How to look senile (FBW Thursday edition)

November 15, 2012

Former MMO blogger Tobold is having a rough year. First his EVE prediction is set to be confirmed as idiotic in just over a month, the industry has nothing for him to play and banished him back to the tabletop, and ‘soon’ the reality that Darkfall is coming back for round two is once again going to haunt everyone’s favorite thin-skinned, hyper-sensitive whipping boy.

Of course, a track record a mile long of simply being wrong does not stop him from posting. He is very tackle-titan-Gevlon in that regard, though with less blog-editing-after-the-fact. Today’s troll bait, which embarrassingly I’m going to bite on (in part because, as is most often the case over in dream land, the commenters that don’t get filter out beg for my opinion), revolves around keeping/losing subscribers.

Much like predicting EVE shutting down because “financial reports don’t lie”, it seems the old man’s memory has also lead him to forget which MMO he is talking about here. Because I’m pretty sure making a post about losing subscribers over the last three years, with examples such as WAR, AoC, Aion, LotRO, SW:TOR, and WoW itself around, picking the hardcore niche PvP MMO from an indie studio that remained a sub MMO all three years and with an increased staff is launching a sequel ‘soon’ is a poor choice.

But what do I know. I’m pretty terrible at this predictions thing, having been totally wrong about SW:TOR 4th pillar in 2009, GW2 lack of progression dooming it, WoW with WotLK, LotRO selling its soul, Aion being Aion, Rift 3.0, Tobold rage-quitting blogging yearly, etc etc.

So let’s keep his little post in mind 6 months after DF:UW releases (so 2035), so we can all link back to it and write glowing posts about how Tobold was right about something in the MMO genre. First time for everything right?

Or, after said 6 months, we can link back to it much the same way we link back to the EVE prediction, and have a little fun while DF:UW is down for the expansion patch. Assuming, of course, Tobold is not on a rage-quit cycle.

Also how is he still screwing up FBW, posting this on a Thursday?


Bernie Madoff was a great investor. Used the wrong payment model.

November 8, 2012

“I think there will definitely be failures within the next 12 to 24 months. Many who are entering the market right now are doing it as almost a money-grab. But subscription is dead. [Star Wars:] The Old Republic was the biggest possible swing for the fences. There is no longer any argument over whether that can be done.” – Craig Zinkievich, COO of Cryptic Studios

Do you think Craig said/wrote the above with a straight face? And if so, do you think he really believes it? It would take a pretty epic level of stupid, but then this is someone from Crypic, so I’m kinda 50/50 on it.

On the other hand, Craig is right. The ‘argument’ that sub games can be done is indeed over, mostly because it was never an argument to begin with. Pretending WoW, EVE, Rift, etc don’t exist must be nice, but probably not helpful in terms of sanity. Maybe Craig will also consider the argument over once EA shuts SW:TOR down for good. Time for a new ‘6 months’ meme I guess.

“I suspect that if you’d launched Fallout 3 as a free-to-play title rather than paying $60 for the disc it would have had equal or greater success.” – Someone working on games not as successful as Fallout 3.

“Riot Games’ Brandon Beck sees the matter differently. As a co-founder of the company that created League of Legends, Beck is at the top of the West’s biggest free-to-play success story, and perhaps the most compelling example of a free game that rivals the experience of the very best $60 AAA products. However, he stops short of proclaiming a free-to-play Uncharted as inevitable – it’s an easy thing to say, but actually making it work would be a daunting challenge, with higher upfront costs than the typical free-to-play game.”

Great stuff right? The failures in the pack telling the ones who are successful how to do their job. How about instead of making F2P ‘awesome’ games like Star Trek or Champions Online, you make outdated and ‘dead’ model games like Fallout, Skyrim, or Grand Theft Auto? Maybe then you won’t get bought out?

This really hammers home a major problem in the industry today; devs think their shitty game doing poorly is not because they made a shitty game, but because ‘market conditions’ ‘payment model’ ‘timing’ ‘toothfairy’ etc. Try making a good game. I’m pretty sure more than enough people will drop $60 for it. Or if you want, try making a good game that is worth playing longer than a month, and I’m sure people will be willing to pay the measly sum of $15 a month to do it.

