What makes PC games grow?
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, trying to work out what will succeed and fail in the PC’s bizarre world. It’s an obsession. The reason I’m fascinated: success in PC gaming often proves players right, and businesses wrong. The pattern of success rewards vision, brute hard work, community feedback. The most successful games are rarely flashy or heavily marketed, they are deep and deeply uncool. They rarely rely on the latest tech, and don’t chuck millions at advertising.
Success on PC rarely occurs overnight. It can take years for momentum to gather. Developers toil and their community grows until, eventually, a groundswell of gamers take notice. That means that the biggest games of 2013 and 2014 are being probably available to play right now. You don’t have to wait to try the next big thing.
I’ve picked a few games that I think could start steamrolling their way into the hearts and minds of gamers in 2013 and 2014. Note, too, that these are essentially recommendations for games you should try right now. They’re all great.
But before we get to the games, it’s worth talking about what we’re actually looking for. Here’s what I think makes for a successful online game today. These aren’t the only routes to success: but these are all factors that are shared by mega-hits like Minecraft, Dota 2, League of Legends and World of Warcraft.
I can’t overstate this enough – the most successful PC games in the world are complicated and hard and deep. They’re rarely accessible. Players need to invest time and effort to learn them. If they do invest the time, they’ll be rewarded for that effort.
Why is this important? It’s not just that deep games are good games. It’s that if you have a good, deep game, players are more likely to stick around. If players stick around, the community is allowed to grow and new players that come in at the bottom aren’t simply replacing those that leave.
Growth doesn’t just come from selling loads of copies. Growth comes from those players staying.
An early, barebones release receiving good community attention
Early betas are vital. It’s easy to be cynical about betas that are used to try and build hype around games. But in the most successful games, it seems early betas are there so that developers and gamers can understand the game they’re making, and rapidly improve it. The earliest releases are inevitably barebones, with just the framework of a game attached. The smartest developers then use community feedback to iterate and improve.
It’s one thing to pay lip-service to the idea of rapid improvement. It’s quite another to go off and do it. Frankly, few gamers pay any attention to traditional PR campaigns any longer. Few even listen to what developers say they’re going to do. The only thing that matters is the thing you create and improve, what you give gamers that they can see, can hold and can play with.
Back in the old world, publishers used to do an important job, getting games in boxes, talking to retailers, making PR plans and everything in between. They’d also put up the cash to get the game made, but with it, they’d ask for approval, milestones, and regular updates. In today’s world, that kind of process just gets in the way.
A milestone, where you might show a completed demo version for a trade show, is of no use, if what the community really wants you to do is adjust or rework other areas of the game. Today, it’s far better to bootstrap development, raise the cash independently from a non-traditional investor, or crowdsource the lot.
So… which games tick some or all of these boxes? Which are set for growth in 2013 and beyond? And, most importantly, which are worth playing right now?
Path of Exile
Path of Exile is an action RPG developed in New Zealand by a team who are big fans of the genre. It’s mostly been funded via a Kickstarter-esque program of donations and beta buy-ins – but to an extraordinary degree. Over 150 people have paid $1000 for the highest tier of support, and $2.2 million dollars have been raised already. When it launches, it will be free-to-play, although the devs are keen to express that their microtransations “will be ethical.“
Also, it’s brilliant.
Fundamentally, it plays to everything action RPG fans want from the genre – essentially what was missing from Diablo 3. It’s obsessed with randomisation – even potions have a randomised effect. It has a ludicrously deep passive skill tree that currently boasts over a 1000 places to spend your level up points. And the developers are thinking hard about how the end-game should work, with players able to affect the randomisation of areas by applying mods to maps.
It’s going to be huge.
The one takeaway from the baffling popularity of the catastrophic DayZ knock-off, The War Z, is that the DayZ’s subject matter, survival in a zombie infested world, is a latent itch gamers are always desperate to scratch.
The DayZ standalone might be delayed, but it’s an easy bet to become one of the most popular new games of 2013. Firstly, it’s working from a proven design: creator Dean Hall’s mod for ArmA 2. Secondly, it’s the result of relentless feedback from the ever growing DayZ community and a stack of ideas and improvements that come directly from experience of running and maintaining a game like this.
