Great games are not great MMOs

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.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Lord of the Rings Online, MMO design, Rift, SW:TOR, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Great games are not great MMOs

  1. brainclutter says:

    I will never touch another MMO in my life, but it’s still fun looking in at all of this from the outside. The bad MMOs are just so disappointing and the good MMOs suck up waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much time. Sadly, even the good ones turn out to be bad ones once you hit a certain point, usually the end game.

    Not to get all Morpheus on you, but once you’ve played enough MMOs all you see the patterns in the system. I guess the same can be said for any gaming genre, but I’m absolutely sick of the MMO system because it’s really just a glorified hamster wheel.

    • SynCaine says:

      Most themeparks, yes. Seeing the paterns in something like EVE is… well, not possible (unless you are doing it wrong).

      • brainclutter says:

        Seeing some patterns in a sandbox is impossible, while most probably are. EVE isn’t any more complicated that RL and there are discernible patterns all around us.

        Play EVE long enough and I’m pretty sure most of your logins will be pretty hum drum and follow a pattern with only short interspersions of variety and/or excitement.

        • SynCaine says:

          “with only short interspersions of variety and/or excitement.”

          That’s the very reason EVE has so many veterans, and (most likely) the highest retention rate in the genre.

          Also it’s undesirable (IMO) to have a game that is constantly varied/exciting. It’s the whole “if you are always the hero, you never feel heroic”. Sometimes you just want to log in and brainlessly make some ISK to kill some time.

  2. Ahtchu says:

    The 2004 version (along with the perfect storm scenario) is responsible for 10m subs. The current-day version is aimed to milk that.
    +1 for eloquence.

  3. Sullas says:

    It’s like someone occasionally slips well-reasoned, vitriol-free argument pills into your drink.

    It would probably be pointless and tiresome to retread the whole ‘TOR is single player’ issue, but as a fan of the game, I would love to see some numbers on how many MMO first-timers the IP managed to bring in.

    Since, well, I have met a good number of those Fresh-Faced Franklins in TOR. They do stand out like sore, up-turned thumbs for a long time after their initiation into the genre, and they often do have the energy and interest to motivate jaded ex-WoW types who hang out on Carrick Station and moan all day. They are not quite your 5% opinion and activity leaders, but there are more of them and they do make a difference.

    Blizzard’s MoP high-churn gamble may well be factoring in the positive effects of new blood on everybody else. The effects are real, but if the hooks are too weak, the gamble will fail.

  4. bhagpuss says:

    Well argued post. To repeatable content and player-generated content I’d add alternative paths through content and strong generation of social ties. You probably don’t need all four to have a shot at generating sufficient stickiness.

  5. gevlon says:

    Maybe I’m doing it wrong but I see pattern in EVE:
    I buy something, transport it to Jita and sell it for 5-10% more.
    Then I buy something else and transport it to Jita and sell it for 5-10% more.

    I’m actually delighted when the best buyer is not on Jita.

    • SynCaine says:

      Not doing it wrong, just not doing it right. 5%-10% profit hauling small quantities of goods into Jita is like being surprised that you can just fly a ship to a roid belt and sell the ore ‘for free’. Hell train research, ‘free ISK’ every day!

      Jita has higher prices for a reason.

    • steelhunt says:

      Much to learn you still have. Patience, my little green friend. The Empire wasn’t build in a day. Keep at it.

      What I think this nonsense about patterns is about: yeah, there are patterns, but are dynamic and unpredictable, because they are player driven. You know all that stuff about how dynamic content in GW2 is the next big thing or whatnot? That’s what EVE is (only at a few orders of f’ dimmensions higher)

      – a huge empire declares war on another empire. A lot of ships are going to be blown up and need to be replaced. Which ones? What fittings do they use? For example, the day the Branch invasion was launched, Jita was completely emptied of Maelstroms. What would a goblin do?
      – new battlecruisers are introduced to the game that can fit large turrets. Lots of people will want the shinny. What will happen to the price of large turrets? Which large turrets? No clue…
      – civil war in the drone regions. That means less pilots(bots) will be PvE farming drones and more will be in PvP fleets exploding. The drone regions supply about 30% or whatever of the universe’s minerals. What does that do to mineral prices?
      – the gallente ice interdiction. A mass campain of suicide ganking of blue ice miners lasting for 3 months (didn’t you try to do something like this with flowers on some pvp realm at some point?). Nevermind the total market panic that ensued (people made billions in 5 minutes). Gankers are killing miners and getting concorded – they may need a steady supply of gank ships. Which ones? Which modules do they use? In which systems? No clue…
      – you are supplying nullsec markets for a 50k man alliance. They will need everything – ships, mods, skillbooks, fuel, exotic dancers, everything, it the ass-end of the universe. What do you transport? How much? What’s the price? Goons actually built client-server tools to analyze the market trends so logistics would know what’s in short supply, what sells best, at what prices, etc.

