The storm at Blizzard

There’s a wonderful moment in the 2011 movie Margin Call, when Jeremy Iron’s character states:

I’m here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more. And standing here tonight, I’m afraid that I don’t hear – a – thing. Just… silence.

The line is in reference to the global downturn. It’s a moment that springs to mind off some of the recent Blizzard news simply because it feels like not only are times a changing for them, but there is probably more pain on the horizon for this studio.

This post is of course a reaction to the news that Heroes of the Storm (HotS) is effectively being put into maintenance mode and developers being moved onto other projects. Whilst the official announcement confirms new content was still coming but that the pace would change, in reality this probably means they are simply releasing what they have developed already before making the game stable over its last few years.

Obviously for many fans of the game this news has been met with disappointment. It makes sense to halt development of something if it’s not financially viable. Although without transparency of visibility of the financials one has to trust this wasn’t a case of ‘unrealistic targets’ being set.

This news comes off the back of the recent report from Jason Schreier at Kotaku which had already referenced cost cutting and pressure from the parent company; Activision, to produce new games and increase revenue off the back of the falling engagement numbers. And that after the PR disaster that was Blizzcon 2018.

Whilst Blizzard triumphed mobile phone games after the public outcry to Diablo Immortal, the reality is I suspect it is choosing an easier platform to develop for in the hope of generating revenue sooner. The partnership or outsourcing of the Diablo mobile game to NetEase seems to fit in with this as well. As well as porting existing games to the Nintendo Switch. As much as it is common sense porting Diablo 3 to Nintendo Switch, it will have been a relatively easy and quick venture for Blizzard. Ultimately all of these projects are much easier than bringing a new game, like Diablo 4, to market.

HotS was only 3 years old. Once upon a time you could probably regard it as risk free committing time and money to any Blizzard game. However now there will be people that have spent hundreds on HotS with no real recourse for refunds or any purchase. Even if it was recent spending in-game. I can’t help but feel that with no new games since Overwatch in 2016, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth coming under criticism, that in many ways Blizzard games are all trending downwards. Certainly there will be other nervous Blizzard communities off the back of this news.

With their co-founder leaving two months ago and the challenges Blizzard faces it feels like a new studio might emerge and it’s games be ones that I don’t care for as much.

Whilst the big western publishers have enjoyed record revenues in recent years, therein lies the problem. And that is the unrealistic year-on-year growth that is expected. I can’t help but feel the pressure Blizzard are coming under is going to similarly affect other studios if the publishers revenues streams start to stall in the next few years.

Live Services – Part 3: The good, the bad and the ugly

For the final part of my three-part series on GaaS (part 1 & part 2) I thought I would list some of the Live Services/GaaS which I think do the whole service model very well. Or indeed very badly.

The good

Path of Exile | Grinding Gear Games
Often the term ‘free to play done right’ is banded around for many games. But I think here it is actually the perfect descriptor. Since 2013, Grinding Gear Games have been working on their ARPG with growing praise from those that have played it. The game does some major things right. All content is free, the game can be played as a free player with no penalty and makes you want to support the developer rather than feel you need to. It is far from perfect in that selling cosmetics limits the visual customisation options and the prices of some of its packs or in-game items feels slightly too expensive. But again it gets the balance right. And ultimately is as close to the best f2p game business model as you will find. The content on offer is fantastic and it is an outstanding ARPG as well.

World of Warcraft | Activision Blizzard
You could probably insert a few MMO’s here, but Blizzard’s 14-year old veteran game’s subscription model still works. And by retaining a subscription model there are very few in-game items to buy for real money. Whilst players moan about subscriptions, they still can provide one of the fairest business models a videogame can use. It’s also worth mentioning that WoW expansions have a Collector’s Edition but with only a few cosmetics included. There’s no Normal, Gold, Ultimate version rubbish here.

Guild Wars 2 | ArenaNet
No subscription and reasonably priced microtransactions. Far from perfect but does a lot of things very well when it comes to its business model. Unlike WoW it doesn’t have a subscription which is its strength.

Warframe | Digital Extremes
Great game, wonderful developer. F2p largely done right although the Prime Access pack are very expensive. However probably the best community manager in any videogame. And a phenomenally unique game. The fact this is the best looter shooter out there speaks volumes.

The bad

Call of Duty | Activision Blizzard
Year on year release. Season Pass, pre-order items, over £100 for the most expensive version and p2w in the form of weapons with better stats being in lootboxes. On top of that, this year’s entry has a slow grind version of Fortnite’s battle pass which has been designed to be very sllloooooowwwww at rewarding the player for obvious reasons. Eugh. About the most offensive cocktail of business models in modern triple AAA videogames.

