still, it became apparent to all at ringside that TESO was not fight ready. Crashes, bugs and glitches marred its performance. People who were willing to try the game left in disgust. TESO also debut with an ill-conceived Imperial edition, locking an entire race behind a paywall and giving its critics more ammunition to crucify the title.


TESO.

Wildstar came out two months after TESO on 3 June. In contrast to TESO it received glowing reviews and accolades from the blogsphere. In many ways it was the Chosen One – the anointed successor, the greatest thing since sliced bread, the game which would re-invent a tiring, ailing genre. Just as TESO was made a pariah Wildstar was embraced and loved and elevated by the blogsphere. Most games would envy the critical reception Wildstar received upon release.

In fighting however, it's not what the critics say, but what the fighters do that matters.

TESO gave its subscribers five extra days of free time as an apology for its extremely rough release. It moved its maintenance days from Tuesday and Friday to Monday and Thursday so that Oceanic players could play the game on Friday evenings. It migrated its European servers from the US to Europe in order to reduce the latency of European players. It clamped down hard on the gold sellers which plagued its release, so much so that they have virtually disappeared from Tamriel. It consolidated the various PvP campaigns in order to minimise the effect of Emperor-farming, a deplorable practice which essentially stripped the title of any meaning. It pre-loaded weapon swapping animations to give more responsiveness to combat. And the quick and efficient responses to customer tickets have impressed both me and my gaming circle, and have done much to offset our initial disappointment at the shoddy state of the game upon release. Iteration by iteration, TESO is getting its feet back under it. Staggered and wobbled in the first round, it is beginning to fight back. In June it had over 750,000 subscribers, which made it third behind WoW and Final Fantasy 14.

Wildstar, on the other hand, is living and dying by its decision to make old school raiding the centrepiece of its endgame. For all the critical claim it has garnered, it has managed to scrape together a paltry 450,000 subscribers in the first month of its life. And now the news that Carbine is consolidating their servers ALREADY, barely three months after their release. If MMOs truly were fighters, then Wildstar is what we would call a front-runner – dangerous early, but prone to gassing out and withering away in the later rounds.

Wildstar.

The most disappointing thing has been the lack of heart shown by Wildstar's early supporters. As Wildstar falters, and new, younger fighters appear on the horizon, these fair-weather supporters are abandoning the bandwagon in droves, citing a general ennui with MMOs as a genre as an excuse for turning their back on their chosen champion. In a time where Wildstar needs more subs than ever, they are cancelling, quitting, and showing their true colours. Like a swarm of locusts they are already gathering around Archeage, ready to pick it apart and consume it before moving on to their next meal. The remaining hold-outs, those who genuinely love the game and continue to support it regardless of its faltering popularity, have my respect. I know how they feel.

So Wildstar battles on, increasingly bereft of friends, his movements growing less graceful and more laboured as the fight moves into the middle rounds. But TESO doesn't look that hearty either. In its last update TESO had to make a plea for more players on the public test server, and the number of PvP campaigns do not seem to reflect a population measuring over three quarters of a million players. Furthermore, the news that Zenimax has laid off a number of its staff bodes ominously for the future of the game. Wildstar might go to F2P earlier than TESO, but that would be cold comfort if TESO tumbles soon after. 

At ringside, a gossamer of emotion flickers across SWTOR's face. She has seen and experienced this all before, and perhaps her thoughts are with both fighters as they struggle to establish themselves. Then again they are her opponents and rivals, and there is little room for sentiment in their profession. Final Fantasy 14 remains alert and attentive, carefully watching TESO. As number two and number three on the rankings, they will jealously guard their positions in anticipation for an inevitable clash. As for the champion, the great panda has already turned away from the fight and is chatting amiably with his cousins Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. He doesn't care who wins – neither of the fighters are a threat to him. But several rows back, another fighter watches the fight with an intensity belied by her fair complexion and youthful looks. Archeage boasts a Korean heritage, a claim of sandbox based play, open world PvP, and a player-driven economy reminiscent of EVE. She will make her professional debut next week. Unlike the two fighters slugging it out in the ring, however, she has eschewed the subscriber path, and will begin her career as a F2P fighter. New age, or old guard? Will the disciples of F2P triumph, or do the fighters of old school subscription still have a part to play in this sport of ours?


