Over at Chez Grouchy we have a week of AoC under our belts. In spite of a bad case of Alt-itis (and the fact that we got GTA4 this weekend and have been messing with that and yeah, I know I’m a latecomer) we’ve got a couple of characters out of Tortage and off exploring the rest of the world. Tarkheena and I are both explorer/stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of players so it’s not surprising that we haven’t hit the level cap just yet. I wanted to share some thoughts with you all on what we have seen and what our experience has been so far.
Funcom is reporting that there have been 400,000 units sold (and presumably activated) in the past week. That’s a pretty good week by almost any definition. Even with all of those players the launch went pretty smoothly. They even added 9 servers over the weekend to accommodate the additional players. These included 5 new PVE servers and 4 new PVP realms. With that in mind, you have to give Funcom’s launch high marks for being catastrophe-free. You’d have to say that overall their launch is one of the smoother ones we’ve seen.
This week, with the release of Age of Conan, we’ve seen what I think is a pretty huge spike in interest for a different MMO. One that is different from WoW. When I talk about “different” here I don’t mean completely different. I mean that it’s just not WoW. Whether or not AoC turns out to gain a sizable foothold in the market, for me, this is one of the first danger signs for the health of Blizzard’s Golden Goose.
Many other challengers to the throne have come and gone since the release of World of Warcraft back in 2004. Some were cast aside because they were deeply flawed. Others have gained a niche and are happily exploiting that, with a respectable subscription base. I think Age of Conan might be the first challenger that steps up and hits the one million sub mark. Is it the mythical “WoW-killer”? In a word, no. Can it dent the seemingly impenetrable armor of the reigning champion of the MMO world? Absolutely.
Is it because Age of Conan is a great game? That remains to be seen. It certainly has potential. I’ll be exploring that more as the days progress. I can tell you one thing for sure. I didn’t expect to be playing it, and I am. Could it be that WoW is beginning to lose it’s mass appeal? That’s a distinct possibility.
So I’ve been challenged. Some of my readers have read my beta impressions and let me know that wasn’t how it was going to be once the game went live. Like an underachieving basketball team, they are going to flip the switch on launch day and be great. That may be. I wasn’t planning on finding out for myself on this one. But my journalistic integrity has been challenged and so I went out and bought two shiny copies of Age of Conan. I’ll be playing the game, at least for a while, and I’ll post here what I find.
The actual go-live for the US servers went reasonably well, after a three hour delay. Well, a two hour delay followed by a one hour delay. But I digress. Once they went live I did the patch. This was substantial since the game went Gold a month or so ago and there have been 2 magic patches since. OK, I’ll drop the snark. For today. Honestly, the patch went pretty well, if not speedy, and before too long the live servers were up. I was able to make a character and get into the game. I only played him up to about level 6, I think it was, before I had to log. For the most part everything was working for me. Of course, this part went well for me in the Open Beta too, so it’s too early to tell. It certainly didn’t seem like their login servers were being taxed, and that is a very good sign.
This is the third and final installment in this series.
After E3, Sigil actually started to market Vanguard. There had been a cover story on Computer Gaming World, but now there were trickles at other web sites. Also in 2006, the beta began to grow. At least Sigil tried to grow the beta. I was in beta starting with stage 1.5 (which was right after friends and family) and there were a couple more stages after that. One startling thing was this: Sigil put the number of active players on the front page of the sign-in. Even after thousands of people had been invited to the beta it was very rare to see more than a hundred people signed in. This is when I started to get worried.
Before too long the beta leaks started. I saw them at several different sources. All of them had one thing in common. Beta leak stories were not positive. I’ve been around long enough to know that those types of leaks are not going to come from your happy customers. One thing about the leaks made them hard to ignore. They were right. At this time we (the beta community and the public) didn’t have much of an idea about what was going on behind the scenes. I was starting to get the message, though. I decided not to fund the database development for VC, because it looked like I would be throwing good money after bad. Why did I make that decision?
In Part One, we left off with beta under way and some signs of trouble.
As beta wore on, it was obvious that there were issues with how the game was developing. Months into the beta, only the continent of Thestra was on line. None of us had seen Kojan or Qalia, or tested any of their content or systems. Wholesale changes were being made, and behind the scenes, the designers were getting antsy.
I got to know the crafting design team pretty well during this time, as well as the community team. I can tell you this; my impression of them was always that they were a confident, competent, and likable group. They were always pushing forward and evaluating and trying to make the game better. They were not afraid to throw out what they had done if it didn’t work and replace it with something that did.
