ESO: The “make a good game” problem

Clearly a Forbes writer is a big fan of this blog, what with this copy/paste job of an article. I’ll excuse the lack of a h/t this time, but clean it up will ya? Anyway, since everyone is jumping on my wagon about ESO, I’ll just have to argue with myself today for content.

The (incorrect) Lessons of The Old Republic

The biggest lesson from SW:TOR isn’t that you can’t have a big budget, or that you can’t launch with a subscription; it’s that if you are going to spend a giant pile of money and ask $15 a month, don’t launch a terrible game. SW:TOR is terrible. The 4th pillar was a sad joke when they announced that in 2010, it was a sad joke at launch, and how many of those ‘big content releases’ have built upon it?

Remember how SW:TOR launched without an end-game, and just expected millions of players to reroll and progress alts through the same lame content over and over to hear the unique bits of voiced dialog? Or how EAWare expected MMO players to spend months grinding to the level cap because they wouldn’t be smashing spacebar across the 4th pillar?

Yes, there are lessons to learn from SW:TOR. Plenty of them. Big budget/sub fee is not one of them.

Also, the notion that the ES IP is weaker than the SW IP? Across all brands globally sure, but in the realm of videogames, and especially RPGish ones? I’d say ES is the stronger IP here. How many copies did Skyrim sell vs whatever the last SW game was?

I’m also continually amazed at this “oh nooz $15 a month” stuff. What today doesn’t have a subscription? You pay monthly for Netflix, you pay monthly for console services, you pay monthly for cable/internet/phone. Services like are rolling out subscription options. In 1997 when UO launched yes, asking for a monthly fee for a game was something new and a hurdle. In 2014? If the tiny cost of $15 a month is a deciding factor for you, spend less timing gaming and more time reevaluating your life, because you are seriously doing it wrong.

Also this quote ‘officially’ sums up nicely why F2P is a weaker model if you aim to produce something above mediocrity:

“And it’s important to state that our decision to go with subscriptions is not a referendum on online game revenue models. F2P, B2P, etc. are valid, proven business models – but subscription is the one that fits ESO the best, given our commitment to freedom of gameplay, quality and long-term content delivery. Plus, players will appreciate not having to worry about being “monetized” in the middle of playing the game, which is definitely a problem that is cropping up more and more in online gaming these days. The fact that the word “monetized” exists points to the heart of the issue for us: We don’t want the player to worry about which parts of the game to pay for – with our system, they get it all.” – Matt Firor

Know Your Audience (No one wants multiplayer Skyrim…)

I think just about anyone who has played Skyrim can imagine how that game could work as a multiplayer game. Not an MMO, but a co-op style game where you and a buddy or two head out into the world and clear dungeons/caves and complete quests. At one point a mod team was working on that, but the mod got shut down for obvious reasons. So on a basic level, I do think some of the tens of millions of Skyrim players are interested in that IP being multiplayer.

The big question and likely problem is just how “multiplayer Skyrim” is ESO going to be. Likely not enough from what I’ve seen. The game is stuck in a strange/bad middle ground, where it’s not quite just co-op Skyrim, but not really anything special as a pure themepark MMO either, beyond the IP. Maybe the pieces come together and that ends up working, but if there is one major question about ESO, I think it’s that.

The Gold Rush is Over (MMO genre is dying)

From an outside perspective this would certainly seem true. The last however many big MMOs have all failed to one degree or another (GW2 not bombing out of the gate is the most ‘success’ a new title has had in years), but to me that says more about current MMO devs than it does about the viability of the genre itself. For whatever reason, the general flaw in every new MMO is that you can finish it in under 3 months, and that’s a rather large problem when you are trying to build a game that only ‘works’ if people play for months and the all-important social hooks develop and keep people playing/paying.

The F2P fad has only distorted this further because if you can get a sucker to spend a ton in those 1-3 months, as a F2P dev you believe what you have done is working, and with so many MMOs recently downgrading to F2P, the ‘first month rush’ is still fresh in people’s minds (how many times has someone linked to that LotRO F2P first month article as ‘proof’ that F2P is a great thing?).

