You’re the head manager of a new baseball team. You’re passionate about what you want to achieve, have some great ideas in mind and have at least enough money to get things rolling. When you tell other people about what your team is going to achieve, they sound excited too.
You know that you are entering a highly competitive baseball league with no salary cap, so it could be a very expensive exercise. However, you are sure that what you are going to bring to the league will make your team stand out.
The simple way to make money in baseball is to sell tickets into the stadium to fans. No ticket, no ability to watch. It’s a system that a lot of fans say they prefer and its the way all the older, bigger clubs do it.
It takes 4 to 6 years to actually get your team ready to play their first season. Assuming that your money holds out that long, you will have made compromises along the way as it turns out what you had in your head doesn’t work in reality, or works but isn’t really that interesting. Or maybe hiring one player means that you can’t afford to hire two others, so you have to choose and trade-off on who appears in the final line up.
Unfortunately by the time you’re almost ready to play, some of your players have been in the sidelines for the full 4 to 6 years. They may have been dynamic athletes at some point, but time hasn’t been kind to all of them… and they’re so tightly bound to the team through their contracts that you can’t really replace them.
But you get to game day and it’s exciting! Your team has their first ever official hit out and things go okay… but there are a few hiccups. Long-term fans of your team’s potential almost immediately turn on you. Within two or three outings the majority of your fans have stopped showing up to watch your team play, preferring to return to the older, more established clubs at game time. Fans also complain that you haven’t achieved what you set out to do, that you sold out, that they were lied to.
All the money you spent on putting a team together is basically gone, and ticket sales are weak almost from the get-go (outside of the first game cash blast). Even the fans who stick around to the end of your first season show hesitation about coming back unless you can get some more exciting players in. After a long of financial argy-bargy, you manage to add a supposedly popular player… but the fans who left you feel they’ve already seen your team play and it isn’t worth coming back just for one extra player. Plus: the older teams are just better, okay?
And you might be playing baseball, but you’re also competing with other sports such as basketball, football and synchronised swimming for fans’ dollars. (Note: those synchronised swimming fans might be small in number, but they are absolutely nuts for it and will tell everyone that if only your baseball team took more lessons from synchronised swimming, it would be much more successful.) At one point baseball was considered to offer something special, but now it doesn’t seem to stand out any more. It seems like lots of fans are now heading off to cafes to chat instead of going to the baseball any more.
Which leaves you with two choices – cut the organisation down to the bare bones on the hope that you can keep regular ticket sales up high enough to outpace expenses, or open up your stadium for free at game time and hope enough hot dogs get bought that you can keep the lights on.
The Non-Analogy Version
The problem with AAA MMOs are (in no particular order):
- They cost too much;
- They take too long to build;
- Ideas and passion are easy, talk is cheap but execution is hard;
- The MMO competition is fierce and there is no shortage of it;
- The subscription model is no longer holds players / generates the revenue it did;
- Free-to-play sees more players into a title (whether they pay or not is a different story) and is actually a barrier to attracting players towards a new subscription game;
- Players don’t hang around in current MMOs as much as they did when they had less choice;
- What your fans will tell you is wrong with your game may not actually be what is really wrong with your game;
- Some studios appear to find it very hard to match development costs with financial capabilities;
- Offering online game play is no longer that special an offer;
- Player attention spans are shorter and diverted by other non-MMO titles / applications; and (crucially)
- All your eggs are in one basket but it takes players between 1 and 3 months to write your title off and you are what you are at launch.
These are systematic issues. It doesn’t matter if you create a good MMO within a well-managed company (or a bad MMO at a poorly managed company, for that matter) – you’ll still have to deal with them.
Some people have been saying that recent events will potentially lead to a better future for MMOs, but I’m not so sure. At one point playing online cooperatively with friends was considered a novelty, but that time has long passed when pretty much every title now has an online multiplayer component.
In theory, it is the “massively” that puts MMOs apart from just “multiplayer online”, but outside of offering the ability to talk about what’s happening with other players, I’m not sure how much value the massive part actually adds. As you add to the aggregate number of players in a location, the individual average value of each player drops, which runs counter to the philosophy that players should feel important in-game. It’s lousy escapism to leave your every day life for a game where you feel you are relatively worse off and weaker.
When even mainstream single player games are being built for online play (and potential online coop), I’m not sure what MMOs offer that is unique any more.