State of the MMO genre, 2015 edition

February 4, 2015

First things first, it’s now 2015, and just like in 2014, 2013, and really since the beginning of time, we still haven’t seen an as-successful F2P MMO as we have sub MMOs (WoW/FFXIV/EVE). Until we do, this isn’t a debate. It’s a simple yes/no situation: Is your MMO really good? It’s using the sub model. Is your MMO not that good? It’s F2P, sub, ‘B2P’, or… who cares your MMO isn’t really good. Maybe by 2016 we will have a single example of a really good, as-successful-as-sub F2P MMO. I wouldn’t hold your breath on it though.

Now, moving past that still-dead horse, let’s take a broader view of the MMO genre as we head deeper into 2015. In my view the MMO genre has gone through four major phases. Note that these phases don’t have a definitive “it started on this day” date, but rather are more of a general ‘around this time’ deal.

Phase one (1997-2002ish) was UO/EQ1/AC; the birth of the genre, when we weren’t sure if this whole ‘virtual worlds’ thing could even work, and being online with thousands of others in one world was something new and awesome. Amazingly all three of the original MMOs (sorry M59, but you weren’t big enough to really count here) were solid and brought something really unique and special to the table. UO had an amazing virtual world and sandbox gameplay, EQ1 was the original themepark (I thought I had written a post about what the genre would be if EQ1 had never been made, but can’t find it now, so maybe I never wrote it…), and AC had weird, interesting systems and character growth, along with the awesome patron ‘guild’ system.

Phase two is WoW and EVE (2003-2007ish). WoW blew up what everyone thought a successful MMO could be, and refined the clunky themepark that was EQ1 into a game a lot of people could actually get into, while (in vanilla/TBC anyway) still retaining the core qualities of an MMO to keep people playing/paying. EVE started very small and very rough, but would go on to show that despite aiming to be super-niche, super-niche done better than anyone else can eventually, and naturally, grow into a mini-monster in the genre. It also showed that, if you do it right, there is no timetable on when your MMO should fade or go into maintenance mode. A good MMO really should be able to go on ‘forever’. This is also the time when a great many MMOs failed for countless reasons; the main one being ‘Making an MMO is really, really f’n hard’.

Phase three is the WoW-clone era, or the dark ages (2007-2011?). Post-WoW blowing up, everyone and their dog started cranking out WoW-clones, each thinking they could either be a ‘WoW killer’ or just casually pick up a few million players because ‘hey, WoW did it so it must not be that hard!’. LotRO, AoC, WAR, Aion, Rift, etc. In addition to getting a bunch of ‘bad’ games, the real crime here is that developers who might have been able to give us something interesting instead wasted time trying to be WoW. The genre (EVE-related stuff aside) didn’t advance forward much, and in terms of new offering things mostly sucked.

Phase four is the ‘F2P, ALL THE WAY’ era (2011-2014, hopefully). After failing to clone WoW, ‘bad’ devs all jumped aboard the good-ship F2P. MMOs that were struggling/dying as sub MMOs (because they were bad games made by bad devs) converted and saw ‘amazing’ revenue immediately after the conversion. We got a lot of press releases stating it, so it must be truth forever and ever! We also saw a bunch of F2P-based MMOs released, because the sub model was outdated and ‘everyone’ was going with the ‘new standard’ of F2P. Then the too-predictable reality kicked in, the one-time boost that was a F2P conversion not only faded, but in many cases faded below even what sub was bringing in, and F2P after F2P MMO was shut down or skeleton crewed. SOE being sent to the slaughter house is, one can only hope, the crowning jewel and definitive statement on just how much of a failure the standard F2P model is for MMOs.

Which brings us to today and the original question; where is the MMO genre? It’s not at the high it was in 2005/6, where everyone was making an MMO because it was perceived as a gold mine. At the same time, we are out of the dark age of cloning WoW blindly. We are also hopefully beyond the state of believing that F2P works, but I suspect there are still more Smeds out there who will put junk out and wonder why it’s not working financially after getting a billion accounts or whatever foolish metric they get mislead by.

In some ways we are in a spot similar to 1999/2000ish times, with three big successful MMOs (WoW, FFXIV, EVE), and a new crop of MMOs on the horizon that has our interest (Camelot Unchained, Star Citizen, Life is Feudal, Pathfinder, to just name a few). But that interest isn’t tainted in believing any of those titles will be ‘WoW Killers’ or dominate the market, nor are the people behind those titles setting such expectations. For perhaps the first time in far too long, devs have a plan to make a game work with 50k subs, which sounds so stupidly simple yet really is a giant leap forward for the genre.