But building off a broken base (F2P) doesn’t work long-term. We talk often about a player’s MMO first love and how that effect can’t be recaptured. The same is true for F2P in the MMO genre. You might whale it up in one game, but once you realize you are throwing money into a hole for nothing once, most people aren’t going to fall for that trick again (exceptions exist of course, dumb and rich are not mutually exclusive). While $15 a month might be a ‘hurdle’, it doesn’t corrupt your basic game design like F2P does. The sub model forces you to make a better game, since you don’t have the whale lottery to bail you out short-term, but “make a better game” is a problem I want MMO devs to have.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Mass Media, MMO design, The Elder Scrolls Online. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to ESO: The “make a good game” problem

  1. qyte says:

    I am quite taken from their Combat Roles system lately. If they don’t get their heads together then i strongly believe we are in due for another GW2-like theme of “genre innovations”. Maybe i have read it wrong but i am awfully skeptical at the moment.

    On the other hand regarding to your post, no matter how much you try you will not convince the f2p free-loaders. It is not an IQ problem, they just want their freebies, period. I have almost given up hope and i fail to believe that i am struggling against diminished capacity.

    As for matt firor, i don’t know why but i find it extremely hard to believe developers nowadays when they are talking about f2p and subs. Trion CEO also said the exact same things some time ago. If their game sucks the f2p minor leagues are their only option and you and i both know it.

    • SynCaine says:

      Yea if a game sucks go F2P, absolutely, that’s always been my stance. And if you know you can’t produce something above average, might as well launch as F2P/B2P. At least ESO is putting itself in a model where they can be above average. They likely won’t reach it, but at least they aren’t declaring defeat day one.

      That’s… something.

    • John says:

      I was recently struggling myself on a big MMO site to argue against f2p as well…as you know already, it was quite pointless. The best answer I got though, the one that seemed more reasonable in a pile of shit arguments from f2p supporters, was an answer from the sites moderator and it was this:

      “It’s all about the maximization of self interest. I might be able to really enjoy that meal with a coke compared to whatever I have sitting around in my kitchen. I might not be able to get enough additional enjoyment out of the $15 a month I spend on it compared to the enjoyment I could get in a game that I don’t have to pay $15 a month to play. It has nothing to do with how expensive the subscription it, but rather what is being delivered by it compared to what you can get elsewhere for free or for less.”

      I think this is the problem…there are so many MMOs now and so many f2p games that people can jump from one to another every month and get their MMO dose. Also, there is another problem, bigger in my opinion, that also a wow developer once said in a twit. That if they make the game difficult like the old days, more people will quit to play another MMO than stay and try to be better player and overcome the obstacle. And I partially agree with him, because nowdays gamers are too spoiled and have more options.

      Back then, you either tried to find a guild for Molten core and spend 3+ months to level a class or alt or you stopped playing MMOs. Now, you have xxxxxxxx options, or you think you have. It doesn’t matter if you drop the f2p MMO after a month, all that matters is that when you find an obstacle in the real MMO, your thought and expectations about the “new” and “fresh” and “free” mmo will be sweet at that moment and enough for you to quit.

      So how can you teach again players to be better? How can you hook them back to the real MMO games?

      • SynCaine says:

        About that moderator part; for me time is far more valuable than money when the amount is $15 a month. I’ll pay that to play an MMO that is only 5% better than one that is free (and I mean free free, not F2P ‘free’). $15 per month is so close to zero its a joke when factoring the amount of time I plan an MMO on average.

        The second part, making a game hard. If the social hooks are there, its less of a problem. We kept banging our heads into MC and beyond not because WoW was so awesome or we didn’t have other MMO options (we did), but because the guild we had was solid, and we enjoyed playing with (most) of those people.

        If you never get the social hooks into people, yea, they have an easier time walking away, be it the game is hard, they go on a little break, or whatever.

        • John says:

          But social hooks are created mostly because of the difficult content…is like the chicken and the egg. Nowdays, most people drop an MMO because it does not have “auto-grouping” tools, how is supposed those social hooks to be created?

          As for vanilla, the options we did had back then was at the same difficulty of wow and even harder…EQ?Lineage? Only lotro could be of a same or lower difficulty and lotro released during TBC I think.

          About the moderator argument, I agree with you and I am on the same boat…and now we are speaking I just ordered some food to come at home and will pay around 10 euro because the food is 5% more delicious than the one I have at home atm :). 15 bucks a month is tiny and I quoted the part of your article (“If the tiny cost of $15 a month is a deciding factor for you, spend less timing gaming and more time reevaluating your life, because you are seriously doing it wrong.”) to use it as signature on my forum avatars…because it is just so true.

