Category Archives: Video Game business

Diablo III’s Unlikely Comeback

As my friend so eloquently put it a few days ago, if a future version of myself came back in time to tell me in 2012 that I would be pouring dozens of hours into Diablo III in the year 2014, I would have laughed in his face and sent him back to his own time without a second thought. That I would be playing the problem filled Diablo III two years after its release would sound like an impossibility, and it was. Until a few months ago.

You may have seen my write up during my GI internship on some of the Patch 2.0.1. changes. That was just the beginning. Since then with the release of Reaper of Souls expansion, Diablo III has me hooked. I’ve made a new character, poured more than 70 hours into end-game content, and have become obsessed with finding the perfect gear to finish my character builds. How is it possible that a game so plagued with problems a few short months after its original release could be completely reborn two years later? It all comes down to Blizzard, and their willingness to admit their mistakes and go back to the drawing board.

When Diablo III launched in May of 2012, it had a fair share of problems. First among them was the always online component, made even worse by the fact that for the first several nights after the game’s release it was near impossible to log on and play thanks to server issues. This, however, would become the least of the game’s numerous issues.

Diablo III at launch shared a nearly identical formula to that of Diablo II. Pick a hero and level them up as you play through the story mode multiple times, with each completion allowing you to tackle a more challenging difficulty. End-game was Inferno difficulty, the hardest of the hard. Only the most well equipped and skilled players had any chance in hell of getting past Act II of Inferno. Repeated deaths in Inferno carried a heavy cost as well, as gear durability degrades after each death, eventually resulting in broken gear and an absurdly high amount of gold needed to repair it. Trying Inferno for many players wasn’t even worth it.

Therein lied the problem. While skill was certainly a factor, progressing in Inferno mode came down more to gear than skill. Without legendary gear and item sets, you could not succeed. How is one to obtain these items? In theory drop rates in Inferno mode for better gear were much higher, but due to repair costs and the high difficulty, most players could only farm for items on lower difficulties, replaying boss battles or certain encounters in the game’s story mode hoping and praying the loot would drop after defeating the enemies.

In practice, useful item drop rates around the board were abysmally low. You could play for days and find nothing remotely usable for your character. It was frustrating. RPGs, especially ones like Diablo, are all about character progression, and due to a lack of things to do and new useful gear, Diablo III players ran into a brick wall. This frustration played directly into Diablo III’s other main problem, the auction house.

A good idea in theory, the in-game auction house became a symbol for everything wrong with Diablo III. Implemented to eliminate illegal item and gold selling sites that were incredibly popular in the time of Diablo II, the Diablo III auction house gave players an easy to use, legal version of the same idea, while also cutting Blizzard in on the profits. Diablo III’s auction house came in two forms; an auction house where in game gold was used to purchase items, and one where players could buy items with real world cash.

Many players, frustrated with being unable to obtain gear through simply playing the game, resorted to farming insane amounts of gold to purchase new gear for their characters in order to have a fighting chance in Inferno. If a player did have the luck to encounter a legendary item, chances were it wouldn’t be useful for their character, resulting in the player selling it on the auction house for huge profits and then using that money to buy gear they could actually use.

Or, as became common, you could just spend real world money to gear out your character. Diablo III in essence became a “pay to win” game, the type of business model despised by gamers everywhere and more often seen in free-to-play titles. Except Diablo III wasn’t free to play. It was the sequel to one of the most loved RPGs in gaming history, and millions of gamers paid $60 expecting a game they would play for years to come. What they got was a game that through all i’s systems pushed players towards spending more money, with Blizzard getting a cut out of every auction sold.

Whether this cycle of “pay to win” was intentional on Blizzard’s part is hard to say, but as more and more players began leaving Diablo III barely three months after it’s release, the developer took serious notice. Numerous changes came to the game over the next year and a half, though most of them small and not addressing the core issue of loot and the auction house.