Or yea, keep making SW:TOR, Star Trek, Champions, WAR, LotRO, DDO, etc, and keep thinking it’s not the game sucking that’s the problem. The magic future where people pay for crap is coming.

Update: Magic future already came? Zynga made a lot of money selling trash games? Magic future is over now? Zynga is worth a buck? Damn.

So close Craig, so close.


Save the F2P children

October 25, 2012

I think I’m slowly transitioning from hating F2P players to feeling sorry for them, somewhat similar to my changing views of WoW and its players. When WoW really mattered and every dev team was trying to clone it, I felt a serious distaste for WoW post-WotLK and the players supporting it. As WoW has faded not only in success but influence, things like MoP earn more of a sad headshake than any real scorn. F2P is rapidly approaching panda-time for me.

There are of course the clueless ramblings of former MMO bloggers, still worrying about bandwidth costs like its 1999, trying to convince anyone who will listen about the evils of players who actually enjoy playing MMOs for more than a few minutes a week (those same evil players who drive most of the player content in games, like your guild leader, mod maker, video people, etc, but yea, evil), and trying to justify their outdated and dying existence in a genre that either offers them farms or famine (rimshot). That group has, for some time now, been in the MoP-like sentiment category. It’s like visiting your aging grandma and just going along with how wonderful basic cable TV is in variety; knowing that explaining Netflix would only confuse her.

Others, however, I still feel for. Here we have an entire post devoted not to the quality of content, or upcoming additions, or anything even remotely player-driven, but worrying about the nickel-and-dime rate of an ‘update’ to F2P. Trying to justify how selling HOTBARS is maybe OK because… um… you can also buy a cute dress or pet? Or wondering if they play a game with feature X and Y blocked will still be OK enough to bother logging in. You can’t help but feel bad. These are not the things you should be thinking about.

Compare Rift-related posts of late to SW:TOR posts of late and the picture should become crystal clear.

The worst part of it all is the actual cost we are talking about here. People really are considering the value of having additional hotbars for a few bucks over paying the cost of going to lunch once a month. Playing an inferior version of something for 20, 30, 40 hours A MONTH to save $15 bucks is beyond insane. And god help you if you actually really like the game, because now for a lesser product you will be paying MORE than $15 a month to get access to everything. The true ‘sweet spot’ is liking something enough to bother loading it up, but not liking it enough to really care more than that. F2P MMOs are like justifying gaming purgatory, and it’s amazing and yet sad to watch people continue to try.

Aim a little higher people, find a game you actually like, so you can justify that mountain of $15 a month. Or yea, try to convince yourself that a limited inventory or just two hotbars is ‘good enough’.


Rift: Storm Legion – Who put this sand in here?

October 22, 2012

James, a community manager from Trion recently reached out to me and asked if I’d be interesting in taking Rift’s upcoming expansion Storm Legion for a guided tour. While I’m not currently playing Rift, and my reasons why are well documented here, I still have a lot of respect for Trion as a company and Rift as a themepark, so I took James up on his offer and last Friday he joined Inq’s vent and set me up with a beta account and character.

I went into this with two goals; the first was to see if anything in Storm Legion was more than just “more themepark”, and the second was to ask some general MMO questions and see what info I could get out of James. I’d say I was successful in both.

As for Storm Legion itself, the feature that stood out to me most was the housing system, because just from the glimpse I saw, I can safely say this is how themepark housing should be done. The design issue with instanced housing has always been the ‘why’. Why would you want/need to zone into your own area? Many themeparks give small incentives like crafting bonuses, or rely purely on Barbie dress up to sell the feature, turning what should be a core feature for everyone into a niche space for fantasy fashion designers and interior decorators.

Rift lets you do that as well, but also allows you to set your space to public, so that anyone can zone into it. On top of this, they also have a simple +1 rating system, and you can sort public housing zones by rating. In the beta, the house with the highest rating was from a player who clearly put in a lot of time with the new system, and had created something pretty unique (he took the base house and added a second level through creative use of stone and wooden planks, among other creative uses of basic materials). As I was being shown this area, he was actually in-game and designing a lawn statue, which was actually a pretty cool moment.

