Splitting the genre in two

Let’s move past why GW2 sucks and onto a bigger topic; why so many recent MMOs suck, shall we?

Chris thinks all MMOs are good for 3 months or less, and that’s just how things are today. Keen has a pretty solid counter, but it raises the question that will (hopefully) clear the air here: are you looking to play a game for a while, or not?

Because I think that really cuts to the root of the issue. In the ‘good old days’, I think the vast majority of MMO players WANTED to get sucked into something long-term (group 1). Much of the original hype behind an MMO was that it was an RPG that never ended, and that is EXACTLY what people wanted. New Ultima game but with unending content? Hell ya! Take my money!

Today not everyone is on the same page. There are a lot of players who DON’T want to get sucked into something long-term (group 2). They WANT a 3-monther or something to do for a month and move on, and nothing short of a miracle (WoW) is going to change that.

One group is not more right than another, and however you arrive at either group is an unrelated issue (got old, more money, kids, whatever).

What does matter is that the two groups are looking for very different experiences, yet are being lumped into one group (MMO players). Worse still, studios are designing games with the impression that they can design content for the short-term group, and expect long-term retention. SW:TOR is the latest poster-child for this, but it’s just one of many such failures. And make no mistake, these games ARE failures, because the target they are aiming at is WoW, which prints money not because it sold a ton of boxes, but because it RETAINED millions of players for years. EAWare expected SW:TOR to RETAIN at least 500k subs, and at one time the expectation was 1m+. They sold a ton of boxes because group 2 wanted something new. They failed because solo-story content does nothing for group 1, and even if it did, group 1 is just not that big.

Both markets, the short-term ‘MMO’, and the original model, are viable. EVE is an undeniable success, DESPITE the fact that it’s a niche within a niche product (non-IP Sci-Fi with no avatar). CCP is successful because they understand who their market is, and they design the game around the long-term retention of their core rather than the short-burst of group 2 (Incarna aside). Misleading talk aside, GW2, much like GW1, will likely do fine because the model is not around providing long-term entertainment, but rather just a short burst every now and then.

This also clears up the F2P vs sub aspect as well. F2P ‘works’ because a tiny subset of your entire base is willing to pay enough to subsidize everyone else. That’s why so much of the design around a F2P is aimed at catering to that tiny minority, or to convert some of the unpaying masses into cash cows. By contrast, the sub model is designed to provide enough content for the long-term majority, in the hopes that most people will stick around and play/pay.

And if you combine the intent of group 1 or 2 with the business model and content design around a game, you have your target.

Developers are doing a decent job catering to group 2. There are countless F2P titles that are good-enough to play for a month, and occasionally one will get some cash out of you. Those that don’t, shut down or get their support slashed, but even the most marginal titles end up surviving in one form of zombie mode or another.

Designing a solid title for group 1 is much harder, in part because it’s so different from the rest of gaming. Instead of just making sure the current content is fun once, the devs must consider how the content will play in a year, or for the 100th time, or when someone with 1000 hours plays alongside someone with 10. That’s hard. Just as EAWare, Mythic, Turbine, or any other studio that has tried and failed. Maybe the original big three were really lucky, or really good, or understood the market better than most do today. Regardless, it worked then, and it continues to work today.

The extreme example of success in group 1 is WoW, but that’s misleading if you buy into the fact that WoW’s success was as much good timing as it was solid design. Make no mistake, 2004 WoW was very well designed, but that’s not the entire story IMO.

Regardless, it’s unlikely that we will see another WoW-like success. Far more likely is someone hitting EVE-like numbers. And again, CCP is making very good money off EVE. But that’s happening because they understand the size of the market, in addition to how best to cater to it.

You can’t spend $300m today because you predict 1m+ subs. It’s not going to happen. Plan to get 100k with a solid title, figure out the budget to make that happen, and good luck. And let’s not kid ourselves, with 100k subs you can make a VERY solid game. Maybe you won’t have all your dialog voiced by professional actors, but you won’t be limited to Pong-like graphics either. Spend smart, spend S-mart!

