Billing Models for MMO’s: Why does it have to be one way?

Billing Models for MMO’s

Why Does it Have to be One Way?

Another Eye-Bleeding Post by Ryahl

In a previous post, I examined the western subscription model for MMO’s and discovered that the model peaked in 2004.  There is unquestionably an upswell in favor of Free to Play (F2P) and a number of titles have gone Free to Play in recent years.  Industry leaders are on the record stating that F2P is the future of MMO’s and at least one planned AAA MMO intended to launch F2P.  However, the F2P model itself is greeted with some trepidation from fans of the subscription model who view it as either a money grab or a form of buy to win, neither of which is deemed palatable.

In this post, I want to review various billing options available to MMO’s and offer an assessment of strengths and weaknesses of each.  From that, I will pull together something I refer to as the “box plus” model, which synthesizes the various billing options into a multifaceted subscriber model.  In a future post I will use an existing MMO as an example in a hypothetical conversion to the Box+ model.

The Many Ways to Take My Money

There are a number of potential revenue models for game companies.  However, no specific model is perfect, each comes with its own problems.  Additionally, each model appeals to some gamers and turns off others.  Not all of these revenue options have been tried by MMO’s and I won’t review all possible options (for instance, billing by the minute has been dead for over a decade and there is probably no reason to bring that one back).

  1. The Monthly Subscription – this is the tried and true model for the western MMO market.  Developers like it for reasons I addressed in the last post.  The downsides are that it appeals to a very small number of consumers.  It does not appeal to eastern and younger players.  Additionally, the very switching cost that used to be a strength of this model seems to work against initial buy-in.  However, it appeals to some consumers and remains the staple premium buy in western model.
  2. Buy the box – this is the classic PC game model.  You buy the box, you get the game.  It is the approach used by Arena Net for Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2.  It is also the approach used by Blizzard for Diablo 3 (not exactly an MMO) and by most cooperative and single player PC games.  While these are not MMO titles, they increasingly offer persistent online multi-player options, they are converging into the MMO market.  It appeals to a broader audience than the subscription model.  Additionally, it remains the premier way in western markets to reach customers.  Retailers, and increasingly digital outlets (like Steam or Amazon) provide ideal channels to reach new customers, assuming you keep a new box available.  The downside is that the developer only sees a fraction of the revenue from box sales, box sales produce spikey revenue streams and demand for box sales tends to be measured in weeks (although Steam is improving this).
  3. Micro-Transactions – This is the model used in many eastern games and is increasingly a part of the western MMO market.  It carries a natural appeal of a la carte transactions, you buy what you want and no more.  It offers developers the ability to smooth out their revenue streams more than the box model, but is spikier than the subscription model.  Western customers tend to be very antagonistic to models which appear to promote a “buy to win” model, leading to a western implementation primarily geared at cosmetic purchases.  Additionally, this model tends to promote free riding, in which a handful of players subsidize the plurality of players.  Further, these free riding accounts are disproportionately the province of gold farmers, botters and other parties generally disdained by both subscribers and developers.  Finally, the lack of a purchase may lend itself to a player base that has little compulsion to “play nice.”
  4. Advertising – This is not heavily used in MMO’s.  Funcom attempted to use this model with Anarchy Online, but that was an earlier era of online advertising.  This model is heavily used by apps and is generally associated with free to play game models outside the MMO.
  5. Taxation of Real Money Transactions – This has rarely appeared in MMO’s, but has some history.  Sony attempted to use this model as a supplemental revenue (on limited servers) with EQ2 and Blizzard is taking advantage of this model in Diablo 3.  CCP has a form of this in place with EVE as well.

The reality is that these are not independent choices and developers mix and match some of these options already.  Funcom was one of the first to pursue a form of Free to Play with their Froob model.  This model is essentially a trial of the original box version of the game and was tied in with AO’s early experimentation with in-game advertising.   Funcom has also turned their Age of Conan game into a F2P offering.  Turbine largely reversed their fortunes, experiencing revenue upswings and revitalization with their F2P moves for Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons online games.  Sony Online Entertainment has progressively migrated their MMO portfolio under the “free to play your way” tag line.  Similar transitions have occurred with City of Heroes and Star Trek Online.

When Star Wars; the Old Republic completes their F2P transition later this year, it appears that only RIFT, the Secret World and industry behemoth World of Warcraft will be the only remaining purely subscription based game.  While all three feature a form of free trial, none offer as of this posting a F2P hybrid plan and they have not indicated any intention of moving to one in the near term.  Further, while they also all offer some form of micro-transaction, this is merely for cosmetic purposes and does not (as yet) provide access to the game itself.

No one wants to be the redheaded step customer

Only Turbine stands out as treating micro-transactions and subscriptions as equal customers.  However, Turbine’s model has only been deployed in MMO titles that no longer generate new box sales in retail channels.  In the Turbine model, the free to play customer can unlock virtually every feature that a subscriber gets.  The F2P simply micro-transactions their way, gradually unlocking bag-space, bank-space, skirmishes, zones, mission packs. etc.  In the Turbine model, the F2P player is only limited by their purchase commitment.

Sadly, this has not been the case in every other F2P transition.  Funcom treats F2P with AOC as a somewhat advanced Froob model.  You have some micro-transaction unlocks, but generally F2P is a trial model, not a revenue model.  The SOE “free to play your way” is only your way if you desire reduced gear, ability and advancement options.  For example, while Vanguard: Saga of Heroes has some positive vibes around their dungeon design, a free to play player would be unable to equip dungeon gear dropped in said dungeons (or possibly progress through them lacking gear to complete them).

Other MMO developers follow similar patterns to SOE.  City of Heroes restricts their Incarnate system to subscribers.  Star Trek Online places caps on the maximum unlocks in their a la carte model, the full feature product is only available via subscription.

If your free to play option does not allow for full product access (via a la carte transactions), you don’t have a free to play option.  You have a subscription teaser.

Effectively, F2P isn’t, of course.  Obviously it’s not free, but it also doesn’t offer much “to play.”  The F2P customer is a lesser customer in virtually every MMO system and the only way for them to become a full customer is to subscribe (thus losing nearly everything they sunk into micro-transactions).  If F2P is to truly be the future of the MMO, then a fully vested F2P customer should have just as much product as a subscriber.  The path to access should differ, the destination should not.

 Introducing Box+, a Better Alternative to F2P

The idea developed in this section, Box +, cribs largely from the best elements of the different revenue models out there to date.  Additionally, this approach seeks to maintain a reason to offer subscriptions and a reason for people to consider subscriptions.  However, the under-pinning of this system is a fundamental change in the way the MMO is packaged.  Ultimately it breaks down to distinguishing the product from the service (a difficult task at best for a product you ultimately rent).  There are several assumptions that drive my thinking with Box+.

  • Developers need to make money and they need to be profitable.  Going broke is a good recipe for all of us to lose our favorite hobbies.  If you like a game, you should plop down some dollars, euros or what have you.
  • There is a convergence between traditional non-MMO games (which increasingly offer constant online match-making and game-play services at no or reduced costs), eastern MMO’s (which usually begin as F2P and become subscription imports when they arrive in the west), online social games (the myriad Facebook games and the like) and the classic subscription MMO.
  • The sale of boxes (real or virtual) is a critical element in reaching new customers (at least in the west).  In particular, the rise of STEAM makes it such that keeping a box presence should be a must in any MMO marketing plan.  Additionally, buying the box SHOULD mean something to the customer.
  • Western players eschew buy to win.  However, western players are increasingly comfortable with downloadable content at a price.  DLC need not be merely cosmetic, but anything with oomph needs to be balanced in its access.
  • Truly free players may be good for generating word of mouth, but they also bring about a number of problems.  Additionally, it behooves developers to find a way to make some money off of those who won’t pay (see point #1).

The staple of the Box+ model is the sale of the box.  The box should be bundled with an amount of game play equitable to RPG’s.  Additionally, the box should include free access to most of the game elements that players associate as free to play with comparable match-making services.  The remainder of the game product should be bundled into micro-transactions.  The micro-transaction package for the box should equate to roughly what a subscriber pays if they buy the box and subscribe for 6-8 months.  A la carte players (the box only model) need to purchase mid-cycle content updates which should be priced as if they were DLC in a comparative format ($5 for minor DLC packs $15 or more for larger packs).

The Box+ model should feel familiar to traditional non-subscription based customers, subscription based customers and F2P consumers.

The subscriber gets everything with the box+ subscription.  Additionally, as a subscriber, they receive the mid-cycle content updates as a part of their subscription.  Finally, to sweeten the deal, developers should cater to subscribers by offering services for free, while charging box customers for the same service.  As an example: faster queue times for server access, faster queue times for dungeon/raid finders, faster queuing for PVP match-making services, priority customer service (perhaps dedicated customer service reps), free access to a tablet app, free server transfers, free name changes, etc.  These same services should be charged, a la carte, for non-subscribers.

The a la carte player might even be denied access to some of the services tied to the subscriber bundle, but both types of players should have equivalent potential access to the product.  Additionally, in this system, the price of the subscription may need to rewind.  It’s possible that the $10 or $12.50 point was an important psychological point for subscriptions,  Note the market hasn’t grown (WoW has) since the industry settled on $15 for a sub.

Free to play should be an option.  F2P players should have very limited access to core content.  F2P players should be stored on separate instances from your box and subscription customers (without rare encounters and without rare itemization).  Box and subscribers who have F2p friends should be able to send messages to F2P and F2P should be able to send messages to box and subscriber friends.  Otherwise F2P should only communicate with F2P.  F2P customers can ascend to box customers with a three or four gate purchase.  At the completion of that set of purchases, the F2P player should have “bought the box” (in chunks) and thus become a Box a la carte customer.

As an example, the F2P player might receive the outdoor zones, basic classes and side quests as a free option.  They could buy added classes (or a full skill set), adventuring zone quests and the primary story-line quests (with dungeons perhaps) as a three step gated purchase.  Upon completion of these three purchases, the F2P transitions to a box-owner and relocates to the dimension/instances of your purchasing customers.  They also now have all of the product features that come with the basic box (the third gated purchase should finish off all box features).  From this point on, they can purchase a la carte upgrades exactly the same as someone who bought the box at a retail channel.

