Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

26 April, 2016

What is the worst possible outcome for MMOs?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:29 PM

My friend Richard Bartle suggested a topic on Google+: “What’s your most pessimistic (yet realistic) view of the future of MMOs?”

He’s always a ray of sunshine in my day. :) But, let me consider the worst possible case for MMOs.

Let’s get dark for a moment

Honestly? I’m not entirely sure we’re not in the most pessimistic time for MMOs right now. We have games shunning the term “MMO” despite obviously being MMOs. The western MMO industry is moribund, to put it in the best possible terms. The most exciting recent imported MMO from Asia can be summed up as, “far broader than it is deep”. We have a cranky old audience unwilling to accept changes to the business model to keep smaller games profitable. You have potential new players getting their mulitiplayer gaming experiences from mobile gaming instead of MMOs.

Can it get worse than this? Well, sure. I’m not some casual pessimist that simply fears we live in the best of all worlds. I think things can always get worse.

The new imported MMOs could be dramatic failures as well. Not enough players to justify the expense of development and localization. Existing Western MMOs that shun the MMO title could focus on their non-MMO features and turn further away. No new MMOs are released in the next several years.

Can it get worse still? You betcha.

The few small MMOs in development flounder and fail. People eagerly awaiting indie games like Pantheon or Project: Gorgon are disappointed when the games ultimately fail to ship because the finances can’t be justified anymore, even as vanity projects. New games offering multiplayer options fail to learn the lessons of MMOs, and MMOs fade into total obscurity except for a few die-hard fans of Furcadia creating little worlds for their own amusement.

Am I done yet? Oh, no; what came before was the warm-up.

Then MMOs become forgotten, and in a few years when the usual cycle of games should allow for them to come back, nobody cares. When I go to pitch a futuristic Kickstarter campaign to revive Meridian 59 in 5 years, the internet gives one collective yawn. I then go to create AR casino apps with exploitative microtransaction systems in order to stay fed, while crying myself to sleep every night.

Dark enough for you yet? Well, I’ll stop here so I don’t hear the weeping.

How did we get here?

So, what happened? Back in the mid 2000s, everyone was sure that MMOs were going to be an unstoppable juggernaut defining the future of games. I think one important thing happened: World of Warcraft

A very smart game developer was asked in an interview in 2007, “If you could take over control of one major MMORPG – which would you choose and what would you do with it?” His response was: “I’d take over World of Warcraft and I’d close it.” His reasoning was that WoW was sucking all the oxygen out of the room, because investors and players wanted MMO developers to duplicate that success. Another sometime smart game developer quite agreed with the points in his interview.

To clarify, as I often have to do, this isn’t to say that WoW is a bad game. But, it did stifle a lot of innovation as people worked to clone the game without having the fundamentals in place that Blizzard did when they developed WoW. This ended in a lot of money wasted on failures, and thus a lot of investors wary of MMOs. This destroyed a lot of possibly interesting games.

And, yeah, we probably can’t lay that all at WoW’s feet. The original EQ’s massive success focused a lot of people, including WoW’s develoepers, on duplicating that specific type of game while ignoring all the other variations of MMOs out there. The lines represented by games like UO or M59 were not pursued quite as strong as the EQ/WoW lineages were, at least in at the time in the west.

How do we fix this?

Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? And, since someone else asked a question related to this, I’ll hold off on answering this question until a bit later. :)

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  1. Consider what happened to the old paper wargames. From their peak with Avalon Hill and SPI, the market crashed to maybe 1% of its previous size.

    Markets sometimes die, or as close to it as doesn’t much matter.

    Comment by Paul — 26 April, 2016 @ 6:14 PM

  2. The difference to MMOs being that paper war games take a few thousand dollars to develop and print (possibly measured in the tens), so they can survive as a niche. That’s much harder to imagine with MMOs.

    Comment by unwesen — 26 April, 2016 @ 10:17 PM

  3. Name a genre or subgenre of popular entertainment created in the last century or two that has completely vanished. Nothing, once invented, can ever be uninvented.

    Then there’s the issue of how many MMOs we will ever need. Certainly not more than we already have. If there’s never another new MMO it would mean we might get to enjoy some of the many existing ones that we currently can’t find time to play.

    And if every single one of them closes down, commercially, that opens huge opportunities for hobbyists and enthusiasts to take over – there’d be a LOT of abandonware and a lot less interest in closing fan projects down.

    I think there’s an extremely high possibility that in five or ten years almost no new players will be entering the hobby. The world is changing in the biggest way, culturally, that we’ve seen in fifty years. That won’t have much effect on the remaining hobbyist rump, though, or not until the bulk of them die off, anyway.