Destiny | Bungie & Activision Blizzard
Again yearly releases, season passes and an endgame designed around lootboxes. For many including myself the realisation hit with the second game that there just wasn’t enough to justify the high purchase price. Great shooter and for the hardcore group PVE players they will be able to see pass these faults.

Grand Theft Auto Online | Rockstar & Take Two Interactive
A freemium, mobile game in structure. Everything is built around earning money which is very, very slow to acquire. It isn’t pretty. But unfortunately it has generated billions for Take 2 and Rockstar and clearly a blueprint for the recently released Red Dead Online.

FIFA/Madden Ultimate Team | Electronic Arts
I’ve written about this one before but EA has come under increasing criticism for its annual sports titles that appear to have only improvements in things relating to the Ultimate Team modes that are generating EA near or over a $billion every year. Like GTA V it’s effectively a freemium mobile game, with declining reasons for those not wanting to play the online mode to consider buying the game.

And the ugly

Marvel Heroes | Gazillion Entertainment (now defunct)
Marvel Heroes is a story of a f2p ARPG which was quite good fun and had a small but loyal following of fans. But is no longer around since it’s closure in November 2017. The studio and game were shut down only 12 days after Disney announced it was ending it’s working relationship with the developer. It’s a great example of where it’s possible to invest money and time in a service but unfortunately there is no guarantee it will be around that long.

I could list others like Evolve, or Lawbreakers. Indeed maybe even Fallout 76 which has turned into a big mess of a game. But ultimately I just needed one example to make the pun work!


I probably could list more examples in each category but when writing this it started to become clear that a trend has emerged over the last few years which is arguably good for consumers. And that is the rise of smaller, more dynamic studios whose games are reinventing and innovating within the industry without the pressure from publishers. And right now it’s hard to argue that the big five western publishers don’t have a monetisation problem where their greed is killing something special in a lot of their games.

Live Services – Part 2: An ideal business model

Previously I wrote about GaaS games and some of the trends that we are now commonly witnessing as videogame consumers. In this second part I wanted to think about what I believe make the best business models when it comes to monetisation for a GaaS. Ideally the fairest business model is pay once or a subscription, but the industry has tried to move away from these. So this should probably be a called a wishlist of how I would envisage the ultimate GaaS business model. I think there’s a balance of how companies charge and price a service.

The following are things publishers and developers should be steering away from when it comes to a videogame business models in my opinion:

  • No lootboxes
  • No pay2win, i.e. purchasable items with ANY stat increases.
  • No XP or in-game currency boosts
  • No separate currencies
  • No currency that can be purchased
  • No level gating of items only to be removed for players spending real money

Lootboxes have been debated in great depth but with a growing number of independent bodies or governments now starting to investigate or legislate against them, publishers should do the right thing and stop their use immediately. The impact on children and the lack of protection for consumers is one of the biggest problems the videogame industry has ever faced. But a problem of its own making.

So the question becomes what would I consider more acceptable business models in a GaaS videogame?

Purchasable cosmetics (maybe)
Personally I would prefer cosmetics were earnable. Remember when you saw someone in endgame gear in early World of Warcraft. You knew it was a badge of honour. Something to respect. Now cosmetics usually just mean the player who has spent the most money on the game. Ideally cosmetics should be earnable, or at least there is a balance; still allowing players lots of customisation without having to spend money.

Time limited content should be reserved for a few seasonal events
It’s cool to earn stuff from an event but using this as a continual mechanism to get people to login is less cool.

All items should be earnable in-game
With ‘reasonable’ play-time as well. And not hundreds of hours

Fair pricing
So not charging £30+ for a skin. Characters or skins really should be ‘micro’ in price. I know if games charged less I would actually be encouraged to spent more.

No V-Bucks, Platinum or Gold
Just price the purchasable item in a local currency where one transaction can be made. No ‘best value’ packs etc.

Online, multiplayer games only
Single player games have no-need for any of the above, as they aren’t GaaS games.

No mixing and matching of business models.
If the game has multiple tier versions at launch with season passes then there should be no-need for microtransactions. Games need to be fair in their overall value offering.


Of course this is all wishful thinking, but I do think that the better examples of GaaS games embrace some of the above (although not enough) pricing strategies. We have to consider games on a case-by-case basis. However generally it’s reasonably obvious to spot the videogames which get the balance wrong when it comes to the cost and the impacted design of a GaaS business model.

November Update

A load of new games in the Black Friday offers.