46 Responses to Splitting the genre in two

  1. Keen says:

    I’ve been saying the same thing SynCaine, but people don’t listen.

    I think both types of games should exist, but the other side continually tells me it would never work.

    My response is simply that it has worked and hasn’t been attempted since. The 3-monther proves that the current trend leans towards a more temporary experience and I’ve shown that’s because they lack the design of long-term games.

    Despite showing that, people just do the same old “Keen you’re wrong no one wants to play old games” diatribe. (1) I never make old games, and (2) there’s no proof to that statement other than the proof that people played them and loved them for years at a time.

    I think we agree here SynCaine, and it’s unfortunate that other people don’t.

  2. bhagpuss says:

    Very good analysis, with which it won’t surprise you to hear I largely agree.

    I’m kind of a hybrid between the two groups that you describe – I want to play a lot of MMOs and keep playing all of them for a long time. That’s nothing new – right from when I first started in late 1999 I played every MMO I could get my hands on – EQ, UO, AC, AO, The Realm, Endless Ages, DAOC…

    Back then, with the way gameplay was, it was hard to do justice to more than one title at a time. Nowadays gameplay isn’t such a barrier but there are so many more MMOs vying for attention that since I don’t have a time-dilation device I still have to play each of them in turn in small bursts. Generally that means playing one quite a lot and a lot quite a little.

    Unlike you, I find most MMOs at least moderately entertaining and I feel quite uncomfortable if I don’t at least try most of the mainstream ones as they launch, and a good few of the minor ones too. When I try them I usually like them and the more I try, the more I enjoy the whole genre. I definitely don’t want to go back to playing one MMO at a time (not that I ever did) and the disappearance of most of the economic barriers to dabbling suits me very well.

    All the same, I totally agree that it’s essential for the people that make these things to have a much clearer and more realistic view on who their audience is supposed to be and how large it is likely to grow. For a subscription game, 100k should surely be sufficient to turn a decent profit and there must be quite a few discrete markets of that size that could be served.

    People are greedy, though. If they see big money coming to someone else, they won’t always want to settle for adequate money themselves, even if adequate is achievable and big probably isn’t.

  3. How much of the fickle nature of group two, the three month gadflies, is caused by a profusion of choices?

    Back in the days of UO or EQ, you didn’t really have much of a choice. There were no other significant MMOs to match them. Even by 2004, games that could really compete with EQ or WoW were rare enough that a lot of players were aware of the modest choices. But now I can scarcely keep track of the options.

    Does the level of choice tempt us to find something a little bit better, a little closer to the core game we are looking for, or does it merely liberate group two by giving them a buffet of choices down which to stroll?

    • SynCaine says:

      Remember that we are talking about UO (for example), a game that had people subbed to it for 6+months or longer. Are we really saying that many of the people who spend $10 a month back then didn’t really like UO, but played/paid anyway? That just sounds silly to me.

      If a BETTER game comes along, that’s different, but I don’t think that’s the point people are trying to make when they bring up the “we have more MMOs now” aspect.

      • It does sound silly, which is because you are taking an extreme view.

        The subscription trend however, shows that some people were playing UO because there was nothing else like it at the time. And then EQ came along and subscriptions began to drain out. Likewise with EQ when WoW came along. Yet a lot of people stayed behind as well. There are still a lot of fans loyal to both UO and EQ.

        Any MMO will find a group of loyal fans who will stay subscribed and attempt to indulge in the many facets of the game, such that they are.

        Perhaps I should put my question another way. Does the diversity of choice lead to a problem of achieving a critical mass of such “group 1″ players who will stick around and make a home in a game?

        EVE Online seems to be a good test case. Since there really isn’t anything around quite like it, it has managed to get that critical mass and then some. But can a fantasy MMORPG get that far in this market without dropping to Aventurine budget levels?

      • And, to be clear, I do agree with your post. I just wonder aloud how the variety of choices is fragmenting the group 1 players.

