I’ve often commented that I believe a part of WoW’s success was a perfect storm scenario. I’d like to add one additional factor to that formula: My-First-MMO-ness.
For many MMO gamers, WoW was their first title. This is a very powerful aspect, because the first time you are exposed to ‘genre norms’, they are new and exciting to you. An average auction house is still super-awesome to the new guy because the very concept of a massive multiplayer auction house is new to them. If you are playing your 3rd MMO with an auction house, it’s not that impressive anymore, and you are far more likely to notice the faults (or just differences) than someone new.
What this ultimately means is that the new player has more ‘content’ to explore before he gets bored, because literally everything is new to them. The MMO ‘vet’, on the other hand, is only going to notice or focus on the new stuff, and most of the other stuff is old news and has already been mastered.
SW:TOR is, by most accounts, a good game. It’s just a crappy MMO. And even worse, it’s also identical to the MMO most people have played. This does not mean those who play SW are not going to have fun with it. They will. But the length of time they have fun with it is going to be very limited, not only due to the solo-focused 4th pillar, but also due to how similar it will play/feel for many, and that is fatal for an MMO.
If SW:TOR had launched in 2004, rather than WoW, its future would look a lot brighter. It would still be crippled by the 4th pillar, but most of its players would not consume the total content nearly as quickly, and things like an auction house, battlegrounds, questing, raiding, etc, would all still feel new and interesting. But SW:TOR launched in 2011.
And this is not just an issue for SW, but for all themepark MMOs that stick too closely to the WoW formula. If WoW itself launched today, players would consume it far, far faster than they did in 2004. And again, whether a game is good or not is not really the issue. Skyrim is (IMO) a far better game than most, but I’m done with it after 60-100 hours. Which is perfectly fine for Bethesda, because they got my $60 and will likely get more when they release DLC. But SW, and other themepark MMOs, don’t survive on that $60. They survive on collecting $15 a month for months/years.
The other aspect leading the industry astray here is current-day WoW vs 2004 WoW. The 2004 version (along with the perfect storm scenario) is responsible for 10m subs. The current-day version is aimed to milk that. If 2012 WoW launched today, it would likely perform far closer to SW:TOR than 2004 WoW. It’s not a bad game, but it’s a horrible MMO. The social hooks are not there, the incentives to repeat content are weaker, and the rate of content consumption vs production is more off than it was in 2004.
But unlike SW, WoW today has that massive base, has years of older content, and is no longer expected to grow or even sustain itself long-term. Blizzard is doing what they can (giving out D3) to slow its decline, but decline it will. Blizzard’s focus today is positioning Titan to replace WoW. BioWare is not at that stage with SW:TOR, nor are any of the other themepark MMO studios that released or will release games soon.
It seems that today, the focus for many is to create the best possible game, rather than the best possible MMO. Again this would be perfectly fine if the financial expectations were adjusted as well, but they are not. SW:TOR is not Skyrim in terms of business models, but they are pretty damn close in terms of game length/retention, and that’s crazy.
If the goal really is to create an MMO, a game that will live or die by how well it entertains players long-term, then long-term content is a must, and the only real long-term content is repeatable and/or player-driven content. The quality of your one-off content is, in many ways, irrelevant here. No matter how awesome something like your new player intro is, that content is only going to be consumed once. It being fully voiced, fully animated, or with the world’s greatest scripting is not going to be the difference between someone playing your game for one month or five years. How long they remain entertained by the repeatable stuff is. Figure out how to make that entertaining-enough to play for months/years, and you have yourself an MMO.