Like Kaylee at the ball

That’s how my husband said I should feel at last night’s Marvel Universe Online event in San Francisco. He meant it as a compliment! Of course, I’d rather be Inara, but I suppose I’m going to have to settle for Kaylee in my big floofy maternity dress, surrounded by geeky dudes all talking shop, several of whom (shout out to the guys from iFanboy) insisted I be allowed to interview the illustrious Brian Michael Bendis ahead of them. Ladies first, they said, with all the gallantry geeks in jeans with enormous microphones can muster. Hearts to them, because by that point I was overheating and exhausted!

The MUO event was great fun, and I scored two really entertaining interviews, which I wrote up for Massively. The takeaway? The free-to-play announcement was a huge shock to everyone. Heck, I didn’t expect the devs to be willing to talk about pay model at all this far out from launch; even BioWare hasn’t yet confirmed SWTOR’s model. The journalists in the room all jerked their heads up and gasped when F2P just sort of slipped out, almost casually, during the Q&A. No Western title with this kind of massive IP and AAA budget has ever actually been designed to be free-to-play from the beginning, excepting something like Guild Wars (which has a box fee but no sub, putting it so far into the realm of hybrid models that even Massively doesn’t treat it as F2P). Eastern titles do it all the time, of course, and many of them do it very respectably, some even moreso than the Western titles that rearrange themselves to become F2P well after launch.

But while I’m excited about that, the fans — at least on Massively — are throwing fits. All of the prejudice toward F2P that Jeff Lind mentioned during the Q&A is more than evident among our commenters. It amazes me that people truly believe that F2P games are doomed to fail — it’s utterly obvious to anyone paying attention to the industry that pay model and quality haven’t been linked for a few years. And if it weren’t possible to make an enormous amount of money going F2P, successful subscription games like LotRO and Champions Online wouldn’t be rushing to convert, in some cases tripling their incomes. I’m not entirely happy with some of these conversions, as I’ll no doubt talk about on this blog eventually, but the new Marvel MMO won’t be saddled with having to monetize a world built for a subscription. It’ll be crafted from scratch.

The second takeaway is a problem that always plagues superhero games: Do players want to play iconic characters or their own bizarre creations? About a year ago, when Marvel was kicking around 2012 for a possible launch date, one poster had this to say: “MUO and DCU are going to suffer the same issues that MxO [The Matrix Online] suffered from… People will not want to be like the characters, they want to BE the characters.” But today, the mood has shifted. Dozens of commenters are coming out against the MUO announcement that we’ll be playing Spidey and Storm and the rest of the crew, and I’m as worried as they are.

Granted, Jeff Lind assured me that the designers had considered all the pros and cons of both systems and had decided that they could make a better game by putting us into the shoes of our heroes rather than turning us into their sidekicks. But that might be a false dichotomy. I don’t feel like a sidekick in City of Heroes, a game I dearly love. Character creation, costume design, power selection, and alting are all compelling features that draw me back to that game seven years after its launch, warehouse maps and all. In fact, these are the things that drew me to superheroes in the first place. In other words, creativity trumps gameplay. Gazillion’s team is going to have to come up with some spectacular gameplay to attract the usual suspects in this crowded MMO superhero market — especially those of us who appreciate the Marvel Universe and art style and writing but aren’t particularly infatuated with its specific characters.

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