Star Trek Online: Call of Valor

A Star Trek Online Fan-fiction.

Atari, Foundry, and the future of STO: The Plot Thickens

Today, Perfect World and Atari issued a press release that announced an agreement for the acquisition of Cryptic Studios. The press release is somewhat long, so I’ll try to break it down into non-l33t-bizman speak, as well as give some shared thoughts on the matter and how it could affect STO. As I mentioned in my last post on this topic, Atari (formerly known as Infogrames) made the decision this month to sell Cryptic Studios – the makers of Star Trek Online, Champions Online, the original developers of City of Heroes, and the studio currently developing the new Neverwinter.

Now, I have to say, before this happened I had a pretty biased opinion about Perfect World Entertainment, and it wasn’t nice. I played their flagship game, Perfect World International, and found it to be cookie-cutter crap. Sub-standard graphics, poor general interface, and pathetic quests for the starting areas. I’ve tried laying it a couple times, and have yet to be able to stomach more than 20 minutes past character creation.

After reading this thread on the official forums, I had to look deeper into PW as a company. And I gotta say, I like what I’m seeing. MSNBC.COM posted this short news article about PWs current financial standing, which is looking damn good, despite rising costs. There’s been opinions back and forth on the issue, and I’m going to share some o the more thought-out ones.

DLRevan said this:

Interesting. Since i currently play Forsaken World (PW’s recent entry title into the western market) along side STO, ive got some experience with PW. In a nutshell, its a very solid MMO company.

Out of the many China-based MMO companies, they are the only one that has really poured extensive resources into entering the western market. FW itself, while also available in China, was created with the western MMO gamer in mind, and with US based servers. I would say they are more internationally oriented now.

They also have extremely good MMO sense. The company is experienced in every nuance of the standard MMO. Playing FW or Jade Dynasty will tell you that.

They also have a heavy focus on community and their games have good customer support reputations.

What does this mean? I think its uphill for STO from here on. If Cryptic’s teams do right by themselves, PW will likely pour on the resources for the studio and stay hands off. If it doesnt, then, depending on the terms of ownership, PW will likely exert some direct control over the game…ending with the same happy result for us, though maybe not for Cryptic.

Also, i think lifetime subs, c-store options, etc, will all be honored. This deal was obviously in the works for awhile now, including when the lifetime sale was on. PW itself doesnt have a reputation for irking its customers.

The only downside i can find is, STO is setup to have the same kind of hybrid F2P model as CO, something that PW games dont have. PW games follow a primarily micro-transaction model. How much they are involved in deciding STO’s future pricing model and what decisions they come to on it, i cant say if it would be favorable. Then again, CO’s model is not likely to change, so i think the details will be left up to Cryptic.

It would be better to start to think of PW as an international company than a china-based one, at least with regards to STO. That will be how they’re going to treat STO, since Star Trek is not big in China (actually, non-existent) due to controls on foreign media like TV shows and movies.

Pretty strong opinion there. I looked more into PW and am finding that these sentiments are pretty accurate. One man, CrimsonSpot, had some customer service issues and said this:

The main thing was complete lack of communication with their Western market players. Devs were mystical beings in a far away land that we were never allowed to talk to. If you want to wade through my posts there (careful, there’s a lot of non-bug related posts to wade through) you’ll find numerous times I did all the legwork and found out what their problem was, but the admin either never sent it to the Dev or the Dev just didn’t want to fix the issues.

If you got stuck on a map somewhere, you might get a GM to pop in and teleport you somewhere else… if you waited long enough. Other than that, everyone was pretty much reliant on each other for workarounds to the various bugs.

The final straw with me was when they threw us Western players all under the proverbial bus and revamped the Territory War system to help fake-bidders and the formation of an ‘uberguild’ in order to play the system, and severely dropped NPC buying prices, both of which made it impossible for casual players to be competitive. As I expected, a month or two after I left, the changes were forced onto PWI and got rid of all but the most stalwart of my guildmates, and of course those who banded together to work the system.

Again, if Cryptic remains it’s own studio and is just funded by PW, we won’t have these issues, and I am still holding out hope that the Developers will still be allowed to be part of our community. Also, don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed my time in PWI, but it was solely because of the players, not the company.

