What is success or failure in the MMO genre?

February 23, 2015

The words success and failure are tossed around often when talking about MMOs on blogs, especially here. And usually, someone will ask for a definition of success/failure, so here goes. Note that this ONLY applies to MMOs, not games in general.

To me there are three general categories of success for an MMO, which I’ll call ‘suits’, ‘devs’, and ‘players’.

Suit success is simple; did the investors or company behind the MMO make money? Was a profit turned? And was that profit a good return-on-investment? The tricky part of suit success is we generally can’t say if something was a success or failure unless it’s an extreme. WoW is a success, The Sims Online was a failure. But almost everything else is some shade of gray. For instance, SW:TOR likely hasn’t made back its original cost + ongoing expenses, and EA generally trying to distance themselves from the title on earnings calls is telling, but we can’t definitively prove SW:TOR is a failure, only make an educated guess based on what we know. Another odd example is Warhammer Online. The game is shut down, but (at least according to Mark Jacobs, who at this point I don’t think has anything to gain by lying) WAR was profitable overall. To a suit, WAR was a success.

Dev success is defined by whether or not the devs still have a job working on said MMO, and the rate of content being generated. This is a bit of a sliding scale metric. A game like LotRO has lost most of its devs, but it still has a skeleton crew updating the cash shop, so while not a ‘it’s shut down, everyone is fired’ failure, LotRO is heavily towards that end. WoW or EVE have kept their teams employed for over a decade, with steady and consistent content, so obvious success. This metric is important because unlike other genres, an MMO is only getting started at release, and ideally should be going strong for years, so keeping the core team around, interested, and paid is critical. Layoffs are a clear indicator of failure here, as are cutbacks in content delivery (no more expansions, patches being rolled out slower, etc).

Finally we have player success, which can roughly be identified by “are people playing?” and “are people playing the MMO they expected to play?”. The first one is easy, if your MMO is gaining players, that is success. If it’s losing players, that is failure. If an MMO has achieved a stable, supportable level of players, that is also success. Growth is always nice, but if you set out to build a niche MMO, and you hit and retain your niche such that the dev team is paid and providing updates, that is indeed success.

The second part of player success is more interesting IMO. An MMO changing drastically (UO Trammel, SWG NGE, sub->F2P switch) is almost never good for the players who bought into the original version, so for all of those players said MMO is a failure, even if a second group comes in and enjoys the newer offering. This can also apply to pre-release hype (GW2 manifesto) vs post-release reality (GW2 itself); while what was ultimately delivered may work for some, failing to meet the expectations you set is to some degree failure.

A fourth factor, or perhaps wildcard, is time. How long is it fair to judge an MMO? For instance, EQ1 was a huge success all around in the first few years of its existence, while isn’t by some metrics (player retention, original ‘vision’) anymore. Is it reasonable to say EQ1 is a failure? That sounds a bit crazy, but why can’t all MMOs be judged related to WoW and EVE, two titles that remain successful by all measures, and are as relevant today (if not far more so) than they were at release? If you loved EQ1 back in the day, would you not still love it today if it had been properly updated and kept relevant? Isn’t that a core feature of the genre; constant updates? “Getting old” shouldn’t be something that happens to successful MMOs, should it? And if indeed ‘getting old’ is acceptable, then after how long? A year, 5, 10? If a game is awesome for everyone who plays it for three months, and then everyone leaves, is that three months of awesomeness enough to call that MMO a success by player standards?

Ultimately what I hopefully have gotten across with this post is that when the words success or failure are used around an MMO, it’s usually more of a personal opinion or partial view than a definitive and unquestionable fact. Very few MMOs are all-around successful, while very few are also outright failures.

But it’s also horribly boring to always write in shades of gray, or have to pre-empt everything with “I don’t like this, but others do, so that’s cool too”. So with all of that said, SW:TOR blows, LotRO is a failure, WoW ‘accessibility’ was a horrible mistake (ok, that is a fact) and EVE is the greatest MMO eva!

FFXIV: People are nice due to design

February 19, 2015

I haven’t done an update post about FFXIV since our return, in part because I wasn’t sure what to write beyond “Playing FFXIV again, still the best themepark out, still has that WoW-vanilla-but-in-2015 feel”, but this post from Loire is a good jump-off point. Go give it a read, including the comments section.

The answer to why FFXIV has such a great community (and it absolutely does) is a large mix of factors, but I do believe the most important or dominant factor is the slower combat; WoW-kiddies and others with that mentality get turned off by it, which helps to filter them out of the game. Related to the slower combat is the need to spend mana or other such resources carefully (ala vanilla WoW) rather than just having basically an unlimited pool like in current-day WoW (so I’ve heard), so having to actually think (not being ‘accessible’) during combat is too much of a barrier for some.