        • SynCaine says:

          EQ coming along allowed those who liked UO but liked EQ1 more to move on. Those who liked UO more than EQ1 stayed (until Trammel turned UO into a meh version of EQ1). For a while the big 3 worked because each game was significantly different. DAoC coming along was also different-enough, plus picked up a lot of UO players who got Trammed. WoW naturally took most of the EQ1 players as it was, more or less, a well-upgraded version of EQ.

          The difference between that time and today is LotRO/AoC/WAR/SW:TOR are all lesser versions of WoW (Rift is better in terms of sheer content delivery, which as we are seeing, is pretty important), so people tried those games, found them wanting or flawed, and went back (tourists). As making a better WoW is really hard (perfect storm blablabla), making something different from WoW is the way to go. That lesson is not being learned for some reason.

  4. Corehealer says:

    Making real MMOs with lasting power is hard, more at 11.

    I see the argument here, I see the sound financial models, I see the logic and the precedents, and I agree with them. What I want to know is, who besides CCP and perhaps Aventurine are attempting to do an MMO that will retain people long term and give group 1 what they want?

    I can’t blame people who are ignorant of past successes for thinking it’s too hard to create a years long RPG game after over a decade of MMOs failing, even if they don’t realize the subtle problems that comparison brings. They see the wreckage, not the cause, and assume the genre itself can’t be saved and that we should simply accept what we get. People in group 1, starved for more choices then just EvE, examine this a lot more then they do.

    We know what to do to fix it. But until someone can step up and make it work again (and don’t just point at EvE), then we are going to keep coming back to this cycle of hype, release, 3 months, disappointment, disillusionment. People aren’t going to go back and meticulously study what went right before. They want to see it work anew now.

  5. spinks says:

    Good post. I think you’re right, and a lot of those players who wanted to play longterm weren’t just looking for a game, they were looking for a /home/. So the sub makes sense, it’s like paying rent.

  6. Jenks says:

    Yes, yes, yes.

    Whenever I describe what I want in an mmo, I get 20 idiots firing back things like:

    No one wants to wait for the boat anymore!
    I don’t have time to look for a group!
    I like to play for 15 minutes at a time, I like quest hubs!

    My response is always the same:
    Go play every fucking MMO released in the last 8 years. They are ALL designed for YOU. I’ll be over here, playing EvE and EQ classic servers, complaining until someone makes a game for me again.

    • Mekhios says:

      “Darkfall The Second Coming” will solve all your MMO problems Jenks. ;)

      • SynCaine says:

        AV fixed the MMO formula based on their experience with DF1. It’s going to be the best thing ever for everyone. If you hate MMOs, you will love DF:UW. If you love MMOs, you are going to love DF:UW like, 100x more. WHOOOO! BEST GAME EVER guyz!

        • SynCaine says:

          And just so no one is confused, when I say the above what I’m REALLY saying is that DF:UW is going to appeal to DF1 players, but everyone else just won’t ‘get it’ and they should have read more about it before release rather than gotten their hopes up foolishly.

    • Raelyf says:

      Is it odd that some of my fondest EQ memories are waiting for a boat?

      • SynCaine says:

        No, that’s by design. A design lesson apparently very few of today’s MMO devs have grasped.

      • Keen says:

        Let’s see if I can say this with a straight face…

        You’re not allowed to like those memories. That’s nostalgia. There’s no possible way that you could actually like that from a design …

        Forget it, I can’t do it.

        • kalex716 says:

          I’d take having ANY memory of a game play experience years later, ESPECIALLY if in the immediacy it was painful, over no memory at all.

          Every day all day.

          Nostalgia is King.

        • Raelyf says:

          It is a bit silly on the face of it though. Just sitting there. Waiting.

          But nearly always, someone would sit down and /say hi. They’d ask if I knew when the next boat would be, or how long I’d been waiting to estimate it. We’d talk about where we were headed, where our character names came from, or the best place to collect bone chips. I may even have joined my first guild with someone I met this way.

          It could be frustrating though, and I wonder if even the old school players like myself would stand for it today. More, I wonder if today’s MMO culture would lend to similar experiences, or if I’d simply get someone jumping up and down ‘t-bagging’ my character and yelling racial slurs.