Not too encouraging for the side of PW, is it? Armsman had these thoughts to share:

Interestingly enough – look at the terms of the deal – PWI didn’t absorb or incorporate Cryptic into it’s existing structure – it bought 100% of all Cryptic publically traded shares – making Cryptic a subsidiary, yet still independent entity within the PWI Corporate structure.

Also, Cryptic ISN’T the first North American/U.S. game developer that PWI has acquired. PWI also ‘owns’ Runic Games; and from most indications, lets them run themselves with little interference as it were; and also bolstered that company’s game development budget. Given this (and also the fact that – unlike Atari – PWI has been operating in the Black for years; and even though it saw profits decline, it still beat its first quarter expectation for 2011 – I see this as a GOOD thing for Cryptic, STO (and CO) in the long run.

That said, until the deal is finalized – and all assests and oversite transfered over to PWI we won’t know what will happen with ANY existing accounts, etc. Again, I honestly do not expect anything bad; or any major changes; but we won’t know until everything is done and running under the Cryptic/PWI infrastructure, and they make the formal announcements.

That gives me hope. A lot of hope. Now, Leviathen99 had an interesting and good idea

To sum things up, Midway is in the CBS/Redstone family of companies but is basically just a name and logo for sale. APW is doing business with them through Cryptic now.

I would like to suggest, if anyone has APW’s ear, that they look at buying or licensing the Midway brand for their US operations to build consumer confidence and reinforce that they tailor their business operations to the market they’re in. U.S. consumers have vastly different values and expectations than Asian MMO consumers. Everything I’ve seen about APW indicates they know and honor these differences as very savvy businessmen who want to deliver the right product and image to the right market.

I think it would help to have a familiar brand like Midway be the blanket for their western operations, to emphasize the differences in models.

Furthermore, I’d also suggest appointing Jack Emmert and the Schaefers (formerly of Blizzard North, now of Runic) as creative officers or consultants with the hypothetical Midway/APW International brand to emphasize that they recognize the value of delivering a product tailored to western markets as they expand more into those markets… and that they are utilizing the heads of their western based studios to deliver a product for that audience.

Just my $.02 on smoothing the transition. I think the Midway logo coming up when launching STO, CO, and the upcoming Torchlight Online would play better with western audiences who are accustomed to it as a gaming brand and don’t associate it with Asian MMOs, which might create anxieties among western players who have preconceptions about those.

It’s silly on some level but I think Infogrames’ co-opting of the Atari brand was apparently pretty effective, considering that even in the last couple of days, people have been conflating Infogrames with the company that created the Atari 2600. Many of us recognized them as a separate company but the Atari logo nevertheless helped build confidence overall and I think the Midway logo (or the Acclaim logo, if a deal could be struck with Throwback Entertainment) would make a big impact.

This, I thought, was sheer business genius. He continued with this:

Newspeak without a fundamental change in policy is hot air.

However, what I’ve read about PW is that they are interested in developing western style business models for use in Western markets, evidenced by the choices they made in designing Forsaken Worlds and their non-interference with Runic Games.

In this case, I think using the name of an Asian-style MMO in international business unintentionally suggests that they are bringing those practices to the West… when I think, based on reading up on them, that while that was initially their idea when porting PW over, that all of their recent moves including the acquisition of Cryptic has been to establish a Western style gaming brand in the West and that they’re trying to acquire talented professionals on the ground to do just that.

In this case, I think the PW name actually fails to reinforce what they’re actually doing and it would be a Good Thing(tm) to bring their marketing into alignment with what they’re actually doing.

Think of it this way: If Schwinn started manufacturing motorcycles to compete with Harley Davidson, it might be a better reflection of what they were doing NOT to use the Schwinn name if they aren’t trading on their reputation for bicycles. (Meanwhile, if they’re making cherry red motorcycles with baskets on the front and tassels coming off the handlebars, the Schwinn name would fit. But if they aren’t doing that, the brand is counterproductive.)

This guy, I think, is a businessman IRL. Has to be. This is business gold, and if anyone at Cryptic can forward that idea to PW, this guy should get a stipend for coming up with it. At least a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars to say, “Thanks for the idea, we owe you one.”

beautrek had an interesting thought to add to this as well:

For my 2 credits, I see it as a great move by PW and Cryptic.

