My favorite genre is coming back!

MMOs are a niche genre in gaming. They are games that require additional ‘work’ beyond just loading something up, and to really get the most out of them you have to put in that ‘work’ consistently. They can also be very expensive or absurdly cheap depending on how much you play, and overall the barrier of entry and when the game ‘clicks’ is far longer than most other genres.

In 1997 Ultima Online came out and did far better than anyone expected. Stronger than expected sales, plus the ability to collect money after the initial sale in the form of a subscription, meant a LOT of money was being made from an unexpected source. Those with the ability jumped in as soon as they could, and most games did well if not very well (EQ1) in the MMO niche. You had to try really hard (AO) to screw up an MMO, and even if you did you still survived.

Then in 2004 WoW came out and suddenly a niche genre was flooded. Some called them tourists, others believed the genre had finally ‘made it’. Most importantly, Blizzard was printing money faster than anyone else, regardless of the genre. No matter how awesome Madden X was, after EA got your $60, that was it, and that always somewhat limited the earning potential of games. Not so for MMOs, and with WoW subscriptions toping 10m, the market was no longer collecting $15 a month from a niche crowd.

If UO encouraged others to give the genre a shot, WoW basically forced companies to do it. WoW’s profits made all other genres of gaming seem inept, and hey, how hard could this MMO thing be anyway? Grab an IP, toss a bunch of cash at it, and bam, 10m people throwing $15 a month at you forever!

A few problems.

The first being that 2004 WoW is not the version of WoW being cloned. WoW 04-06 built the foundation for the juggernaut, and the mistakes of WotLK and especially Cata were not realized until recently. The reason? MMOs snowball. Once you have a certain number of people playing, it’s difficult to piss them all off fast enough to boot them all out instantly. Even when you try (NGE), it still might not work.

The second issue is that for most, WoW was their first MMO. You always like your first MMO more because hey, it’s all new to you. That newness only happens once, and even if you perfectly clone the correct version of WoW, you can’t replicate your game being someone’s first MMO. This aspect can’t be underestimated, both for initial impressions and retention.

So you have MMO ‘noob devs’ cloning the wrong version of WoW, and not only that, but you have a fan base that is rather confused. True MMO players hate casual themepark games because they are MMO-lite, while the millions that made WoW such a huge hit say they are looking for more WoW, but time and time again they move on much faster than the previous title; and in a space where retention and collecting $15 a month is king, that’s an issue.

Is it really that surprising that AAA themeparks have sold well and retained so poorly?

The reason I take such pleasure in watching SW:TOR fail is because that game is the very definition of the above, only magnified to such an extreme that even the most casual observers are coming to the correct conclusions (mostly). And if the casuals get it, at some point devs and publishers will as well.

The truth is that the MMO genre is not dying. Not even close. MMOs like EVE or Rift are doing well. MMO-lite titles like SW:TOR and current-day WoW are not. This is very good news for MMO players, who for years have seen the vast majority of resources wasted on AAA themepark failures. Yes, not all of the money will flow into real MMOs, but we don’t need all of it. Just some, and some will most definitely find the right people due to the fact that real MMOs are making money. It’s hundreds of thousands of subs money rather than millions, but the MMO genre never contained millions of players. Just a solid core, and a whole lot of tourists mucking everything up.

In a year from now the story won’t be that the MMO genre is dead. Actually there won’t be a story because who writes about niche stuff anyway? But outside of the spotlight, we will be talking about some pretty cool upcoming games, and how EVE continues to be awesome, and how Rift is still getting content added like crazy, and how GW2 (maybe) feels so fresh and yet so familiar. That will be nice.

PS: It’s tough to judge 38 Studios in the above. If Copernicus was yet another WoW-clone (it sure looked like one), then the studio closing down was just an acceleration of the inevitable. If the game truly was an EQ1-clone, it’s a sad loss and further reason to shake an angry fist at management.

39 Responses to My favorite genre is coming back!

  1. theJexster says:

    EVE seems amazing (but it’s been less than a week so in Eve terms I’m probably like 3 days old in the womb) but I am worried about how Dust will change things. Other than Dust I love how CCP manages things and love the long term Eve goals they have.

    Rift looks to be headed in a good direction. I love the creative use of the rifts to add interesting content without hurting the original game zone.

    GW2 looks ok but for a free to play it looks amazing so it could be a FTP game changer.

    ESO looks like it will end up in a bar sitting on a stool with WAR and SWTOR talking about how they had all the potential before they made some bad decisions and ended up in a dive bar on a stool at 10am.

