Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Belated Predictions For 2013

Last year's predictions did not go so well.  I predicted that it would not be a great year for new subscription MMO's, but I also thought that SWTOR would skate by as a high churn subscription title, and that WoW could not afford to leave Cataclysm sitting on the shelf beyond early summer.  Even so, I've found that I have a fair number of predictions either scattered through my blog and other peoples' comment sections, so I figure there's no harm in collecting all of my comic inaccuracy in a single spot.

Anyway, here are my belated predictions - I don't know if this makes my job easier because I have a month of additional information (see first item, below) or harder because there is less time left for the predictions to come true.  In any case, if I have predicted bad things for your favorite MMO this year, rest assured that my lack of accuracy well have guaranteed your game's smashing success.  :)

Rift Goes Free To Play in 2013
First up, a minor cheat by exploiting information that only became available in late January.  Two days ago, I would have said that Executive Producers Scott Hartsman's position against turning the game free to play would be enough to keep it from happening in 2013 - even if Trion's views eventually changed, failing to work ahead on the conversion would keep it from launching this year.

Then came news that Hartsman has departed from Trion Studios.  In the last week, we also learned that Trion's MMOFPS Defiance plans to launch with a buy-to-play model featuring a $60 box and no recurring subscriptions.  We already knew that the online strategy game End of Nations - assuming it survives being in-sourced into Trion proper - was going to be Free to Play.  Going back to last year, Rift already has an in-game store, and then there were the layoffs at Trion and the former End of Nations developers.

Moving this particular game to free-to-play is debatable, but Trion has investors to answer to.  As long as things are going really well, Trion has the ammo it needs to justify why they are continuing to buck the overwhelming industry trend.  If things have started to go downhill - and the layoffs suggest that they have - then we can expect Rift to lose its subscription in 2013.

LOTRO: Helm's Deep Or Bust
As I've previous written, I think LOTRO is under a lot of pressure to increase revenue THIS year.  Turbine's 2008 press release indicated that they have the license through 2014, with options to extend the term out to 2017.  We don't know whether the terms of the option years are favorable, and presumably the studio's new owners at Warner Brothers are capable of re-negotiating a reasonable deal if this is worth their time. 

That makes 2013 the year in which Turbine has to prove the game's worth.  LOTRO will not fold in 2013, but if things go badly it could very well close when the license issue comes due in 2014.  To this end, I expect the following:
  • Unlike last year's Great River update or the F2P relaunch's Enedwaith region, we will NOT see a new region added at the current level cap.  The price point on these new optional areas has generally been low, and that makes it a questionable investment that would be better saved for the next expansion.
  • Speaking of which, I expect the new expansion to require a minimum purchase of $50, up from $40 last year and $30 the year before.  As with last year, Turbine will offer plenty of opportunity to pay full price early and then discount the thing by 50% for an end-of-year sale once the early adopters have paid up.
  • The expansion will bump the level cap to 95.  LOTRO has lots of level-scaling content in past expansions that could be used to level to the new cap and skip buying the new content.  Making the cap higher makes that option less desirable because you would have more levels to grind out.
  • The actual battle of Helm's Deep - which, as in recent years, may get delayed to a patch after the expansion launch - will be presented from multiple different perspectives so that solo, group, raid, and monster players can all participate in this iconic bit of the lore.  
I probably won't be bored enough to count come 2014, but we're almost certainly not done with Turbine pushing something aggressive and unpopular into the cash shop and then gauging whether to backpedal based on the customer feedback.  It seems like we can expect this sort of thing roughly every other month.

Asheron's Call 3 Announced
It's possible that Turbine dusted off AC2 just as a lark of a weekend project.  Then again, we know that they've been working on a mystery title for a while, and it would make a lot of sense for them to work in their own IP so that they are not at the mercy of some rightsholder.

