Archive for August, 2011

WoW: Free to play?

My latest session was a short one. I did make it to Outland, but only for a few seconds, experimentally, before returning. The portal to Outland is located in a zone called the Blasted Lands, which I had never visited before, and so I got caught up in the Blasted Lands quest chain. It’s the completist in me: even though I know I’m never actually going to complete this game, I am by nature incapable of passing up a quest. I’ll probably have more to report on actual Burning Crusade content next time, possibly including some kind of answer to the question of who exactly is doing the burning and why.

In the meantime, let’s talk a little about the one recent major change to the game (other than opening up BC) that happened while my attention was elsewhere: WoW becoming nominally “free to play”. “Free to play” is a major buzzphrase in the industry right now. In particular, it seems to be the business model behind nearly every viable modern MMO other than WoW. My thoughts on it in WoW are that they’re doing it wrong, but also that it probably ultimately doesn’t matter that they’re doing it wrong.

How are they doing it wrong? By ignoring everything about the (by now well-established) free-to-play business model other than letting people play for free. The usual approach, as far as I can tell, is to sell things that can be used in the game: special items that can’t be obtained any other way, or extra game time per day if that’s limited, or even just outfits with no gameplay effects. WoW‘s revenue still comes mainly from subscriptions. There doesn’t seem to be any way for a free player to pay Blizzard 1Anyone can pay real money for in-game gold by buying it from a gold farmer, but that’s not really relevant here, because Blizzard doesn’t profit from such transactions. for advantages in the game while still remaining a free player. The only way Blizzard profits from free players is by turning them into subscribers.

And that’s really been the WoW business model all along. There’s always been a way to play for free. If I recall correctly, they used to offer 30-day free trials, then reduced it to 14 days, and by the time I gave it a whirl, it was down to 10 days. Well, now they’ve bumped the trial period up to infinity days. This is probably a smart move. Playing with a trial account still caps your character level to 20, and my own experience was that I reached that limit well before my 10-day trial ran out. So for the people who are going to play up to the limit and then quit and never think about it again, nothing has really changed. But for people who are tempted to progress further, removing the time limit prolongs the temptation.

To put it another way, the trial accounts are, for all intents and purposes, a form of shareware. Shareware, when it imposes limits on non-registered users at all (as opposed to just begging for voluntary donations), generally works in one of two ways: by limiting the amount of time you can spend in it, or by limiting the content you have access to. WoW trial accounts used to impose both of these restrictions at once, which in retrospect was an odd decision. Now they’ve switched to limiting only the content. But at the same time, they took the opportunity to drum up some media attention by jumping aboard the free-to-play bandwagon, even though it’s still not free-to-play in the same sense as Maple Story or Kingdom of Loathing or Team Fortress 2 (itself a recent convert to the F2P model).

I suppose the big question, then, is whether or not it worked. Was there a big influx of newbies? I don’t know; I haven’t spent time around the newbie zones. It would please me, if not Blizzard, if there were a lot of new players with perpetual trial accounts now. One of my biggest annoyances with the game is that most players seem to be old-timers with level 85 characters that I can’t effectively group with or fight, until and unless I buy two more expansions and spend a lot of time leveling up. Having a large number of under-20’s around would counterbalance this in my mind, and also give me something to look down on.

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1. Anyone can pay real money for in-game gold by buying it from a gold farmer, but that’s not really relevant here, because Blizzard doesn’t profit from such transactions.

WoW: Getting pulled in again

So, when I paid for a World of Warcraft account, I paid for a six-month subscription, of which I actually used approximately half. This runs out later this month (which means I must have gotten a free month somehow, because I paid in January), and since I’ve already pretty much stopped playing, I figured I’d log in for a last look, maybe play out some Alliance-side starting quests to see what they’re like, and cancel my account. But while I wasn’t paying attention, Blizzard went and folded the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, into the basic WoW account. This means I suddenly have access to a new continent, a couple more character races, and, best of all, the long-anticipated flying mount. So I want to at least try this stuff out before pulling the plug.