The first big step in truly bringing Diablo III back to life was Patch 2.0.1., released on February 25 of this year. While it implemented a number of changes, the most important were the refining of the game’s previously implemented paragon leveling system and what Blizzard calls “Loot 2.0.” Paragon levels could be achieved after hitting the level cap of 60, allowing players to still put their XP to good use. Each paragon level grants small choices in character improvement, whether slightly increasing base states or reducing resource costs. The more paragon levels, the more improvements, slowly adding up some substantial character improvements.

Loot 2.0 implemented  the chance of each piece of loot becoming smart loot, or items that roll intelligently based on your character to determine the item’s attributes. This made the chance of finding gear useful to your character much greater. Blizzard also greatly increased loot drop rates across the board, resulting in more and better loot, as well as completely reworking the game’s difficulties. Players could continue to progress their characters once again. All that remained was the closing of the auction house.

That finally happened on March 18, when in preparation for the game’s expansion, Reaper of Souls, Blizzard turned off the auction house, in the process killing the core game feature that plagued Diablo III for close to two years. All auctions being sold at the time either went to the highest bidder or were returned to the seller. Blizzard will close the auction house for good on June 24. While some players were making thousands of dollars in real world cash off the game, the vasy majority of players won’t miss it.

Reaper of Souls reinvigorated the game, adding a new character class, a new act for players to play through, and most importantly end game content in the form of adventure mode, an endlessly replayable form of the game that rewards players for doing bounties with quests, gear, and more. Special events like double XP weekends and a double legendary drop rate weekend, later made permanent, further added icing to the cake and attracted players like myself back to the game.

More than two years since it’s original release, Diablo III is a completely different game thanks to no small amount of effort on Blizzard’s part. No longer plagued by the auction house and lack of end-game content, the game is fun again. Playing the game, farming for that legendary item you need to complete your set, and earning more paragon levels to tweak your character captures some of the vital essence of Diablo that made its predecessor so addictive. I never would have guessed I would be playing Diablo III in 2014, or that Blizzard would put the time and effort to completely gut and reimagine their game. But I am, and Blizzard did. Now all I want to know is this — when does the next expansion come out?

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League Of Legends’ Newest Champ Is A Step In The Right Direction

As a longtime player of League of Legends, I’ve always been bothered by how one of the most popular games on the planet portrays it’s women characters.

It’s sadly not anything video games haven’t seen before. The game is filled with women champions for players to play as, almost all of them boasting ridiculous breast sizes and skimpy outfits. Heck, even the most clothed women in the game, the armored Leona, is still wearing high heels.

Thankfully, developer Riot is not completely blind to criticism. The champion Sejuani upon her initial release wore a helmet, a fur bra, and a loincloth. If that sounds like a severe lack of clothing for a warrior who fights in the frozen north, where sub-zero temperatures aren’t uncommon, you are probably right. They remodeled her based on player feedback and now Sejuani is among a select few female characters in the game that isn’t overly sexualized.

Going hand in hand with the game’s sexualization of it’s female characters is one of the game’s champion roles – support. Supports in League of Legends exist almost exclusively to help their AD carry, making sure the carry gets as many kills and as much gold as possible so they can deal out heavy damage to the enemy team. The AD carry gets all the glory, but it’s the supports that are the unsung heroes of the League.

This role, defined by supporting others from the sidelines, is almost comprised exclusively of female champions, with the exception of a robot, an undead creature, and a very obviously gay man. There are women champions for every role in the game, but support limits itself to primarily women. Sure, a women can be an assassin or an AP carry just like a male character can, but women are the only ones who can support. To support is to be feminine. Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that support is the least played role in the game. Intentionally or not, Riot is sending a message.

Riot’s newest champion looks to be changing that. Recently unveiled, Braum is probably the manliest man in the entire League of Legends. He’s also a support. Bare-chested and sporting a supreme mustache, Braum protects his carry and teammates with a massive shield, taking hits so they don’t have to.