Blizzard Updates
This is a Blizzcon year, which means we will probably get some announcements in addition to the oft-delayed Starcraft II expansion.  My guesses:
  • WoW's next expansion announced, but will not be ready for beta in 2013.  After years of promising to try and get expansions out in a more timely fashion, Blizzard finally concedes that it's going to be 20+ months like the previous attempts. 
  • Blizzard announces a console based non-subscription spinoff of one of its existing IP's.  A recent rumor suggested that this was the real nature of Titan, the long rumored online followup to WoW, but that was supposed to be an original IP.  We know they've been flirting with consoles for years now, and I'm guessing that this is a separate effort.  It will be interesting to see whether it runs on current generation console hardware, as Blizzard's development cycle is so long that next generation consoles will probably arrive before this game does.
  • Titan will finally be announced, but will not be playable or in any way suggesting it will debut in 2014. Blizzard has had time to ponder how DIII went for them and see the way the wind is blowing, so this game will NOT have a subscription.  It will instead be designed from the ground up with something - content, characters, etc - that people can purchase to keep the revenue flowing.
Funcom goes out of business in 2013, probably taking its titles to the grave
I'm not going to belabor my analysis from last week - this studio was on shaky footing before TSW disappointed, and I'm not convinced that layoffs alone can balance the books, especially if they hurt the ability to deliver future updates.  I'm not sure what EA does on a day to day basis as the publisher for TSW - if they own the servers, billing system, etc, that would be a major impediment to any attempt to sell the title off. 

New Subscription MMO's
If an MMO studio asked me for advice, I'd say that attempting to launch a new MMO with a box price and a monthly fee is really poorly advised.  However, I don't think the industry is quite ready to let this approach die just yet.  Looking at two major upcoming releases that have yet to announce business models:
  • Wildstar: Will definitely have a box price at launch.  I predict it will not charge a subscription by the end of 2013 - either they'll be smart and not try or they'll be forced to reconsider between launch and the end of the year.
  • Elder Scrolls Online: With all the hype they're already firing up for this game's beta, this game shows all the signs of having a large budget, and they are declining to state their planned business model.  It's possible that they are going to go buy-to-play with frequent paid DLC and are saving this piece of news to build anticipation for the inevitable pre-purchase campaign. Still, GW2 aside, I will believe that a big budget MMO like this one is willing to voluntarily surrender the monthly fee when I see it.

    So I predict Elder Scrolls WILL launch with a monthly fee.  They will probably still have it through at least the end of 2013, but that may have more to do with launching late in the year than with the game's success.  (I do predict they will launch this year - even Blizzard doesn't start its beta process an entire year in advance of release.)   
Kickstarter Chaos
After proudly proclaiming 2012 the year of the Kickstarter-funded game - and cheerfully pocketing 5% of the proceeds with no obligation to help ensure that backers get what was promised - Kickstarter is due for a reckoning.  At least one video game product that received $1 million in backing will go bankrupt before delivering the promised game in 2013.

Kickstarter will make some token changes in response to the backlash, but will remain constrained by their business model - they make money when projects are successfully funded, not when they force creators to post information that dissuades people from backing risky and/or poorly thought out efforts.   Expect some minimal token effort before returning to business as usual, but the incident will cost the site some of its hip status within the blogosphere. 

No big winner, but perhaps balance?
Overall, I don't see a single MMO emerging as the big winner in 2013, the way that Guild Wars 2 arguably won the half of 2012 after its release.  When you look at Syp's list of new MMO's to watch in 2013, half either aren't traditional MMO's or else are unlikely to release in 2013.  As a result, we're likely to get at least 8-9 months into 2013 without a major event launch with the traditional cycle of hype - and all too often disappointment.  (We could go the entire year if I'm wrong and Elder Scrolls slips into 2014.)  Even the slate of major expansions is going to be relatively quiet since many of the big players released something in late 2012.   

This is a real opportunity for MMO's that are currently sitting in the middle of the pack.  Players will still wander from game to game, and now is the time where an existing product, with most of the rough edges from launch already smoothed out, can potentially make a big impression.  Even if all of the things I've suggested come to pass, 2013 could be a good year on the balance if we come out the other side with a solid pool of games that are quietly getting the job done.

5 comments:

spinksville said...

I think Blizzard did actually have a year long beta for WoW (if it wasn't a full year, it was definitely a really long beta). And there was no NDA. Those were the days :)

Green Armadillo said...

I looked it up because it was going to bug me - WoW's Beta ran from March through November 2004. (And yes, Blizzard does set the bar very high in terms of non-NDA-bound testing.)

Technically, I'm not sure if TESO is actually testing or just doing signups, but the parallel should be that there is plenty of time for them to release this year.

seanas said...

A few points: Blizzard are not 'finally admitting they can't keep their promises'; they're finally no longer bothered enough to *lie* in their promises. They've been using WoW as a cash cow for 6 or 7 years now and as it starts to wind down, they cease to need to pretend otherwise.