          Oddly, the most interesting bit thinking back was that I always sat at the end of the dock. There was no practical reason for sitting over standing in that context, but I sat anyway because that’s what people do when they wait. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that sort of attachment to a character since.

  7. [...] has a pretty interesting article up at his site today that talks about two types of MMO gamers. He lumps them into groups 1 and 2. I [...]

  8. Bernard says:

    @Keen

    I think the difference between your posts is that Syn acknowledges that group 2 exists and is being catered for.

    Your post suggests that we are all in group 1 and MMO developers are letting us down:

    “Address the problem head on, create a working, viable alternative, and give the players what they want by imagining something new.”

    • keenandgraev says:

      Woah woah woah woah WOAH! Hold on a minute.

      I have explicitly outlined how I believe group 2 exists, should exist, should be designed for, and should have their games. Group 2 has just as much right to their games as I want for mine.

      I have said, until out of breath, that my reason for fighting so hard is because group 2 (or an ignorant, radical subset) thinks group 1 shouldn’t or can’t exist.

      You have it mixed up big time. SynCaine and I are saying the same thing.

  9. Chris says:

    Good post and a very nice analysis, Syn. To be clear on my own stance (and from the link backs, I don’t think I made this clear enough), I don’t think subscription MMOs should last 3 months or less or that it’s good when they do. I do think developers could design a game that would break the 3-monther mold and turn more of us into long-term players like the days of yore. I absolutely, whole-heartedly want a long term stay — and one with old school ideals, like emphasizing a virtual world ala UO.

    My main criticism of the 3-monther label is that the criteria to not be a 3-monther are so vague that any game could fall under its umbrella. There’s not one single game since WoW, single player or otherwise, that doesn’t fit the mold — and for a lot of people, WoW is in there too because it’s not their “home game.” All MMOs (EVE and EVE-likes aside) are three monthers because the sole criterion is the majority people looking ahead and moving on. It ignores the hundreds of thousands that stay and overemphasizes a comparison to WoW-level numbers. It also ignores a big part of human nature; we are forward thinking creatures and it’s a fun part of being an MMO fan!

    Yours and Keen’s comments on design audiences are spot on for describing why the transience is occurring, by the way, and point towards good ways to fixing this problem.

    I firmly believe a game can and will come along that does again what WoW did years ago and EQ before that: Re-defines what we know an MMO to be and hooks people for years. As it happens, I can’t imagine a scenario where that’s not a re-emphasis on the virtual world concept because people are so tired of theme park attractions. It’s got to be a game of incredible depth that goes beyond surface level “dynamic” content or raiding or PvP (we already have long-terms stays that feature it as a main attraction, PvE is the missing piece here).

    • SynCaine says:

      If I’m understanding you correctly, you would also consider Rift a 3-monther?

      I think what you are confusing is some people leaving a game shortly after release (hype bubble) vs a game like SW:TOR ‘failing’ because it was not able to retain ENOUGH people after the hype bubble to go on based on their (terrible) expectations not being met. Yes Rift had more people the first month than the 3rd, but it has ENOUGH after the 3rd to go on, keep its dev team, and get an expansion. For the devs and the fans of Rift, that’s good, and who cares about the tourists that left. For fans of SW:TOR, the situation is bad, because the dev team got slashed and the game is going F2P.

      See the difference, both for the devs and for the players?

      • keenandgraev says:

        Rift is definitely a 3-monther, but one capable of holding its head above the water. SWTOR is a 3-monther but couldn’t

        The difference between the two is the severity in which the design aspects making it a 3-monther were built into the core of the game.

        • SynCaine says:

          If its holding its head above water, doesn’t that mean its NOT a 3-monther for enough people to… not make it a 3-monther?

          I think now you are mixing how you feel about a game vs how a game has actually performed. If a game retains enough people long-term to continue it’s development, I call that success. Group 1 types that want a themepark now have an MMO with constant updates long-term rather than a skeleton crew or F2P conversion trash.