Will some if any of those games work out? Hopefully. They at least have a much better (more than zero) chance than ‘WoW killers’ and F2P MMOs, so that’s a plus. But as always, making an MMO is hard, and even if you get 80% of it right, that 20% wrong can sink you.

Personally I feel better about the genre today than I have in a long, long time, perhaps even as far back as the early 2000s, in large part because I think more than enough devs have finally figured out that the MMO genre is a niche market, and not the mass-market illusion that WoW’s success tricked people into believing. I also don’t think ‘AAA’ levels of spending are needed to make a great MMO. I’m more than fine with playing something that I expect to grow over time, so long as that initial baseline is solid, and again I think at least some devs are finally catching on to this as well. Not only is gameplay king, but sub-AAA production values don’t mean crude sprites and homemade sound effects anymore, it just means I won’t have to hear someone ‘famous’ during a cutscene, or have a CGI intro movie that’s 20 minutes long that I skip every time after the first.

So while the future of the genre isn’t all rainbows, it’s also not as hopeless as it looked in years past. Baby steps are good, and hopefully at least a few of the upcoming games deliver, while the success’ we have today continue to get better (or in WoW’s case, don’t go full ‘accessibility’ on us again and shed almost half the population).


LotRO: You’ll never see Mordor

January 22, 2015

Let’s talk about LotRO!

Actually let’s not talk about the content of LotRO, because why make everyone suffer, but instead let’s talk about how things have gone for the game overall, and specifically under F2P.

Spoiler alert: LotRO is a third-tier (at best) MMO right now, and F2P is in part to blame.

In 2007, prior to release, LotRO looked like a serious ‘WoW-killer’, and that term wasn’t a joke back then. The pre-release advertising for LotRO said you should join “the millions of other players”, which shows you what Turbine expected out of the title. Also back in 2007, Turbine wasn’t yet in the SOE/Trion bin of developers we love to watch fall on their face; they were respected thanks to Asherons Call and even DDO (while DDO wasn’t a breakout hit, it did well-enough, and not being a huge failure is actually a compliment in the MMO genre).

Plus yea, it had the freaking LotR IP, easily one of the hottest IPs in gaming back then. License to print money really, just like the Sims or Star Wars! :rimshot:

LotRO at launch was solid. No, it wasn’t a WoW-killer, not even close, but it wasn’t a bad MMO. Unlike WoW, it took its lore very seriously, had solid storytelling, and back then did a bunch of stuff different-enough to hold its own, at least for a bit, and the numbers reflected that.

Then for a bunch of reasons, it got worse. Major mistakes were made, people left, and overall Turbine was slipping towards the Turbine we know and laugh at today.

The game went F2P, and, much like with DDO, Turbine released a big “congrats to us!” press release about how awesome F2P was for the game. F2P fans STILL link to that thing (can’t get to it now, someone link it for me please?) as evidence of F2P working, and more than a few people still hold that time as if it were a reflection of today or even the last few years.

Only it didn’t work, because between that press release and today things are very different. There was never a follow-up “F2P is still awesome!” press release. Turbine had a bunch of layoffs. They started to get desperate with the game, to the point of basically selling you The One Ring in the cash shop, among other typical F2P model garbage cash grabs like ad spam and immersion-destroying fluff. LotRO no longer has expansions, and the big outstanding question now for the game is whether the story wraps up before the game goes offline. (Easy money is on offline)

Saying that F2P ‘saved’ LotRO is wrong beyond the fact that the game is still online, and we don’t know if LotRO would still be online if Turbine had kept it as a sub MMO. Most likely not (and of course no one still with Turbine would admit to it anyway), especially given what Turbine became, but unless your ultimate goal with a game is to scrap by for a bit after gutting your studio of employees, LotRO isn’t an example of success; it’s just another example of the F2P price; you get a short-term bump at the cost of any long-term hope.