This is incredibly refreshing to see. It sounds silly, but developers should be thinking about how their game’s depict gender, race, and sexuality. Like it or not, our worldview is shaped, even if only in a tiny way, by the games we consume. Millions upon millions of gamers play League of Legends every day, viewing the splash art for the game’s sexed up girls that reinforce the idea that to support is to be feminine. If women are only there for support in game, what does that tell players about women in the real world?

Riot with Braum is showing that support is not in fact feminine in nature, and that there is no shame in a manly man protecting others instead of going for the kill. No doubt Braum players will frequently find themselves supporting female carries, intentionally sitting out the spotlight so their women partners can carve a path to victory. It’s a step in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done. I just hope Riot can continue to build on what they’ve learned so far as they move the game forward.

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Do Game Demos Hurt Game Sales?

Releasing a demo for a game actually hurts the chances of that game selling well.

Or at least that is what game industry analyst and Puzzle Clubhouse CEO Jesse Schell claimed in an interesting presentation at the 16th annual DICE Awards this year.

In a handy dandy little chart, Schell breaks down Xbox 360 game sales with four different lines. At the bottom of the totem pole are games that don’t have any trailers or demos. Surprisingly, barely above rock bottom, are games that only have demos released. Games with promotional trailers only soar far and above the competition in terms of sales.

Jesse Schell

For Schell, the answer is simple. Games with trailers only are the most successful.

“The thing is, with no demo, you’ve got to buy it if you want to try it,” Schell said.

This seems like a somewhat logical conclusion. Curious players who download a demo and play a game may be intrigued to purchase the game upon release or leave unimpressed. Players who are curious about a certain game and don’t have a demo to play may buy the game upon release and still be unimpressed, but hey, they bought the game.

Despite Schell’s role as an industry analyst and the numbers that back him up, I think making the link between lower game sales and games which release demos is a case of mistaken cause and effect.

Schell is equating demos as the cause, and lower sales as the effect. But what he completely misses is a simple fact that is apparent to most of us – we just aren’t interested in many of the games that release demos.

Remember these? They are evil, terrible ideas. 

Demos are used by developers to further increase the number of people interested in a game so that they will potentially purchase it when the full game is released. It is for promotional purposes.

However, you don’t often see demos for huge triple A titles such as Halo, Skyrim or Call of Duty. Why is that? Because there is already so much player interest and support that a demo doesn’t actually help increase sales. A demo, when almost the entire gaming community is excited about your product, is pointless and a waste of a developer’s time and resources. When a triple A game does get a demo, it is usually well after the game’s launch.

Demos are instead primarily used for lesser known titles or games whose success isn’t 100 percent guaranteed. Many of these games are less than great. Let’s take a look at some of the recently released demos on Xbox Live. We will take the first five: The Crysis 3 open beta, Dead Space 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts 2013, and NBA Baller Beats.

The first three titles on our list are games many would consider popular. However, none of them are going to even come close to selling as many copies as games like Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty, Skyrim and other AAA games. Metal Gear is a tough sell on the Xbox, as Metal Gear has historically been a PlayStation franchise. Dead Space 3 is trying to sell itself as an action title featuring co-op and more gunplay. Demos are being used to increase awareness about what these products are all about for gamers who might be interested but not sold on their ideas yet.

Now, Cabela’s Dangerous Hunts and NBA Baller Beats is our other reason for releasing a demo. These are games that are not going to achieve huge financial success and have very little marketing going for them. Demos are released then to increase interest with the hope of somebody downloading the demo, having fun, and deciding to shell out some cash. Dangerous Hunts 2013 has a metacritic score of 58, while Baller Beats has a 73.

You are telling me this game didn’t sell well because it had a demo, and not because it’s a game that appeals to a very specific demographic? Not to mention it’s Kinect only.

