Diablo 3 Auction House To Close In March 2014

Big news from Blizzard: the Diablo 3 Auction House will eventually shut down on March 18, 2014.

This is quite telling, mainly because the Auction House is a quite popular feature, which arguably generates some cash flow for the company. Was it not enough? In any case, you have to respect a company that takes a decision based on players’ feedback and based on pure gameplay value rather than immediate monetary gain.

It’s true that the Auction House is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, you get the benefit of having access to some powerful gears easily and usually for a rather cheap price given the power of the available items.

On the other hand, in a game which is all about killing progressively stronger monsters to get better items, the Auction House simply defeated the purpose of the game. There could have been some workarounds, and Blizzard actually introduced “bound-to-account” items, which could not be sold in the Auction House, but it was seemingly not enough.

And I repeat, it’s great to see Blizzard realize this and act in consequence.

I actually feel like playing the game again!

Here is the official announcement:

Diablo-3-AH-Closure-2013-09-20

 

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Updates To Come…Slowly

Hello Everyone,

If you were wondering why I didn’t update for a while: I was looking for a job.

Now that I found one, I am even busier so I am not quite sure when I can find the time to add content to this site.

In any case, video games are still an important part of my life, no matter my current job, so I might update again someday.

Cheers

 

 

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Can Games Be Free To Play, Ethical And Fun?

Being Free To Play (I prefer saying freemium) is sure to attract a larger audience than if people have to pay before playing your game. Besides, it is not impossible to design free-to-play ethically. However, the freemium model is not without flaws when it comes to integrating with the game design.

Designing freemium ethically

When I talk about ethics in freemium games, I mainly refer to how much a game can stay fair to non-paying users. I am not talking about the morality of the game story, violence or place of women in game here; just the monetization aspects. If non-paying users don’t feel unfairly at a disadvantage versus paying users –especially in the case of multiplayer games– then we can probably deem a game ethical, at least in regards to its monetization mechanics.

Ethical AND fun?

However, being ethical and being fun are two different things

It is not hard to imagine why a game’s design would suffer from the implementation of micropayments instead of being a paid one-off purchase.

Note that I am not covering games that are demos with an option to unlock the full game for free, or even games with the option to remove ad banners for a one-time fee. Rather, I am talking about games that are designed to allow virtually infinite spending from their users.

When you make a game and you know people will pay a fixed price for it, you just go out and make the best game you can within budget. That is, if you are honest of course –because one could argue there are loads of 60-dollar games that should never have seen the light of day if the developer/publisher had a bit of decency and respect for their customers.

[pullquote align="left|center|right" textalign="left|center|right" width="30%"]If the game doesn’t make the progression fun by itself, then it might be that the game is flawed.[/pullquote]

However, as far as game design is concerned, when a game is going to be a one-time purchase, the game designer’s –and the whole team with her– only concern will be to make a fun game.
At no point will a designer think “Oh, and what if I made this boss character slightly harder, so that players can pay for revival items?”, or “What about I rearrange the skill progression tree so that this Fire skill is not available (but still unlockable with real cash) at this point where players fight countless enemies with a weakness to that element?”
Never will she be thinking in terms of “Up to how many hours or days can I increase the building time of this Town Hall upgrade without upsetting the majority of non-paying users?” or “Should I make this task so bothersome that people will be willing to spend cash to skip it or do it automatically?”
“What about offering players the chance to revive their withered crops in exchange of money? Note to self: need to make crops wither more quickly”.
No, none of these concerns –so crucial to the typical Free-to-play game designer– have to get in the way of the designer working on a paid game. All their thinking is channeled to things that will make the game actually more fun to play rather than.

I see sometimes the following argument popping up here and there in favor of freemium: “Hey, if I want to skip this part of the game, isn’t it great that I can pay for it?” to which I want to reply “Well, if the game is so great that you want to skip playing it, why the hell are you playing it in the first place?”
If the game doesn’t make the progression fun by itself, then it might be that the game is flawed.

The impact of in-game payments varies greatly from one game to another, but there is no denying that it detracts the game designer’s attention from the core experience. Freemium puts game designers in situations where they don’t have to think only about how to make a game fun, but also how to make money within that game. In other words, how to place players in situations where they will be tempted to spend cash.

There are several ways of doing this, and some games manage to maintain the fun while being freemium and without harassing players to pay.