The real problem is that when talking F2P MMOs, there are no examples of success. The current “hey it worked!” example from some is SW:TOR, a game that originally EA hoped would have 1m subs, then later cut that to 500k, and despite having by far the largest MMO budget and a ‘can’t miss’ IP, still didn’t produce a game good enough to even get that. F2P hasn’t ‘saved’ SW:TOR, as the game still isn’t close to meeting expectations, nor has it risen above mediocrity (I believe it has 1m ‘active accounts’, which is a joke when you consider all of the above). Again, unless ‘success’ in F2P land is “the game is still online”, SW:TOR isn’t a success. It’s not (yet?) at LotRO-levels of failure, sure, but being better than that is still a long way away from success.

And SW:TOR is the BEST example of F2P non-failure that I can think of. If we use EQ2 as the example here, it’s not even a conversation, to say nothing of what effect F2P had on ArcheAge, or the AA-before-AA example, Allods (which as far as I know, is the only MMO to partly move from F2P to a full sub option, which was well-received).

This conversation would be far more interesting if we had even one FFXIV-level example of F2P MMO success (asking for EVE longevity or just WoW overall success is asking way too much), but we don’t. We never have, yet some still tout the model as the new or current formula for success. The ‘formula’ hasn’t yielded a single positive result people. Not. A. One. In what other industry is something that has never provided successful given so much credit? Literally banana land going on here, but that is the MMO genre.


Looking back at 2014, looking forward into 2015

December 15, 2014

Time to review 2014 and make some 2015 predictions (I don’t get as fancy as some people and do two posts!)

Here are the 2014 predictions:

EQNL will have everyone loving it the first month of release. Shortly after just about everyone will be asking “now what?” and drift away.

Anyone want to comment this isn’t 100% accurate, other than the whole “release but its beta” scam?

EQN will continue to attempt to copy/paste from my design docs, and will continue to SOE them into failure.

Nope, but only because literally NOTHING happened with EQN, because SOE, so 50/50?

ESO will have a big launch, followed by a quick death (F2P). I’d like to pretend that THIS massive themepark failure will teach the industry to stop, but if SW:TOR didn’t, nothing will.

Big launch; check. Quick death; nope. Game isn’t F2P (yet?), and I wouldn’t be totally surprised to hear it has more subs than we expect (not a ‘huge success’ amount, but not skeleton-crew numbers).

WildStar won’t suck. Just throwing a dart here, as WildStar doesn’t interest me personally, but what little I know about the dev team, I like. If they stick to their ideas/goals post-release, I can see WildStar being a solid ‘niche’ MMO. We might even be calling it “themepark done right”.

Mostly wrong here, other than I think WildStar clearly is a niche MMO, although I don’t think the plan was for it to be SO niche.

The GW2 train will continue to roll, although with less steam and more heavy-handedness towards the cash shop. Such is F2P life.

I guess? So little gets posted about GW2 its really hard to follow, but I’m assuming Anet is doing something with the game?

LotRO will continue to provide us with amusing stories, perhaps selling you a character 3/4th of the way into the game, or something equally dumb. 50/50 on being able to play Sauron. 75% chance you will be able to buy the One Ring in the shop.

Guess 3/4th of the way into the game was giving Turbine too much credit. My mistake.

CCP will go bankru… haha just kidding. Best MMO out will continue to play chess while the genre learns checkers. 450k subs in 2014. Edit: Since we are at 500K already and this isn’t WoW, raising this to 600k.

600k didn’t happen, so nope. On the other hand so far CCP is showing what they can do with quicker releases, which is basically more than anyone else, and I think they are in a good spot going forward to once again return to growth after a stagnant 2014.

WoW will bounce back with the next expansion and have a strong 2014. Now that the interns are back to being interns, and the real devs are back from failing to make anything with Titan, WoW will prosper. It will also help that 2014 won’t offer it much real competition (Unless WildStar draws away a significant portion of the raiding crowd, which is a possibility). WoW will end with more subs in 2014.

Other than the WildStar bit, rather accurate.

2015 predictions:

DF:UW will shut down. The population is at an all-time low, AV is completely lost with the title, and Forumfall continues to stick daggers into the one game even trying to give that crowd something to do. I don’t see how the game survives 2015 short of a miracle turnaround or wipe/DF3 plan.

WoW will lose subs. Yea, going for easy points here. I think the WoD bounce will fade, and I’m not sure New Blizzard is capable of really fixing the game to return it to growth.

FFXIV will gain subs. More easy points. With an expansion coming, a solid foundation, and a studio not called SOE or Trion supporting it, I think 2015 will be an even better year than 2014 was for this gem.