        • keenandgraev says:

          3-monthers aren’t total failures. And let’s not forget that Rift has made changes over time to climb out of that hole. It -was- a 3-monther, but maybe now it isn’t. Maybe now it’s just a WoW clone.

        • keenandgraev says:

          Meant to say they aren’t always/necessarily total failures. They certainly can be, and most of the time are, failures.

    • Chris says:

      I would say that if RIFT didn’t release new content as often as it does, then yes, it would be a 3-monther. That content production schedule keeps increasing the depth of the game, even in short bursts, so that people continuously have something to work at. So no, RIFT isn’t a 3-monther because Trion is taking action to prevent it from succumbing to the same fate as other themeparks.

  10. tithian says:

    A very good analysis indeed.

    However, the problem is that making an MMO is an expensive business. So of course there is the initial pressure that the game NEEDS to sell a lot of boxes, because usually most studios go into debt while they are in the production phase.

    Long-term, the correct approach is of course to cater to Group 1, but then you end up with “niche” games that are mostly good, but people won’t touch them due to “inconvenience” or “inaccessibility”.

    • SynCaine says:

      MMOs being an expensive business is flawed thinking. Yes, you CAN spend 300m on an MMO, but you can also spend 10m, just like you can spend whatever it costs to make CoD, or you can make Minecraft/DayZ.

      And from what we’ve seen, 10m spend correctly gets you more MMO than 300m spend on voice acting, just like Minecraft/DayZ see massive success despite being ‘low budget’.

      • kalex716 says:

        If MMO’s were just a money problem, SWTOR would be a smashing success.

        Take this in light of my next post. The smaller the team, the higher the chances of them pulling off fresh, new, and innovative ideas. Money, and team scaling diminishes velocity in significant ways. This is why scrum style development is such a buzz word and is growing in popularity.

        Indy art, films, tv, etc are all this way as well. Creativity thrives when you sit people in a room together, and out of necessity they pour their heart and souls into something. Communication is much more efficient, and as a result, prioritization is faster, iteration is faster. Its brilliant really, magical almost.

        But even still, think of all the indy titles out there, and how many suck compared to how many are amazing, and that gives you some perspective about how difficult it is to pull it off regardless.

        Now, lets have a thought experiment…. Lets make up an indy studio that has a smashing success, then gets in bed with some money people, gets the rights to some IP, then gets the budget to start hiring.

        Your guerilla coder who was an ace is now a tech director, and is expected to manage a team of programmers, but hates everybodys code because he’s such a rockstar, and like all rockstar programmers they always hate everyonse code but there own. So he is an awful manager.

        Your artist, same problem… He is a brilliant visionary, but has no confidence, and no hardline, and cannot sell his vision to a whole team and rolls over on anything. You, you’re now a CEO, and instead of spending all your time slaving over your amazingly rich with idea GDD’s, you have to spend all your time playcating the money people.

        Meanwhile, you are hiring more and more people, and deadlines are starting to be formed and you gotta ship something in the end.

        This is what happens in MMO’s. And this is why they suck.

        • Quelldrogo says:

          @ kalex716 Well said. Only way scaling up works is if you have a crazy brilliant mad dictator at the top. Ineffective managers are weeded out and the stars can shine at their core competencies.

    • kalex716 says:

      Well, the financial expense can be completely quantified.

      However, the creative expense is where the true challenges are, and its where we as a community don’t quite have the full understanding of.

      Its important to keep team size in mind. MMO’s require large ammounts of multi-disciplined talented people to pull off. The larger the team, the more elegant the below gets:

      Being innovative, coming up with fresh ideas, winning a substantially large team over on those ideas, then selling those ideas to your money people, then planning for them, and then actually executing on those ideas is an extremely challenging thing to pull off.

      And I haven’t even begun to factor in whether said idea/innovation is even fun as an end product!

      This is why clones happen.

      If at any of the above steps you hit a snag, and you want to ship a game, you have to seriously consider making sacrifices and going with what has proven to work. If you sit a bunch of people down in a room and have to come up with plan B. you ask what WoW did?