My point is not to argue that there can’t be good freemium games, but just that by going freemium, a game designer’s attention is diverted from purely artistic or at least entertaining goals to focus on business matters.

Freemium dampening creativity

Furthermore, the need to monetize the game post download does not affect only the game designer. It can affect the whole community around a game.
Imagine if Bethesda decided to make a freemium Elder Scrolls game (“oh, nightmare!”). The Elder Scrolls series, of which Skyrim is the latest episode, are awesome games in and by themselves. However, one of the draws of the whole series is its huge modding community (literally thousands of mods available for free), with Bethesda going so far as to release a Creation Kit complete with video tutorials. Do you think we would have all those millions of amazing, surprising, out-of-this-world fan-made contents (available for free on PC via the Steam Workshop or Skyrim Nexus) if the game were freemium? Of course not, because those contents are known to break the balance of the game (that’s actually one of the things that are fun about them), which would affect the revenues expected from in-game purchases.
We could probably say the same of Minecraft, a game known for ushering the creativity of its players –aside from being one of the major releases of the last ten years.

To sum up, free-to-play can be ethical and somewhat fair, but expect the game design to be affected –and often suffer– in some way.

 

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clash_of_clans_320x480

How Clash of Clans Keeps Pay-To-Win Acceptable

In spite of letting players pay for anything, Clash of Clans (I’ll call it CoC from now on) manages to feel acceptable, and this in spite of being a multiplayer game. How does it do it?

I am now level 50 and still hooked up, in spite of despising the game’s monetization tactics. How is that possible that I didn’t give up yet?
Well, for starters, the game is fun, as I have mentioned countless times before. Still, the experience could become a frustrating mess if the PvP elements were not handled appropriately. If I was constantly crushed by stronger players, or players who obviously spent a lot of cash to get the upper hand, I would have quit long ago already.

PvP but no vendetta

The PvP system of CoC is made so that you cannot attack the same enemy twice. When you want to attack other players, your only choice is to use the matchmaking system, where the game searches the server for an opponent more or less suited to your level.
Then you have the choice to attack or pay some gold to search for another opponent.
Retaliation is possible only once if a player attacked you. If you were the first to attack and another player retaliates against you, you won’t be given the chance to strike back. One attack each and it’s over. Fight dismissed. Under those circumstances, even if your last attacker was overpowered compared to you and you didn’t stand a chance, you know that he won’t attack again, so it prevents you from feeling too discouraged or frustrated. In other games, where players can choose their opponent (usually on a map), the risk of frustration and rage quitting is much higher.

No map

In CoC, players’ villages are geographically nowhere in particular. Unlike classic games like Tribal Wars, where players’ villages are part of the world map and can be conquered or lost, CoC keeps things nebulous enough that players’ emotions –including anger– will likely never escalate to the heights seen in Tribal Wars or other games like Stronghold Kingdoms, where the survival of your villages is always at stake.

In turn, this may partly explain the high revenues generated by the game (still number one of the Top Grossing US App Store charts): since players have nothing to lose, they are not afraid of spending cash.

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Snapshot of US Top Grossing iOS Games on 8 March, 2013.

Let’s Be Honest About Free-To-Play

I am not breaking the news to anyone: F2P, short for Free-To-Play, does not make much sense most of the time. At least not in the way it is used most of the time.

Snapshot of US Top Grossing iOS Games on 8 March, 2013.

Snapshot of US Top Grossing iOS Games on 8 March, 2013.

 

What is a free-to-play game?

Free-to-play is a generic term that gets applied most of the time to games that are free to download or at least start to play but sport various monetization models. Some of them are technically “playable” for free forever, while some let players play only a limited portion of the game until hitting a paywall. In any case, these games always have something to sell.
People in the game-related professions argue about it all the time, so this article is not going to change the debate much. Rather, it is meant as a guide to the understanding of this site and how I see the various models.
To me, there is no such a thing as free-to-play. For a game to be free to play, it has to be a full game without anything to sell, including itself: no retail or download fee, no subscription fee, no cash item selling, no advertising, no personal info collection, nothing.