Another large factor is the focus that FFXIV has. It’s not a ‘be all to everyone’ MMO. It owns the fact that it’s a PvE themepark. That’s what the game does, and each update is focused on making that aspect better rather than ‘expanding’ the game in random directions (PvP, unrelated mini-games, side-show mobile-like stuff). This again is important because it not only filters out everyone not interested in being part of a PvE themepark, but it also retains those who do want that, which is just as important. Having a solid core of veteran players is critical for an MMO, and you can’t achieve that core if your MMO only lasts for a month or two per content cycle.

In addition to those two, there are a large number of smaller but also important design decisions to keep the game worldly and active. In FFXIV you don’t progress through zones as much as in other games; you often have a lot of reasons to return to a zone, which in turn means lots of zones feel ‘alive’ with activity, rather than being consumed by a locust swarm of players before being abandoned and forgotten.

Having one character that can switch quickly into an ‘alt’ class is huge as well for all of this, in addition to keeping you online with your one identifiable character that draws you into more social opportunities. That both crafting and gathering is done as a class with its own level and gear, rather than just a skill bar that goes up, further drives this design angle home.

FFXIV being a massive success is also great news for the genre, because the game is yet another example that if you make a quality MMO that has a focus and sticks to that focus, you can attract and retain a large audience. You don’t need to dumb down or make things ‘accessibly’ to draw in millions, and if you continue to deliver quality updates, you continue to justify charging a sub for that content. In many ways, FFXIV is a reminder of how the genre works when you are able to make a quality product, rather than an average-or-worst product that then relies on its business model to separate fools from their money for as long as the smoke show can be maintained.

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).

Living virtual worlds; Now technically possible yet still not here

January 5, 2015

One of the fun things about the world in Farcry 4 is that events don’t feel as fake as they do in MMOs. For instance, when PQs were first introduced in Warhammer, they were new and fun. By the time Guild Wars 2 used the idea, it felt tired, old, and fake (especially when compared to that disaster of a manifesto). The events being marked on your map, the by-the-numbers repetition, and the odd insistency that these ‘random’ events need to be heavily scripted all leads to them being far short of what they should be.

To return to the Farcry example, seemingly at random Karma events will happen, whether it’s a fight between the two factions, a supply truck that you need to steal/destroy, or a messenger speeding on an ATM you can intercept. These aren’t major pieces of content, and if you want you can fully ignore them, but they also don’t feel as staged or as forced as the MMO examples above.

For instance, chasing down a supply truck can be lengthy if you have bad aim, and during that chase you might run into other Karma events or just a random enemy patrol, who will join in the fight and start shooting/chasing you. Or maybe the truck will drive towards randomly spawned allies, and they in turn will shoot and possibly kill the driver, or get into a fight with whatever enemies might also be chasing you. The major highlight is that these things aren’t scripted, so sometimes the Karma event is short and easy, and other times turns into a bigger deal, and those aspects are somewhat player-controlled (first shot killing the driver basically stops the event, while again bad shooting/chasing can seriously extend and snowball it).

All of this could still be taken further, especially in an MMO. While the Karma events are fun, imagine if those supply trucks didn’t spawn at random but instead because a faction actually needed supplies moved from a real point A to a real point B? If a messenger wasn’t random but not only had a reason to go someplace, but his actual message was real as well? If outposts traded hands to really push a war in one direction or another, rather than just falling because the story said it should fall now?

Way back at the start of the MMO genre, Ultima Online tried something like this with its living ecosystem. It never made it out of beta because the players killed everything, the chains fell apart, and it just didn’t work in terms of a fun, playable game. In terms of lost potential, I’d rank UO’s abandoned living ecosystem as one of, if not the greatest, losses to the genre (which should also tell you how sad and devoid of advancement the genre has been when its first big title is also one of the most innovative). But that was in 1997; its 2015 now, and we certainly have the technology and hardware to make what was impossible in 1997 very doable.

I also don’t believe what UO tried to do is actually impossible from a player-behavior perspective. Yes, in a game where killing stuff is needed to gain skills and loot, with zero clear negatives for such killing, people are going to kill stuff. But look at Skyrim for example; does everyone kill every NPC? No, because the game rules suggest (but don’t outright prevent) that you don’t do that, and so unless you are playing a very certain style (which has its own challenges, ie guard agro), you don’t. An MMO could be designed in a similar way, leading to a more living, working virtual world. If you discourage but also account for the outliers, and create a system that not only handles them, but actively supports them, it can work.

That nothing on the horizon is even attempting to do so is disappointing, but disappointment has been the hot MMO trend for at least the last few years, now hasn’t it?

Modern MMO design creates new barriers for grouping

December 16, 2014

Keen is talking about why people choose to solo instead of group, and all of his points are spot-on. Some are design mistakes (solo being more efficient/rewarding than grouping), others are social (people are mean), and for some the time needed for group content just doesn’t fit into their gaming time often enough to bother. I think all of this is true, and an area where MMO design has to evolve, but not devolve into sRPG games with global chat.

One thing an MMO needs to do is encourage grouping naturally. If I’m out in the world killing stuff, another player coming along should always be a bonus. This not only means that you form groups with random players and potentially make new friends, but it also means that when a guild mate logs on and joins you, that’s always a good thing.