Developers should look at embedded advertising to F2P players.  Loading screens, UI elements and the like should be considered.  Google Ad Sense and a host of existing advertising packages are out there and they should be leveraged rather than trying to build your own advertising solutions.  F2P players are increasingly familiar with this through tablet apps, embedded ads in their F2P MMO’s shouldn’t be a major obstacle.  However, developers should clearly divide ad revenue F2P from box and subscription customers.  I suspect the backlash would greatly exceed the revenue potential.

The In-Game Store

Developers should include an in-game store for cosmetic items.  Apparel, hairstyles, body types, face changes, etc.  This is an area that can be thoroughly developed.  Once the game has been out nine or more months, developers should consider adding XP-potions to the mix.  At this point in the game, the XP-potion is less “buy to win” than it is “buy to catch up.”

The in-game store should be available to all types of customers.  For F2P customers, in-game purchases should be a separate aside to the gated box purchase described above.  Additionally, subscribers should get a small monthly stipend to the in-game store.  Rather than an open-ended wallet, consider capping the in-game credit to $5 (or equivalent).  Any amount spent by a subscriber comes from their stipend first before tapping their real purchases.  At the end of the month, the stipend resets to its base value of $5.  The point here isn’t to convince susbcribers to make purchases with real dollars, the point is to (a) reward them for subscribing and (b) become walking billboards for whatever is new in the in-game store.  Since the stipend resets each month, the onus for the subscriber will be to spend all or most of their credit each month.

The Box+ MMO Revenue Model

A Visualization of the Box+ Model

Think in terms of Cycles

To make this work, developers need to find a way to sell a new box roughly every year.  That’s your expansion path.  Box players should buy the expansion, which should be assembled using the same logic as the initial box (the purchase gets you X, micro transactions or subscription get you Y).  Subscribers also buy the box, but then get everything in the expansion box as an element of their expansion.

The update of the game each year becomes the major cyclical element refreshing your title in retail channels.  Additionally, the box presence in retail channels can be stimulated mid-cycle using promotional pricing (something STEAM has turned into an art).

Developers should plan for mid-cycle updates (DLC).  SOE attempted something like this with Adventure Packs in EQ2 offering Bloodline Chronicles, Splitpaw Saga and the Fallen Dynasty.  These were $15 or so DLC packs with new content.  The Adventure Pack idea failed at the time because subscribers were accustomed to receiving mid-cycle updates as a part of their expansion.  To keep things palatable, SOE had to make Adventure Packs not “too powerful” to prevent them from seeming like something that had to be bought.  Doing so made them undesirable for the most part and the idea was cancelled several years back.

Adventure Packs need to come back into the mix, the Box+ model is the perfect approach for this.  They should range in size and desirability based on the designers goals, which should not be a problem in the Box+ model.  Subscribers get Adventure Packs free, as they are accustomed.  Box players buy them as DLC.  Developers can bundle content updates into quarterly or monthly packages based on their budgets.  Consumers benefit from getting bigger, more robust mid-cycle additions to their gaming.  Subscribers get an added incentive to retain a sub (benefiting the developer in the process).  Win, win is good business.

 

 

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An Obituary for the Subscription MMO

An Obituary for the Subscription MMO

Another Eye-Bleeding Post by Ryahl

In a recent editorial, I argued that we (the fans) were not tired of MMO’s.  That editorial itself was a response to a Gamespy MMO asking if we have simply outgrown MMO’s.  Lief’s piece argued that the nature of the Internet and the rise of social multiplayer games had largely turned the MMO into an irrelevant genre.  My counter was that MMO’s today are not what they were ten years ago and that’s why the subscription model isn’t working.

Both of us agree that the subscription MMO segment is in a bleak state, we disagree primarily on the causes.  The Gamespy article is a part of the industry discussion that new subscription games are struggling and free to play might be the answer.  This comes on the heels of a industry pioneers discussing and leaders heralding the benefits of Free to Play.  In addition, one of the more anticipated titles of 2011, Star Wars: the Old Republic is being directed towards Free to Play as have most of the SOE MMO portfolio.  At this moment, speculation mounts that Funcom’s the Secret World is the next to head to F2P.  For that matter, Turbine has largely reinvigorated itself by embracing free to play with their Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online titles.

With that established, I’d like to place this into my own personal context.  I started playing subscription MMO’s with Everquest back in the summer of 1999.  Since that time I have maintained a subscription to an MMO (and on rare occasions, two) ever since.  That’s roughly 150 months of concurrent subscriptions and I’m content with the purchases.  Over time I have seen most of the main entrants in the field, watched some wax and wane and others come and go.  Interestingly, I’m also still largely playing MMO’s with some of the same people I met online in those early years.

What’s up with Subscriptions?

While subscription based gaming predates the MMO, subscription based MMO’s have been the standard in the western markets since Ultima Online’s largely pioneered the transition from MUD to MMO.  The other first generation MMO’s, Everquest and Asheron’s Call each grew the market and helped establish the MMO segment as one of the more attractive emerging gaming segments.

There are two reasons that developers, quite naturally, are predisposed to subscription MMO’s.  First, MMO’s initially provided extremely stable income.  The second reason is that the margins on MMO operations have become quite phenomenal.

Stable Income is Good Income

At their inception, MMO’s produced revenue streams that grew for some time before leveling out.  Once they leveled out, they typically sustained their earnings level for some time.  Consider the following information on subscription growth for early MMO’s.

  • UO grew subscribers for nearly 36-consecutive months
  • EQ grew subscribers for 18-consecutive months
  • AC grew susbcribers for 12-consecutive months
  • DAOC grew subscribers for 12-consecutive months
  • WoW follows this model, growing western subs for 36-consecutive months

When you consider that the alternative, box sale model, largely dissipates within the first six weeks from launch.  The idea of having a title that brings new consumers to your product for at least a year and potentially three years is certainly attractive.

But it gets even better.  Once these titles hit their peak, they largely sustained their subscription levels for several additional years.  Continuing our focus on these first MMO’s:

  • EQ sustained 400,000 subscriptions from 2001 to 2006
  • UO sustained 200,000 subscriptions from 2001 to 2004
  • DAoC sustained 200,000 subscriptions from 2002 to 2005
  • FFXI sustained 500,000 subscriptions from 2003 to 2009
  • WoW sustained 5,000,000 western subscriptions from 2008 to 2011

So, the MMO market was lucrative because it defied normal video game market dynamics (short shelf life) and provided ongoing revenue streams.  When you consider a subscription of $12.50 a month (taking a mid-point of the $10/month early subscriptions and the $15/month modern ones) sustaining 200,000 subs meant a relatively stable $30mm annual revenue stream for 24-36 months.  For those familiar with calculating the net present value (NPV) of a project, it’s not surprising that MMO’s became a darling of investment capital.

Profit = Volume * Margin

So, the last section demonstrated that the revenue streams for early MMO’s provided an attractive monetary stream.  Maybe not enough to generate a Facebook level of excitement, but certainly big enough dollars to find interested investors.  But the story gets even better!

MMO’s are high margin products.  Consider, for a moment, the original projections for Funcom’s The Secret World.  In the lesser of two scenarios, had TSW sold 1mm copies and only retained 280,000 subscribers, Funcom projected $100mm first year revenue with a 43% profit margin.  Bear in mind that developers may only see 20-25% of net sales from their boxes.  A good chunk of that projected $100mm derives form the subscriptions (about 25%), direct sales (digital sales from Funcom direct) and in-game items (projected at about 35% of subscriptions).

While MMO’s are increasingly costly to make, they aren’t as costly to operate.  This was a key point in the recent Funcom investor disclosure, the costs to operate TSW in 2012 are notably cheaper than the costs to operate Age of Conan which launched in 2008.  Realize that TSW intends to kick out content in monthly updates and it uses external voice talent for a number of its game elements and you have to wonder what’s driving that “costs less to operate” statement.

It turns out that the answer lies in the technology.  Computers and bandwidth, once a significant operating cost for MMO’s have become tremendously more efficient in the last decade.  Substantially, it turns out, is probably an understatement.  Ciena references Dan Rayburn who quite succinctly notes:

 To put the rate of pricing decline in terms everyone can understand, today Netflix pays about five cents to stream a movie over the Internet. If Netflix tried to do this in 1998, at the same quality they are doing it today, it would of cost them $270 per movie. Of course, in 1998 no one was capable of getting a 3Mbps stream, but even if Netflix only encoded their videos for 37Kbps in 1998, it still would have cost them $4.80 to stream one movie.

The backbone of the MMO has become dramatically cheaper over time.  Additionally, there are more options available today making near-constant uptime, secure, low cost persistent online communities relatively easy to realize.  Consider the case of Runescape.

 RuneScape is run on commodity hardware.  All our own proprietary web serving technologies, file systems, databases etc. have allowed us incredible scale and tremendously high margins because they are so efficient.  I think we’re probably the most efficient game in terms of infrastructure and servers costs in the entire industry.  Which is great when it comes to scale, because that’s what MMOs are all about.

So, over the course of a decade, margins for operating MMO’s improved, shelf-life cycles extended and revenue streams remained stable for a matters of years.  A high margin, relatively safe revenue stream is the kind of thing that gives CFO’s pretty explicit dreams. The subscription MMO clearly was a thing of beauty from a financial perspective.

A Funeral without an Obituary?

The subscription MMO market entered hospice care in 2008.  While some are calling Free to Play the future of MMO’s, the future is probably already here… and perhaps should have been here a few years ago.

If you look at MMOData.net and check out “Total Active Subscriptions” it appears that the MMO market saturated somewhere around 2009.  Subscriptions apparently peak and begin tapering off a bit as we moved through 2011.  That, however, is a misleading picture.

MMO Market Segment Growth and Share by Title

Growth in the MMO Segment and Market share per title. Source: MMOData.net

You just made those numbers up, didn’t you?