  2. Liore says:

    I don’t really see any proof to support your thesis. As far as I can tell, SWTOR and RIFT still have twice as many subscribers as EvE, and I think one can safely guestimate that WoW has .. 7 million or so still? Guild Wars 2 has roughly a million pre-orders, and it’s the same AAA themepark as WoW or RIFT or SWTOR. (Run around to quest hubs, collect 7 bear ears, profit.)

    You argue that the MMO industry is going to notice this horrible failure of big themepark titles and focus on “real” MMOs (whatever that means), but your argument revolves around RIFT and GW2 somehow magically not being one of the bad ones. Why exactly are developers going to turn away from millions of players?

    I mean hey, my main MMO now is EQII because I dislike more modern “arcade-style” themeparks so I’m not exactly arguing that AAA themepark games are all awesome. It’s just that you’re making grand pronouncements about the entire industry basically based on the fact that you personally really fucking love EvE.

    • SynCaine says:

      You think Rift has 800k+ subs? Not sure about that. Pretty sure SW:TOR is WAY under that if you don’t use funny math. Get back to me on how those subs look at the 9 year mark too.

      More subs, EQ2 or EVE?

      I know EVE will have more subs than GW2 :)

      • bhagpuss says:

        We need to stop caring who has more subs and start caring whether each MMO has sufficient subs to serve its core audience and make a reasonable profit.

      • Zyref says:

        I agree with Liore, I see nothing in your post to support your hypothesis.

        One could argue that the genre never went away… just hid behind all of the noise WOW was making. Lots of new content is being released for these hidden gems.

        Also, I think you’ve got a few of your ‘facts’ wrong.

        Rift was indeed a WoW clone. There really is no difference between Rift and Wrath of the Lich King WoW in terms of gameplay and content. It is every bit as theme-park-y as SWTOR.

        EQ1 and EQ2 are popular enough to release an expansion once a year. Each of these expansions are about three times as large as a typical EVE expansion in terms of content. They’ve always been this popular, though they’ve greatly declined in popularity.

        WoW is still a cash cow. 10.4M subs at last earnings call.

        Also, companies are not hiring MMO noob devs. A lot of them are taking talent from Blizzard, Sony, etc. Cryptic studios are pretty pro by now (having released 4 semi-successful MMOs).

        • SynCaine says:

          You kinda shoot yourself in the foot when you suggest that MMO devs are not noobs and then mention Cryptic…

        • Zyref says:

          Not really…
          they were noobs early on. At some point, you become an expert. Furthermore, they hired industry vets from DAOC, Ashron’s call, etc. Something also to note, EQ, UO, DAOC, WOW, and EVE were made by people new at making MMOs, but experienced at making games. Arguably, game failures (Vanguard, Star Wars, matrix online, champions online) were made by experienced industry vets. I don’t see any real correlation between industry vets succeeding where people who are new at MMOs failing.

    • Noizy says:

      Actually, according to MMOData, Rift has about 250,000 subscribers (Jan) while Eve has 361,000 (April).

      I agree with blagpuss about judging the size of a game’s player base with what is needed to sustain the game. Both Eve and Rift seem to be doing pretty well in that regard while SWTOR, with twice as many subs as both Eve and Rift combined, is struggling for various business and game design reasons.

  3. Cyndre says:

    ::Shakes Angry Fist At Management::

  4. bhagpuss says:

    Good post, although I do think you stretch the definition of failure sometimes. I bet there’s not a game company out there who wouldn’t love their MMO to be failing as badly as WoW is right now.

    That aside, I agree. The distress and disturbance to the people who lost their jobs notwithstanding, these recent developments are in our personal best interests as MMO hobbyists. If MMO developers and investors have any sense (ok, that’s a big “if”) this will lead to better business plans, better project management, and more focused, careful development.

    Above all it should lead to MMOs being made for specific markets with realistic budgets and targets. The MMO future looks brighter already.

  5. Aerynne says:

    I really do not see how you can say WoW is not doing well. Even if it has lost a few million subs, it still has close to 9-10 million subscribers – after, what, eight or nine years? That’s pretty damn good. Sure, it will probably continue to decline somewhat, although MoP should give it a bump.

    I know you like to compare that to EVE, which you assert has continued to grow since its launch 9 years ago, but that is comparing apples to oranges. WoW captured just about every player who was ever going to play an MMO (at least, that kind of MMO). Its numbers will continue to drop as some of those players move on to other games. EVE, by contrast, has always had tiny numbers compared to WoW – lots (and lots and lots) of players who might like EVE have probably never even heard of it (not all gamers hang out on gaming forums). That gives EVE the opportunity to continue its modest growth, as more people decide to give it a try.