First order of business on logging in after three months was to put a bunch of herbs up for auction in the hope of finally affording the long-coveted 36-slot herbalism bag. Yes, bags are pretty much my most prized possessions in this game; a high-capacity bag extends the amount of time you can spend questing before you’re forced to either head back to town or make painful decisions about what loot to ditch. We’ll see how that goes next session, when my auction is over. Second thing was the flying mount, which is a bit of a disappointment so far: when flying mounts were initially introduced, you could only fly them in certain areas, and apparently you still need the later expansions for those restrictions to be lifted. At least it runs fast.

I haven’t actually ventured into the Outland yet: I was in the middle of a quest chain when I hit the level cap and stopped playing back in May, and I wanted to finish that up first. Also, I have to say that this expansion is the content that I’m least curious about in the whole game. For one thing, due to Cataclysm revamping the home territories, Burning Crusade‘s quests and lands are now the oldest part of the game, and therefore bound to be the least well-developed. Also, this is the one expansion that I haven’t really heard anything interesting about, or indeed much of anything at all. But then, that also means it’s all in front of me to be discovered. But I do seriously suspect that this is part of why Blizzard decided to start giving it away with the basic subscription: to get people over the hump of buying content they’re not interested in. You’re required to install the expansions in order, BC before WotLK before Cataclysm, so BC may have been acting as an obstacle. I certainly would have been more easily persuaded to buy more content on hitting level 60 if it had been something with as much buzz as WotLK.

And now that BC isn’t standing in the way, that’s a risk. I might decide, later this month, that WotLK is worth buying. I hope that doesn’t happen. I have other, more interesting games to play. So here’s hoping Burning Crusade is bad enough to put me off WoW forever!

Spider: Secrets and Switches

As you might expect from the subtitle, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is full of secrets. Nearly every level has one: an area that’s only accessible through a gap that looks like a solid object at first glance, or has some other trick to entering it, containing a little more enigmatic art and some extra bugs. (Thus, completists like me can always tell when there’s a secret to be found. If you eat every visible bug and don’t get the “Level cleared” alert, there must be more bugs you don’t see.) In the simplest and earliest cases, all you have to do to find such things is guide your spider on a circuit of the room’s periphery. When you suddenly go through the wall you’re climbing, you’ve found it. But that doesn’t always work. Sometimes the secret is on the interior, inside a floating object that you need to jump onto to explore, like a dresser with legs that the spider can crawl under. Such things dissolve to a cutaway view when entered. Also, some secrets have to be opened up first by other actions, such as jumping at a wall switch to press it. There’s one that requires something like five different switches to open.

In fact, switches and other nudgeable objects are a pretty important mechanic, providing your only way to alter the environment in other ways than spinning webs. In some cases they control access to non-secret portions of the level. There’s a repeated gimmick of turning on a light to attract moths, which you’d otherwise have to laboriously hunt down over a larger area. It’s used a lot because pressing a switch is just one of the few reasonably plausible actions a spider could take — despite being not actually plausible at all. Spiders are light. Even a big spider like a tarantula would have difficulty moving your standard wall switch.

I recall thinking similar thoughts about Bad Mojo, a graphic adventure game in which you play a cockroach. That roach was capable of amazing feats of strength for a bug its size. But at least it had an excuse for being as smart enough to solve the game’s puzzles: it was actually a transformed human. The spider in Spider is, as far as I know, just a spider, and wouldn’t realistically recognize a switch as something pressable even if it realistically had the ability to press it. Just as it wouldn’t recognize the portraits and letters and abandoned keys in the secret areas. It’s just another part of the strange disconnection between diegetic player goals and avatar goals in this game.

Speaking of which, I seem to have accomplished the game’s goals for the spider, predating my way through the house and reaching the end credits. So, the game is off the Stack. But at the same time, it’s clear that my time in Bryce Manor is not over, because I have goals that the spider does not. Now that I’m not so occupied with mere game mechanics, I can try to unravel the backstory, and to find the Secret Room mentioned in the achievements list. I think I know basically how it’s found: it involves switches that don’t look like switches in various levels. I’ve spotted some hints on what to look for, but I’ll have to keep an eye out for more.

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