Spoiler:

I am using data from Ibe Van Geel’s work at MMOData.net.  I prepared this data using his subscription information.  Titles included had to meet the following criteria:

  1. They had to use and be reported using western subscription models.  Lineage, Aion and others can’t be included.  Arguably, though, they represent the future business model for MMO’s so they will be touched on in the next editorial.
  2. They needed to peak over 100,000 and hold those subscribers for at least a six month window.
  3. I tracked data in six-month blocks
  4. If a data point was not provided at a specific six month interval, an estimate was created along the linear trend between the two existing data points
  5. Titles which do not report, but are still in operation, near the end of the series are listed as 75k users.
While exact details of subscription information is virtually impossible to access, Ibe Van Geel (and SirBruce before him) does a reasonably good job of providing transparency in his methodology.  The data points are all best estimates and thus, certainly wrong to some degree, but for the purposes of this examination the trends matter more than the details.  It seems unlikely that his data is missing the broader trend.
Industry life cycle

Industry life cycle

The MMO market grew at a pretty amazing rate between 2004 and 2008.  It does appear to have tapered out from 2008 to 2012, but it’s sustaining (or nearly sustaining) its peak.  Students of business should note the oddly similar shape between the MMO segment and the classic industry life cycle pictured on the right.

From this, it’s pretty apparent why you are hearing discussion of the future.  We appear to have hit the market peak and it’s time to look for the next business model.  I submit, though, that the peak already happened and we have been well into the decline of this segment for some time.

The problem with the data is the elephant in the room: World of Warcraft (WoW).

WoW entered the market as an established gaming IP with a rabid pre-existing fan base due to the success of their Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft IP’s.  WoW is ultimately responsible for the bulk of the growth in the subscription MMO segment.  WoW managed to co-opt most existing MMO customers and WoW converted a number of the customers of its existing IP’s into WoW subscribers.  While WoW is beginning to show some signs of weakness, it is still far and away the market leader.  Indeed, the remaining large MMO titles do not combine to match WoW’s western market share!

MMO Segment Growth Without WoW

MMO Segment Growth Without WoW. Source: MMODAta.net

If you remove WoW from the industry, the picture looks starkly different.  Apparently, the MMO industry peaked in 2004 at around 2 million subscribers.  WoW grew the market an additional 5 million western subscribers.

However, no title since that time has brought and converted new consumers to the subscription model.  For the most part, new competitors entering the market simply diminish the existing market share of the other competitors.  It’s quite likely that these new entrants briefly grab subscribers from WoW, but given the overall market shape and WoW’s sustained western subscriber base, any such defections are eventually offset by that player (or other players) returning to WoW.

If we consider 200,000 to be the magic number for MMO subscribers, there appears to be room in this industry for about ten subscription titles and, of course, WoW.  That we are running with approximately fifteen such titles suggests we are seeing segment cannibalization, which would explain the number of titles changing to free to play this  year.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the life pattern for the MMO has changed.  Recall that the initial generation MMO’s enjoyed 12+ months of subscription growth followed by 18+ months of sustained volume.  That has not been the pattern for MMO’s launching from 2008 and on.

 

MMO Launches from 2008 tp 2011

Six months from launch: MMO’s from 2008 to 2011. Source, MMOData.net

The grow and sustain pattern, once the hallmark of this market segment, has disappeared.  It has been replaced with a spike and dive model.  Looking only at the four most successful (as it were) launches in the last four years, the results are markedly abnormal for the old industry (several other titles, such as FFXIV simply failed outright).  Three of the four titles showed an initial spike with a rapid decay.  Only TOR evidenced some initial growth.  However, TOR has been unable to sustain that growth for more than a quarter.  Further, within six months TOR has dropped to under it’s launch sales level.  This isn’t a statement about TOR, it’s a statement about the sector.  When a prized IP can’t pull off the build and sustain model, the problem may not be the game it may be the model.  The twelve months to grow and eighteen to sustain is a thing of the past.  It has been replaced by the spike and dive model that actually describes the normal PC game sales trajectory.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King!

I’m a fan of subscription MMO’s, hopefully I made that clear at the opening.  However, my experiences in the market are actually remarkably in line with the general trends.  I used to subscribe to a game for a solid year, sometimes longer.  The last three MMO’s I have subscribed to (with intent to remain) held me for less than a year (three months for the one prior to TSW).

It would seem that the market for subscription MMO’s is truly dead.  Over the past years, only three titles in the MMOData set evidence first generation grow-sustain patterns.  WoW is certainly the most succesful, which may be finally entering its decline phase (Mists of Panderia may change that).  Dofus, which I admit to having never heard of until preparing this post.  However, Dofus appears to be a hybrid subscribe or F2P model and thus may best represent the shape of the new industry and less the vestiges of the old.

The stand-out is EVE Online.  EVE is noteworthy in that it has grown its subscriber base longer than any first generation MMO and sustained a healthy subscription level even in the face of market saturation.  EVE, though, also represents the one remaining large scale sand box MMO, it may in fact simply be the WoW of a smaller market segment (with UO, Tales of the Desert and some of the other sandbox titles).

I Wish I Knew How to Quit You

Moving away from subscription based MMO’s is proving difficult, though.  First, no single publisher has been willing to bet the farm on the transition.  Allegedly, the failed Project Copernicus would have been the first such title, but its fail to launch is an entirely different story.

To date, western MMO’s launch as subscription only and then convert to F2P once the subscriber model fails.  Thus, western consumers understandably consider a non-subscription model to be a failure, developers are working hard to teach that lesson (and it’s the wrong lesson).

Second, for the most part, the transition to F2P has treated F2P as a second class citizen.  If you look at the SOE F2P platform, it’s clear that F2P is simply a lesser customer.  SOE uses F2P as a subscription tease, if you hang around long enough you need to subscribe.  While there are some things you can a la carte purchase, making the most of your account requires the subscription.  Thus, the customer continues to learn that F2P means substandard.  Who really wants to be the red-headed step-customer?

There are noteworthy exceptions.  Turbine’s approach to F2P really offers a two purchase model choice.  Subscribers get everything for a monthly fee, F2P players can a la carte their way to pretty much every feature in the game.  Arena Net has successfully built an MMO-like product and is planning on launching a full blown MMO using the traditional PC game “buy the box, get it all” approach.

In my next post, I want to spend more time on what F2P is and what it could be.  I think there is a place for the subscription MMO, even alongside the F2P model.  However, I think doing it right reqiures treating all of your purchase models equitably.  This entails design decisions that probably need to be in place before development begins and it requires finding equitable trade-offs in the various pricing plans.  That, though, is fodder for a different discussion.

(Edit:  If you made it though all that, you are now rewarded, with the followup article!  A look at the Box+ subscription model!)

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More on Funcom Financials

Continuing Examination: Funcom financials

Layoff May Happen: Are they now an acquisition target?

This post continues our discussion of Funcom financials which began in Unrealized Expectations for the Secret World.

Looking at the Q1FY12 Funcom financials, their current ratio dropped pretty heavily from Q1-11 to Q1-12. However, that’s (a) expected given the information above and (b) they are still running a 1.32 current, which is more than enough to carry current liabilities.

They show a Q1 Debt percentage of 38.4% for 2012 compared to a 22% for 2011 (Q1 to Q1 figures). Yes, that’s a jump in borrowing. No, it’s not exactly an alarming rise.  Nearly the entirety of this is the jump in short-term liabilities leading to the reduced current ratio. It’s expected in a launch and they have facilities in place to assist here.

Those balance sheet actions are somewhat offset by the equity release on 20-Jun. The 60mm NOK (about $10mm USD) brings the equity portion of the balance sheet more into line. While this did dilute share value (somewhat influencing the drop-off in share price), they did a pretty good job of timing the issuance at/near a market high. The issuance was listed as substantially oversubscribed, indicating there was (in June) a higher demand for the stock than the number of issues offered.

Additionally, there are likely layoffs coming.   Those cuts will likely be largely CS and QA. The latter is to be expected post-launch, the forthcoming content will not require the QA levels the beta did. The former is expected given underwhelming sales. That’s part of the overhead SGA costs that scale down that Cato1999 references.

There are significant concerns with Funcom financials, but as I have already noted, those problems largely predate TSW. While losses did mount in Q4-11 and Q1-12. The increase in losses were generally one-time items (the launch of TSW). However:

  1. There are multiple consecutive quarters of losses in the Funcom financials. That’s never sustainable.
  2. The injection of equity financing will increase likelihood of demands for radical internal change. In particular, private equity partners are known for their “tear em up and sell em off” approach.
  3. The dilution of share value coupled with the market response to the 10-Aug issuance presses Funcom share prices to five-year lows. While the share prices have rebounded nicely this week, they remain deeply distressed.

It is not impossible, given this scenario, that they become an M&A candidate. Not just because a tech sector analyst mentioned it, but because a company with three cash-flow positive (albeit weak) products and a depressed market cap is an interesting buy. Further, in addition to their portfolio, Funcom is certainly one of the most innovative development houses in the industry. Additionally, their single server technology (assuming it’s theirs) along with the Dreamworld engine would have value in a sale. On top of that, the equity financing increases the urgency to restructure, fix, or sell fast.

Finally, other news indicates that NCSoft and Private Equity firm Provident are looking at game company acquisitions.

Provident is apparently going after EA. NCSoft is currently mum. If the former rumors are true, it’s unlikely that NCSoft will get into a bidding war for EA (but not impossible).

Even if NCSoft isn’t chasing down Funcom. M&A’s tend to come in waves and the early acquisitions are often those with weaker positions.

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Unrealized Expectations: Sales of the Secret World and Funcom’s Investor Disclosures

Unrealized Expectations at Funcom

Sale of the Secret World and Investor Disclosures

Update: New information on this story appears in our continuing discussion of Funcom’s financials.

The Story Continues in: An Obituary for the Subscription MMO

I need to begin this post with a caveat.  I am a big fan of The Secret World.  I like the game, I’m having more fun in an MMO than I have had in some time.  Considering that I started playing TSW sometime back in the closed beta, that’s a lot of logged hours with no diminishing satisfaction with the game.  It’s been literally years since a title has done that for me.  I also bought a lifetime subscription, in advance, so I want to see the game succeed.  These things certainly favorably bias my perception of the current state of things and my perceptions of where things are going.

Funcom: August stock prices

NOTE – These prices are in NOK, not USD
Funcom stock prices.
Closing prices for the month of August, 2012.

However, I am not just a fan who wants to see a game succeed.  In the not-so-secret real world, I actually engage in business analysis professionally.  Most of my work is in the domain of business strategy and I have some published research on the intersection between gaming and business.  So, the recent disclosures regarding the unrealized sales expectations of the Secret World hits a few personal buttons.  This post is more from the latter category.

The news cycle has been quite abuzz regarding the press release.  Indeed, Yahoo Finance indicates that the stock price for Funcom took quite the beating immediately following the release.

