Wednesday, March 28, 2012

League of Legends and Free to Play Marketing

League of Legends is a free online game created by Riot Games, and is the wave of the future. The free-to-play economic model of video games, in which games are released to the public at no cost, seems unsustainable. How do you make money as a corporation, spending millions on a game, if you release it for free?

The answer is in-game microtransactions. These games, while free, let you buy items in-game at little cost. Generally these items are under five dollars. There was however a danger to this system. Early free-to-play games became known as “Pay-to-win” games because they let players buy items that gave them unfair advantages in-game. For example you could buy a temporary 50% damage bonus in a multiplayer shooting game. It would cost about five dollars, and you had to buy it each match. Considering that serious gamers play hundreds of matches, this adds up rapidly. These games devolved into who had the bigger wallet, rather than the most skill. Gamers then abandoned them.

League of Legends was the first game to get the free-to-play model right. Their game now has over 32 million players, most of whom have spent over ten dollars on the game. Some of whom have spent over a hundred dollars. What League of Legends did that other publishers did not is ensure that anything you can buy with real money is cosmetic, and doesn’t give an unfair advantage in-game. For example you can buy unique clothes for your hero that make you appear differently from everyone else in the game, but don’t actually change your power level at all.

This novel approach to free-to-play gaming clearly paid off for Riot Games. Based in Los Angeles, Riot games is headed by two gamers named Steve Feak and Steve Mescon. Notably, they hired a number of ex-Blizzard employees and raised over $8 million dollars to develop the game. Riot Games recently sold their Los Angeles studio to the Chinese company Tencent for $400 million dollars. Larger companies have taken notice of the free-to-play model’s wild success. Sony and other companies are releasing their next big games using the free-to-play model created by companies like Riot Games. We’ll know within a year or two if these companies can pull off the free-to-play model as well.

An in-game image of League of Legends

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

1,000 Player First Person Shooter Battle Breaks Technological Boundaries

A significant technical breakthrough was recently achieved in the world of online gaming. A Swedish technology company called MuchDifferent recently created a game prototype. This game prototype allowed one thousand living, breathing, players to fight online in the same digital space.

This is a huge development because, as most First Person Shooter players know, the biggest servers on the current digital battlefield can hold about 64 players. This game was capable of holding well over ten times that many. Games like this could transform shooters from being “battle simulations” to “war simulations”. Imagine digitally fighting over a state or country instead of fighting over a town and you’ll have an idea of why this is such big news.

The game itself was pretty basic, featuring only one gun and a simplistic battle against game developers. Their main plan seemed to be the commands to “move forward” and “shoot randomly”. Nonetheless the fact that a thousand living, breathing players could occupy the same digital space is a big achievement.

Even large scale Massively Multiplayer Online games like World of Warcraft can’t feature more than 150 or 200 players in the same space. Yet this Swedish company that, frankly, no one’s heard of, has surpassed them. World of Warcraft and other MMOs are notorious for their “instancing” – creating several copies of the same digital world, each of which can accommodate a small number of players. This was essential because the technology simply didn’t exist to host the tens of thousands or more players that play the game in the same area.

I am extremely happy to report that this is changing though. I look forward to the day when millions of gamers who play the same games can all look at the same army and digital landscape.

A video of the 1,000 player FPS battle can be found here:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Diablo III Beta Impressions

Diablo III is a computer game currently in beta testing. Beta testing consists of a small group of gamers who are selected to play a game before it’s released, and then give feedback on it. For my first blog post, I will give my impressions of the Diablo III beta.

Diablo III is one of the most anticipated upcoming games of 2012. But does it live up to the hype surrounding it? To be blunt, no. The graphics are acceptable but not breathtaking, and the gameplay is mediocre. In Diablo III you play as a hero and kill monsters in a mindless and repetitive fashion. There is very little innovation and even less entertainment value in the game in its current state.

In Diablo III, there are a number of classes from which you can choose to create your hero. Among these classes are the Barbarian, Demon Hunter, Monk, Witch Doctor and Wizard. Each class has different abilities it gains by leveling up. You level up by killing monsters repeatedly, which is pretty much what you do throughout the game. There are occasional bosses and events to spice the game up, but it’s pretty standard grindy-RPG fare at the moment.

The problem Diablo III is facing is one that similar Role Playing Games are also facing: How do you create a game focused on killing monsters repeatedly that doesn’t get boring? One answer is Player versus Player combat. Blizzard, the makers of Diablo III, announced three days ago that they were removing Player versus Player combat from Diablo III though. What a letdown!

I have already brought up a number of issues in the Diablo III beta feedback forums, including the blandness of the specific hero’s abilities and the repetitive “grinding” nature of the game. I can only use my Monk to punch/kick a demon in the face so many times before I get bored. To be fair, the game is still being developed and much can change. But as it stands I don’t see what will keep gamers like you and I playing this title for more than ten or fifteen hours.