I’ll admit that I don’t know to much about the inner workings of cryptic, but how involved was Atari with the day to day operations? I’m guessing not so much and I would imagine it will be the same with PW. (Which is a good thing) I’ll bet the team will continue to develop season 4, episodes, and whatever else their devious minds can come up with unencumbered.

Also a positive thing to note here.. PW wanted to buy Cryptic. Just that desire alone is forward thinking. They recognize the talent, technology and the licences that Cryptic has to offer and leveraged their substantial financial resources to acquire it. This is a good thing. I’m not sure how the gaming industry is doing in China, but the fact that they were willing to drop 50 very large shows it must be doing well. Having those deep pockets will be quite a boon for the game.

So congrats Cryptic! Now get me my Season 4!

This caught my attention. He’s right. Cryptic was up for sale for less than 2 weeks before PW came in and snatched it for 55% more than Atari/Infogrames originally bought them for. They gladly forked over the money for Cryptic, and Cryptic has just hired 3 new staff members – signs of positive change already? I’m hoping so. I’ve said before more than once that what STO needs to become as awesome as we know they could be is more staff to do the development thy want to do. More money coming in and more staff is never a bad thing for MMO games.

A lot of people are convinced STO will go Freemium, just as CO did. I can see this happening, especially with how PWs track record is. I don’t see this as a bad thing overall, for the business. I can see, however, how it could be bad for the community (a.k.a. the players of the game). I’ve tried F2P MMOs that were once P2P and found that the community and forums are often flooded with asshole pricks, like you might find in random Halo matches online. They flood the forums and the chat channels with useless, mean and idiotic messages. WoW is pretty much the only P2P game that I’ve seen with this same issue to the extent I am referring to. If STO adopts something similar to the CO Freemium model, this is something I could live with. I do feel the CO Freemium subscriptions model needs some work yet and is still unbalanced, with some items giving players an in-game advantage that can be abused, but it’s a good start. I think STO going Freemium will bring in just as many new good players as crap players, and the gain is worth the risk. I’ll still try to save for a Lifetime Subscription, though 😉

Right now, I am cautiously optimistic. I think PW buying Cryptic is a good thing, and time will tell if it stays that way.

What concerns me the most about all this isn’t the purchase itself, but the racist attitudes that are cropping up all over the place from it. One man even went so far as to cancel his STO account because he “…can’t morally give money to a chinese company, not with the human rights record china has.” This is one of the most racist posts I’ve found on the STO forums to date. And I have to give props to Rokesmith who replied with, “…Once we start rejecting entire groups based on the actions of a few we quite rapidly reach a point when no one but ourselves are acceptable.” Well said! Picard would be proud. That is such an awesomely Star Trek attitude. My hat is off to you, sir.

And finally, HeathenStorm said something I just loved:

Hey, everyone else has one of those new-fangled ‘Opinions’. May as well throw mine into the ring.The thing about big business is it gets big by trampling over the little guy – following the time-honoured adage that winning is best achieved by making the other guy lose. At the head of every business is a sociopathic bully who sees himself better than his peers, capable of abstracting the very humanity away from the workers underneath him. Not seeing them as living, breathing people with hopes and aspirations, but as mere lines on a ledger – to be crossed out on a whim.To that end, the voracious capitalist will sate his sociopathic desire to make others lose by acquiring other companies – only to force them into the ‘impossible’ situation. A task that if achieved would ensure total autonomy, but if not achieved would herald a complete corporate vivisection through breach of contract.

Cryptic have already faced this, and won. Through hard work and diligence they were able to meet all the ‘impossible’ targets that Atari threw at them, to the point where it became more profitable for the parent company to cast them aside than tamper any further.

Make no mistake, the Cryptic team have run the corporate Kobyashi Maru and came out the other side entirely on their own terms.

We’re in safe hands.

Amazingly well said. I think we are in safe hands. Whether that stays the same is yet to be seen; I’m cautiously optimistic.

June 1, 2011 - Posted by | Ideas for expanding, Nit-picker's Guide

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