    Of course, if you look at it from a developer’s point of view rather than a consumer’s then I guess the future would look bleak.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 27 April, 2016 @ 12:36 AM

  4. One critical issue for PvE MMOs is that games companies have become much smarter at multiplayer PvP games.

    PvP games are no longer zero sum “sports” contests and so have the elements that people like about PvP without the catastrophic problems of the past.

    Old school Example:

    1. Quakeworld. Massive skill ramp up that wasn’t clear to new players. If you were only a bit better, it gave the enemy almost no chance. Incomprehension of what the player that won 40-0 was doing. If you lost you got nothing other than being the loser. Even in team modes, skill based carrying was the most important thing except in top level competition.

    New school examples:

    1. Battlefield 4 – Now a great game thanks to long improvement. The levelling, weapon unlocking and additions keep even bad players playing and some of the game modes mean that even those that aren’t the best at the core option of “human-aim-bot” shooting have lots to do and contribute. Teamwork is important and that gives it depth.

    2. HOTS – Levelling again. Good ,despite what the players say most of the time, ELO based match making that makes many, even most, games fun and basically even contests. Avoidance of strict pay-to-win. Teamwork can win a game easily against “skill”. Teamwork is a skill, obviously, but a very human one. Blizzard mostly on top of abuse etc.

    3. Hearthstone – easy to play, tough to master. Lots of in game rewards even if you lose. Kind of hides the fact it is a PvP game most of the time. Ladder based play so reasonably even games for most of each month. Random elements of any card game increased to allow even the worst players to win some games (sorry to the people that lose to my 3 year old son!).

    4. Zynga Poker – Fake money, gives you loads of it for free, lets you play for ever for free on $1 tables or “risk” it all on $100,000+ tables. Obviously a great game as it is poker. Then has the shitty buying of fake money thing that I am sure sucks people in :(

    5. Counterstrike – well, the skill thing is just as harsh as ever although CS 1.6 people might disagree. However, it has ELO based matchmaking so makes it much less unpleasant than old CS games from the “losing every game” point of view. And rare drop loot at the end of each game!

    Twitch is all PvP with each good/big single player game rising to the top for a short period until it naturally fades off.

    I think it is looking like people wanted to play against people but used to dislike it because it was usually a horrible experience. I played a ton of AC and WoW and now it all seems just a bit empty and pointless now, beyond the narrative single player stuff that Blizzard is good at. Why grind when I can have a fun round of PvP where the gameplay effortlessly has depth just because people are your opponents?

    Optimism for PvE? High level raiding has depth and fun and potentially could have more of both so how about a game that is roleplaying if you want it, story and raids. Drop the grind. Hmm, Pokemon MMORPG!


    Comment by Dominic Fitzpatrick — 27 April, 2016 @ 2:25 AM

  5. I could have added in a “why this happened” section. unwesen’s reply to Paul provides one answer: MMOs are expensive. The conservatism in the game industry got multiplied by an order of magnitude since MMO budgets were an order of magnitude larger than other games. Instead of trying new things, games tried to go the supposedly “safe” route of cloning existing games. So, developers shoulder some of the blame. Of course, these budgets remained high because investors wanted big returns on big investments, as I did point out in the article.

    But, the audience shares some of this blame, too. While some vocal fans clamored for “originality” in games, the market demonstrated that it really wasn’t interested in innovation. People stuck with existing games rather than trying new ones. A game that didn’t boast AAA level assets and polish were often ignored by the audience, even if trying new and interesting things. Thus the novel games languished in obscurity while a few old workhorses continued to dominate and age not-so-gracefully. Then when the shiny new medium comes along, it swoops in and steals interest and investment. The only recent MMO to show any success is FFXIV; however, like WoW, this game has a lot of elements that made it successful that can’t be easily duplicated by other teams. And, we have to kindly overlook the fact that the first version of FFXIV was a financial failure and FFXIV only continues profitably because much of the development expense was likely written off.

    As I said, I’ll write a little bit about what I think can save MMOs. But, I the most likely answer is that there will still be a long road before we see MMOs excite people as much as they have in the past.

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 April, 2016 @ 9:35 AM

  6. Useful question, reasonable answer. It actually suggested to me a theory that we may be late in a second wave of MMOs. (Probably not a new theory, but I don’t recall seeing it before.)

    Wave 1 consisted of the MMOs prior to WoW’s success that got made because multiplayer fun seemed like a worthy kind of fun to make. Developers made MMOs because they wanted to make MMOs.

    Wave 2 were the MMOs made after WoW exploded. These were consciously funded and built as business engines — their primary reason for existence was to copy not the features of WoW, but the business model: attract millions of continuously paying customers. Copying WoW’s perceived features was merely a convenient means to that end.

    Even after the revenue model shifted from subscription to “free-to-play,” making money by creating a general service (online fun) rather than a specific product remains the driver behind most serious MMO development efforts.