And if that was all that housing offered, it would be a nice step forward. But in a rare turn down sandbox lane, Trion lets you basically place items anywhere you want, up to the skycap. So our next stop on the tour was a ‘housing’ area that some player had converted into a giant jumping puzzle ala GW2. As James was explaining this, I watched dozens of players attempt this guy’s puzzle, which again was a pretty cool moment in “hey, people are actually going to use this feature”. I can only imagine as players have more time, they will create better and more creative stuff here, far beyond just fantasy houses you visit once. (The feature needs some additions, like the ability to create a loot chest, or to display armor, but James noted that what they have here now is just the first step, and expanding the feature will be an ongoing focus)

Housing aside, the other ‘feature’ that stood out to me was the overall size of the new zones; they are huge and more Rift-like than many of the games original zones. Also good to see is that the expansion is aligning to have the death rifts fighting the air rifts, a point of focus I thought the original game greatly lacked after rifts were overall nerfed at the end of beta. I’m not sure if this expansion is going to push the zones into complete three-way battles (death vs air vs players), but it should at least be closer to that.

I also saw the new raid that will be ready at release, as well as the first raid to be added post-release. They both looked interesting visually, and certainly captured that epic feeling in terms of mob and room size. Getting one-shot by different bosses and then having James one-shot them with GM powers was also pretty cool.

Since this was beta, we did run into a few issues, mostly around bosses showing up. But considering we were teleporting around so often and using GM powers to kill stuff, I’m not too worried. Even at its original release, Rift was a polished product, and Trion has always been quick with the fixes and updates. That there is no NDA around anything I saw or talked about with James, including the raid that is very clearly still in development should tell you a lot about how confident Trion is in their ability to deliver a solid product.

Moving away from the expansion itself and to more general topics about Trion and the MMO genre itself, I talked with James about Rift staying a subscription MMO when so many others are forced into F2P. He noted that Rift has always been profitable for Trion, and that they have a good balance between players who subscribe long-term and those who come back for a month or so to see an update. As the updates are frequent and substantial, it’s no surprise that the flow of returning players is as well.

Another major competitive advantage Trion has with Rift is that everything around the game was built to allow for rapid content development, something that is pretty obvious when you look at all the updates Trion has released since day one. The size and depth of Storm Legion also drives this home.

It sounds like a pretty obvious thing (being able to provide update to a game who’s business model is based around updates), but take a quick look around the themepark space and compare Trion’s release pace with its main competitors. The biggest design flaw around the themepark space vs sandbox titles has always been content creation being slower than consumption, and Trion has set themselves up well to minimize, if not outright counter this.

If themeparks are your thing, I’d say the way Trion handles Rift is how you’d want your themepark handled, and I’m actually curious to see just what players eventually do with the housing system. I think Rift players and general themepark fans will be very happy with Storm Legion, and the general direction Rift is moving in.


The long list of mass market MMOs that everyone is playing

October 2, 2012

So if you did not pick up on the fact that yesterday’s post was a long-winded setup to tell you that EVE is the best MMO ever, you are either new here or not paying attention. Also if you are someone who likes to dismiss EVE because it’s a niche MMO in a genre full of mass-market MMOs, this should prove educational.

Let’s cover the niche part first though, since it’s pretty easy. WoW is an outlier with millions of subs, so I’m going to put it aside for now. Yes, EVE is niche compared to WoW, but based on that logic GW2 selling 2m boxes is also niche because 12m subs > 2m boxes. Same goes for SW:TOR, LotRO (who had a lovely “come play with millions of others” ad campaign pre-release. How’s that working out for ya?), or… actually any MMO not called WoW in the NA/EU (silly Asia).

So WoW aside, how do the 400k subs (I know I know, it’s just one guy with 400k accounts, and he buys PLEX in-game so even he is not paying anything, but let’s pretend for a moment that somehow magically those 400k subs still somehow count as 400k x $15 per month for the sake of CCP’s revenue) stack up to everyone else? Well no one has 1m subs, so now we are talking thousands rather than millions.

