Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Keep Calm and Game On

I love forums data. Its a great way to look at how players relate to the game. But I started to wonder... what do other MMO forums look like? I scraped the Aion, LOTRO, and Rift general forums, and charted post views and posting frequency over time. I threw in the Rift PvP forums and SWTOR PvP forums for good measure.* Dotted lines denote major content releases.**

In this context... SWTOR's launch looks stronger than Rift's (the SWTOR PvP forums have higher posting volume than the Rift General forums). While the SWTOR forums have seen a decline in volume, the fall-off is comparable to post-launch Rift - a game that is still going strong a year later. No, really. Play a game of Conquest. Its fun, massive, and has a flobbidy-gillion players.

In the F2P category, at least from posting volume, I'd say that SWTOR looks looks like it is in a completely different league than either Aion or LOTRO. Maybe, one day, the SWTOR forums will look like the F2P pack, but at least for the moment, it'd look pretty out of place.

Much of this just reaffirms the conventional wisdom about MMOs: judging by Rift and SWTOR a fair number of players leave the game after the first couple months. Its normal, natural, and probably healthy. Across all games, content updates reinvigorate the game, but generally don't create lasting upticks.

But if this is the general life-cycle of an MMO... the recent layoffs at Bioware-Austin are puzzling. (And my heart goes out to everyone affected.)

PS:  a second way to look at the data (personally I don't find it as interesting).
* I'd use the SWTOR general forums, but given how the forums are organized, I'd take about 2000x longer.
** I've never played LOTRO or Aion so I'm uncertain how many major releases I'm missing.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Great Server Migration

Thought I'd share a visualization of how the SWTOR server migrations have shaped realm populations. Here I'm just taking a look at realm status (1 for light, 2 for medium) over time, by region and type. Short story: origin servers are ghost towns, destination servers are hopping (but that much was clear already).*

Slightly cooler story: even before the migrations, as far back as April, destination servers had higher populations than the other servers in their zone / type. There is one exception. Until just days before the migration, The Swiftsure averaged a higher population than The Bastion (which ultimately became the destination server for West Coast PvP servers). Makes me wonder why Bastion got destination status. Rounding errors between status and true population numbers? Server hardware?

I also went ahead and re-collected data on posting volume on the PvP forums. Activity - in both posts and views - is definitely down from earlier in the year. Curiously, while 1.2 saw a remarkable increase in activity on the pvp forums, the 1.3 release had almost no effect. It looks like a focus on the server migration drew posters away from the forums around the roll-out of that feature.**

*The gap in data from the start of April comes from my failure to backup a week's worth of data and then getting a drive failure.
**The white band around May 5th is a day of data I'm missing.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Measuring Gaming Value by Depth, not Time

I see a fair number of comments arguing that 'hours occupied' is the way to measure the value of a game:
A 2 hour long movie will cost you at least $3 at a cheap theater, at best that's $1.50/hour of entertainment. Most movies cost closer to $8 to go to and lots more if your poor judgement gets you to pay for overpriced snacks ($4+/hr of entertainment). I've played 250+ hrs of D3, maxed every class to lvl 60 and tried a little Inferno with each of them. For less than $0.24/hr of entertainment I'd be hard pressed to find a better deal. For me D3 was definitely worth it! (source)
Which is a sort of weird quantity-over-quality argument... akin to arguing that a long movie is better than a short one, simply because it occupies more time. Because 'The Wolfman' would magically become a better movie by making it longer.*

When I choose to be online, I'm opting to not be hiking outdoors, playing with data, hanging with friends, (insert other favorite activities here). My time is another scarce resource I invest in games.

I measure the value of a game in its depth - the ability to generate those quirky moments of surprise that make for lasting memories. Social games have a greater potential for depth, by adding a layer of player interaction to the game.

Years later, I can chat with friends from WoW and have a laugh. It isn't the boss kills we remember, or even the 'big guild achievements'. Its the random quirks. We joke about kiting world bosses to capitals, giant world pvp deathmatches, random "you heal?" whispers, odd pranks, endless travel times... All of us remember a half hour wait for one priest to return from afk before a boss fight (her name is still a curse). Whether good times or bad, I remember those moments fondly.*

Typing that, I can't help but smile. That is great value.

D3 - after about 100 hours /played - is pretty thin on those memories. On the whole, I look at D3... distastefully? I can't point to anything from my time in-game as epic, or ask "remember when...". D3 just didn't have enough depth in game mechanics to have those quirky bits of fun. The world was a bit too linear and unsurprising, and the game design was a bit too flat. Group size was too small for a good social dynamic.

That is poor value.

I could just as easily write the same paragraph about SWTOR. It is too linear, and the groups were a bit too small (at least for the crew I game with). What saved it was the depth. I remember killing guildmates via sorc pulls. Endlessly slaughtering infinitely respawning ship droids after one too many irksome 'conversations'. Dodging instant nukes hopping up walls in the trenches of Denova.

This parallels the recent ForceJunkies and Gamespy articles on content depth (via fluff). In an MMO environment where the raiding can't be the sole endgame for all players, games need depth - at launch - to keep a wider range of players excited about the game. Which is why I'm surprised D3 and SWTOR ended up selling themselves short - by launching without more of that content, the games were great on potential, but thin on value.

Which loops back to a better understanding of why good games occupy more time. The kernel of truth there is that additional content will take more time to work through. But in a great game, that content enriches what is already there.

* Worst. Movie. Ever.
**I'd be content to call this nostalgia... but I can do the same for Rift.