Archeage.


As for me, sitting in the stands far from the action, my money remains firmly on TESO outlasting Wildstar as a subscription-based title. I don't even like TESO that much – the only part I really like is the Alliance War, and that was a style pioneered by one of the early greats of the bare knuckle era, Dark Age of Camelot. The rest I have seen before, albeit without the voice acting and with worse graphics. But nothing would please me more than to see TESO prosper and do well, especially after all the scorn, derision and criticism that was heaped upon it during its release. Every month it remains non-F2P is another month which illustrates how wrong many of these learned commentators are, and how worthless their opinion is when it comes to the trends which rule the MMO market. My opinion is equally worthless, but nonetheless I did make the prediction in March that TESO would not go F2P in a year's time, and thus I feel obliged to put my money where my mouth is by remaining a subscriber. The introduction of the Imperial City, a possible Arena mode as well as a future justice system to enable open world PvP are future features which interest a player of my own peculiar tastes. The transition to consoles in December may also give the game a much needed shot in the arm. Final Fantasy 14 has shown that there is a market for MMOs in consoles. Perhaps TESO can parlay this and leverage it to create a sustainable base from which to build upon. As a supporter and subscriber of the game, I can only hope.

10 comments:

  1. Guild Wars 2 isn't free to play, but I've read you for long enough to know that you'll keep calling it that. While it may have been more engaging when it was younger and less prone to criticism for lacking content updates that pack a punch, I'm not sure I'd call it a has-been at any point. It's currently sitting at the #10 spot for games played (all genres) on Xfire and #2 in the MMO category right after our juggernaut panda bear friend.

    Wildstar is still on my radar. I subbed for a month after the free time ran out, then switched over to FF14 - a class act with well-implemented, familiar features the sum of whose parts makes even grizzled oldsters like Syncaine smile. I'll be subbing FF14 for now and may return to Wildstar when it works out its kinks. For me it's basically ShinyWoW 2.0 with 2004's idealism in the year 2014. They've figured out that targeting 1% of the population gets them 1% of the subscription fees, so they're slowly backpedaling away from that bravado and revisiting raiding attunement requirements (defeat the bosses instead of getting bronze/silver/gold) as well as other features such as the broken arena PvP game mode and perhaps the leveling difficulty. Nowadays, players are responding much better to selective difficulty, so romping through the leveling zones and then being able to press a "hard mode" button in raids is really going to be much better for Carbine financially in the long run. Megaservers I see as a good thing as I'm personally in the crowd that thinks that the notion of "servers" is on its way out. Those paltry 450,000 subs are only 10% off EVE's steady base; I'm confident that level-headed efforts toward inclusivity could maintain and even grow that number.

    Let's face it - you don't need 7 digit subs to be a success. You need a non-gimmicky game model with broad appeal and a solid base of content or it's into the F2P bin for you. I'd like to see Wildstar hit the brakes and turn things around, but I'm not putting any money on it.

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  2. The point I was trying to make with all that fluff with the F2P "fighters" is that F2P, while maligned by some as a designator of old, has-been games, is actually a good way of generating revenue and is not the death-knell that some commentators have made it out to be. And you're right, the Guild Wars franchise is not technically F2P in that you pay for the boxed game and for subsequent expansions. I used the term to mean non-subscription. Guild Wars deserves a better rap than I put in that little tale of MMOs lounging around in an underground fight club, but you have done that for me in your reply.

    I agree with your comments re Wildstar, and yes, 450,000 subs is not paltry. I thought carefully about the adding the adjective "paltry" before the number, but in the end I just let it go. A little needle is good sometimes.

