MMOs being niche, the non-issue?

What hasn’t been conquered, still, is making alternate worlds accessible enough to broad audiences.

Raph Koster over at his blog.

I’d ask if this is really a problem that needs solving. I think this is one of the unfortunate side effects of WoW having 12m or whatever subs and MMOs being a ‘hot item’ (though this has cooled down recently, and will likely be completely over a few months after SW:TOR is released); where future MMOs look to hit the ‘mass market’, yet still deliver something resembling an actual MMO, or more precisely, a virtual world. As I see it, the very core ideas behind a virtual world only appeal to a relatively small niche due to all the factors that go into playing in one (time commitment being the biggest issue), and the only real way to broaden that appeal is to reduce those core values, which, at some point, we are no longer talking about an MMO.

Now behind every game is a company and that company needs to make money, which it will only do if it gets enough customers. We all get that. But it’s really only because of WoW that the expectation for many is millions rather than low 100s of thousands, and more than a few examples exist of 100k sub games raking in the dough, whether Take Two knows it or not. Sure, it would be great to be WoW, just like it would be great to be Google, but does every startup set out with “Google or bust” as their opening statement? Because post-WoW, that’s EXACTLY what has been going on in the MMO genre, and, well, the results are not pretty.

Let’s go back to the beginning, where the only major MMOs out were Ultima Online, EverQuest 1, and Asheron’s Call. Was anyone at Turbine losing sleep because AC1 only had 200k (or so) subs compared to EQ1s 500k (or so)? I’m betting not. Actually, I’m betting everyone over at Turbine was thrilled just to have as big a hit as AC1 was. Now, EQ1 was the ‘winner’ of that time, and made SOE boatloads of cash, but even if EQ1 had ONLY hit 200k subs, guess what? SOE would STILL have made money, and the game would have gone on in much the same way as it did. The added success was nice, no doubt, but I’d be willing to bet no one over at Verant (EQ1s devs at the time) set out to hit 500k or they’d fail, much less 1m+.

I’m all for games trying to be MMO-like, much like different games today are RPG-like with stats or character levels. No one is going to confuse Call of Duty with an RPG because it has stats, yet we continue to see games that don’t really deliver a virtual world lumped into the MMO genre, or try to incorporate too many MMO features just to qualify. WAR for example is a very poor virtual world, but cut a bit of the MMO out, and WAR could be a really good deathmatch-ish product (assuming some serious changes, but hopefully you get the point). A good example of success here is Guild Wars, which ArenaNet originally stated was not an MMO, and in many crucial ways is not a virtual world. GW is a success because it embraces what it is, rather than trying to fit itself into the MMO genre.

Point being, I don’t believe it’s possible to tweak something like Ultima Online, EVE, Darkfall, or whatever ‘true’ virtual world we are talking about, and turn it into something that millions find appealing. And, assuming from day one you as a company accepts that, it should not be a ‘problem’ that needs solving. Yes, you always want to improve and attract more players, but the last 13 years or so have shown that the closer you remain to the core values of the genre, the more the core, niche audience will respond.

Deliver a product worthy of that group, with an appropriate budget, and everything else is gravy. Chase the millions WoW attracted, and you will soon join a long list of high profile failures. That or you won’t be much of an MMO, which is perfectly ok.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Asheron's Call, Darkfall Online, EQ2, EVE Online, Guild Wars, MMO design, SW:TOR, Ultima Online, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to MMOs being niche, the non-issue?

  1. Mig says:

    There is another small sandbox Eve style game that is about to come out, Perpetuum. I posted this on Tobold’s blog in response to his Perpetuum post. Only new thing I have to add to the post is that I really enjoy the game, but then again I love Mechs, so this was right up my alley. I have crashed 2 times in beta, both during load screens when teleporting from one island to another but other than that have had no client issues.

    I finished all the introduction missions to the game. It definitely has the same UI and feel as Eve.

    The skill points are done slightly different. Instead of learning one skill (called Extensions in Perpetuum) at a time you accumulate one Extension Point (EP) per minute. If there is a cap to how many EP you can accumulate or store without spending I did not see it. Each extension seems to have 10 ranks and they can be purchased with EP points. So far I have not found any Eve style “learning” skills, thank god.

    The mining that I did was kind of confusing, and the forums indicate that mining is kind of broke right now and needs fixed. You first have to scan an area, which takes one form of ammo, and then you have to scan tiles within that area, which takes a different form of ammo, then you need to target an individual tile and activate your mining laser, which consumes a 3rd form of ammo.