It should be noted, though, that the trading range for Monday 13-Aug was fairly tight, with stock prices moving between 3.40 and 3.10 NOK.  Although it did, once again, close at a low.

At this point, the language starting to surround The Secret World is that it’s a flop.  Indeed, the Blog Rock, Paper Shotgun, today referred to The Secret World:

 I don’t know what to say, really. Like SWTOR, TSW seemed a bit too late in the day, arriving after Moby Subscription had been slain, and I doubt I was alone in being put off by the dry combat (the narrative stuff seemed appealing, but I didn’t want to wade through hours of what, from the beta, wasn’t terribly engaging shooty-bang just to hear the dialogue). Unlike SWTOR, TSW wasn’t slavishly copying the competition and had high aspirations even if couldn’t necessarily realise them, so it’s tragic to see Funcom suffer. Hopefully they can bounce back, and will pour their energies into games that don’t require hundreds of thousands of subscribers to turn a profit.

Similarly, StockLink iMarkedet writer Asgeir Nilsen reports that technology analyst Espen Torgersen considers the game to have flopped.

I do not think the Board of Funcom can go out in the market to make an issue now. I think this would have been unwise. I think probably kind of M & A-run and that kind of stands highest on the agenda right now. Then, to restructure the company so as to buy time

Unrealized or Unrealistic Expectations?

Funcom: Weekly stock prices 15-Aug, 2011 to 13-Aug, 2012

Note: Prices are in NOK, not USD
Funcom: Weekly stock prices 15-Aug, 2011 to 13-Aug, 2012

To be fair, the stock market reaction is not unusual.  There was quite a run up in the price of the stock.  Records at Yahoo Finance indicate that the stock price appreciated from 7.59 to 23.90 NOK between December, 2011 and April, 2012 .

Most of this run-up is speculative based upon the perceived potential of the Secret World.  Additionally, at this same time it was becoming increasingly evident that EA’s Star Wars: the Old Republic was failing, it is inevitable that some would speculate that EA’s failure could become Funcom’s game.

Funcom added to these expectations in their 25-May financial projections.  There were several pieces of news in their Q1 projections.  First, both Anarchy Online and Age of Conan were cash-flow positive.  Second, while company earnings had been negative for several quarters, there were some signs that the losses were beginning to subside even without TSW revenue.  Finally, there had been over a million beta sign-ups for the Secret World.  So, while Funcom’s recent financial past was bleak, signs pointed to a better future.

What were the projections for the Secret World?

In that same report, Funcom sets forward to scenarios they believed were likely for the launch of the Secret World.

    1. Conan-like” scenario.  Sales of 1,050,000 in year one.  Poor retention rates of around 280,000 concurrent subscribers.  This would have resulted in $100mm first year revenue and a 43% profit margin.
    2. Target” scenario.  Sales 130% of AoC (1,365,000 units).  Healthy retention of 490,000 subscribers and an additional 35% of subscriptions from in-game sales.  This would have generated $157mm in first year revenue with a 53% profit margin.

So, armed with this information, Funcom’s stock remained strong right up until the launch of the Secret World.  However, the stock price began a fall-off almost immediately.  Initially, this was tied to the surprise resignation of CEO Arne Aas, with former COO Ole Schreiner stepping into the CEO suite.  This resignation, on 2-Jul predates the rundown from 16 to 6.99 NOK two weeks later.  Sudden, unannounced, changes in CEO’s are not commonplace and not a sign that things are going well.

I have always had a problem with the expectations for The Secret World.  I believe the product has performed well, the development team has delivered and the game has the ability to thrive.  I do not, however, believe this game was to be a World of Warcraft level title.  Nor did I believe that this would be a million plus sale product.  There are a number of converging elements that work against both of the posted scenarios.

  • This is a modern fantasy, horror title in an industry predominated by high fantasy  products.  While this does potentially offer a strong differentiator, it’s also an untested differentiator.  Will customers flock to a world without elves?
  • This is an M-rated product, which precludes certain promotional medium.  While that did not hinder Age of Conan’s ability to sell one million units, it does restrict the upper bound of the game’s sales potential.
  • The game followed the launch of Age of Conan, which was a flop.  Not only was AoC a flop at launch, but it did immeasurable damage to the Funcom brand name.  There was a lot of hate and resentment visible towards the Funcom brand and a lot of that turned into very unfair early negative buzz about the Secret World.
  • On top of that, for whatever reason, there was an immense negative buzz developed about game play in the Secret World.  Ranging from complaints about character customization, combat animations and other issues, it was clear from early on that something was afoul in market perceptions of the forthcoming product.
  • The Secret World is NOT an easy game.  It’s challenging and complex in an industry where content is generally spoon fed.  To mine a quote, “no one has ever gone broke underestimating human intelligence.”
  • TSW was launching as a subscription based product.  Putting aside the discussion of whether subscription models are dead for another post, it is fair to say that the subscription based PC Game market is smaller than the PC Game market simply by being a subset of that market.  A subscription model reduces the potential size of your total market.

None of these things, taken alone, were insurmountable obstacles.  The problem, though, is that these are not independent facts, there are interactions between them that matter.

There are plenty of m-rated, modern fantasy/horror games out there that sell, and sell well.  However, none of them are subscription based.  This introduces two interactions.  First, will the fantasy/horror players pay for subscriptions when they have not in the past (e.g. can you convert new customers a la WoW).  Second, will your existing consumers buy into a new genre?

The MMO market is not, in general, a high difficulty market.  The game play tends towards the easy side and the game design has become increasingly linear in past years.  While there are “hard” games out there that do well (EVE comes to mind), they do not generally dominate market positions.

On top of that, Funcom has a history and one that isn’t doing them any favors.  Anarchy Online, while a brilliant game, had a horrid launch.  Age of Conan had a smoke and mirrors launch where the shine of Tortage quickly dissipated into “where did the content go?” when players left the newbie experience.  While both AO and AOC have evolved into stable, content rich products, they hurt the brand at launch.  You never get a second chance at launch and you have a hard time undoing deeply negative impressions.  TSW was working uphill on marketing because of the sins of its kindred.  Fair or not, that’s how consumer minds work.

I have always seen TSW as a ‘niche’ MMO.  It’s the term I used repeatedly in beta and it’s the term I still use.  TSW is a great game.  It plays well, it’s fun, it’s engrossing.  But it’s not mass market.  I see this as more of an EVE type game.  While there are problems tracking MMO subscription data, MMOData.net suggests that EVE grew to 450k.  EVE did not sell a million boxes, initially.  Indeed, unlike the standard MMO model, EVE appears to have grown their customers over time by offering a superior, differentiated product.

That’s the game I perceive TSW to be.  It’s hard, it’s different and it’s innovative on a number of fronts.  Contrary to what fans will tell you on boards, that’s not always what they want.  They claim it, but they often buy what they know (risk aversion).  Games that break the mold usually have to grow into their business model, they don’t get to start that way.

Indeed, my perceptions seem to be what Funcom is now acknowledging.  The people playing the game seem happy.  The first update was quite successful.  We are past the free month period and while populations have dropped, the server populations are still very robust.  Their are lots of players still enjoying the content.

TSW does not appear to be going the way of recent MMO flops like Warhammer Online, Star Wars the Old Republic, or Final Fantasy XIV.  It didn’t sell to projection, but it’s retention rates seem high and satisfaction levels remain quite high.  That last gem was the bright spot in the Funcom investor relations release.  It’s been overshadowed in the gloom and doom, but it’s an important sign of where things are really going.

It’s all the fault of the critics, right?

That was a central point in the Funcom investor relations release.  Sales were below both scenario expectations and they attribute this, at least in part to “the aggregated score for The Secret World of 72 out of 100, which is to be considered low…”  Do critical reviews matter?

It turns out there is some empirical evidence that they do.  Uzzi and Spiro used critical reviews and box office revenues as separate performance variables in a related entertainment industry.  While their study is not about the voracity of reviews, it is worth noting that in their study (across decades of data), there is a very strong positive correlation between reviews and financial performance for Broadway musicals.  That’s not a 1:1 correlation, there are some high revenue shows that are panned by critics and there are some critical raves that fail to draw customers.  But, on the whole, reviews and revenues go hand in hand.

There are two cavaets here.  First, this isn’t a proven causal relationship (e.g. reviews cause sales) and second, it’s a different industry.  But the industries are related on the entertainment side.  Additionally, it’s not necessarily an issue of whether reviews cause revenues.  It could simply be that reviews are, at least in part, an indicator of the buzz surrounding an entertainment title.  If that’s the case, they are a useful leading indicator even if the review itself doesn’t create sales.

Like it or not, critical reviews do matter.  Whether its because reviews directly influence customers or whether its because reviews reflect market sentiment, reviews and sales seem to correlate.  So, when a venue like G4 pans the Secret World, even when the review is biased heavily by clearly beta state content, it doesn’t reflect well for the prospects of the product.

So, is the Sky Falling, or what?

On the whole, I would say that the cries of the demise of the Secret World are exceptionally premature.  There are a lot of people who want TSW to fail and they have used this story to jump from the pre-release fail stories to the “it’ll go F2P now for sure” bandwagon.  However, I see little that immediately suggests TSW is in trouble.

As I noted earlier, populations appear to be quite strong.  There are dozens of people in Agartha every evening.  The Looking for Group channels are going strong.  The new marketplace (bugs and all) is crammed full of items.  TSW does not appear to be heading down the TOR/WAR path.

On the other hand, that stock price is alarming.  A massive drop in stock prices usually triggers debt covenants which can, in turn, greatly impede a companies ability to operate until it restores its equity balance.  There are reasonable questions to be answered as to the cash position of the company going forwards.  However, these problems precede TSW.

The problems at Funcom are not the failure of TSW.  Rather, it seems that TSW fails by the criteria of not being a Hail Mary which single-handedly resolves a company’s historically poor financial condition.  TSW seems poised to be a profit center for the company and a strong part of Funcom’s financial restructuring.

There will be layoffs, there were going to be layoffs.  First, game companies overstaff near the end of development, some of that will go – and they were going to go.  Second, they did project too many sales and that will certainly lead to some cuts in customer service.  If you expected 1mm customers and only have 500,000 you don’t need as many CSR’s to handle issues.  Third, there will likely be some cash flow cuts – not as a reflection of the failure of TSW, but as a reflection of the failure of TSW to stem an already leaky ship.