    I also agree with your comment RE not needing 7 million subscribers to be a success. The whole idea of this article came about while I was watching an MMA fight with some friends, and somebody said, "What if MMOs were fighters?" Since the value of a game is a subjective judgement, I just went with subscriber numbers as the basis of determining the pecking order.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

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    1. Oh, you were just having a bit of fun. Well, now I feel like a dork. I did enjoy reading it, though.

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  3. I am enjoying TESO - the quests are Skyrim-y enough to add a lot of flavor to the world, and for some reason the lore is really interesting (never been lore guy). Whats really hooking me is the crafting and visual quality of the world design, as well as the scarcity of skill points meaning everyone has to specialize, which keeps both PvP and the economy interesting. That being said, the additions they have made, and promised for the near future, gives me a lot of hope that it will stay a subscription game entirely.

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    1. I hope so too, been getting my TESO second wind after a bit of a hiatus. Sill not VR12, though, just slowly getting there.

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  4. I have to admit I praised Wildstar, criticised TESO, but ended up laying none of the two once Beta was over. I think that the aggressive marketing for the hardcore is what turned me away from Wildstar. If it was years ago, I think I would actually pick up the game and play it. These days though, I am "filthy casual". These days I complain over orcs still having bumps, trolls still not having shoes, removal of tier sets from LFR, and the lack of flying in Warlords. I don't care for those high-end achievements, not because I outgrew them, but because I don't have time to actually familiarise myself with the content to actually care for it more than I do for actual story. And obtaining another ugly sword I'd rather destroy then sell to a vendor is not a good incentive for the likes of me.

    On other hand, playing another subscription based MMO is an investment. And I know, had I started, I would not let go as easy as I did. But then again, had I truly believed in the game, I would actually buy it, and not just play through beta, and then stop. I am a hypocrite in regards to Wildstar. I wish it success, but in case it goes F2P, I will probably end up playing it. And that brings me back to WoW. No matter how much I criticise it, for better of for worse, I know deep inside that eventually I will come back if only to swap face on my main.

    Hearing that Archage is F2P is tantalising, as I would actually love to try it out, but until now I presumed it was subscription based. I guess there is a game to fill my MMO urge until WoW gets flying on Draenor. Hopefully.

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    1. Sorry for the late response - I am just slack with keeping on top of comments.

      I'm a filthy casual nowadays, too, which is not a bad thing. AA is an ideal title for me because I am just wandering around in it without any real goals, while WoW is also time and casual friendly. There is a bit of a grind to 100, but beyond that keeping your gear up to date in PvP is actually very easy to do (10 Arena wins and 1 RBG win per week keeps you at the maximum cap).

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  6. I have played every game mentioned in this article. Which is extremely well written by the way. And all I have to say is that I was seconds away from reactivating my WoW account until I tried Archeage. Archeage is so good and so damn fun that I have found my game. I'm not playing anything else. i can't tell you why, or what it is about it, but...this game is just awesome and extremely fun to play. The most fun I've had in an MMO since WoW vanilla. Like many people, I bounced around from MMO to MMO looking for something to keep me from playing WoW again when it got so damn boring. I tried FF, WS, TESO, SWTOR, and the rest. I literally tried them all. GW2, etc. Archeage won me over. An absolutely incredible game. I'm happy now. I started F2P with archeage and I am now a patron with a paid subscription. Trion has my money now. Simple as that.

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    1. I'm glad you found a virtual home, and I wish you the best of luck in the game.

      I'm interested to know how much the controversies surrounding AA's P4P elements and the rampant hacking and cheating are impacting on your decision to play, however.

      I'm still an AA subscriber (I cancelled TESO to join AA) but atm I am under a gaming time crunch because I have to get my WoW toons ready for the beginning of the PvP Conquest grind. Once I have two toons to 100 I will scale back my WoW time dramatically and return to AA, because I will only then need to devote one night a week to grind for gear until the end of the season. Then I can potter about in AA and hopefully secure a larger plot of land for my wandering avatar.

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