    I do believe there is room for niche games like EVE. My favorite game was SWG – I played it from launch to lights out, through good times and bad, and would be playing it still if it had not been consigned to the scrap heap courtesy of LA and SWTOR.

    But I suspect themepark games will be around for a long time because the fact is, whether you like it or not, many people enjoy playing them. SWTOR’s epic fail is not due solely to its themepark roots, but to a series of disasterous missteps on the part of Bioware (lol space combat on rails?) – it sucks not because it is a themepark game, but because it just sucks, period. And while I like Rift, too, how is it not an “mmo-lite” (as you describe it)? It is themepark to its core.

    Finally, I take strong exception to one of your comments: “True MMO players hate casual themepark games because they are MMO-lite.” Unless you limit your definition of “true MMO players” to EVE players, please do not tell me (or other players like me) what we hate or don’t hate. I have been playing MMOs since EQ, including EQ2, SWG, WoW, DAoC, AoC, LotRO, STO, Fallen Earth etc. I prefer sandbox games, but there are times I really enjoy a game like WoW. That does not mean I am any less of an MMO player than you. It just means I enjoy a wider range of games than you.

    • SynCaine says:

      WoW is not doing well compared to WoW the year before, or the year before that. Next year it will decline further. Granted, falling from 12m subs is a long fall, but it’s still falling.

      The point of including WoW is that what made WoW grow to 12m is exactly what was removed, and is now causing it to fall. 2004 WoW, pretty much like Rift today, was a good game for what it was; a casual MMO (not to be confused with a casual game).

      • ulvheart says:

        What would be really interesting would be seeing WoW’s subscriber falls in context. Not the context of what they were but in the context of the MMOverse.

        Trends as part of the MMO market place are key. It may be worse than thought if the MMO player base has grown, it may be that, given competition there is more choice for people now than back in the glory days of TBC.

        I don’t doubt that EAWare were secretly hoping for 3 million subs or that their current sub rate is disappointing for them but you’re still calling a failure kinda early: 1M+ subs and new content being delivered consistently.

        I’m still waiting for the Elite MMO though.

    • Anonymous says:

      You forget, Syncaine loves false dichotomies. You either love sandboxes like Eve or you love casual themparks like WoW. It’s simply not possible to like both types. Oh, and only one of those types makes you a true MMO player. Everyone knows this.

  6. Dril says:

    Sorry, until Rift fixes its combat (lol macros with 10 abilities), its shallow world design, its shallow soul design and its general feeling of bland genericness (I was surprised that that’s a word) it still doesn’t really feel like anything other than an intolerable themepark.

    Especially the combat.

    I’m still pissed about all the potential Rift has and how they still won’t fix it to make it feel like anything you do matters (on a micro or macro scale).

  7. Sullas says:

    A step in the right direction. I’ve made this point here before, but I’m increasingly convinced that the whole thing can be solved by reapproportioning of terms.

    You can have the small, nimble, dynamic low-budget, low-sub-numbers true heirs to UO, and call the genre ‘true MMO’, if the term is so important and beloved. As you point out correctly, that genre may well become about as mainstream, newsworthy and commercially exciting as turn-based strategy games, which incidentally I enjoy.

    The larger, broader-appeal, prefab-content WoWs, SW:TORs, Rifts and TESOs of this world (I hesitate to claim GW2) can be absolved of living up to that standard of grognard purity and assigned to a different category altogether. MMO-lite is fine, though I’m fonder simply of ‘multiplayer themepark’.

    It gives me no cognitive dissonance to support quality in both genres.

  8. SlothBear says:

    “Once you have a certain number of people playing, it’s difficult to piss them all off fast enough to boot them all out instantly.”

    Warhammer: Age of Reckoning would like a word with you.

  9. Anonymous says:

    So initially, Rift was “MMO 3.0.” Then 1.2 nerfed expert dungeons and the game was no longer worth playing. Now it’s good again and worth mentioning in the same breath as Eve?

    • SynCaine says:

      Beta Rift, 1.2 Rift, today Rift.
      04 WoW, 07 WoW, 12 WoW.

      • Anonymous says:

        But, but if today Rift is like 12 WoW, then current Rift is “MMO-lite” and will surely fail. But “MMOs like EVE or Rift are doing well. MMO-lite titles like SW:TOR and current-day WoW are not.”
        So, Rift is doing well so it is not MMO-lite. But today Rift is 12 WoW, your very definition of MMO-lite.