As Torgersen notes, Funcom is actually attractive for “probably kind of M&A run.”  There are a couple of established MMO houses that would love to have a ‘failure’ like TSW in their portfolio.

Fans of TSW should be watchful, but not wary.  If you like the game, by all means keep paying and playing.  Not doing so pretty much guarantees the worst will happen.  However, until you start hearing stories about senior producers, developers and managers of The Secret World departing or leaving the team, as has been the case with certain competitors, you shouldn’t consider the ship sunk!

 The Story Continues in: An Obituary for the Subscription MMO

 

 Read Ryahl's other Editorials at TSWGuides' Editorial  Page.
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Information for our International audience

When we started putting the TSWGuides.com site information together, we never imagined we would have as many, or as diverse, of a readership.  The actual numbers and diversity of our audience continue to astound and humble us.  We very much appreciate your readership.

We understand that our international audience speak an array of languages and that, sometimes, there is difficulty following this site.  We are trying to make the site international friendly.  Some of the things we are doing include:
1.  There is an auto-translate widget.  On the right side of the screen there is a pop-out window with widgets.  The very first widget allows you to translate the current page into any of .the languages supported by Google translate.
2.  We are also aware that some terms don’t translate well.  Game specific terminology, for instance, often becomes horribly misrepresented in translation.  To that end, we are beginning to work in support features for our builds:
  • You can take the ability names from any of our builds and use a searchable build page.  For, example, the Drakashi wheel, has a search panel.  Additionally, Drakashi has modeled his UI to identically match the TSW wheel.  This should help with identifying names of abilities.
  • We are beginning to incorporate “import” links for our builds.  People who use Viper’s Deck Manager modification can import and export builds.  Once again, the Drakashi wheel deck builder is compatible with Viper.  
These are fairly small steps, but they are steps all the same.  TSW Guides has a very small staff, Aela and myself primarily, and we are limited in the number of projects we can simultaneously manage.  We do recognize the international audience of a game like TSW and we are interested in improving our features.  To that end, we welcome suggestions.  Please use the comments button below if you have ideas we might incorporate.
Thank you for reading TSWGuides.com
Ryahl
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When it comes to glyphs, contingency theory reigns supreme

Glyphs, TSW Builds

Contingency Theory and Glyph Selection

In a recent pair of essays, I talked about the importance of talisman.  Respectively, I have addressed the importance of keeping your talisman skill up to par as well as focusing on the relevance of mixing your talisman factors (health, attack power and healing)based on your role and needs.  Those two essays covered a large portion of the gearing decisions in TSW, which is important because in TSW your gear (and skill with your gear) determine your statistics.  This essay was to have been the third and final of the series, focusing on glyphs and signets.  However, it became apparent fairly quickly that the length necessitated splitting it into two parts.  Part 3-1 (this one) is glyphs, Part 3-2 on signets will be coming soon.

Gear is more than just attack power, healing and hit points.  From the earliest gear drop in TSW, you are exposed to nine secondary attributes.  These include offensive attributes like hit, penetrate, critical rating and critical power.  They also include defensive ratings like evade, defense, block, physical protection and magical protection.  Each of these attributes has a corresponding glyph.  While some gear contains fixed allocations of these attributes, much of the gear in TSW is customizable via the glyph and signet system.

Understanding what is possible and tailoring your gear to your build can easily be the difference between a high performing build and a build which feels broken.  For example, one of our Blue Mountain builds works off a synergy which guarantees penetrates on the primary consumer.  In such a build, additional penetrate attributes simply don’t pay out a lot of benefit.  Rather, that build needs enough hit to never glance (guaranteed penetrates can be glancing penetrates) and after that, it really benefits from some additional crit rating and crit power.  Another one of our builds generates a lot of critical power, if you lack the critical rating to take advantage of that power, it becomes a bit useless.

Glyphs and Attribute Allocation

Glyph capable gear is customizable gear.  Even if a glyph is already in it, you can overwrite it with a crafted glyph.  Glyphs can be crafted using glyph toolkits, blue and higher quality kits become available in TSW dungeons.  Crafted glyphs have a maximum value based on the quality level and echelon (green, blue or purple) of the glyph.  That value is then quantified when applied to a weapon or talisman.

The approximate weight for glyphs follows the talisman model, but remember your weapon can be glyphed too.  In the table below, I outline the weights and the point values for crafted glyphs based on Q10 Blue crafting kits.  Remember, you have three major talisman slots and three minor talisman slots.  Also, while you do have two weapons, the game only uses the value of your most recently used active weapon when determining your active glyphs.  So, effectively, you only have one weapon glyph in use at any specific time.

Item Slot
Weight
Q10 -Blue
Head
18.4%
145
Weapon
18.4%
145
Major
16.6%
131
Minor
10.6%
84
Max
790

Based on this, a player in full Q10 Blue gear has about 790 attribute points that can be allocated across the nine possible attributes.  The question becomes just how much should you spend on any given attribute?  The answer, as with many things in TSW, turns into a giant “it depends.”  Relationships between attributes are depicted in the table below.

Attribute
What it does
Offset by
Critical Rating
Increases your chance to score a critical hit
Evade and Defense of your opponent
Critical Power
Increases the output of your successful critical hits/heals
Failing to crit
Penetrate
Increases your chance to score a penetrating hit
The Block value of your opponent
Hit
Increases your chance to hit the opponent
Defense and evade of your opponent
Block
Increases your chance to block an opponent
Penetrate of your opponent
Defense
Increases the chance your opponents hits will be glancing
Hit rating of your opponent
Evade
Increases your chance to completely avoid an opponent attack
Hit rating of your opponent
Magical Protection
Reduces damage from magical sources
Physical or Filth damage
Physical Protection
Reduces damage from physical sources
Magical or Filth damage

As you can see, every attribute in TSW is relative to your opponent.  This makes theory crafting for optimal attribute allocation an encounter contingent exercise.  Some target thresholds seem to be evident though.  Feedback in the beta suggested that many attributes capped out in use in the 400-450 range, but that’s largely fed from elite dungeon experiences.  The current theory from nightmares sounds like 600+ is more the target.

 Tanks and Glyphs

Early theory crafting on tanking determined that payouts for different attributes accumulate at different rates.  Evade advances about half as fast as Block,Defense is in the middle.  However, because evade is 100%, evade turns out to have an absolute advantage if you focus solely on “normal” damage output.  Once you factor in the full values of skills for weapon trees that augment evade, defense and block, evade has about a 10% advantage over block and about a 3% advantage over defense if everything is a normal attack or a countered defense.

The gap between defense and evade seems to drop off a good bit if you face an opponent who has high +hit (negates evade) and high base damage (the spikey factor of the lost evades becomes a liability).  None the less, evade and defense outweigh block in any normal damage distribution.

This conception always bugged me because damage from bosses is hardly ever normal (e.g. zombies in Kingsmouth are not nightmare bosses).  In the bit of parsing I had posted, it was pretty clear that some bosses (even in normal and elite) penetrate a super-normal amount and critical hardly ever.

In those cases, evade underperforms.  Yes, you evade a certain percentage of attacks that might have been penetrates, but you pass through a lot of penetrates too.  In those cases, a block load is more advantageous.  Actual blocks pay off less than evades, but Pen-Negates add to the value of actual blocks.  In other cases, where crits are in play, block is really unimportant, but evade and defense become even more important than normal.

So, glyphing in TSW is highly contingent.  Fortunately, at least for now, the early dungeons seem to stack in a single direction.  If one boss in the dungeon has a high penetrate, several will, and few if any will critical.  The opposite will probably be true in other dungeons.

We may find that later nightmares will alternate, causing players to need a couple of gear sets and swap on the fly.  I highly expect the raid environment to throw multiple types of problems at the team simultaneously, perhaps requiring a block tank and a defense tank in the same encounter (or in different stages of the same encounter).

But I like to pew-pew

For offensive players, hit is your single most important glyph.  If your hit is low, the opponent evades and your successful attacks glance.  Nearly every passive in the game fails on a glance as well, meaning your build can quickly lose half its attributes on a glance.  It seems like 600 is a magic number for eliminating enemy glances, but this is barely feasible on a Q10 Blue item budget.  If you push for 600 hit from item attributes, you are going to have 190 points left over for critical rating/power or penetrate.

You might therefore choose to offset some of your point deficiency through passive abilities.  Abilities that either stack +hit or give a flat reduction in glance chance are desirable in your newbie Nightmare builds.  As your attribute allocation advances via gear upgrades, these passive and active abilities become less necessary.

You can also fix some of this deficiency via anima potions.  Using a Q10 Anima Hit Rating gives you +100 hit for 60 minutes, increasing your attribute allocation cap for other directions.

Please note, I am aware that some people are reporting ZERO HIT SCORES with a high penetrate build produces zero glances.  If this is true, it is almost certainly a bug and I would expect to see it fixed at some point.  Please note, if this happens it is not swinging the nerfbat on Fever Pitch, it’s a fix on +hit.

After you finish off your hit target, you have to decide whether you are looking for critical or penetrates.  Here, as with tanks, the answer is contingent on your build AND your opponent.  Most people realize the former, but forget the latter.  A boss with high defense and evade might negate your ability to critical, but such a boss is nearly always vulnerable to penetrates.  A penetrate build/gear load out will find the fight far easier.  The converse is also true.  A boss who blocks like mad will negate a penetrate build, but that boss is likely to be vulnerable to crits.

Right now, the answer seems to be penetrate for early nightmares.  I expect future nightmares will feature criticals.  It’s also likely that we will see paired penetrate/crit encounters in raids.  For example, one that requires you to split your DPS between two or more targets, each with unique vulnerabilities.

Yes, Funcom, I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of crazy under the hood mechanics (along with the typical gimmicks and scripted moments) you guys can throw at us in raids.  The TSW system leaves the door open for some creative encounter design, the likes of which we haven’t seen in MMO’s.

Healers, is there a doctor in the house?

Healers have an interesting dilemma in gearing decisions.  Depending on their build, +hit could be important (AR healing) or it could be completely irrelevant.  Additionally, you can’t really penetrate on a heal, so that attribute is out.  So, for healers critical rating and critical power become the important attributes.