  2. “No one wants multiplayer Skyrim…”

    That makes me cringe, since that is exactly what I want. I don’t need it to be an MMO. As I have said many places, a Borderlands-style multiplayer mode with additional modules for sale seems to be ideal.

    • SynCaine says:

      ESO should be what Neverwinter attempted to become.

      • There is definitely some nuance to that sentence, but I will agree based on a vague “What Neverwinter should have been” feeling.

        Though I am not sure with the F2P business model that Neverwinter could have been anything other than what it became.

        • SynCaine says:

          Neverwinter basic concept, ES IP, business model of a sub + allow mod/content producers to submit new content for review (LoL Tribunal-like system as a first pass, dev review after that), if accepted content provider gets paid by the devs (payment would of course be a fraction of what it would cost them to make the same content).

    • carson63000 says:

      If anyone said to me “no one wants multiplayer Skyrim”, I would laugh in their face. The number of people who I have heard say “would it be AMAZING to be able to play this with other people?!” is absolutely immense.

  3. Pasduil says:

    Would be nice to have a link to the original article to compare with the Forbes version. I’ve spent time digging around to try to find it and am about to give up.

  4. bhagpuss says:

    I’m pretty sure players won’t “appreciate not having to worry about being “monetized” in the middle of playing the game”. They’ll take it completely for granted and give the company no credit for it whatsoever, while complaining bitterly at all times that their personal special interest group is being stiffed on its dues from the $15 a month they are paying.

    That’s how it’s been in every sub game I’ve ever played. If Matt Firor is expecting any goodwill, let alone thanks, for not having his hand out in game he’s in for a nasty surprise.

    • I am “yes and no” on that. Five years ago, I would have taken it for granted as you said.

      Returning to WoW after spending time in a mass of F2P titles… especially LOTRO and Neverwinter, but post-F2P Rift counts as well… I am mildly grateful for Blizz not monetizing in the middle of the game. You can even turn off the tiny button for their in-game pets/mounts store so you won’t ever accidentally bring it up.

      That said, I think a well done F2P MMO can overcome the monetization stigma while an uninspired subscription MMO isn’t going to get much in the way of benefit just because they don’t pop up a “Go Gold!” ad in the middle of combat.

      • John says:

        Can you explain/describe this “well done F2P MMO” that will not monetizing in the middle of the game but will also be profitable, even short term? I read a lot of times people talk about the “well done f2p MMOs” but I yet to find one and also cannot even imagine it to be honest.

        • @John – I did not write “will not” monetize, but rather “can overcome” in reference to monetization. Those are two radically different things to my mind. I do not think you can have F2P without monetization. At least not one which we would agree was profitable in any time frame.

          That said, when I find a “well done F2P MMO” that succeeds and doesn’t make me hate the constant intrusion of monetization, I will let you know. I was clearly using that as a theoretical ala the perfectly frictionless surface one of my professors used to bring up. Oddly enough, he taught accounting.

        • John says:

          Fair enough :) I misread/misunderstood your post…

        • kalex716 says:

          EVE online is the best model for monetization period.

          I’d call it both F2P done right, and subscription done right as well.

        • SynCaine says:

          In no way is EVE free. You might not pay the sub fee, but someone is, always, and that lets CCP continue to focus on making that sub fee worthwhile, rather than coming up with the newest way to get whales into the shop. Calling it F2P is a major mistake.

  5. carson63000 says:

    You make a strong point in that players can only be persuaded to “whale it up” in an F2P game so many times before they stop doing it.

    F2P is, quite literally, a gold rush – if you don’t get in early, you’re not going to strike it rich. And I’m not sure that it isn’t already too late for new entrants into the market.

    I certainly wouldn’t recommend betting a big budget on an F2P game. For sure the cheap & nasty titles churned out of Asia can still make money because they cost so little to produce.

  6. wartzilla says:

    The MMO is dying in that the WoW clone is dying, and people are finally getting tired of them.

    It’s the industry’s fault for not realizing that it is possible to release MMOs that aren’t WoW clones.

  7. Jenks says:

    What MMO developer even knows what a social hook is beyond spamming twitter likes?

    It could be argued that the MMO genre is dying, not because it isn’t viable, but because collectively the entire industry is holding a pillow over its face.

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