New game pickups

  • Path of Exile Shadow Stalker Pack (PC)
  • Battle Chasers: Nightwar (PS4)
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition Game of the Year Edition (PS4)
  • Starlink Starter Pack and a couple of ship packs (Xbox & Switch)
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration (Xbox)
  • Batman: Arkham Knight Premium Edition (PS4)
  • What Remains of Edith Finch (PS4)
  • Brothers: a Tale of two Sons (PS4)

What should have been a quiet month went a little bit crazy during Black Friday deals with some unplanned purchases. I have purchased Starlink Starter pack for Xbox One and Switch! With two of the exclusive ships packs (Scramble & Cerberus). I don’t necessarily want to spend on a full set or anything but quite like the look of the game and the concept. A game up until now I took no interest in.

I also picked up Battle Chasers and Dragon Age: Inquisition Game of the Year Edition as they were under £15 for both in a pre-Black Friday PSN promotion (and no I didn’t want the other games in the THQ Nordic PlayStation Humble Bundle). I thought Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration for £9 was exceptional value and too good to pass up.

Having got into Path of Exile I also purchased some stash and currency tabs. And just today took advantage of some of the cheap prices in the PSN Flash Sale after Cyber Monday to pick up Arkham Knight, What Remains of Edith Finch and Brothers. I owned Arkham Knight on disc when it first came out but sold it on when I barely had a chance to play it and realised there would be a complete version at some point. Under ten pounds for the Premium edition is a bargain.

Been playing (Grouvee Link)

  • World of Warcraft including the WoW Classic Blizzcon demo
  • Path of Exile
  • Hearthstone
  • Tetris

Spent a few hours playing the WoW Classic demo. Really interesting seeing the vanilla experience. Very stark contrast to what current WoW is. Combat is much slower paced, stacking skills and buffs etc as you wait for hits to land. In fact everything much slower; movement, questing and levelling too. I only played from The Burning Crusade so not sure if I’ll play this, but was really fun to play.

As noted in a recent blog post I’ve picked up Path of Exile again. Put about 15 hours or so into the Delve season, but holding off for the new season now. And finally I’ve been playing a lot of Tetris on the Game Boy. That game never gets old.

Completed/Abandoned

For the third month in a row, no games completed or abandoned…woops. WoW, playing with retro games and now PoE are to blame for that.

Updates & Up next

A few minor edits to the site, although the main one being changing ‘shelved’ to ‘abandoned’ on relevant pages – including this one.

With Christmas looming a number of games I would love to play. That said with my Game Pass subscription expiring soon I’m going to prioritise completing Rage if I can.

October Update

Definitely getting colder and lots of new games coming out. Progress on my backlog slowed down mostly in part due to WoW.

New game pickups
No new games! Videogame related purchases included:

  • 180 Days and Dreadwake Mount gametime offer for WoW.
  • Pre-order for the Sony PlayStation Classic in December.
  • 2 for 1 month offer to extend Xbox Game Pass to February 2019.
  • Welcome card pack for Hearthstone (had £2 Google Play voucher)
  • Blizzcon Virtual Ticket
  • Raspberry Pi 3B+ and other assorted goodies.

Been playing (Grouvee Link)

  • World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth
  • The Elder Scrolls Online – Summerfall Event
  • Rage
  • Call of Duty Black Ops III
  • Hearthstone

Mostly World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth (again). I’m very, very slowing levelling my main character to max level although I have been playing with alts. I finally managed to experience the Worgen starter zone having created an alt who fit the race (Feral Druid). Loved the starter zone but it is a laggy and buggy mess. Apart from very bad performance and noticeable lag for the whole zone, there are loads of bugs. On a number of quests I would have to log out and back in to complete them (disappearing vehicle UI, and quest items bugged). And unfortunately it appears to have been this way for a very long time.

I also played some The Elder Scrolls Online, for the Summerfall Event where I took a few hours to get the Pathfinder Achievement. Although it wasn’t required in the end! This was for some virtual tat of a pet, mount and player housing.

Also been playing Rage a bit more, maybe coming up on the half-way point of the campaign at a guess.

With all the launch excitement around the new Call of Duty, I decided to try out Call of Duty Black Ops III given away to PlayStation Plus Subscribers last year. I’m not sure how long I’ll stay with it but I’ve tried out Zombies (not sure so far what to think of this) and playing some custom games of Multiplayer. I’d like to try the campaign. Also been playing a bit of Hearthstone.

Updates

On Grouvee I have added an On-hold shelf to temporarily park games that I have played and mean to return to, but haven’t played for a few months. That way I can clear up my ‘Playing’ shelf just to be those few games I am actively playing. All will be kept on the backlog.

