I’ve been playing a range of different genres of digital games on the PC and Xbox360 lately and thinking about the kinds of insights that might be useful in co-teaching the digital games cultures subject running for the first time this year.

Last week I purchased Warhammer Online – The Age of Reckoning (WAR), a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) released in September 2008 – a competitive year for the subscription based MMOs.  I figured it had been long enough after the simultaneous global launch of the game for the developers to have ironed out many of the ‘bugs‘ that tend to plague these sorts of releases (although this didn’t seem to be the case as my game is prone to crashing). It seems it is also a period of stability in the interesting life-cycle of a game server as there is a regular and active player base on the ‘Oceanic’ server I have joined.

I find it is useful to think about the entertainment value of the games I play versus the pure cost of the product. The initial game cost (AU)$79 via a direct download through Electronic Arts’ Australian web store. After 30 days of playing the game online,  I will have to pay $14 US per month to play further, a very expensive game in the current market, but still comparable value to new Xbox games which can cost upto $130 dollars and may only have a maximum of 30 hours of playtime. MMORPGs offer content of up to 350+ hours (much of it repetitious). This is one account that we might call a general political economy approach.

WAR is a fantasy themed MMORPG and is very like the number one MMORPG, World of Warcraft (WoW), in many ways, but this it true of other major titles in this genre (Everquest, Conan, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons Online). These are all the ‘same’ game in the sense that all Westerns are the ‘same’ movie. The fantasy content of WAR is based on the intellectual property of the UK company Games Workshop’s the produces of tabletop military simulation games and miniatures. WAR mixes English flavoured sword and sorcery with a distinctly dark tone to its humour. Where WoW is often lighter in its tendency towards pop culture references WAR is more reminiscent of BlackAdder and a stronger and stranger connection to the darker reimagination of the medieval and pre-modern history of European warfare. This theme is mapped across a system of game rules system and interface that the millions of WoW players are familiar with.

One of the interesting features of this game is the degree to which the developers and producers have persued Web 2.0 practices in interesting ways if ultimately limited ways. For example Game Industry Tweet lists hundreds of games developers with Twitter identities, including

  • JoshDrescher – Josh Drescher, producer of Warhammer Online
  • Thatbarnettblok – Paul Barnett, Creative Director for Warhammer Online
  • ElvishParsley – Justin Webb, senior designer at Mythic
  • CGouskosCarrie Gouskos, Associate Producer at Mythic
  • S_McNair – Content Developer at Mythic

I’m very new to Twitter, and its simplicity impresses me, and from these names we can navigate to the individual’s MySpaces, YouTube production videos and video blogs, and other links of interest. I figured a company this switched on to the media flow and habitus of the web, must have an impressive online community for fans of their games,  right? Take a look at Mythic’s homepage for WAR. Can’t find the official forum? No neither can I, that is becuase they don’t have one. At first I figured this was a measure of cost effectiveness, but by not ‘hosting’ an official forum Mythic don’t have to ‘incorporate’ individual discussions, criticisms and complaints (as forum posters are want to do) within the official web-space of Mythic’s online presence. Mythic goes further to link to external forums but only via a window which reminds the user that:

“You are about to leave Electronic Arts’ website and go to a website owned by a third party. Electronic Arts is not responsible for content shown on third party sites, and our privacy policy does not apply to their information collection practices. Press OK to access the linked site or press CANCEL to return to your original page.”

Ahhh Electronic Arts, that explains a few things. Electronic Arts, like Games Workshop, is very practiced and groomed at managing their IP investments. Mythic is effectively EA’s MMORPG production unit and Mythic’s previous success with Dark Ages of Camelot and WAR’s ongoing and steady performance suggests they are doing something right to impress players without official forum support, but I don’t think that WAR will or could ever achieve WoW status with this kind of approach.

Mythic is dabbling its toes in the Web 2.0/ prosumer mindset by harnessing the power of the blogosphere. Mythic’s blogger ‘baiting’ has proved highly entertaining: by sending out cryptic mail packages to significant and regular blogger, Mythic is rewarding its free press, and promoting further interest and alliance with their product by  providing content for the bloggers (valuable to both parties). This is an adaptation of the methods used by movie promoters to gain critics favor (or at least their attention) and it is a good way to continue to stimulate a form community of support and simultaneously manage information be released. Blog Warhammer announced January 2009 as Warhammer ‘Age of Blogging’ month and now links to more than 50 new blogs about the game. While like the players interest in the game, these sites will wane, but the information and interest they generate for the game in the meantime is definitely worth attention.

I leave Mythic alone in a minute, but I wanted to finish my point about the missed opportunities that the company is almost forced into due the juggernaut nature of building, operating and sustaining MMORPGS, but still is an example of a company stuck in the Web 1.0 presumption as to how consumers operate. The ‘recruit-a-friend’ mechanic is very important to the subscription models of the MMORPGS, it’s an effective means of expanding the player base by encouraging one customer to promote samples of the game to their friends as potential customers. It’s the way pyramid sellers like Tupperware operate, and replicates the success of drug dealers – and that won’t be the first time I compare MMORPGS to crack cocaine.

Mythic has three main conditions that apply to its recruit-a-friends system:

  • When you become a paying subscriber to Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, you’ll receive 3 recruitment notices to share with friends or family. For each month you continue to subscribe, you’ll receive another recruitment notice (for a maximum of 6 at any time).
  • Send a recruitment email to a friend or family member from the Account Center. This will allow your recruit to create a trial account for seven days of free play. Unused referrals expire after 30 days and will revert back to your pool of available referrals.
  • When your recruit becomes a paying subscriber to WAR, you will receive a credit for 30 days of free game time. Stay tuned for more exciting recruitment rewards in the future.

My initial thoughts on this is that Mythic have there approach backwards, rather than making the player wait 30 days to get their friends into the game, why not reward the initial customer  with say 10 invites, that are operational immediately and finish within 10 days of purchase. The spread of the game would then occur much faster than in Mythic’s model, and if those 10 become familiar with playing with each other and dependent on each other in the game, it is more likely that they will become returning customers. Forget the free game time, just give great access to the player’s friends. Since the population of the WAR servers is not massive, like WoW, this would ensure that players are not feeling that the games is an solitary experience and would emphassis the tangible benefits of playing with others.

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