      Live was simpler when you knew flasks were going up every reset day I guess…

      • SynCaine says:

        I’ll just add this: the lack of a ‘gold cap’, and the limitless things one can do with more wealth (control the PLEX market? Control the Trit market?) is the ‘why’ for an industrialist. Making ISK is easy. Making more ISK than anyone else with less effort is the true game.

      • coppertopper says:

        lol and when you are done in Excel and your numbers are all crunched, you get to stare at a beam of light hitting a rock in space for 2hrs!

  6. Carson says:

    With regards to long-term content.. the most depressing thing about the MMORPG industry at present is not that so many developers seem to have come up with the wrong answer to the question “how will we retain players for the long term?” It’s that, to all appearances, they have never even asked themselves the question.

    Obviously bashing SW:TOR is like shooting fish in a barrel, but honestly, it has been obvious to everyone for literally YEARS that the biggest challenge for a themepark develop is the rate at which “locust” players voraciously devour content. So what do they do? They plot a course which guarantees that their content production will be vastly more expensive and time consuming than previous themepark games. It’s madness.

    • spinks says:

      But I’ve seen several people comment (on leaving SWTOR) that they’ll happily consider resubbing on the next content patch. That’s not the same as a player base that hates the game and gives up on it forever.

      Not really sure what it means for the game but it may be that they will see a wave of people return every time they release a new chapter, even if it is just for a month.

      • Coeur-de-fer says:

        I’m sure some people will resub with each content patch, before letting their account lapse again; it sounds like there have been a fair few WoW subscribers with this very use case for a while now. The question, in ToR’s case, is whether that 1-2 months of increased subs will be enough to fund a juggernaut of this size. Time will tell.

        • sortkwik says:

          I really liked Warhammer. To me it was like a diamond that just needed a good cut and polish. So I was pained when I quit cause I was sick of attacking the same three castles. When they did the Land of the Dead content patch that was supposed to fix everything, I came back. Then I quit three weeks later. I enjoyed it, but I could see that the game didn’t have any sticking power.

          You can’t fix Meh. I mean, this is the standard Triple A MMO birth cycle. Hype Hype Hype (years), This is awesome (first three weeks), I still like it but I’m getting sick of X (week 4)…, I’m quitting cause it sucks, but maybe I’ll be back when they fix it.

          As far as I know, not a single MMO that went through this cycle ever managed to achieve anything besides a nicely profitable obscurity. LOTRO is about the best SWTOR can hope for.

          I assume that most of these games are ultimately profitable. You hype the hell out of it, sell 2 million boxes in a month, then make 120+ million in the first year. That’s why so many companies are willing to try; if you hype the hell out of it, which the nerds will inevitably fall for, you’ll at least break even and if you do really well you’ll have a money tree.

        • Coeur-de-fer says:

          This is precisely why I’m wary. Sure, the Star Wars logo alone sells an impressive number of units, and BioWare’s guided narratives seem to be reasonably popular, but will it be enough to keep sufficient numbers p(l)aying? Licensing fees and voice work costs further muddy the waters. It will interesting to see how it all unfolds.

  7. spinks says:

    The question in my mind is whether great MMOs are great games. (I think they might not be, and there’s some theme about gamified virtual worlds becoming theme parks … or something. Bah I’m too full of cold to think :) ).

  8. Shadow says:

    Reminds me of two posts I did a good while back (links for the excessively bored):

    I’m playing SW:TOR now, but with the total realization that I’m essentially playing a single player game with a chat room. I payed $38 for my copy, and expect that I’ll play for maybe 3 months at most right now, for a total of $68. If I get at least two KotOR experiences out of it, I’m ahead.

    The intrinsic worth of either style is up to the individual. I imagine I’ll be heading back into my old school text-based MUD or EVE again once I get done giving SW the once-over.

    I’m pretty much out of the blogging loop on the whole, but have you been checking out Pathfinder at all? Their blog updates are fairly grandiose, but their ideals are sandbox, and I’m always excited to see more of those.

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