26 May, 2012
It's been hard for me to remember a more dispiriting week than the previous one. It's been hard to muster a positive attitude as the hits keep coming.
Let's take a look at why we may be seeing the end of MMOs as we know them.
High profile problems
Lum summarizes the news here. People have quibbled over the details he reported, but I think the sentiment is right. Just like two games launching at the same time, two big announcements have lead to problems.
Let's take a quick look at each case. I don't mean to just criticize, but rather look at what useful information a developer can get out of these tragedies. I do hope that all affected land on their feet quickly. We'll see what effect having so many people with MMO experience has on the market.
Star Wars: the Old Republic
First thing to keep in mind: this is EA. They might still be using the Bioware name, but at the very least we should call it EA/Bioware even if they aren't to that point yet. (Watch, though, I'd bet they do sooner rather than later.)
The large number of layoffs from EA/Bioware have been downplayed by EA. But, you don't lay off a significant portion of your team if things are going well. Even if this were just the production team they would have split off from the live team, this means that EA/Bioware doesn't have other MMO projects in the pipeline. At least not far enough along to need more people. This gives us a hint how much confidence they have in MMOs. Remember, EA is the company that has shut down more MMOs than any other western company. (I also don't buy that EA, the company where "the leaves are turning on the trees in the fall, time for layoffs" is a known phrase inadvertently left that much extra the project for so long without a plan.)
This is on the tail of news that the subscribers have dropped from 1.7 million to 1.4 million. Of course, EA tried to downplay that news as well. Raph Koster has pointed out that big MMOs follow fairly predictable growth curves. The fact there's been a drop so far so fast means that curve has gotten shorter, or the curve has changed dramatically. Neither is a positive sign for traditional MMOs.
I think it also shows that you can't just throw more money at the MMO issue. I didn't play SW:tOR, mostly because the 4 character party size limit meant someone in my closest circle of MMO friends was going to be the third (fifth?) wheel. But, the often insightful Richard Bartle describes the problem as the single-player type storytelling not being a good fit for a multiplayer and too much reliance on previous styles of gameplay. He was especially perplexed by the focus on raiding as an end game as it struck a dissonant chord compared to the story-driven leveling game. It also seems that the promise of full voiceovers has limited how much new content they can add to the game.
Wow. What can be said that hasn't already been covered in mainstream news? At a time when state budgets are hurting, a high profile studio like this that had a state-guaranteed loan has thrust the problems with traditional MMO development into the spotlight.
I don't know any details about the situation other than what I've read. It sounds like the big problem was that taking the loan required that the company add more staff to the project at a pace independent of how many people they needed. It also sounds like they had needed the single-player Kingdoms of Amalur game to do much better than it did, to sell more than double than the rather impressive reported 1.4 million it did. Not sure what the failure was here, but it all added up to the company going out of business.
I had also thought the acquisition of Big Huge Games was an odd choice. Usually it take some serious business savvy to acquire a company that is slated to be shut down and turn it around. Given the differences between single-player games and MMOs, there didn't seem to be much in common between the companies. I guess the plan was to release the single-player game using the MMO's IP, but with hindsight as a guide it seems that was not a good move for the security of the company.
The really unfortunate part is that the reports say the upper management kept the employees completely in the dark. Many employees were apparently taken completely by surprise when they were laid off. Worse, if rumors are true, the company did some unscrupulous things such as not sell houses that employee relocated out of, leaving some newly unemployed people with a second mortgage, and canceling health insurance without warning, leaving some employees without access to COBRA and potentially unable to get insurance due to a gap in coverage.
While the loss of jobs and the end of a big company is terrible, the second-order effects might be worse yet. The big business problem is that MMOs have been seen as risky and expensive. Having one of the biggest recent games go through a major layoff and having an MMO company implode in such a public matter doesn't help this perception at all. Investors have been skittish about investing in MMOs, and these events have hammered that skepticism home for many of them.
As for the audience, some seem to be taking this just fine. One person on Google+ said "If the MMO genre were to die and disappear today, I think I'd be pretty happy." No chance for redemption, just a shrug and then pining for game from the nostalgic past.
Keen sees MMO problems as a possibly good thing, but I think that's essentially naive optimism. He's hoping that this is the opportunity for some large company to come along and save the day. He said the same thing about APB a few years ago, but things have been getting darker and darker since then. High profile failures mean that publishers, who are by nature risk-adverse, are going to shun MMO development as being too expensive and too risky. His optimism about older titles being developed for less money ignores the fact that when these games were being made, those MMOs were still the most expensive games being made. MMO budgets have increased as single-player game budgets have increased. The audience has different expectations now than they did 10 or so years ago. WoW, a game that cost $30-60 million depending on the source, will celebrate it's 8th birthday this year, and people are already calling its graphical style outdated. As much as I might wish we could roll back the clock 15 years and enjoy the development budgets back then, it's not realistic to expect that to be a recipe for success.
Further, you still need money and expertise to make an MMO. As much as I love the idea of indies revolutionizing games, indie MMOs have not exactly been rampant successes. (It's interesting to note that Dave went from developing online mulitplayer games to focusing on single-player games.) Even a modest game requires a team of people, a minimum amount of time, and ongoing support after launch. It's a lot to ask for a team to do this part-time. And, there's no solution in sight. Middleware has not proven to be a panacea, able to tame the cost or effort it takes to make a game. Most middleware providers have to sell to a limited audience, which means they need to make a lot of money per sale to make enough money to stay in business.
My own personal failing
I'd like to say that I have a solution, that I know the way to solve the MMO problem. Sadly, the solution I've been working on has obviously not stuck a chord with people. We had hoped that the vision of allowing people to tell their own stories in an MMO would stir the imagination. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be the case. Yeah, there were obviously some flaws in how we presented the concept. It's clear now we should have focused more on presenting a game rather than the Storybricks editor. But, I have to wonder how much of our dismal performance was just people not being very excited about MMO innovation in the first place.
The cold, hard reality is that Storybricks is running short on capital. Skittish investors have bolted away with the recent news. I had hoped we could turn around and propose an MMO that uses our revolutionary AI system, but it's likely we won't even be making an MMO if we manage to stay in business unless there's a groundswell of support from the fans.
Maybe an upcoming MMO will reinvigorate things and prove to have real staying power. The great big hopes seem to be Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World. Maybe these will find an enthusiastic audience and remind people of what MMOs can be. Or maybe 5 months after launch we'll hear about ArenaNet or FunCom laying off the majority of their staffs as players have come and gone.
Honestly? I don't know what to do now. Part of me wants to shake my fists to the heavens and do the impossible. Part of me wants to curl up someplace quiet and whimper. The logical part of me knows trying to do anything is a fool's errand without a terrific team, resources, and support from gamers. Sadly, those last two seem not to be quite so common as I would like.
What do you think? Is it time for MMOs to go gentle into that good night? Or is there still something worth fighting for?