However, your target (a player) will never “evade” your heals (well, line of sight, but that doesn’t count), so you will likely actually see diminishing returns on critical rating.  I do not know where that number kicks in, but it is one to find and be aware of.  Once you hit critical rating diminishing returns, critical power become your most important attribute.  Getting a lot of crits without a big payout is a bit useless.  To this end, balancing them in attribute selection is probably a good rule of thumb.

If it turns out that there is a theoretical max effective value for critical rating and critical power, the healer would then have to decide what is next in line for attributes.  Assuming that they don’t need +hit, tank attributes become a candidate.  Encounter specific +block (for penetrate fights), +defense (for critical fights) or +evade (for normal damage) might be a useful alternate.  Hopefully, as a healer, you aren’t being hit often enough to prioritize these attributes, but they do become candidates if you are over caps.

Quick Rules of Thumb

  1. Hit is always important (except for healers) until you reach the 0-glance threshold
  2. Offensive and Defensive attributes (and builds) should be prioritized based on specifics of the encounter
  3. Heal attributes should be allocated based on caps and diminishing returns
  4. You will eventually want multiple sets of gear for each role
  5. Doing a little bit of everything is probably going to be negated by a bosses caps
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Talisman distribution, Pareto efficiency and “why can’t I hold agro?”

Talisman Distribution

Pareto Efficiency and “Why can’t I hold Agro?

This is the second part of a three part essay on gear selection in the Secret World. In the last essay, I discussed the fallacy of asymmetric progression and the problems that can hinder potential of talisman in your DPS output. (Go to the First Essay in the series on gearing)

In this essay, we will look at talisman load-out configurations.  How many talisman and of what kind, should you wear based on your role?  In the next essay, we’ll look specifically at glyph signet choices.

Pareto Efficiency?

One activity familiar to any student of economics is the “guns or butter” problem.  In it, a nation is positioned as capable of making two goods, guns or butter, and has to decide on the allocation of resources to each.  The nation could produce 100% guns and thus no butter or it could produce 100% butter and thus no guns.  Or, more likely, it can produce some of each.

The logic of “how many of each” was addressed in the works of Vilfredo Pareto, providing us with the Pareto optimization curve (see link for an example).

OK, So I have Guns in TSW, but no Butter?

TSW gives us a similar two factor trade off with our talisman.  Actually, its a three factor trade-off between hitpoint gear, attack power gear and heal gear, but for many builds and roles only two factors are relevant.

  • For the typical tank, the trade-off is between +hitpoints (survivability) and +attack (threat generation via DPS).
  • For the typical healer, the trade-off is between +heal (heal throughput) and +hitpoints (survival)
  • For the typical DPS, the trade-off is between +attack and finding a way to crank +attack up to 11

Recently, theory-crafting has confirmed that there is a specific attribute allocation for talisman in TSW.  In the table below I depict these weights and the resulting value for hitpoint, attack power, and heal power.  These figures use QL10 Blue quality gear from the upper elite dungeons.  Elites have a lower tier of gear with weapons around WP 330 and a higher tier around weapons with WP 347.

Weight Hitpoint DPS Heal
Head 19% 1,945 439 495
Finger 17% 1,740 393 397
Neck 17% 1,740 393 397
Wrist 17% 1,740 393 397
Luck 10% 1,024 231 248
Waist 10% 1,024 231 248
Occult 10% 1,024 231 248
Weapon 347
Max Value 100% 10,237 2,310 2,430

This tells us that a Q10 equipped tank could go full +hitpoint gear resulting in an additional 10,237 HP and only rely on his/her weapon for DPS.  A DPS could go full ATK and pick up 2310 attack to supplement his/her weapon – leaving him/herself with 1970 hitpoints.  A healer could, likewise carry 2430 +heal to augment weapon power and similarly carry only 1970 hitpoints

Show us the Curve!

While stacking to the maximum of your primary factor might seem prudent, in practice it just doesn’t work.  Particularly for tanks and healers, if you don’t slot some second factor talisman, you will find yourself unable to actually fulfill your primary role.  Tanks will find they can’t generate enough agro to keep pace with DPS.  Healers will find the occasional blow from an add leaves them pretty dead, making healing a bit challenging.

It turns out that the trade-off in TSW produces a similar Pareto efficiency.  Assuming you are wearing the best quality gear, given your QL and echelon, your two factor values look something like this for a Tank or DPS.

Now, bear in mind, this is using the upper end blue-quality Q10 talisman.  Just starting elites, your numbers will be lower, but the concept of an efficient frontier remains the same.  For the most part, the trade-offs start to manifest as soon as threat tables become non-trivial to manage.  Bluedot did a very outstanding write-up on threat mechanics in TSW, a good read for those inclined to succeed.

Trade-offs will start sooner for some roles than for others.  Tanks, operating with reasonably efficient builds, will start finding problems holding agro perhaps as early as the Ankh (QL8).  By this point, DPS have exceeded the threat output by more than what you can accomplish with builds alone.

At this point, a tank will discover life gets easier by getting squishier.  Take off one or more +HP talisman and swap over to +ATK.  For me, it’s been my headpiece (19% of my attribute total).  I run roughly 80/20 tank/dps and that works perfectly fine.  I have no pattern of agro loss and our runs proceed smoothly.  This has carried us cleanly through every elite dungeon as well.

Healers, similarly, will find that survival matters come into play early.  As early as Darkness War (Q6), it’s not uncommon to see swarms of adds enter the battlefield (Hi2U Mayan Battle Mage) and these guys usually make a bee-line towards your healer.  Heal throughput, attentive tank-agro and on-the-spot DPS add pickup usually do the deal, but having a few more hitpoints can make life a lot easier for your healer.

For DPS, this often doesn’t manifest until elites.  Prior to that, simply managing threat reducers and staying out of environmental effects do the job.  Additionally, prior to elites, even the occasional environmental effect tends to be non-lethal.  But, with elites, you start finding that pretty much everything hits DPS for 2,000 or more damage.  Just enough to one-shot an all +ATK DPS.  Entering into elites, it’s advisable for DPS to move to between 3k and 4k health.  Conveniently, this happens at 20%-30% +HP gear.

Common Talisman Loadouts

The two most common loads have already been introduced, the 80/20 or 70/30 build.  In this format, the higher value goes to your role specific talisman (+HP for tank, +Heal for healers and +ATK for DPS) with the lower value going to your secondary factor (+ATK for tank, +HP for heal/DPS).

The logic for which to use is different for the roles.  For tanks, you want to carry the least amount of HP necessary to do your job safely.  Unused hitpoints are wasted DPS.  If the encounter is particularly threatening, go 80/20.  If not, 70/30.  If you are on farm mode for a dungeon, you might find yourself going 50/50.

For healers and DPS, the converse is true.  Wear as much primary factor gear as you can get away with.  Dead healers don’t heal and dead DPS don’t DPS.  You need enough HP to survive anticipated damage and no more.  Going into elites, that’s probably 70/30, giving you 30% HP gear to get past learning mistakes (for the whole party).  In an experienced group, and by that I mean a group who is experienced with each other, go for your maximum output. 100/0 for DPS is quite feasible in elite (although not in nightmare).  Healers will probably never hit the 100/0 level, but 80/20 and 90/10 might be possible as runs become smoother.

Turning Percentages into Talisman Choices

80/20 – Toss on a second factor headpiece and you are golden.  Alternately, two minor talisman on your second factor and the remaining gear to your primary factor works.

70/30 – Three minor talisman devoted to your second factor, the rest to your primary factor.

60/40 – A headpiece and two minors towards your second factor, everything else towards your major factor

50/50 – Your three major talisman to your second factor, everything else towards your major factor

Three Factor Talisman Loadouts

Up until now, I have focused on builds which make trade-offs between two factors (HP/ATK for tanks ATK/HP for DPS and HEAL/HP for healers).  Some builds actually need all three factors to play well.  In particular, the classic survival build (primarily soloing) needs a bit of all three factors to play well.  However, AR build healers may find some benefit from having a little of everything too.

In these cases, you need to prioritize.  What is your primary, secondary and tertiary factor.  For a survival build, I would imagine it’s DPS, HP, Heal.  For an AR build, it’s likely Heal, HP, DPS.  I don’t have a lot of data on either of these models.  While I do play survival builds when I outdoor quest, I duo with Aela, so my  +heal needs are pretty low.

I would probably start a three factor model on a 50/40/10 or 50/30/20 model.  You can use the gearing choices in the preceding section to get the talisman allocations to make this happen.  From there, tweak as needed.  Bump in 10% increments as needed, remembering that any increase in one factor has to be offset by a decrease in another.  What are you willing to give up to do more?

Putting Glyphs into Talisman

I plan on spending more time on glyphs in a subsequent essay, but I think it’s worth touching on something here.  I prefer to have my secondary factor gear be glyph-eligible gear.

While you may find dungeon drops for your primary factor where the other attributes are perfect for your role (+Evade or +Defense for me typically), it’s hard to find gear for your second factor with the right stats.  I mean, how many non-glyph 439 ATK head pieces are out there with +Defense?

So, when you are looking for the perfect loot for your second factor, look for gear that can be glyphed.  I can take a 439 ATK head piece and re-glyph it so it has the same ATK but still helps my DEF or EVA (or whatever else I need in my build).

Blue (and better) talisman and glyph kits are worth their weight in gold!

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Where are all the tanks?

Tanks, Tanking and Agro Management in the Secret World

Initial Post on this  topic

Tanks are nearly always in short supply in MMO’s.  It’s one of the two roles (healer being the other) that virtually guarantees you short waits for dungeon groups. However, as with healer, it’s a role where inexperience and inconsistency really show.  On top of that, when the tank or healer screws up, the fight is almost always a loss and reset.  So, it’s high stress work and that turns a lot of people off to it.  On the other hand, it’s very rewarding if you are willing to pick up the reins and make a go of it.

I tank, I always tank, I rarely ever don’t tank – and even then it’s usually in situations where I’m working with a new tank on their tactics.  That’s been true for a good ten years now and it’s unlikely to change any time soon.

Agro Management and Tanks

There’s a world of difference, as many note, between a mostly-guild tank and a pug-tank.  Contrary to the position of some, a mostly guild tank (like myself) usually opens the door for their DPS to do a lot more with a lot less concern for themselves.  That’s NOT because guild-tanks are BETTER than PUG tanks (I’m sure there’s variance in both directions on this), it’s because teams that play together simply KNOW each other better and can play off each other.  The benefit comes from the reduced uncertainty.