    The community was helpful and polite both on the forums and in game. There was 113 people in Beta General chat at 7PM EST today, so do not expect this game to shatter any release records. The client itself will be free and the subscription will be €8.95/$9.95, and for early subscribers you will get an additional 7 days of early access. Early access goes live on the 18th. If you are looking for a Mech land warfare version of Eve with a couple twists this might be the game for you. Personally I will play the beta a bit more before I make up my mind, though the 9.99 sub without having to buy a box certainly makes it easier to bite the bullet and dive in.

    Here is the beta development blog for anyone that is interested.

  2. Rodolfo says:

    If you’re an investor you want to put your money in a category defining product that can take 80% of the market. #1 and #2 in a market will get big enough that can be sold (and the initial investment recovered) the rest will be nice businesses but it will be a loss for its investors.

    The problem is that WoW was so big and Blizzard so ruthless in its execution that several companies thought they were able to outsmart them at their game.

    To respond to your post, the reason why it’s an issue is that MMOs have 2 items that are expensive: infrastructure (opex and capex) and digital assets (capex). These are enormous money sinks that you can only satisfy if you raise a lot of money. And therefore if you are trying to being niche no one will invest.

    Now not all is lost, as I see it there are two solution to the problem:
    – publish a string MMOs that serve different niches to hedge risk (like Gazillion and Trion are doing)
    – treat your MMOs as you would a software product and not a game, release an alpha early, get feedback, fix bugs see what works and only after that start working on assets (This is what we are doing with Namaste). You don’t need Molten Core to find out that combat mechanics blow.

    So in short the real issue is: “How can we lower the cost of producing an MMO?”. Until an answer is provided you will see WoW-killers coming onto the market (and failing) every 6 months.

    • Anonymous says:

      You don’t think its possible to *spend* as much as WoW/”WoW-killers” without copying WoW’s gameplay, look, feel, etc exactly?

      You can have a AAA budget, production values, and game without trying to be a WoW Clone.

      The problem is that for some reason companies think that the only way to beat WoW is to make WoW (with some gimmick/IP).

      Or that its “too risky” to make anything but a WoW clone.

      The irony is that its pretty obvious now to anyone observing the industry that making a WoW Clone is suicide for a AAA MMO.

      You’d think eventually devs/publishers would notice that every WoW Clone/Killer fails….and in fact that making one is more “risky” financially at this point than making an innovative game.

  3. Bhagpuss says:

    Good post.

    My take on it is that MMOs are just another island in the endless culture/art/entertainment ocean. Usually, when a new medium or genre or subgenre or artform or entertainment is invented it doesn’t replace an existing one, or at least not entirely. They tend to settle into some form of co-existence, whether independently or co-operatively.

    There may be the occasional casualty, like silent movies when the Talkies came, but those are exceptional. Mostly, anything people entertained themselves with 20, 50 or even 100 years ago is still around and new iterations of it are still being produced.

    The future for MMOs won’t be EITHER the lobby games Raph describes OR virtual worlds, it’ll be both. It won’t be EITHER niche MMOs OR mass-market MMOS, it’ll be both.

    Nothing to worry about. Something for everyone. Pay your money (or don’t) and take your choice.

  4. Brendan says:

    It’s just very tempting to try to get even a considerable slice of WoW’s juicy market. When a game does as well as WoW has done, it gets game investors thinking that they may be able to replicate that, even to a limited degree (not 5m NA subs, but, say, 1m+). The kind of phenomenal success Blizzard achieved in the genre attracted the attention of money, and that money wanted a piece of the action. After all, “if Blizzard could do it, why can’t someone else, and even 25%-50% as well and we’ll be rich!!!”. That’s what’s happened.

    The trouble is that WoW is an outlier, clearly. WoW was the product of a more or less perfect storm — a combination of game design decisions and market conditions that made for its phenomenal success.

    The game design decisions that led to this were the extreme tilt towards accessibility (in every way from playability on old machines and Macs to actual gameplay), perhaps the ultimate example of the “keep dangling the carrot” design to the Nth degree, and the pacing of the game advancement curve. All of these were departures for computer games in general and for MMOs in particular — compare and contrast WoW and EQ2, for example, which launched 2 weeks prior to WoW with a mostly different set of design decisions in its release design (since has been changed to be more WoW-like).

    The market conditions were a combination of (1) Blizzard fans and the role they played in the initial push of the game, which was unprecedented for an MMO, (2) the LOTR films, which primed the pump for an action-oriented elf/orc/dwarf game like WoW and (3) the tremendous growth of broadband in the 2 years or so before it was released. Only the first of these is WoW-specific, but the key issue was timing. The game design decisions coupled with these environmental conditions really combined to create a perfect storm for Blizzard. EQ2, released around the same time and set to benefit from similar environmental conditions (including pre-packaged fanbase), pretty much failed to capitalize on this because WoW blew its doors off, badly.