Here’s an example: in the last dev update explaining why the release of the standalone would be delayed, Dean explained that the inventory tech had been completely rewritten to allow for crafting and item conditioning. “The new system opens the door for durability of items,” says Dean, “disease tracking (cholera lingering on clothes a player wears…), batteries, add-on components, and much more. If you shoot a player in the head to take his night vision, you will damage the night vision. The changes to this inventory system are huge.”
The result – materials and items that have intrinsic value, that can be bartered and traded with other players – if they can survive long enough.
There are challenges ahead for DayZ. There will be failures of design and imagination – no-one has made a game like DayZ; no-one knows what will work and what won’t. Code security, preventing hackers from ruining the game for honest folk is essential. Like no game before it, DayZ simply has to be free from hacks and cheats. That’s a very, very tall order.
If you had a Sega Megadrive/Genesis, you’ll get AirMech immediately. It’s an online, highly polished attempt to improve on Herzog Zwei. If you didn’t, AirMech is a 2D multiplayer strategy action game in which you fly over a cartoon landscape as giant jet that can also transform into a giant robot.
Complexity, and it is a complex and brilliant thing, is added by your ability to buy and build new units, give them orders to attack, but also pick them up and carry them to your required destination. In 1v1, AirMech is a mostly controlled, fun little competition. In 3v3 and beyond, it’s nothing short of exhilarating.
AirMech’s been running as a beta version via a Chrome browser plugin for over a year now. Towards the end of last year, it received a Steam release. However, it’s well liked by those who know about it, but not really that popular. It feels like it just needs a bit of a boost – interest from a high profile streamer or Youtuber could send it stratospheric.
Guild Wars 2
First off, Guild Wars 2 hasn’t seen the declines that we usually witness when MMOs launch. That initial MMO bubble, where the first wave of players burn through the available content in the first month and then immediately cancel their subscription, hasn’t happened. Clearly, if you don’t have a subscription policy, then there’s no need to cancel. But, according to the Guild Wars 2 devs we’ve spoken to, the game is growing. Peak concurrency is rising and exceeding launch levels and veterans are still logging in once they reach the level cap.
The real question is, do Arenanet want Guild Wars 2 to grow substantially?
The developers have been smart. They’re updating the game furiously to deal with quality of life issues. And their ongoing plans for more story content distributed via new events chains means that veterans will continue to have a reason to log in.
Arenanet may not have scratched the surface of the total number of players who want to play their game. Demand for the game at launch was incredibly high, so high, in fact, they took it off sale until the team could put servers in place. If you try and buy it now, you may find struggle to find retail copies available. It’s out of stock on Amazon UK and where it is in stock, it retains a stubbornly high price, unusual for a PC game. That means the only place to buy it is direct from NCSoft and it’s not cheap. It’s £50 in the UK.
As and if sales slow, NCSoft and Arenanet will probably choose to lower the price for a limited period, creating an influx of fresh blood. They can continue down this road all year, all while working on expansion packs and paid for updates.
Here’s one possible problem: I still believe that Guild Wars 2 suffers by not including a raiding-esque endgame.
Think World of Tanks, but replace the tanks with tanks on legs. That’s Mechwarrior Online, a free-to-play robo-sim that looks like a first-person shooter, but plays at the pace of a simulation.
That’s the smart move developers Piranha games made in building Mechwarrior Online. They didn’t attempt to create a twitchy shooter. Instead, in Mechwarrior, the robots are lumbering, slow, and overheat if you try and push them too hard.
But that’s great news, because it puts strategy and forward planning ahead of reactions. It rewards teamwork and communication. Success comes from smart play on the battlefield, but also time spent tinkering with your loadout and weapon choices back in the garage.
Mechwarrior Online isn’t perfect. Right now, the interface for launching and finding games is a complete dog’s dinner, as is the mech garage and loadout interface. So much so, that there are alternative loadout builders available online already. There’s also serious issues with the matchmaking pools and how new players end up fighting veterans with vastly superior equipment. It’s also slim. The only game mode available is an 8v8 PvP rumble; there are no bots or even a basic horde mode.
These are issues that can be ironed out. I really hope they are, because Piranha may be sitting on a gold mine.