    Of course this isn’t to say there haven’t been some people who try to build a particular MMO because they like that form of play. What I’m suggesting here is that they’re the exceptions to the Second Wave pattern of making MMOs as a service-based business, where the specific features are secondary — not irrelevant, but not as important.

    I’m also not making an anti-capitalism statement. New money chases old money, always, often missing the point of how the old money got made.

    A good theory explains and predicts. I think this one explains reasonably well the nature (“broad but not deep”) of most post-WoW MMORPGs as well as their failure to match WoW’s appeal. Even the use of a popular franchise (Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Elder Scrolls) hasn’t been enough to sustain WoW-like player numbers after the post-launch burst. This makes sense if consumers are getting more sophisticated — maybe even jaded — and increasingly see MMOs as cash grabs.

    As for prediction: if we’re near an exhausted end of Second Wave “just build an online service; I don’t care what it sells” MMOs, then maybe the end-of-days scenario outlined above comes to pass. Or perhaps, as bhagpuss suggests, a new Third Wave of hobbyist MMOs may emerge. That’s not impossible — imagine if several powerful MMO engines suddenly became nearly free as Unity and Unreal and CryEngine have. Making — and operating — an MMO will always be a lot of work, but modern tools might reduce those costs enough to ignite a new wave of innovation.

    Which would in turn be followed again by switching to a monetization focus, but so it goes. :)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 27 April, 2016 @ 10:01 AM

  7. One bad possible outcome is that devs continue to make them as they are OR we only get recycled ones. We need a brave, profitable outlier to do something different with the genre and be brave. Few will bet on this because the vision and budget required to see that through will be challenging as all hell.

    Comment by Isey — 27 April, 2016 @ 1:11 PM

  8. The problem I have is that this can be easily read as a condemnation of the damn customers who favored one game over another or who don’t like a given business model or who didn’t jump on and stick with a series of big budget, but chronically flawed, MMO releases for the sake of the genre.

    Whenever I, an admitted cranky old gamer, complain about some aspect of the genre… cash shop shenanigans especially… I am often reminded that MMOs are a business and they have to do what they have to do to pay the bills. And I have to accept that.

    But that cuts both ways. A business that blames its customers for not buying its product is missing the point. If you don’t have something customers are willing to pay for, that is the market in action. If the MMO genre sinks into oblivion, it will be because the offerings didn’t seem worth the price or the time or because there is something else that scratches whatever itch that MMOs were taking care of up until now. MOBAs, match-based pseudo-shooters, small group action games, there are a bunch of things that has crept on the scene since WoW launched nearly a dozen years ago. One of the best aspects of MMOs early on was being able to play online with friends easily compared to other genres. That “easy” gap no longer exists. My own “worldly” online exploration and crafting game needs are currently being met mostly by Minecraft run as multiplayer with some friends. $27 to buy in, $9 a month for a server. Cheaper than WoW.

    If the genre disappears, it will be because it just stopped being fun relative to other options.

    I will promise to pitch in at the $25 tier when you get that M59 Kickstarter running. I won’t promise to actually play it however.

    Comment by Wilhelm Arcturus — 27 April, 2016 @ 3:08 PM

  9. Wilhelm Arcturus wrote:
    A business that blames its customers for not buying its product is missing the point.

    I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. There’s a quote I had in my email signature for years that went:

    “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
    ― Anna Lappé

    The MMO audience has voted repeatedly in a way that contradicts the most vocal members of that audience. In particular, the market has voted repeatedly for WoW despite some people vocally saying they want different types of games. If people don’t spend money on (i.e. vote for) other types of games, then they don’t get made.

    We’ve seen this even more starkly with PvP games. For a long time, people lamented that there was a dearth of PvP games, lamenting the lack of options. Yet, when presented with some PvP game there was always a ready excuse for why the game failed: too buggy, not hardcore enough, too hardcore, too weird, too carebear, too foreign, etc. There were diehards that insisted that if some game would have “PvP done right” we’d see a golden era. The reality is that without supporting the games that did try to support PvP, you’re not going to get more games to support PvP. (And I wouldn’t be surprised to find out someone out there still chants the “PvP done right!” mantra every day, waiting for that promised game to come.)

    Or, to use a non-game metaphor, it’s like wanting local organic food but complaining that the local organic place has lettuce that isn’t quite as pretty and apples that aren’t as shiny as at the mega store chain. Yeah, because organic means no pesticides and probably no food-grade wax on the fruits.

    So if MMOs do disappear, you can’t simply shake your fist at the heavens and curse the developers. Players have to take some responsibility for not supporting games that did what they want and being unwilling to explore business models that would allow for more niche interests.

    I will promise to pitch in at the $25 tier when you get that M59 Kickstarter running. I won’t promise to actually play it however.

    I’ll hold you to that. Although I don’t have rights to the M59 name anymore, so I’ll have to get creative with a new name. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 April, 2016 @ 5:03 PM

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