        Why does this remind me of a classic Star Trek episode? Something sure does not compute.

        • SynCaine says:

          Indeed it does not. My point was that games change over time, not that the above list should be compared one-to-one, like you just did. Unless you believe Rift today is like WoW today?

  10. “MMOs like EVE or Rift are doing well. MMO-lite titles like SW:TOR and current-day WoW are not.”

    A bit questionable on lots of fronts.

    • Cyndre says:

      % Increases of month over month and year over year growth, rather than total gross revenues.

      The point he is making is that it is inconcievable that WoW and SWTOR are around in 10 years at their current pace of attrition. It is very probable that Eve is still going strong.

      • It’s the grouping of Rift and EvE that doesn’t make sense to me.
        They are not MMO-lites because they are still growing?

        I’m glad Trion scrapped that idea of using themepark tropes like easy quests, instanced battlegrounds and dungeon finder! Oh wait…

  11. spinks says:

    I’d be happy if we got more sandbox games that weren’t based on total PvP domination, just for a change of pace.

  12. turnbullr says:

    DAoC was my first, and you are right, nothing compares to your first MMO. I will always remember it fondly.

  13. theJexster says:

    If you look at real life it’s pretty obvious. If a child were to go to a real theme park and repeatedly ride everything it would start to have diminishing returns. It might take a while but diminishing returns via repetition is a wall documented issue. The fun being had at first will be very intense but the connection the the product over time will suffer. Meanwhile a child will play in the dirt, or sandbox for years before they out grow it. Even for the most uncreative people using imagination (although less fun up front) is a more sustained form of entertainment that tends to form a longer emotional connection.

    Naturally this is specific to me and how my mind works but I walked away from my 6 60’s in wow and didn’t blink. I don’t even remember some of the names. Meanwhile I can remember both of my SWG characters and what I did with them in game with great accuracy; reflected upon with great fondness. In my head WOW is a game I played and it was fun. SWG is an emotional connection to a time in my life and a series of events and memories I doubt I’ll ever forget. That is why a low sub sandbox is able to be viewed as successful if we are considering success a long term dedicated customer. If we are considering success upfront box sales then a game like SWTOR might win (although I read breaking even is a better estimation based on financials).

    WOW is a different animal. We have to look at what Blizz did for 20 years prior to WOW to create a reputation and player base. We have to look at the simplification of the graphics, gameplay, and timing. WOW is widely successful phenom with diminishing returns that changed the genre for the worse resulting in clone after clone of rehashed over simplified garbage. WOW today closer resembles a game like Diablo than an MMO, and the player base blizz has created likes that. Were to a point where we have to look at the MMO genre in 2 distinct ways. There is the Disciple of Blizzard, and the MMORPG fan. Blizz fans like easy, instant gratification, little change, and shiny shiny shiny. All of these things are in contrast to what a MMO was.

  14. MMOPlayer says:

    Rift has it’s good things and bad things, just like any AAA MMO out on the market today. What keeps Rift fresh is the constant attention to development and enormous amount of content being added in such a short period of time. It doesn’t take Trion 6 months to add and/or make sweeping changes to the classes.

    All games change; sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. MMO’s become stagnant when change decreases and the developers stop listening to their community.

    There is no perfect MMO out there. There never will be a perfect MMO. If you’re playing a MMO based on population, stick with WoW. It has the largest population and will continue for quite some while, IMO. Otherwise, choose the theme that suits your eye (aka, Tera (fantasy), TSW (real world), Rift (fantasy), SWTOR (space fantasy), EvE (space)), get your “lite” version and play for free until you can make a decision.

    MMO’s aren’t designed to be played for 1 month. They’re designed for the long subscription and months of game play. If you want something to play for a month, pick Tribes or some other FPS title. If you’re just wanting some face smash that you can get in and get out fast, an MMO probably won’t be your game of choice. Otherwise, find the theme you enjoy and have fun in that world while you watch your character grow. Join a guild (if that’s your thing) and have fun playing with others.

  15. bonedead says:

    WoW was the first MMO. EQ1 is a horrible WoW clone. Alienware is the best bang for your buck.

  16. Professer says:

    Sometimes, when no one is home, I get naked in front of my dogs and wave my weiner around their faces and dance. This is related, just open your mind to it.

  17. [...] the game’s star is on the rise. Even Syncaine, who officially hates the game, recognizes it as a ‘real MMO’ and praises the developers’ efforts to keep it [...]

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