  1. No retail or download fee: that one is quite obvious.
  2. No subscription fee: obvious too.
  3. No cash item selling: if a game’s contents are not entirely cash free, and especially if some of those contents influence directly the experience or player’s “power” in the game, it is fair to assume the game is not exactly free.
  4. No advertising: advertising is a cost. Of course the cost is not supported directly by the player’s money, but players still pay in a way simply by being forced to watch ads while playing –some of which are often placed so as to maximize the chances that a player will mistakenly hit them.
  5. No personal info collection and usage tracking: this one makes sense as long as games feature ways for the developer or publisher to track your action and collect your personal information. Even though there are supposed to be opt-in procedures to allow sharing of personal info with third parties, it’s hard to guarantee that your info will not be accessed by anyone else ever.
    Note: personal info tracking is not specific to free-to-play.

I am pretty sure some would argue about this and bring up the League of Legends argument as proof that there can be real free-to-play games.
League of Legends (LoL) is a game where players battle against each other controlling a champion. Indeed, I would say League of Legends is probably one of the best examples of good “free-to-play”, or “free-to-play” done right, yet it doesn’t give access to the full game. There are always new champions and always a selection of them free to play, but you have to pay if you want to keep your champion when champions swap.
Technically, a game like Clash of Clans is also free, but saying it’s a free game hides the reality of the omnipresent monetization mechanics of the game.
Same for the recent Real Racing 3 on iOS.

If not free-to-play, then what is it?

Although I know there can be a multitude of in-betweens, I like to separate monetization models as follows:

-          Paid: the basic upfront model used generally in traditional consoles and PC boxed games. It can be completed by DLC and expansions, but those should be totally optional and shouldn’t even be actively and repeatedly advertised while in the middle of playing the game. More importantly, those additional contents must be actual finite contents –map packs, mission packs, etc.– as opposed to expendable (consumable) items like virtual gold, gems, etc.

-          Free: the model that doesn’t exist. Seriously.

-          Freemium (combination of free and premium): the best term I’ve come across so far. Why? Because it is more honest than “free” or free-to-play. The word freemium implies a cost. You know you can start and play for a while for free, but you also know that the game features monetization mechanics.

-          Paymium: in addition to the upfront cost, the game features monetization mechanics similar to the ones found in freemium titles, often involving virtual money or any sort of expendable currency or items, as opposed to expansions packs that are a one-time purchase. Games that would fit this description include Infinity Blade (iOS) or Diablo 3 (PC/Mac), both of which are full-featured paid titles that include

-          Ad-supported: some games feature advertisement banners and use those as their main source of revenues. From prominent –and annoying– always-on banners, the model has mostly evolved and now tends to restrict advertisement to certain areas of the game. Games relying solely on ads are now rare and nowadays ads are mostly found as a complement to other forms of monetization. However, it is still possible to find games that propose to give access to the ad-free version of the app in exchange for a single payment.

-          Subscription-based: once the go-to model, subscriptions are now featured in a handful of MMOs and usually in parallel to other monetization options.

These are ever-changing notions and I expect the change to accelerate with the upcoming consoles. In particular, I expect the paymium model to become the new norm for AAA titles that include a somewhat consistent “campaign” mode, while freemium will develop as the main model for games that focus on multiplayer.
I surely hope the traditional paid model stays in place for a while, but they will probably become a niche (profitable to those who understand it, but still a niche).

For my part, I just wish that freemium competitive games follow the example of League of Legends’ relatively fair and non game-breaking monetization methods.

 

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Clash of Clans US App Store ranking according to App Annie

Money Buys Anything In Clash Of Clans

Supercell’s Clash of Clans is one of the top iOS gaming success stories of 2012. Although released in early August 2012, this strategy MMO game was the 8th highest grossing game of the past year. It quickly climbed the grossing charts in the US to reach No.1 Top Grossing and has stayed there since.

Clash of Clans US App Store ranking according to App Annie

Clash of Clans US App Store ranking according to App Annie

Given the seemingly overwhelming success of the game, it is hard to speak of the game in negative terms. To the risk of sounding grumpy, this is however what I am going to do here.

Note that in this article I suppose that players have some notion of the game. If not, feel free to have a look at game reviews to get an idea of the game.
The blog Deconstructor of Fun has an excellent article on Clash of Clans, which I can much relate to, except for the importance of the monetization model.

Disclaimer: I have been playing this game without spending any cash on it. My point is to check if a freemium game is actually enjoyable without spending money on it, which is, I think, the staple of good freemium games.