A whole slew of ‘mass market’ MMOs are now F2P because not enough people found them worth $15 a month. SW:TOR, which will soon join the F2P fail-ranks because it could not keep its 500k or bust target, cost more money than any MMO before it, and EAWare famously stated that if you are not spending $300m, you can’t compete with WoW. I guess if you DO spend $300m+, you can’t compete with EVE either. In fairness to EAWare EVE probably cost somewhere close to 300m to develop as well. Well 300m Yen anyway.

GW2 just launched and rewrote the whole MMO formula, including that nagging issue of having to pay to keep playing, because really, who likes paying when you can get the exact same thing for free? Not surprisingly GW2 sold fewer copies than Skyrim though, another “buy the box and play forever” fantasy title. To be fair, Skyrim is in the more mass-market sandbox genre, while GW2 has to carry the heavy burden of being a themepark. Also the NPCs in Skyrim are more helpful and less likely to go poof after a month, and the dynamic events don’t repeat as often. Both games do feature loot piñata dragons, meh combat, and nice visuals. I’ll be kind and not compare the main storylines.

Rift is still a sub-based MMO, and it’s a mass-market themepark. It has fewer subs than ‘niche’ EVE if various data sources are to be believed, and somehow if Trion retained half a mil subs I think we’d here about it. Plus get back to me when Rift has 400k subs at its ten year anniversary. Hey only about 8 years to go, but to be fair when EVE launched it had way fewer subs too, so maybe Rift will grow much like EVE has. Maybe. That said, out of the last few years, Rift is the only major MMO to actually stay a sub-based MMO for a year+, so it would not be totally unreasonable to call it the most successful launch since… WoW?

So I ask, what ‘mass-market’ MMO are people talking about when stating EVE’s 400k subs is ‘niche’? I thought we got over the whole “WoW or bust” thing in 2007? Or are people really still thinking the ‘MMO market’ is 12m strong, and surely the NEXT title is going to hit that mark? Because if you do I’m sure EAWare has a spot for you on the team! Or maybe Funcom. Or Mythic. Wait is Mythic still a thing? No, why, what happened? Didn’t they have that huge surefire IP and mass-market MMO that was going to crush WoW? (I hate you whiteshades.)

And once you realize that 400k subs is not niche, but near the top of the not-WoW market, you can reasonably set expectations for design and market size if you are actually aiming to design a game that is intended to be played beyond the first month. You know, an MMO. Or what the old folks called an MMO before Anet came along and ‘fixed’ it for all of us.

Furthermore, if you can’t make $18m in yearly revenue work for you and your dev team (100k subs for a year, and assuming zero box sale money), you are doing it wrong. Probably to the tune of $300m wrong that leads the head doctors to call it quits because people pointed out that you delivered $300m worth of garbage while helping to shut down a game people loved (which may or may not have had more players than SW:TOR currently has actually playing).

But seriously, $18m a year is not peanuts, and I don’t think retaining 100k people for a year is asking for the moon. Hell, maybe would call that hyper-niche and laugh while they go back to their 1m+ subs MMO not called WoW, so it must be easy! And look, if EQ1 got 500k people back when you had to use a rotary dial to login, I’m pretty sure a team of devs can make something today to get 100k. Or 50k and try to survive off $9m in revenue. The horror.

Or you know, keep pumping out those ‘mass market’ MMOs all the kids are talking about. The ones just crushing it in terms of numbers like… WoW. Release in 2004.

Yea, those!


Pick a group, design for it, don’t get greedy

September 28, 2012

When I see people write that no MMO can hope to retain people beyond 3 months now, like they did back in the big 3 days, I can only shake my head, laugh, and think about my recent two years with Darkfall, my almost three with EVE, and the infinite amount of time I’m about to spend with MMO baby jesus DF:UW.

Snark aside, the reality is that most MMOs after 2004 are designed, either intentionally (GW2) or not (SW:TOR), to be short. The first time I heard EAWare mention the 4th pillar is the first time I said SW:TOR is going to fail (look it up kids). That one single design decision is all I needed to know about the game, because NOTHING could have saved SW:TOR from being a short-burst game after the 4th pillar was announced. (Short of going in the total opposite direction after the story end. Gee I wonder what EAWare is focusing on of late?)