One year ago today, Operations Manager Andy Platter asked everyone to come out to the Sigil parking lot and fired basically everyone who worked for Sigil Games Online. Sigil, who was to be the savior of the TRUE MMO fan, would be laid to waste. The next day, about half of those people would be hired by SOE to work on their newly-acquired property. Brad McQuaid would be put out to pasture, presumably at a nice stipend, to not mess with any of their games. I’m going to attempt to chronicle some of the events leading up to and following that day, and see where Vanguard is now. This is mostly going to be written from the perspective of a community manager/fansite operator, because that is what my involvement was. This is going to be a little long, even broken into three parts, so be forewarned.
January, 2002 – Brad McQuaid leaves SOE and his position as Chief Creative Officer to found Sigil Games Online. According to McQuaid at the time, he left SOE because of his lack of day-to-day influence over what was happening there. According to other accounts , McQuaid had already well-overstayed his welcome at SOE. In the article linked above, it’s already a foreshadowing of what are reported to be issues that came to the forefront at Sigil.
This weekend, the folks at FunCom changed up the beta stress test a little bit. Any characters you had previously made were buffed to 20, give level-appropriate gear, and set out into the world to see their racial home city and set out into the wilds. So there are basically two separate tests going on; the level 1-13 noob experience, and the new 20 + free to roam and quest portion. One other important thing: PVP is on in the outside world. Once you leave a city, you are in a kill or be killed environment.
I hope that old colloquialism isn’t lost on my audience, but doing that to someone’s Corn Flakes basically means that you set out to ruin their day. It’s pretty evident that even as the pace of development at Blizzard seems to have settled in at a snail’s pace, they still have folks working in Marketing who are pretty aware of what is going on around them.
Not content with having a plus-50% market share of the world-wide MMO market, Blizzard has broken their deafening silence and is starting to announce some of the content and features of their upcoming Wrath of the Lich King expansion. All this less than two weeks before AoC ships. Some of AoC’s perceived shortcomings have been documented here. Blizzard wanted to you think about that, and also let you know that, hey, raiding is more accessible under WotLK! You can read about the shiny new features over at GameSpy.
It seems like the geniuses at the game companies are still following the erroneous assumption that people who pirate games would actually be customers and buy them if they make the DRM (Digital Rights Management) onerous enough. In that vein, this article on ShackNews.com details the announcement that the PC versions of Mass Effect and more importantly the eagerly-awaited Spore will indeed have DRM that likes to “phone home” relatively often.
I’ve written in the past about companies who treat their customers like criminals. I don’t think game publishers are in touch with reality here. They are still laboring under the false pretense that everyone who pirates their game would have bought it, and are trying to count all those unhatched chickens.
I can save them a whole lot of trouble.
Bildo has a link up on his site to an interview with OaC Product Directory Jorgen Thoraldsen from MMORPG.com where he attempts to shed some light on the widely-reported (and whined about) problems with the AoC open beta client. He asserts that the client is not, in fact, an old one as asserted by the fan community;
And yes, I have seen the same rumors that it’s old, but it’s not entirely true. We tried to include the best we had on a stable approach, but in our eagerness to please we wanted to get a few additional fixes out (hence we pushed the launch back a couple of hours). In order to reach the May 1st date some of those fixes led to unwanted side-effects which weren’t discovered in time. For some, it got a bit rockier than we wanted. We are running an extensive survey now, and from the first few hundred replies (which should be statistically correct), it seems that most people are actually having tons of fun AND good performance. We are humble about it though, and admit that things could have gone smoother, but the experience some people have had now has helped us to improve for launch, which is what really matters.
I’ve had the AoC client installed for a few days now, and in the interest of testing I’ve installed it on the two best gaming machines at Chez Grouchy. I continued to have in-game bug issues on my machine. I was doing a quest, died, resurrected and came back to a totally unpopulated instance, for example. I had to exit the instance to reset it, and start the quest over. I still have mobs that I can’t hit and that can’t hit me until I reposition them. I’m finding other bugs too, but that is what I do for a living, and many of them make the game less than playable. At the very least, they are jarring and remove me from the game experience.
On the positive side, the game is beautiful. It feels a little claustrophobic, as Enochos mentioned in his comment to the previous post I did on AoC. I like the characters, the classes (for the most part,) and even the somewhat odd combat system. I can see how the combat system does bring some skill back to playing an MMO. The music and the voice acting are also pretty darn good. The artistic parts of the game are polished, and it has a lot to recommend it.