Far too many MMOs today fail with the above. Back in the day quests were simple, one-off “kill a bunch of X” tasks. This simplicity meant that “I’m questing” didn’t instantly result in “I’m playing solo, you aren’t on that chain”. So yes, we got fancier, more involved sRPG-style questing with phasing and whatnot, but we lost the social aspects that got us interested in an MMO in the first place.

A lot of times you don’t even need official questing IMO; just give me a natural reason to kill a bunch of mobs (wealth progression), make killing them better/faster with more people, and allow me to determine how many people I want to bring and how long we want to keep killing. Again modern MMOs over-focus on holding your hand and always making sure you have a directed list of tasks, and all of that creates major barriers to playing with others, which is insane to think about in the MMO genre.

That said, it’s also important to acknowledge that times HAVE changed. People have more choices now, and not only that, but it feels like most people play more games at the same time than in days past. If we want to go way back, I remember having to play every Sega Genesis game to death because I only got one every few months, where now I can pay a few bucks and get half a dozen in a Humble Bundle. Factor in F2P titles, Steam sales, mobile gaming, and everything else, and suddenly expecting the average player to sit down and hammer away at your MMO for 3-5 hour blocks 3-5 times per week is simply asking too much. Even those of us who have that much gaming time aren’t likely to dedicate it to just one game for long periods of time.

Just because someone only has an hour to play, shouldn’t mean they can’t spend that hour in a group doing something fun in an MMO. Developers need to look at all of the barrier they have created of late and ask if it’s all worthwhile. Is everyone playing an sRPG really better for your game, or would enabling players to form social hooks in your title keep people playing/paying longer/more?

Burnout is a myth

November 25, 2014

When WoW was declining due to one crappy expansion after another featuring accessibility-inspired dumbing down, some people tried to write this off as not being about the content, but just due to ‘burnout’. They would have you believe that after 1, 2, or 4 years, people were just getting burned out on WoW and that’s why sub numbers were declining. The counter point the entire time was EVE, but now you can toss WoW itself into the mix.

Related is this recent info about Payday 2. The highest activity in the game, which is now more than a year old, just occurred this October. Perhaps FPS gamers are just immune to burnout? Or maybe its because the content that is constantly added to Payday 2 is fantastic. Deathwish difficulty raised the bar and gave even the most experienced players a real challenge (or for most people, an unreachable/impossible tier, which sounds vaguely familiar to something else…), the mix of paid DLC and free updates have been solid and steady, and the game today doesn’t just have more ‘stuff’, but it has more stuff that fits and actually expanded all of the original content, rather than replace it (now where have I heard about that approach working long-term…).

LoL (4 years+, peak numbers), CoC (2 years+, top grossing app today (oddly Hearthstone didn’t show up in the top 150 for either downloads or revenue, wonder why)), DoTA2 (crazy growth this year), etc etc etc. I think you get the point.

If a game is great and keeping being great, while giving you more of that greatness, you don’t get burned out. If a game stagnates, or especially if it gets worse (hi Trion), people leave because of that, not burnout.

I’ve officially quit WoW again

November 12, 2014

Title of the post is just to continue things for folks who apparently only read titles and go directly to comment.

There was a lot of nostalgia when my old raiding character, an orc warrior in full T2 wielding the original Quel-Serrar, first loaded in near the bank in Ogrimmar. That nostalgia was pushed further when, about 5 minutes in, I had a few people whisper me about my gear. Some things never change.

Looking over his bank content was like viewing a trophy room of past accomplishments. Items from MC, BWL, AQ40, Nax40, PvP tiers, and others. In his bags I still had the server-first Spinal Reaper that I crafted, though sadly it no longer has the text of who crafted it (thanks Blizzard). I got a chuckle out of all the flasks in his inventory, and the two full bank bags of gems and other crafting materials. Even little Diablo, the original collector box pet, came out to say hello.

Nostalgia aside however, WoW does nothing for me at this point. The game looks beyond dated now, with the graphics long since having move from ‘stylized’ to just plain ugly. In 2014 EVE looks like a 2014 game. In 2014 WoW looks like a 2004 game. Then there was everyone else around me; the dozen or so ridiculous mounts that would make the most asian of MMOs blush, the drab yet at the same time silly looking gear, the stupid-even-by-WoW-standards pets. While even in vanilla WoW had some ‘immersion breaking’ stuff, today it’s just full-on clowncar nonsense.

The UI is also something that looks like it has a few (dozen) too many mods going for it. Just stuff all over the place, which I’m sure once you get use to makes sense, but is EVE-level of shocking when first glanced at. I’m almost tempted to get my wife to give returning a shot, only to see how she would react to the UI, especially as we are playing FFXIV (which, now more so than ever, I fully believe is just a better version of what made WoW great in 2004, brought up to 2014 standards)

And so SynCaine the orc warrior went back into retirement in the same spot he did so many years ago. The world around him has changed, but he won’t be tarnished by it.


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