With regards to the website I’ve changed the following:
• Created a simple Reviews page for listing out my videogame reviews and impressions
• Renamed ‘The Plan’ page to Rules and improved the content
• Made some improvements to the design
• Minor edits on the About and Main pages

Away from the site I’ve been playing around with RetroPie on my Raspberry Pi 2. It’s been a little while since I last tried in on the Raspberry Pi and have been impressed with how well it’s developed. Will be playing around with some more SoC (System on a Chip) boards soon.

Up next

Same as last month although I’m tempted to try out a couple of games on Xbox Game Pass to maximise it whilst I have it. A few older games I would like to progress and complete still (Rage, Wolfenstein: The New Order and Mass Effect 3). With regards to WoW hoping to get my Death Knight (Blood) to max level 120.

Talk is cheap

Just over a week ago the maker of the popular Weak Auras addon posted a tweet about the current number of subscribers for World of Warcraft. The tweet was suggesting that after a new API had been made available, that it was possible to derive current subscribers to the game. Current subscribers for the game have dropped by around 2 million only two months after the release, for the western North American and Europe realms (servers).

Because the tweet was based on a soon to be deleted post elsewhere, there was no verification or way to validate the numbers. However this didn’t stop the news spreading and quickly people repeating it as fact. In addition many were quick to shut down conversations in their space (i.e. ResetEra or Reddit) because the claims couldn’t be substantiated. In addition Activision Blizzard responded to say the data was false.

So whilst there is nothing wrong with regarding the original leaked numbers as dubious i.e. anyone can claim anything on the internet. The response from Activision Blizzard should also be treated with cynicism. Many were quick to claim that Activision Blizzard wouldn’t lie because they have a legal responsibility not to mislead their shareholders. However the claim that the numbers are false can be made on so many levels, i.e. the number is only 99.99% accurate, or the data doesn’t include the Asia region subscribers etc. The fact is Activision Blizzard hasn’t published World of Warcraft subscribers numbers since 2015 when the game had 5.5 million subscribers.

Like many other companies Activision Blizzard has moved away from factual and meaningful data such as unit sales and subscribers to ‘player engagement’ and monthly active users (MAU) for the purposes of reporting financial information. However this is less useful data, very easy to hide behind and doesn’t really provide enough detail to analyse. Activision Blizzard MAU data is all players across all of its games and purchases grouped up into one big number. With free-to-play games included it is very difficult to see how World of Warcraft is performing. And since 2015 Activision Blizzard has only ever released ‘positive’ PR data- i.e. sold 3.4 million copies of Battle for Azeroth on day one. It will never release active subscribers unless it a. decided to, and b. the numbers were extremely healthy.

And it isn’t alone in this. Microsoft, for example, since 2015 has stopped reporting on the number of Xbox One units sold, or the number of Xbox Live Gold subscribers (i.e. paying). This is very likely as it was selling less Xbox Ones than Sony’s PlayStation 4 and the fact Gold subscribers was probably declining as a result. In fact we know from other data (i.e EA etc.) that Xbox One has sold less units that the Xbox 360 had at the same time in its lifetime. Microsoft is generating more revenue from digital sales but from less console players. We don’t even know what constitutes a Microsoft MAU. It could simply be someone logging into the Windows 10 Xbox App. In other words pretty garbage information.

However one thing was interesting and that is how people simply discounted that there might only be 3.2 million subscribers (in NA/EU, so excluding Asia servers). I’ve seen people state this couldn’t be true because why would anyone not buy gametime for an expansion they had already purchased (the 3.4m day one sales as noted earlier). Well I know this can be true because I was one of those players. Despite preordering the expansion for Allied Races during Legion I simply didn’t subscribe to World of Warcraft again until after the release of Battle for Azeroth. Also with the ability to buy gametime with in-game gold it’s quite possible the numbers for day one sales could have exceeded the subscribers at release.

In addition if we look at realm data, we can see there are around 5.9 million characters in EU and NA realms at level 111+. With alts and multiple characters it means it ‘could’ have been possible that there were somewhere in the region of 3.2 million subscribers for NA and EU regions at launch. As BellularGaming said in his YouTube video the lack of historic data makes this hard to look at previous trends. That said as with any MMO there is likely to be drop off in players after the release. Certainly there appears to more negativity around for Battle for Azeroth than the previous expansion at this point in its lifetime.

Either way the numbers are certainly not beyond the realms of possibility, and Blizzard quickly logging everyone out of the forums (possibly as a result of shutting down the API) may be an indicator that API had given out more data than ever intended. But unless there was more transparency from Activision Blizzard, we simply won’t know.