On that note, I don't think Rift is going F2P any time in 2013. As I posted a few weeks ago on the Rift forums:

I work in management training, which sounds grander than it is, but whatever. One thing we teach in Year 1 is the Boston Consulting Group's growth share matrix, which is a way for making decisions about the viability of different business units within a company. It's very efficient for making decisions about future investment in your own company, and I've seen more than one game publisher refer to it.

We get four categories:
a: Dogs, business units that simply aren't growing and aren't very profitable (but usually *are* profitable, just not profitable enough). City of Heroes is a very good example of this, and NCSoft did what they had to (from a business point of view) by shutting it down.

b: Problem Children, business units which either require a large capital investment to turn into rising stars - or need to be cut. End of Nations is clearly a problem child, and Trion have decided to throw good money after (hopefully not-) bad by bringing it inhouse.

c: Stars. This is Defiance - beta starts in a few weeks, the series launches in the Spring, and the game will have to follow soon after. Just on the basis of its TV-game hook-up, it'll get a lot of publicity. You give stars all the money they need to make it big. And finally:

d: Cash Cows, these are business units (games for us) that are very profitable but aren't growing fast. You cut costs and rake in the profits with these - ie, you sack everyone you can and run on as small a staff as possible, precisely like the recent Rift cuts. Blizzard have used WoW as their cash cow for years, giving almost no investment and making half a billion every year, regardless. CCP tried to make EVE Online their cash cow for future projects before the player base exploded in protest.

These cuts indicate that Rift is now Trion's cash cow - our monthly subscriptions will be channelled into making Defiance huge and rescuing EoN. Sucks to be those who (like me) quite enjoyed those two years that Rift was Trion's Star. We could try to be like the EVE players and kick up a storm, but a: we don't have one shared shard; and b: we don't have a Jita to burn, or the capacity to burn it. We're rather in the same position as CoH's forlorn player base, futilely protesting in Atlas Park whilst NCSoft went about their business regardless.

tl;dr: Trion need the reliability of Rift's subscription cashflow to underwrite their other games. I'd predict a very noticeable drop in content delivery for Rift this year - it's notable that the new Producer's Letter for 2013 doesn't mention anything past about April (ie, 2.3's launch). F2P could well be on the horizon, but I'd predict not before Defiance is launched and stable and EoN is either launched or cancelled - so not this year.

seanas said...

and oh man, I forgot something :)

my other prediction: if TESO actually happens this year, it will be a dog - it will be so bad it will make Champions Online look polished. It might even be as scandalous as The War Z.

MMOs take time to make - even Trion, who really are the most agile developers out there, took a good 3 years to get Rift out the door. TESO was announced last year, and already into beta? I remember the Aion sign-ups began two years before the beta did, so maybe sign-ups are just a way to generate some buzz while the TESO producers talk to potential financers - but if the beta *does* come this year, expect it to be truly, dreadfully awful.

Chris McElfresh said...

To start, I'm know I'm a little late with this post but I literally JUST found your blog.

That said, the issue with Kickstarter is the same with any investment: People choose to pay for the development of a game but nobody has a gun to their head. Investment ALWAYS comes at a risk, and failed companies and projects are almost never able to (or forced to) payback investors unless there was fraud.

The problem with Kickstarter is it has opened the door to investment in a simple and understandable way, but, just like what happened with the housing collapse, you will have a larger percentage of bandwagon Kickstarter users offering money to projects because it's "cool". This ALWAYS ends badly. Kickstarter is both a blessing and a curse, as is the case with most things, and the aftermath of its predicted collapse (which I agree will eventually happen) will be felt industry-wide.

A major issue with Kickstarter is it is an open forum, and any crackpot can start a project to build an Apocalypse Bunker or a spaceship with the promise of investors' getting a return upon its completion. This is where individual responsibility comes in to play. You cannot take the step into investment without prior knowledge of what exactly that means. Services like Kickstarter, and services more directly-linked to the Stock Market (like eTrade) are a haven of irresponsibility.

I do like Kickstarter. I think it is important for those with the ingenuity and gift of filling market need to come in and offer their skills to the rest of the world, something that was, at one point, very expensive and difficult to do. But you are right about the consequences of that availability. However, as a thirty-year-old gamer, I have seen many disappointments, many collapses and many scandals in this industry I love, and I have seen fewer with more bounce-back than that of gaming. So even if the industry is struck in the vitals by this coming mess, I know it will recover because people will not stop wanting new games. The film industry (something I'm also an avid fan of) has been through ALL of the same things the comparatively young video game industry has, and it has endured (for better or for worse). I really enjoyed your article. Thanks for the post.