EVE will gain subs. Again more ‘in the right direction’ thinking here, although less confident in this predication than I am in FFXIV, especially if Star Citizen launches (it won’t) and isn’t completely horrible.

LoL will continue to sit atop the gaming world. I don’t see Riot slipping in 2015, I don’t see any game challenging its popularity, and the MOBA genre has a long-established history of longevity. The eSport side of the game will also continue to grow and dominate that segment.

CoC isn’t budging either. Similar story to LoL; solid developer, solid foundation, no serious challengers, CoC will finish 2015 as the top mobile game, just like it finished 2014.

Hearthstone will continue as Blizzard’s least-successful title. A weak foundation, core design flaws, and a complete lack of long-term hook will continue to see the title float between unknown mobile titles on the revenue list, while occasionally getting a jump when new cards are released and the whale famewhores dive in, only to drop back down shortly after. Won’t be much of a factor in the 2015 eSports scene either.

ArcheAge will continue to be comically mismanaged by Trion, giving us as least half a dozen “Trion being Trion” moments in 2015.

EQN won’t release. Nor will Landmark move out from under it’s ‘beta’ tag.

The rest of the ‘that’s still online huh’ F2P junk titles like LotRO, SW:TOR, EQ2, etc will float on in who-cares-land. None will be put out of their misery, but none will move up either.

I think game funding via Kickstarter will see an uptick as more Kickstarter-funded games launch and are well received. Pillars of Eternity is the one that has my eye (and money), and the continued positive development of MMOs like Camelot Unchained will show people that the platform, when used correctly, does work.

I honestly don’t see any MMO in 2015 shocking us and restoring faith in the genre. It will be more of the same, with some good (FFXIV), some bad (pick a F2P MMO), and most being meh.


Subtraction by addition

September 3, 2014

One of the lazier strawmen in MMO blogging land is to dismiss the success of an older MMO by stating that fewer people play it today. I’m sure you have read some version of “If UO did so many things right, why aren’t more people playing it today?” on one blog or another. The overall ‘why’ is a pretty complex topic that I won’t fully get into today, but what I do want to talk about is the fact that MMOs can get worse.

Time is one factor. As the months and years go by, a game ages. Visuals that at release looked great might not be so hot anymore. A feature that was special at release might be common in most games a few years later. You don’t have the newest, hottest feature. Etc, etc.

All of the above however doesn’t have to happen in an MMO. You can upgrade your visuals. You can patch in new features. You can introduce whatever the newest technology trend is (super servers for example). Just because WoW today looks like a game from 2005, or EQ2 looks like something from 1999, doesn’t mean that’s just how things go. EVE today looks like a game released in 2014, and its technical backend is still miles ahead of everyone else. UO did an engine update. So did DDO. Plenty of other examples exist. That’s a major selling point of the genre after all; you aren’t just buying a game as-is today, you are buying into a service that will evolve and improve as time goes on.

Yet while the intent of every update is to make an MMO better, not all do so. Of course famous examples like UO’s Trammel, SWG’s NGE, or DoAC’s ToA are well known and deservedly hated, but all MMOs have had some update that has driven someone away. Now most updates are positive, but even if a change brings or retains more people than it drives away, someone somewhere is going to hate that you did X instead of Y.

And sometimes an MMO does just get worse due to updates. How many half-decent MMOs have become complete dreck because of a F2P switch? Remember when LotRO was all about staying true to the lore, or when loading screens weren’t an opportunity to spam with you a cash-shop ad? When EVE forced you into the captains quarters? Etc, etc.

So yes, even if I did love what UO was in 97, that doesn’t mean that the 2014 version with elves, ninjas, and god knows what else is a game I want to play. Due to updates, the passing of time, and a multitude of other factors, in 2014 I’m not playing UO. That doesn’t change the fact that 1997 UO did a lot of things better than MMOs today, including 2014 UO, and that today’s devs could still learn a lot from it, or other once-successful MMOs.

And hopefully, they learn the right lessons, and make the right update, to actually make there MMO better with each update. Seems to be a rare thing these days.


What happened to all those WoW-babies?

August 4, 2014

TAGN, in a post about the closing of Vanguard, brings back a theory that was pretty popular around the 2006(ish) timeframe; mainly that those who played WoW would ‘grow up’ to eventually play a ‘real MMO’. Let’s revisit that theory today.