Several of my guild DPS run in all ATK gear to really push the envelope of their DPS.  They can’t do that in a PUG format because they don’t know what they’ll find for agro generation.

I also don’t typically have a problem with the occasional PUG.  My wife, Aela, runs healer regularly, so we have the luxury typically to pick and choose on our groups.  We will PUG in DPS, but if someone is pushy, doesn’t follow instructions, or is just generally obnoxious, we put them on /ignore and never include them in a PUG again – problem solved. :D

Guides for Tanks

In terms of guides for the new tank, I strongly recommend the work of Ciderhelm.  While his work isn’t TSW specific, tanking is tanking with the differences between games being relatively minor.  His guide covers all the Tanking 101 things that remain true from game to game, era to era, level to level.  For someone wanting to roll a tank for their very first time, this is good stuff.  For those who tank regularly, it’s all old hat.  That’s kind of the point of a newbie guide, though!

Ciderhelm is not affiliated with our site, nor does he play TSW to the best of my knowledge.  He’s just done this for a long time at a very high level.  He writes well, is quite thorough, and very patient in laying out what is happening in the tank role.  I have great respect for his work.

For those wanting to tank in TSW, our site has some material that is helpful.  We provide a newbie tank deck that will take a truly new player through Polaris while it is still meaningful (e.g. QL2/3).  That build then “grows up” into the single target tank build I used to get through the middle dungeons.

While that build will work all the way into elites, I also provide two additional tank builds that I currently use up through qualifying at gatekeeper.  The primary build I run is designed for single target fights, which is most of your elite boss content.  However, some elite fights are guaranteed to have 2+ targets through the majority of the fight.  In those situations, I swap out of my single target and into my AOE tank build.

In all four builds, you are progressing through the same cells of the wheel, there is a natural progression from them and they will take you cleanly from Polaris normal through clearing your final Elite.

Dungeon Guides

In terms of dungeons, we have walk-through information for the first four dungeons, boss-by-boss.  I need to get the write-ups for the final four dungeons put together, they just take awhile to assemble.  I am also beginning to put parsing data in the overview of some of the dungeons.  It’s pretty clear that some bosses have a much higher rate on some stats than others.  Discussion on nightmare tanking is indicating that certain bosses will need builds or gear itemized to offset these extremes.  For normal through elite, though, general tanking builds with reasonable gear mixes will suffice.

Talisman, Weapons and Glyphs for Tanks

I am in the middle of writing up something on talisman distribution.  I can give the short version of it here, though.  Well before you hit elite, you will start finding threat problems if you gear 100% hitpoint gear.  DPS are exceeding your output by enough of a multiple that Agitator and Stoicism can not keep up.  You need to go at least 20% DPS to maintain agro and you will find this happening somewhere around the Ankh.

For me, that’s just been a headpiece swap out (I used an ATK headpiece with defensive glyphs) and that’s been more than enough for elites from a threat standpoint.  There’s a lot more to think about here, but as I said, I’m writing that currently.

Mods and Add-ons

A caveat, you don’t NEED these to play.  As others note, back in the old days we all tanked just find using stock interfaces and chat call outs.  However, the game permits mods and add-ons and TSW has a booming community of mod-writers.  We do NOT host guides and add-ons, the forums here and a couple of other sites typically do.  We do maintain a list of mods with links to those sites.  I recommend:

  • ACT Combat Parser – when you are fine tuning, nothing else comes close
  • Vipers Deck Manager – removes the gear swap from the deck manager component.  This is an awesome mod.
  • Categorical’s improved character sheet – accurate calculations and updates to your combat stats
  • Mercinaova’s improved casting bars – most fights you dont need to watch the UI, when you do, these help

Tanking requires practice and patience.  It’s a lot of fun though.  If you want to group up quickly and get more dungeon runs in, it’s worth investing the time and patience to learn to tank.

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The clothes don’t make the man, but the talisman do!

Talisman Skill Matters

Vertical Progression in the Secret World

This is the first part of a three-part essay dealing with weapons and talisman in the Secret World (part 2 is now available).  TSW is a game with a flatter than normal leveling curve and it is a game for which the relationship between attributes and appearance has been completely decoupled (attributes come from talisman/weapons while appearance comes from clothing).  Further, the talismans themselves come in three basic flavors (health, attack and healing) and at three broad echelon (green, blue and purple).  On top of that, talisman are often customizeable with glyphs from very early on and some additionally have both glyph and signet customization later in the game.

The end result is a system in which a player can really customize his or her gear to fit his or her play style.  It is a gear system which nicely complements the flexibility of the deck system in the game.  However, just as the deck system itself lends itself to unplayable and substantially sub-optimal choices, so to does the gear system leave you plenty of rope to metaphorically hang yourself.  When the game launched, we positioned our My First 60 and Blue Mountain builds as options to help players find synergistic, low-AP builds to play. It is now time to turn our attention to the relationship between gear and builds.

Poor gearing choices can make a build play bad.  A good deck becomes difficult, a sub-optimal deck becomes painful and a bad deck simply results in continuous trips to the nearest rez conduit.  Often, when the gear choices are at fault, the player won’t realize it and will instead focus on the build as the problem.  While sometimes the build is the problem (e.g. you can’t use super-gear to turn a bad build into a functional one), there are a host of gearing problems that we believe underly a number of “this [game/zone/quest] is too hard,” complaints.

I am writing this as a series of three essays.  Essay #1 will address the fallacy of asymetric vertical progression (don’t worry, I’ll explain it in a minute).  Essay #2 will address the talisman distribution conundrum.  Essay #3 will address glyphs, signets and you.

Vertical Progression in TSW

TSW is billed as a “level-less” game, but that is largely marketing distortion.  There are clearly quality levels to gear, there are clearly skill ranks needed to get into said gear, there is clearly visible stat benefit from increasing the quality level of your gear and finally there is clearly a difference in how monsters “con” as you change your skill level.

True enough, the levels as they are in TSW are flatter than those of other games.  A player in mid-game gear (Q6 and Q7) can function in much harder environments, albeit with necessary caution.  However, as anyone who has spent any time listening to general chatter in the Kingsmouth, Savage Coast or Blue Mountain regions can attest, pick-up groups will often try to form requiring gear 2+ QL over the content they wish to face.  It is clear, from this alone that over-gearing certainly makes content a good bit easier.

The game assigns you a vertical level using some form of weighted average of your talisman and weapon levels.  While we do know the weight each individual talisman contributes to the stat pool, we do not know the exact weights for  your vertical level calculation.  None the less, you can visibly see this happening as you level up your skills.  Monsters that used to be red dots become yellow, yellow becomes white, white becomes blue and blue becomes green.

While the level calculation is based on your current skills, the con system appears to work off the assumption that your skills are reasonably symmetrically distributed (e.g. a rank-4 in your weapons and talisman is a level 4 player).  Certainly in the leveling process, you get off balance as one skill gets a point while another doesn’t.  But, as long as your talisman and weapons are reasonably adjacent, your opponent con color is a reasonable expression of the difficulty.

What is Asymmetric Progression?

One of the interesting phenomenon about TSW is that there are about as many opinions of how to play as there are players.  For the most part, most of these opinions work reasonably well and the best advice is to find a working approach that fits your play style.  However, some approaches simply don’t work and others only work for people who play a very particular style and/or play that style very well.  One of those ill-fitting styles is the asymmetric advancement model.

In asymmetric advancement, the player focuses all of their skill points into a single tree (typically a weapon).  They do this until they hit Q10 with the weapon and then go back and flesh out their second weapon and talisman.  The logic of this model is that the one Q10 weapon (often a blue or purple) is “so much better,” that they have an advantage over the content they face, thus making subsequent content easier.

This turns out to be a fallacy.  It’s a playable one, but for many players it will actually make the game harder rather than easier.  There are two reasons why this is fallacious thinking: (1) the actual weapon power contribution of your weapon and (2) the skewing of the con system.  It turns out that the entire approach is based on a mistaken attribution that the benefit comes from the QL when it actually came from the echelon.  I will address each of these in-order.

The relationship between weapon power and combat power

In the figure below, I have mapped out my combat power based on my weapon and three pieces of attack power gear (a head piece, a major talisman and a minor talisman).  For reference, the gear depicted is blue echelon coming from elite end dungeons.  The weapon is a 347 weapon power sword, the head is a 439 attack power head piece, the ring is a 343 attack power major talisman and the belt is a 255 attack power minor talisman.

I have graphed my compbined weapon and attack power on the horizontal axis and my combat power on the vertical axis.  Combat power is the attribute used to determine my damage per swing and it is influenced directly by attack power.  The first data point is for a weapon only.  The second data point includes the weapon and head piece and combat power jumps significantly.  The third data point is weapon, head piece and major talisman with approximately an 80 point jump in combat power.  The final data point is with the three pieces and an additional minor talisman, yielding a much smaller jump.

Players who push to Q10 with a weapon are looking at the left most data point.  The weapon adds more combat power than any single piece of gear.  However, with the exception of the head piece, the other talisman come in triplets.  Bumping up your major talisman one skill point gives you three potential gear pieces which would substantially exceed the value of the weapon’s contribution.

There are benefits from pushing your weapon forward.  You do get a bit more +hit (as a hidden passive) and I would wager that some of the combat power contribution of your weapon comes from the skill ranking itself.  Or, at the very least, weapon power gets more combat power per point to justify the purchase of weapon skill.

But, if a player pushes themselves to Q10 weapon while still sitting at Q4 talisman, they are really leaving a lot of attack power on the table.  They spent 37 skill points getting to Q10 weapon (form Q4) which would have just as easily put them in all Q5/Q6 talisman (and both weapons).  I know it sounds like the Q10/Q4 isn’t that far off (and is potentially better), but the net effect is that the player messes up how mobs con, and does so in a way that harms the player.

Messing up the con system

Recall that mobs difficulty con is a weighted average of your weapon/talisman skills.  It does not appear to be effected by the actual gear, but rather by the skill investment itself.  Using my example above, a Q10/Q4 player is about the same as a balanced Q5.5 player.  I would imagine their cons are relatively similar too (the con system most likely uses the total skill point investment as its basis).