The more difficult to answer question might be, if the numbers are close to the truth, then what are the implications for World of Warcraft. Any MMO has a more defined ceiling when selling expansions but there might come a point when Activision Blizzard decides it can make more money from another business model. However it certainly isn’t going to increase any budget or resources for future releases and may explain why World of Warcraft Classic has taken so long to release.

September Update

Autumn has arrived. It has been fairly busy with DIY, a new PC setup, looking after the children, new NFL season (go Bears!) and work. These are all keeping me away from playing videogames. However the big news is that I jumped back into World of Warcraft after buying some game time. As I mentioned in my earlier blog post the temptation proved to be too strong.

New game pickups

  • World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth (game time)
  • Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition (PlayStation 4)
  • Forza Horizon 2: Storm Island DLC
  • Animal Crossing amiibo Festival

I purchased Tomb Raider Definitive Edition for PlayStation 4 in a recent PSN sale. I also picked up Storm Island DLC for Forza Horizon 2 following the recent news that the game is being removed from Xbox Live at the end of this month.

Animal Crossing amiibo Festival was really cheap from Argos. Although I won’t play the game, it feels like a nice addition to my small Wii U collection.

Been playing (Grouvee link)

  • Rage
  • World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth
  • Forza Horizon 4 Demo

Continuing with Rage but I have not made much progress. In World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth I’ve been enjoying levelling my main (Blood Dead Knight).

Also tried the Forza Horizon 4 Demo. The new 1080@60fps Performance mode for Xbox One X is great and the updated handling model makes the game seem closer to the Forza Motorsport series in the way the cars drive. The addition of seasons might just be a masterstroke too.

No games completed or shelved this month. Eek!

Updates

I have purchased an ASUS Stix GL703GS Scar Edition laptop. The main specifications are: Intel Core i7 8750H, 16 GB DDR4 RAM, Nvidia 1070 and 17.3″ 1080p 144hz IPS G-Sync Display.

I purchased this as an attempt to downsize my gaming PC setup. I’ve sold the old PC parts and moved some of the storage drives over to my Unraid server. Only a small downgrade on my previous PC although I’ve wanted to try out a gaming laptop setup for a while now.

Initial impressions are the build is solid, G-Sync is stunning but the laptop can be noisy. Playing any games and it sounds like the original Xbox 360 design. #hairdryer

Also I have updated the About page of the site to include a bit more detail about the current gaming hardware I own.

Up next

Largely the same as last month. A few older games I would like to progress and complete (Rage, Wolfenstein: The New Order and Mass Effect 3). With regards to WoW:BfA hoping to get my Death Knight to max level.

Azeroth calling

Not that long ago I wrote a blog piece about how I felt a bit burnt out on Games as a Service (GaaS) and I was falling out of love with them. That said in videogaming it’s hard to stay away from these sort of games. And this August saw the release of World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth. Despite not wanting to play it, I find myself being pulled towards the game as it feels like every Twitch streamer and YouTuber on the planet has been racing through the game to level their character to the new max 120-level. Hell back in Legion I even pre-ordered the new expansion!

WoW is a game I’ve always been behind the curve on. I first tried it in 2007 but never particularly clicked with it first time. I can’t explain why but something wasn’t quite right about that first time with a warrior in Elwynn Forrest. MaybeI just had other games at the time I wanted to play. Either way it wasn’t until Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning came out (remember that?) that I had a strange desire to play an MMO. And Blizzard had recently introduced a new Refer-a-Friend scheme that meant I could level-up with a friend as well as earn them some rewards.

Unfortunately I burnt out somewhere around level 38. This is when Wrath of the Lich King had just come out. Over the years I revisited WoW a few times during each expansion, but sometimes not staying around for long. Either way it would take until Warlords of Draenor before I would even make it to max level with a character. Since then I’ve played around levelling other classes but just have my one original toon (Draenai Shaman) at 110. Although I still have a free 110 boost on the account from already buying Battle for Azeroth.

Realistically I always don’t get that far in WoW, burning out levelling new toons or soon after reaching max level. I always have dreams of mount hunting or levelling my professions but it never seems to happen. With Legion though even if I scratched the surface I felt I got to a good place at least levelling one of my toons.

WoW for me is still a unique experience. Even though it’s not a solo-friendly game at endgame, it’s still arguably my favourite MMO even after all these years. I have lots of fun playing the game and enjoy the levelling process, world and lore. I suspect that I will still be playing it for many more future expansions yet. I do love the fact that it’s full-price content drops just continue to build on the same world. That progress you made all those years ago is still somewhere on your account and characters.

So even if I try and avoid the urge to go back to Azeroth, it is probably very likely the urge will get me one day. The question is when…