As I mentioned in the comments section over there, I think a good number of WoW players did ‘grow up’ and went looking for something better/deeper. How many is the impossible question, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that if WoW never happened, the MMO genre wouldn’t be the size it is today, supporting all of the different MMOs we have out. To that extend, WoW did bring in a lot of new players, and those players did ‘grow up’ to look for something else.

The problem today is ‘something else’ is either EVE, meh at best, or minor-league garbage. Now let’s be very clear here; no MMO was ever or will ever be a ‘WoW-killer’, but that is mostly due to the fact that WoW was a pop-culture phenomenon. Yes, prior to WotLK it was also a very good MMO, but it wasn’t 12m+ players good.

The same can be said today about League of Legends, the ‘real’ WoW killer; it’s a very good game, yes, but it’s not 40-60m or however many active accounts Riot has. LoL right now is benefitting from similar pop-culture status that WoW did, though arguable to a lesser extent because ‘vidyagames’ are more common and accepted today than even in 2006, so playing something popular isn’t front-page news-worthy.

I think a similar story can be written about the current massive success of Clash of Clans (the #1 grossing app still). Farmville laid the groundwork, and without doubt some of those players ‘graduated’ to a ‘real game’ in CoC. Because much like WoW and LoL, CoC is a great game, but is its design really “highest-grossing app out for over a year” great? Or did the pop-culture snowball effect kick in at some point and millions upon millions of people started playing because everyone else was, or because TV told them to?

Let’s get back to MMOs, or more accurately, the lack of either a great one or few with proper aspirations. I think the market size for a great MMO ala EVE is around the 500k-2m range. EVE is the king for virtual world design, but even by its own admission is somewhat niche. It might be the perfect version of Excel in Space, but at the end of the day it’s still Excel in Space. But I think a more mass-market, well-done MMO can get and retain around 2m players. Problem is every title that has tried has been horribly flawed and failed. LotRO, WAR, Rift, SW:TOR, ESO (I miss anyone?); all aimed at millions and fell well short, as each just isn’t great (or even good).

Then we had the problem of niche titles not defining their niche correctly. I think (hope) we are somewhat past this as indicated by titles like Pathfinder Online, Shroud of the Avatar, and Camelot Unchained. None of those titles have promised to be a WoW killer, or to be the next big thing. All, from what I have seen, are embracing their niche, and I hope that embracing extends to the business plan and surviving on 50k players or so. The only big whale I see crashing is Star Citizen, and even that has already kinda made its money (which is insane, but a totally different topic).

So yes, the WoW babies grew up. Not all 12m however, which confused not just readers but also the industry as a whole for a number of years. Seems like people are finally figuring it out, and now we just have to wait for the results when the next wave is released.


Turbine finally updates us on the continued success of their F2P conversions

February 13, 2014

Instead of linking to that old PR release about how great LotRO and DDO are doing thanks to F2P, please use this updated link.

F2P ALL THE WAY!


EVE: CCP you are the worst, besides everyone else

February 7, 2014

Jester has, as always, a great post up about the reaction to the real life EVE monument CCP recently unveiled, which as his post shows, has largely been negative. EVE is famous for having lots of bitter vets, and as the only MMO to still be growing after more than a decade, many of those players truly are vets, and truly are bitter.

His post however reminded me how good EVE players have it compared to everyone else. For example take this complaint:

I think this boring and featureless statue symbolize EVE expansions.

EVE receives two free expansions every year, plus point releases between those expansions that do more for the game than what some MMOs call expansions they charge you for. Oh how I wish DF:UW got such ‘boring and featureless’ expansions. Hell, I’d take just one, or even half.

Doom and gloom fills every MMO forum. It’s what players do. The happy ones are playing, the unhappy are posting, regardless if your game is a dumpster like SW:TOR or the blueprint like EVE. That said, EVE players should take a step back once in a while and look around the genre. You really wouldn’t trade CCP for anyone else. Not the interns who gave us space goats and pandas. Not the wing factory of monthly embarrassments and flip-flopping. Not someone who burns $300m on a pillar of trash and sells you hotbars. Not the authors of the manifesto of lies. Not the ad-spam One-Ring sellers. Not the fools in white shades, or the ones to put a bullet in the head of an MMO shortly after release.

Be glad CCP runs EVE. It could be a lot, lot worse.


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