Consider these two stark contrasts. In GW2 you have access to EVERYTHING your character can do combat-wise at level 30, which lets be really kind and say takes 30 days to reach. In EVE, you won’t be able to sit (forget flying well) in one of the biggest ships (Titan) in the first 177 days, assuming you do NOTHING but straight train towards that (and completely ignoring how you would actually acquire one).

The question at hand is not which method you would prefer, or which one is more ‘fun’. The question is simply this: out of the two options above, which one sounds like it’s designed for a game that the devs expect you to play long-term, and which one is designed to be played in a short burst?

Of course for the 177 day training to be found worthwhile, everything else around it must also work to some extent, and in EVE it does. I’m by no means saying that long-term retention is as simple as extending the ‘grind’ and calling it a day. As I’ve said thousands of times now, long-term retention design is HARD. Really, really hard. But hard does not mean impossible, and under the right conditions, long-term retention done well can yield WoW (12m subs). Most likely it yields EVE (400k subs). Maybe if you really go niche it yields Darkfall (100b subs). So long as you properly identify your market size and deliver something for it, you can be successful on a variety of levels. Not everyone (anyone?) can be WoW, and that’s ok.

And it’s important to remember that much of the current MMO population is not interested in long-term retention. Whether someone outright states they don’t want to play something longer than a month, or has a playstyle that reflects it (solo), these people are not looking for the same thing people interested in living in a virtual world are. They might drop in and visit (tourists), but regardless of the design, you just can’t retain them. (WoW is the MMO first-love for many, which is why it draws them back time and time again. It’s another perfect-storm situation that can’t be repeated. It’s also dying and something like 5 people bought into Panda-time and 3 of them have already quit, so whatever).

The mistake so many devs have made is believing that they CAN retain them, if only they tweak the design and add more solo PvE content to a PvP game (WAR), or put in a 20 level pre-game to the core game (AoC), or spend a billion dollars on one-off voice acting (SW:TOR). These design decisions sacrifice the long-term for a quick burst, and the expected result happens; you get your short burst at the expense of your long-term. It’s why MMO release after MMO release looks exactly the same, and why it has convinced some that that’s just how things are today.

The reason I cheer for games like SW:TOR to fail is because, hopefully at some point, developers will wake up and realize you can’t attract the millions of short-burst players AND retain them by trying to design for both.

If you want to make a short-burst MMO like GW2, go for it. Sell the box and don’t expect more after, have a business plan that supports that expectation, and make the best one-months-worth of content you possibly can. If you do it right you will sell a whole lot of boxes and people will move on happily a month later. Just don’t do PR where you proclaim to have ‘fixed’ the MMO genre and all will be good.

And if you want to get $15 a month from a few hundred thousand people, please design accordingly as well. That group has shown a willingness to deal with valleys if the peaks are worthwhile, but they better have something to do in six months, and that something better not be the exact same thing just reskinned from the first month. Plan your business model accordingly, figure out a way to handle the tourists initially, and don’t get fooled into thinking you have something bigger than you actually do. Long-term retention MMOs are a niche. It’s a pretty sizable niche, and $15 a month for 6 months is more than $60 once, but yea, it’s hard to get right.

As players, we have to be honest with ourselves. You can’t expect the highs of long-term moments to fit into your ultra-casual schedule. The peaks and valleys will be more muted because in the MMO genre, you get what you put in. That said, it’s not nearly as hard to be part of something big as some make it out to be. World-first raiding and the time/dedication it requires is not the only way to get a huge high from an MMO. Just being a regular member of a guild doing something big/cool might be enough.

Of course, that guild can’t do something really cool if everyone moves to the next game in a month, but that’s the tradeoff you accept when deciding between the two styles.


Splitting the genre in two

September 27, 2012

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!


This post is about one MMO

June 5, 2012

Why is Wargaming.net still calling its MOBA titles MMOs? Especially now that MOBA titles are a bigger genre than MMOs. Someone pass them the memo already.