I propose that demos aren’t the reason for these games selling poorly. It isn’t because gamers, once they get a taste of the game to come, decide to opt out of purchasing it at launch. Just think of how absurd Schell’s statement really is. He is saying we, as consumers, would rather spend $60 to try a game rather than trying it for free in demo form. It doesn’t make sense.

The real reason game demos seem to point to lower game sales is really quite simple – the games that have demos are games not many people are interested in purchasing in the first place.  Demos aren’t the cause of lower game sales; they are more of a symptom that a game won’t break any sale records. A developer releasing a demo says they are trying to get as much attention to their product as possible, that they aren’t 100 percent confident in its ability to be successful on trailers alone. It’s not the demo that is causing the lower sales, or the trailers causing high sales. It’s just the game. It’s really as simple as that.

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The Point(lessness) of Pre-Orders

Looking back, I can’t really remember the first game I pre-ordered. I don’t remember when the trend started or the first game to feature pre-order bonuses. However, I do remember why pre-orders were originally created – to ensure you got your copy of a game or console on release day.

This, except in very few circumstances, isn’t the case anymore.

Games continue to be big business. Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, chances are you can find the majority of game releases on launch day just about anywhere, whether it be Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, or Gamestop. Interestingly enough, almost every one of these retailers use pre-orders in some shape or form, despite the chances of being sold out of a particular game day one are slim.

Preorder Bonus

So what exactly do gamers get out of pre-ordering?

Well, to be honest, not much.

Say you want to pre-order a game from GameStop; let’s use Bioshock: Infinite as an example. You are, for whatever reason, disillusioned and afraid of not being able to find a copy of this major game release on launch day. So you stroll on down to your local GameStop to ensure you will be zip lining through the skies of Columbia come launch day. When asked how much money you want to put down on the game, you flop a five dollar bill out of your wallet and hand it to the cashier. No big deal, right? As a freebie for pre-ordering you get this wonderful in game shotgun – neat.

So what did that five dollars do exactly? Well, the idea is that your hard earned five bucks is ensuring you get the game day one. But if the retailer is getting a large shipment of the games in, what’s the point of spending money to ensure you are going to get something you would get anyway?

Game companies and retailers get plenty out of it though. Pre-order numbers give both game publishers and retailers a rough idea of about how many copies a game will sell upon launch. For retailers, there is a reason the trend has caught on in recent years – GameStop, Wal-Mart and every other game retailer is basically getting free money while providing you with almost nothing in return.

Your five bucks is essentially buying (the majority of the time) a useless in game item. Worst case scenario your five bucks is completely wasted if you A.) Forget to pick up the game or B.) Simply don’t want the game anymore.

So when does it actually make sense to pre-order? Usually when you know there will be a limited supply of the item you want in stock, such as Collector Editions of games or newly released game consoles. These are much harder to come by and you will most likely not get one if you do not pre-order. Midnight releases also require pre-orders. If you can’t wait an extra 9 or 10 hours to get your hands on the hottest title and your retailer is doing a midnight release, it might be worth it to pre-order.

Another reason to pre-order is when a pre-order bonus is actually appealing. Pre-order bonuses emerged as an incentive to pre-order the game, and later attract consumers away from the competition by providing better or different bonuses specific to the retailer. Most of the time they are complete trash, an additional weapon skin or maybe some extra in-game money. There are, however, occasionally some really cool pre-order bonuses. I know I’m not the only one who remembers the excellent Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker pre-order bonus – a copy of Ocarina of time and Master Quest. Sometimes you can get some really cool real life swag from pre-ordering. I recently pre-ordered the DC fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us to pick up a couple of cool alternate reality skins. Russian Solomon Grundy anyone?

Ultimately though, pre-ordering just isn’t worth it. There is very little point in buying car insurance if the chances of getting into an accident (magically) are zero. Same goes for pre-ordering. If it’s a mainstream, big game release, don’t pre-order. I guarantee you will get a copy – and your wallet will stay a little fatter as a result.

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