    All of this means that WoW’s success was unique and will be very hard for anyone, including Blizzard itself, to repeat. Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying to do so. And, in itself, it doesn’t explain why no-one has been able to create a subscription-based fantasy land-based action-oriented elf/dwarf/orc MMORPG with 25% of WoW’s subscriber base … but I think that’s explained by the reality that every such game, at launch, gets compared to what WoW is like today, almost 6 years in, with all of the additional content and mods and doo-dads that WoW has.

    • Anonymous says:

      Related to 1), this was especially the case because Blizzard fans – somewhat uniquely – were devout online players.

      The vast hardcore communities of Diablo, WC and even SC players all played online near-exclusively, a vital factor in Blizzard’s success in starting WoW.

  5. Randomessa says:

    I would have to say I ultimately agree with you here. I don’t particularly care whether GW2 is considered an MMO, or whether (if I have fun in it) DC Universe Online “passes muster” as an MMO. If I’m having fun, I just don’t care what label others want to slap on it. Call it a peanut butter sandwich: but is it a FUN peanut butter sandwich?

    • SynCaine says:

      I agree here, but I always like having one virtual world to play in at all times, and that was tough for a while there. All good now, but when on an EVE break in, say, 2007, pickings were slim.

    • Mala says:

      I don’t think its *quite* that simple. At its core I suppose it is, but when you are offering all sorts of pay per month/store/whatever payment models, you really do need to offer something unique besides “fun.” Thats why I think many of us get caught up on the “virtual world” features. If all I want from a game is pure “fun”, then most of what makes an MMO worth the monthly fee isn’t there in the first place. I’ll just play Quake, or TF2, or Starcraft 2, or any other sort of game I can have loads of fun with and save myself the money while I’m at it.

      • Randomessa says:

        If all I want from a game is pure “fun”, then most of what makes an MMO worth the monthly fee isn’t there in the first place.

        I would agree, but then I’m opposed to MMO subscriptions, generally speaking. You’re talking to a Guild Wars player here.

  6. Dblade says:

    Problem is if EQ never got big, you wouldn’t see more MMOs made. If games stayed at a 200k or less sub level, the genre would have been unknown, and not attracted talented people to work on it.

    It’s not that niche games are bad, but you need the megahits to perpetuate the niche titles. Without them they die. Bullet hell shooters and Wing commander-style games are two good examples of this. Fighting games keep wrestling with this, with only arc systems and snk as niche publishers. Light gun shooters are too.

  7. Ben says:

    the sunk cost of MMO development makes investors wary unless there’s a chance of a big payoff. What developers should focus on is making subscriptions more sustainable; it’s the long-running, loyal customers that makes this genre viable outside of MUDs.

    Aiming low is a recipe for irrelevance.

  8. Bronte says:

    I don’t think some of it is aiming low. Take Alganon for instance. Here is an MMO that thought it could copy, panel for panel, word for word, UI element for UI element, the most popular MMO in the world, and be successful. And look at where it stands now. Dead in the water, broken, and utterly unknown.

    I think part of the problem is that developers have stopped making games for players and started making games for subscribers. And so long as that trend continues unabated, we will see crap products continue to flood the market and sink within months because they never really focused on the audience.

    • Mala says:

      Is it just an issue of the pay once for something vs. the getting people to continue paying over time thing then? Giving people endless carrots to chase after is probably the best way to get them paying month after month.

      Its a lot easier to get my to buy a game I only have to pay for once than it is to pay for an MMO, even if they are the same price and even if I”ll spend as much time in that one month playing the MMO (the free month that comes with the box) as I would ever having the other game. Just the fact that I know I CAN go back to the other game on a whim or as I please without paying adds a tremendous amount of value for me, especially since I frequently install old games if only to play them for a couple hours of nostalgia.

    • Ben says:

      you raise a good point actually. WoW didn’t come about because Blizzard chased some arbitrary sub number. They developed a game aimed at their core group, Diablo/WC/SC gamers of varying ability levels and computer setups. I think ToR is actually doing a good job in terms of your point; just that the end-game itself is so undefined I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do at the level cap besides reroll, i.e. unsubscribe.

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  10. bonedead says:

    I think we should all only be allowed to play Hello Kitty Island Adventures.

  11. Shadow says:

    “WAR for example is a very poor virtual world…”

    A very true statement. I think it’s time for people to understand that the term MMO is NOT synonymous with “virtual world”. I love WAR for what it is, but it is NOT a virtual world.

  12. Pingback: WAR is not a good MMO « Shadow-war

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