SW:TOR getting a limited free trial is somewhat of a non-factor (although does this mean it’s no longer free on weekends?), but giving away the content I’m sure EA planned to sell as an expansion? That’s another. I’ll say this about SW, it’s dying in very entertaining fashion.

The upcoming Rift expansion is exactly what one would expect out of Rift, more of the exact same. I think a few readers here are confused about my current opinion about Rift, so let me try and explain it. I hate Rift as a game. The content that was around when I left was soulless (get it), dumbed down, and just not what I wanted out of an MMO. What was an interesting evolution of the themepark model in beta ended up being a 2011 version of current themepark design at launch.

That said, I love Rift as a model. Trion puts out content as fast as a themepark should, and they don’t pretend to be something they are not; they know they are delivering generic themepark MMO content, and they are focused on just that. I wish more MMOs did that in their respective areas (not to be confused with wishing that more MMOs went hyper-generic).


My favorite genre is coming back!

May 30, 2012

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.


The more things change…

March 1, 2012

In a sign of the apocalypse, Keen is playing Darkfall again (100% joking, everyone should be playing Darkfall (unless they are playing EVE)), which brings about the old “I’m playing Darkfall until the minute something better comes along” comment we often hear. Darkfall sucks, but it sucks the least amongst fantasy sandbox games (insert Democracy quote here).

Now one could say this is because no one has really bothered to make a quality fantasy sandbox, and so Darkfall is only alive (for three years…) until someone bothers. Sure Mortal Online and Xyson have come out (do we count Fallen Earth here? No, ok), Wurm and ATitD are still out, but shhh. The moment someone bothers DF is dead!

Another popular comment to make here is that fantasy sandbox MMOs are niche and not an area worth pursuing. Yup, only Sci-Fi Excel sandbox MMOs can get 400k subs after 8 years (most successful MMO not called WoW, no big deal), and a fantasy equivalent has no chance. Niche yo. The big money is in themeparks, as clearly demonstrated by… well that one game use to make a lot of money! Ignore that all the other AAA themeparks to come out after are now in the F2P minors selling you the One Ring or wings. They ships (and maybe sold) a million boxes, and only cost about 10 or 1000 times the cost of DF/EVE to make. Success like you read about (in the PR release, telling you that a day after going F2P, F2P-based sales are up 100%. No wai! Still waiting on the follow-up PR release telling me how growth has continued…)

Of course maybe, just maybe, the reason Darkfall is still online, a sub game, with its original servers still up (all two), is because it’s good at what it does, and that what it does is not nearly as easy to get right as people think? Naw, that can’t be it, right? That maybe the fundamental ideas behind the game, ones Aventurine copy/pasted from UO rather than EQ (if you want to do the whole ‘EQ was the original themepark’ thing), work a bit better at this whole “MMO retention” thing the sub model and the genre was built on? Crazy talk.

When I wrote that the genre is finally emerging from the dark ages, part of that is the ability for developers, those talented and those working for EA or SOE, to finally be given the chance to produce something that is not DoA. Post-WotLK WoW is trash, and no matter how talented the dev team, being tasked to copy trash is still going to result in trash. It might have a cool soul system attached, it might have a great fantasy IP, or it might be fully voiced, but at the end of the day you built off of trash, and no amount of good ideas or tweaks is going to change that foundation.

And so now, finally, after 7 or so years of repeating the same mistake and seeing the genre come to a grinding halt in terms of innovation (CCP aside, of course), we are starting to see signs that real MMOs might start getting made again. Be they in the indy space (Pathfinder) or the ‘AAA’ space (GW2), finally the core is not being built on the solo-hero trashheap that everyone was convinced worked so well if you only did X or spent Y.

So hopefully in 2012 or 2013, we do see a game or three that comes out and is that “better than DF” MMO. Maybe then AV won’t have the luxury of not updating the game for A YEAR! Maybe finally as much effort/resources will be put into refining that formula rather than racing to the bottom of the ‘accessible’ failheap, and we end up deciding which MMO to play on merit rather than buying a box and praying the content lasts until the next one ships.

It’s happened before, after all, but not many were paying attention (or had internet) back then.


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