Everything is beautiful

It has been said in countless reviews already: the game looks great. It’s very pretty, the character design is unique and the buildings and backgrounds shine with life. It’s basically a pleasure to look at your village and see it grow.

Gameplay is compelling

It’s an euphemism to call the game “addictive”. In this respect the game is extremely well designed and the game will keep you coming back for as long as you can bear its waiting time.

…until it comes to a crawl

During the first week playing the game, I really enjoyed myself. I could see my village transforming rapidly and although it was nothing like a Starcraft game, the speed of upgrades made the wait bearable.

Then after some time (maybe one week and a half) my village reached around level 30 and that was the start of the stagnation for me.
Since the first week newbie protection shield ran out, I was suddenly faced with daily attacks on my village. With each attack, I would lose resources, making the progression slower.
First, I figured out that I had focused too much on upgrading my resources producing buildings and not enough my defenses.
Then I focused on upgrading my defensive buildings and walls.
Later, I discovered that the higher level units are quite not as good a deal as the cheaper ones. High level units cost a lot of gold and take longer time to train, and also occupy more space –meaning you can have less of them.
Last but not least, high level units are usually not that powerful either compared to their overall cost (in time/space/gold).

To be successful, forget about victories

This holds true for the most part of the game, as long as you are building your village.
Let me explain: the game entices you to destroy the town halls of other players to earn victories, which translate into trophies that accumulate when you win and deplete when you lose, either when attacking or defending.
The catch is that the higher your trophy count, the higher the difficulty might become: if your level is say 20, and you have more than a thousand trophies, the matchmaking algorithm may set you against level 30 players, who will often have defenses too tough for your troops. This means you might lose all your troops just to destroy a town hall, pillage little resources, and face retribution from a potentially higher level player –which might end up with more resource losses.
All this means is that victories do not help you develop your town very fast.
Instead, you are better off focusing on creating Goblin units, as well as a handful of Skeletons (Wall breakers), which is not the most intuitive thing to do but surely the most rewarding.

The strategy is simple: when needed, you blast walls with Skeletons and unleash your Goblins that will deplete your opponent’s resources (by default, Goblins are the only units to focus their attacks on resources buildings). No need to care about Town Halls. All you want in the early stage of the game is to gather resources rapidly to enhance your walls and level up your Town Hall and defensive buildings.
You can also throw in a few other cheap units (Barbarians or Archers) to divert the defenses while your Goblins rob the bank.

As inglorious as it may sound, it is the best way to play the game as long as you need gold for your walls, defenses, and town hall.

Regarding the time problem, though, you’ll just have to wait your 6 days (!!!) to upgrade your Town Hall from level 6 to 7…

Unless you have an infinite amount of cash to throw at the game

If you are among the 1%, have rich parents, or simply love to spend your hard-earned cash on consumable digital items, Clash of Clans has everything to satisfy you.
Simply put, you can buy anything in the game. When I say anything, it’s really anything. The hard currency of the game is called Gems, and those can be bought in packages ranging from $4.99 to $99.99.
With Gems, you can:

  • Speed up production of resources for a limited time.
  • Speed up training of troops for a limited time.
  • Purchase Gold or Elixir (the 2 resources used to build everything from building to troops).
  • Instantly finish any construction.
  • Buy a protection shield (your village cannot be attacked by other players) for a period of one day to one week.
  • Purchase additional “Builders”, unique units necessary to build and upgrade all constructions.

All these are not cosmetic effects: they totally influence the gameplay and player’s progression.

That would not be an issue for me if the game was not focused on competition (clans and player leaderboards).
Nobody is actually angry at Zynga for letting you spend cash to enhance your farm on Farmville because although there is a level system, there is no true competition between players. Here it is different: you have clans, you can attack players and be attacked (whether you like it or not). What is a leaderboard worth when you don’t know if the players at the top really deserve their rank or have simply spent insane amounts of cash to get there?

Clash of Clans is a fun and well-designed game, with many good qualities, but in the long run the focus of monetizing whales kills both the fun and the sense of accomplishment while depriving the game of a real competitive and fair environment.
Not only that, but this system makes me refrain from spending at all.
And this is a shame, because there is obviously a lot of talent put into this title.

 

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Where Fun Games & Ethics Meet