31 December, 2010
Let me write this last post to try to leave the old behind with the passing year. This is going to be a hard look at the past year, and it's not going to be pretty. Let me purge the angst and bitterness now so that perhaps I can have a fresh perspective coming into the new year.
So, from a developer's point of view, how was 2010?
It seems to me that MMOs are threatening to become the new adventure games. For those of you who aren't finding gray hairs, I might need to explain. At one time, adventure games were HUGE and had a dedicated following. But, seemingly suddenly, the mainstream industry began to abandon adventure games. What happened was that the games focused so much on catering to the hard-core fans that they alienated newcomers. The games became more and more complex and difficult to satisfy the needs of the hardcore until finally they were too complex to develop and it became unprofitable to cater to the niche. You can see find a humorous perspective on the decline of adventure games here. (In full disclosure, I was never a big adventure game fan, but I understand their appeal.)
Of course, you could say this applies to other genres, too. Consider FPSes, where the games have become more and more specialized. But, here's the thing: there's still enough games that cater to the newcomers in addition to the old-timers. For every person who thinks Quake 2 was the pinnacle of the genre, there's a few people enjoying Team Fortress 2. A wide variety of FPS type games are developed, and while there are definitely trends and fads (WW2, for example), there's enough variety to appeal to a wide audience.
But, what about MMOs? I fear they're doing the opposite of adventure games and trying too hard to appeal to the newcomers while ignoring the increasingly disenchanted hardcore. The old hands who want something a bit more deep to meet their more sophisticated tastes aren't finding it. This is partially because the expectations for an MMO are so high that it's hard to do anything even remotely risky, therefore most stick to the DIKU-defined path. The further problem is that social games are stymieing MMOs by taking the "real" newbies who might otherwise be interested in MMOs. We're not seeing an influx of new people because they're getting their "grind something somewhat rewarding" fix by playing Farmville for free, not wandering around Azeroth or some other WoW wannabe game.
The small glimmer of hope here is that while adventure games have "died", they're certainly not gone. They've largely become the province of smaller companies. From companies reviving classics like Sam & Max to indies introducing wonderful games like The Shivah, a game so well-made that even someone like me who doesn't particularly like adventure games found it completely engrossing. It's also interesting to look at old single-player RPGs. While people declared the RPG dead in the late 90s, a little game called Diablo brought back interest in the genre. Sure, one could call it a mindless action clickfest with a water-thin story to flavor it, but it brought back RPG elements for people to enjoy at just the right time.
But, MMOs aren't doing so well at the present moment. We're still stuck with old DIKU gameplay. The biggest MMO stories for the last several months are Cataclysm's launch and the rise of Rift, another apparent DIKU-clone. Games trying something new haven't done well. For example, Global Agenda tried to bring back the MMOFPS, but struggled with some issues. We need to either have a breakthrough game that takes MMOs in a new direction, or we need for them to "die" so that indies and small companies can come in and properly handle them. I doubt they'll "die" in the sense adventure games did, however, because WoW continues to make a lot of money and thus appeals to some developers.
Let's shift our focus over to business. The biggest success story of the year: "free to play" came into its own. The success of DDO showed that its not just a business model for Asian grind-fests. LotRO also leads the way, but keeps pushing the boundary of what's acceptable in an effort to get more money. As I said in a comment over at Spinksville, I am rather unhappy that one of the holiday mounts was suddenly removed from the game and added as a "store exclusive" without much warning. Even though I'm a big fan of this business model, there can be abuses just as with any other business model. Hopefully things will stay at a sane level.
But, there's still the bad news: the industry still worships false numbers. Hundreds of millions of people play social games; but in most cases only a single-digit percent of those people pay directly, so we get privacy scandals as companies seek to "monetize" the nonpaying masses. But, people focus on the hundreds of millions playing the games, not the few million actually paying anything.
The MMO industry likes to hide behind comforting numbers. Cataclysm is the fastest selling PC game, but how meaningful is that? As people point out, that's not as fast as the big console games like Modern Warfare 2 make. Or, as Lee Sheldon has said before, it's still small potatoes compared to how many people tune in for a prime time TV show. I'm glad Blizzard is enjoying success, but this focus on numbers tends to obscure the real issues and confound people who could otherwise carve out a successful and very profitable niche.
The other big thing to note is that MMOs are currently toxic to investors. I've had the opportunity to work with someone who wants to do some rather bold and exciting things with MMOs, something beyond simply another linear quest grind game. But, I've seen that if you say "MMO" or "virtual world" that most VCs will shut you off. They lost big money in chasing MMOs, mostly because they were all hoping to create the next WoW without spending the decade Blizzard invested into their reputation. Sadly, they're repeating that exact same process when investing in social games, trying to find the next Zynga levels of growth while ignoring a whole realm of possible and largely profitable options that aren't quite easy enough to self-fund. As I've lamented before, this has really held back MMOs, and it's meant that without an outpouring of audience support there is unlikely to be a meaningful change anytime soon.
What's coming up?
Let's stop being mired in the past, and let's look toward the future. I suck at making predictions, so I'll avoid that blog tradition. But, let me point out some things I'm keeping my eye on.
The first big issues is, how does WoW adapt? Will Blizzard continue to change the world, or will the world exist in a cataclysmed state for years on end? With even fairly casual players hitting the new level cap only a few months after launch, what type of new content will they add? Can we expect full-price expansions to come out more frequently, perhaps once a year, in order to milk a bit more money out of the players? Even though WoW isn't the game for me anymore, it's still setting the tone for the whole discussion.
The other issue is, how will the new MMOs coming out fare? Rift as yet another pretender to the WoW throne, as mentioned before. Despite the praise heaped upon it, the road to launch is paved with the bones of the defeated games that tried to take that path; I'm not sure there's much to set this new game apart from the rest. DC Universe Online as a new game looking to expand onto consoles. Frankly, I'm kind of surprised it's taken this long for someone to make a serious attempt at putting an MMO on a console given the commonplace nature of internet connectivity for the console. Sony seemed to have some minor success with EverQuest Online Adventures, so it's interesting it has taken all these years to try to follow up and improve on things. Especially for SOE, since their parent company is the maker of one of the big consoles. (But, it's probably a case of left and and right hand at a big corporation.) Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 should be interesting to watch, but it's not clear they'll launch this next year despite any announced target dates. Bioware in particular has had no hesitation to delay a game in the past, but we'll see if their EA masters agree with this philosophy.
I've not heard of any exciting indie MMO projects. But, that's the nature of these things, they tend to build up quietly in the dark and either die equally quietly or make a big splash entry and then suffer any number of dismal fates. Any indies out there need an experienced voice to help you out? Send me an email to email@example.com
Where do we go from here?
If I had the answers, I'd be begging, borrowing, or stealing the money to make it so. After laying low for a year, I don't think I'm any close to the truth than I was before. As I said, it's looking a bit grim for MMOs in that we seem to be treading down the same path as adventure games. The business side hasn't gotten any brighter, either, even after all the years of my grumbling.
Is there hope? Yes, there is always hope. It might be dim, misplaced, stupid, and ultimately doomed, but there is always hope. I'm an eternal optimist. Or, an eternal masochist. But, let's just say there's a reason why my most recent project wasn't strictly MMO-based. I haven't given up hope yet, just recognized there might need to be some intermediate steps.
What do you think? What did I miss in my retrospective? What's coming up that you think could change things? Or, am I just a bitter old crank that needs to find a new career?