      It sucks, but its the reality. Innovation, and great ideas on paper are one thing, but actually executing, and having it be fun is something astronomically difficult.

      We don’t appreciate this enough.

      This is the cost.

      • SynCaine says:

        The above would be all well and good if something like SW:TOR made just ok money for EAWare, rather than being a total disaster. The above makes it sound like WoW-clones tap into the WoW money tree, just not the direct source. They don’t. They often fail far harder than non WoW-clones.

        Better investment: DF1 or SW:TOR?

        Sure, neither made you WoWbucks, but at least DF1 made ENOUGH to get a sequel and keep AV employees paid, while SW:TOR ruined an entire studio and sent its two founders into early retirement.

        • kalex716 says:

          Oh make no mistake, I agree with the sentiment that the above is NOT the way we need to continue doing things.

          I’m just giving you insight, from experience, how it happens.

  11. Azuriel says:

    I don’t often agree with you, Syncaine, but in the cases that I do, I agree so hard it hurts.

    I was basically halfway through writing a post today, and I am thinking if it actually gets posted, it will not amount much more than a link back to this one.

    • corehealer says:

      I enjoy reading SynCaine’s blog more and more these days because, as much as he trolls and extolls the virtues of EvE, he’s still a very good blogger and he actually digs into the heart of the issue a lot more then most. He doesn’t miss the point, and he hasn’t given up on the MMO genre.

      I for one am still happily playing GW2 and anticipate doing so for quite some time to come. But, on the flip-side, I totally understand and agree with his points about what ArenaNet did and did not get right with it, and didn’t buy into the hype (at least not all of it anyway). I think that if I hadn’t gone into GW2 with a certain mindset and expectations and didn’t have the active Orr farming and WvW guild I have built around me, it would basically be an uphill climb of “what now?”, and that’s not fun by any stretch, no matter how much ‘choice’ I have as ‘endgame’.

      I really just want to have a MMO I can live in with my friends for years, as a counterweight to real life and all the other games I play that come and go. I’d give all the dicks on a monthly basis to the devs who can pull that off.

      • Mekhios says:

        I think a big problem for Syncaine is that he is backing himself into a gameplay corner he can’t get out of. All his eggs are currently in the EvE Online basket because he can not accept new forms of MMO design.

        He wants open world, player driven, full PvP MMO’s like Darkfall and EvE Online. They are a niche type of MMO that currently occupies a shrinking market. No average player wants this type of game and the market for a niche MMO is not healthy.

        Additionally the financial situation of CCP Games is not strong and their EvE playerbase is shrinking. Existing players aren’t really contributing cold hard cash to the CCP coffers due to the game design. CCP really needs to embrace the casual player and monetise lot’s of aspects of EvE. It’s a big problem that also caused the failure of Darkfall.

  12. kalex716 says:

    So the next blog needs to be, how do we coin them?

  13. Asmiroth says:

    My question is: Are there any gamers of type 1 left that are willing to completely drop their existing “home” for another? Or more specifically, enough to make the financial model make sense? I would say the genre is missing a solid PvE sandbox but is there some other hole that can be filled?

  14. camazotz says:

    I had to wrap my head around the idea of Group 2 as a reality because they seem to be fairly invisible in terms of voice….but then that might fit; people with minimal investment in a game, who jump from one to the next every few months, are not going to have a hard presence in the blog world or even forums, for the most part (unless you count the people who play for two months then quit in disgust and bitch about how the game has no content). Anyway, assuming Group 2 doesn’t include those people who rush to finish and then complain about getting there, I’m inclined to say you’ve got a pretty good analysis going here. Also, to step in on the Rift issue, that’s the only game since WoW I have decided to play long term and even do a year sub for, so I’m definitely in the camp of “Rift is for long term play” and not aimed at 3-monthers. GW2, however, is spectacularly aimed at the crowd that wants to play a bit, move on, maybe come back later….whenever they feel like it, no strings attached.

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