 Our Q10/Q4 player has a weapon kicking out Q10 damage.  Unfortunately, they have the hitpoints, complementary attack power and heal throughput of a Q4 player.  From our chart above, their true damage potential is a good bit lower than  it could be, their health is far below where it should be, and their healing can’t keep up with the damage they will face.  The asymmetric player breaks the con system, and does so in a way unfavorable to themselves.

 Is the trade-off worth it?  Not so much it turns out.  Using data from TSW-Loot, we can construct a figure of weapon attack power progression.  To keep things consistent with my gear, I only used blue quality gear from the normal dungeons in TSW.  On the horizontal axis is the quality level of the gear (Polaris Q3, Hell Rising Q5, Darkness War Q6, Ankh Q8 and Elite Q10, I left out Hell Fallen the Q9 but it should plot nicely along the trend line too).

So, our hypothetical Q10/Q4 player appears to be benefiting, right?  The relative attack power from a Q4 blue to a Q10 blue seems to be about 2.5x greater.  Clearly asymmetry wins?  Well, no.  While the weapon power more than doubles, but combat power is what matters.  Remember, that 347 attack power bought exactly 144 points of combat power.  Even if it turned out that the Q4 weapons provided half the weapon power the Q10, our first figure demonstrates that your combat power really amps up from your talisman.

 The player Q10/Q4 player could have made up a good bit of the ground from their super weapon simply by acquiring a few attack power talisman with a more balanced progression.  By doing so, they would also help to make sure they have the right HP level, the right heal level (if a healer) and just as importantly, the right glyph level (although you can twink glyphs, but that’s going to be in essay 3).  On top of that, a balanced Q5/Q6 player is going to have also made up some of the weapon power gap simply from the Q5+ weapon they would have on over the Q4 the rest of their gear is compared to.

 It’s really the echelon that matters

Our hypothetical Q10/Q4 player is seeking an edge, good for him, everyone is.  But, the player is looking in all the wrong places.  Rather than heading out and picking up a single Q10 and atrophying all other skills in the process.  Any advantage from this path is minor and offset by the disadvantages to the con system.  Unfortunately, the Q10/Q4 player is mistakenly attributing the benefit of their Q10 weapon to the Q-level when it mostly is coming from the blue (or purple) echelon of the gear.

Earlier, I noted that my weapon is a 347 blue weapon power item from an elite dungeon.  For reference, a green Q10 weapon is 258 attack power.   Using the chart above, a green Q10 item is roughly equal to the weapons out of Darkness War, a Q6 dungeon!  The best bang for the buck comes from doing the dungeons at the right QL.

 Run Polaris as a Q2/Q3 wearing greens.  The gear will be an upgrade and will let you easily handle Q5 Hell Rising.  Hell Rising gear sets you up nicely for Darkness War.  As we saw in the proceeding paragraph, a good set of Darkness War gear is equivalent to green Q10 gear.

 On top of that, you are picking up blue quality talisman.  And, to make things even better, you can equip all those items for much less skill investment than the Q10/Q4 player.

 You wind up breaking the conning system in your favor, if you do the dungeons.

Closing thoughts

There are a number of perspectives on how to spend your skill points.  I see some advocate “reasonably balanced, but let your weapon stay about +2 above you.”  That’s only a bit asymmetric and it is possible that the benefits of this offset the disadvantages.  Aela will tell you to stay reasonably balanced, but buy up your weapon first.  That will keep your gear in line with your weapon always giving you a slight edge.  This does seem to make some sense since the weapon contributes more combat power than any other single piece of gear.

 I advocate remaining balanced and being pragmatic with your point expenditures.  If you have two items that are one skill level out of reach (a weapon and a head piece) and you can only invest skill points to get one, go with the weapon.  But, if you are sitting on a pair of majors or three minors, invest in the talisman.  Two majors is better than one weapon upgrade.  Three minors should be too.

 In the end, all of the approaches will work.  They are all reasonably balanced and avoid the problems of extreme asymmetry.

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MMO Gaming Mice – A Review and Overview

A TSW Guides Hardware Review

MMO Gaming Mice 

Logitech G9x | Razer Naga Epic | Razer Naga Hex | Logitech G600

I have seen a lot of discussion on the boards about how, in general, TSW is harder on the player then most MMOs.  Not only because of game difficulty, but also physically because of the repetitive clicking of abilities due to the activation times of skill builders and consumers.

Unlike other MMOs, which do have a lot of “spamming” of different keys, in TSW most players (no matter the build), find themselves spamming the same couple of buttons repetitively in order to build up their resources as quickly as possible.

This spamming of keys on the keyboard has a large increase in hand and wrist strain, and ends up causing a number of players to either (1) deal with the pain, or (2) limit play time.  (typically #1 :) )

It is because of this that I decided our first product guide would be the ever popular (and pricey) MMO gaming mice.

In general there are two types of “gaming mice”.

Logitech G9

First, there are mice like Logitech G9X Programmable Laser Gaming Mouse with Precision Gripswhich offer the gamer a super fast response time, a wide variety of mouse shapes (via covers that can be attached), and programmable keys.   Ryahl and myself both have this mouse, and used to use them a lot.  The cord is covered in some type of twine which keeps the cord from tangling (which is good).  The scroll wheel has two settings, which is simply awesome, it has a “free spin” which I just loved, and had a hard time giving up when I moved on from this mouse.  However, it has limited keys.  The mouse has 5 keys (which isn’t bad for a mouse), but combined with the “program-ability” of the keys, it feels like it needed to be better optimized.  It also doesn’t help with the wrist strain of the keyboard clicking required in MMOs, specifically in TSW.

Razer Naga Epic Gaming Mouse

After the G9 mouse, I upgraded to the Razer Naga Epic Gaming Mouse, which contains the word “Epic” so it must be epic, right?  Well, it does have an epic pricing model ($120!) which is just a lot of money to shell out for a mouse.  I got this one as a Valentines gift from Ryahl (yes, i know, what would your wife say if you got her a computer mouse for Valentine’s day?).  I was hesitant at first, it seemed a bit daunting, I honestly don’t think I would have bought it for myself, however he thought I would like it.

In general there are a number of features of the mouse. 

First, and most obviously, the mouse offers 12 thumb buttons.  yes.  really.   As a default they correspond to the keys 1 through = on your keyboard, and can replace the need for “keyboard clicks”.   12 buttons seems like a lot however, so how useful is this, really?

Well for myself, I could never actually get the “hang” of using all 12.  I just end up getting lost in the keypad and pushing the incorrect buttons.   This was definitely the case in Rift where I had abilities triggered to all 12 buttons.   However, after a lot of trial and error, I ended up deciding that I could use the keyboard commands for 1-6 and then the mouse for 7-12 quite quickly and easily.  It reduced the lag time of me moving my hand across the keyboard since my fingers didn’t reach 7-= as quickly (and I’m pretty quick).   The time difference for skill activation was actually a noticeable difference for me, and I found it quite helpful.

In TSW, there are only 7 acitve key strokes, and therefore it seemed unlikely that a mouse of this type would be necessary.  However, going back to the point of the first paragraph, I noticed that my wrists and hands were getting strained faster then normal while playing TSW.  I ended up swapping my builders and healing skills over to my mouse buttons 7-12, and now i use those to build and spam heal.  

Since TSW requires repetitive clicking, the use of the thumb button to do it seems (at least to me) much less taxing on my wrists and hands.  

Additionally, the Naga Epic also offers the user to remove the cable (something I haven’t ever done) and use it as a wireless option.  Instead of just offering the docking station, you can also plug in the cord for when your gaming session runs long and you need to recharge “on the go”.  Definite plus, and required IMO for a gamer’s mouse.  

You can also macro the buttons.  The mouse also includes magnetic attachments to shape the mouse to your preferred grip.  While I haven’t used the macros, I do use like that I can pick the shape of the mouse, so that is always a plus.

You can’t go wrong with the Naga Epic, however, it has a very hefty price tag, and there are other, cheaper options.   The Razer also offers Razer Naga 2012 Expert MMO Gaming Mouse (RZ01-00580100-R3U1) which is, basically, the Naga Epic with a cord (it appears).  I don’t have this mouse, however if it works like the Naga Epic I would say it would be a good purchase at a lower price point ($85).

Razer Hex Gaming Mouse

Additionally, Razer offers the Razer RZ01-00750100-R3U1 Naga Hex – Laser Gaming Mouse, with a price tag of $70 and only 6 thumb buttons it seems like the obvious choice.   Which is why I made the choice when buying Ryahl a new mouse this year for our Anniversary (yes, I know, we’re geeks).  I thought it would be perfect for TSW, since it only offers 7 activate-able skills, I was positive this would be perfect for him. 

Unfortunately, the Nage Hex has, substantial, driver issues.  The Razer Synapse software has to attach to the cloud, so an Internet connection is required.  This means your mouse settings, and apparently your mouse drivers, do not load unless you are connected to the Internet.

As a downside, this means that when you reboot your computer,  your Hez mouse doesn’t become active until the Razer synapse software loads and connects to the “cloud”.  Ryahl has found that this process speeds up if he manually unplugs and replugs in the mouse.  At times (particularly after the Synapse software runs an update), he finds he needs a second mouse plugged into his computer just to activate the Synapse software.

In general, it appears to be more trouble and has more issues then the Naga Epic, and for a savings of only $10 (or less) from the corded version of the Naga Epic, we both agree it is not worth the price difference.   Without substantially redesigning the product, the Naga Hex is not worth the purchase, and if we still had the box, I would likely return the product to amazon.com.

Note from Ryahl: I have completely removed the Hex from my system at this time.  I’m back to using a Logitech G9.

The Return of Logitech

Finally, Logitech has gotten on board with the “Epic button mouse” bandwagon, with their newest upcoming release, the Logitech G600 MMO Gaming Mouse, Black (910-002864).  The new mouse features a curve of the buttons.  At a glance, it looks like this new mouse is clearly the way to go.  With a price tag sitting at $80, it looks to be clearly the next mouse in a long line of “Epic” mice from our G-series favorites, Logitech.  I am looking forward to picking one up soon to replace Ryahl’s Naga Hex.

For a tested and reliable mouse, I would go with the Razer Naga Epic Gaming Mouse.  If you are okay with testing a new product release, the Logitech G600 MMO Gaming Mouse, Black (910-002864)is clearly looking to be a great product (also available in white).  I will update this once we get a chance to try it out!










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