The Single Biggest Problem Facing MMOs Today

Usually at this time of the year I’d be writing up a full year review about how MMOs have been doing for the past year. Or even just reviewing my predictions and making up forecasting new ones. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to do that now (actually, I don’t even have the time to write this post; SHHH, DON’T TELL ANYONE).

But following on from my recent “not the way with buy-to-play” article about The Secret World, I had another thought that can actually be written up in less than 1000 words. It is the absolutely largest problem facing the MMO industry and no-one has yet come up with a solution.

(Someone else probably has written this thought before, but it is new to me at the moment so I’m going to treat it as original.)

The Thought

A sign showing the directions to doom and gloom.

Hmm, which way to go…

On nearly every single objective measure you can name – stability, performance, technical graphics and sound delivery, effort put into the content, etc – the MMOs released in 2011 and 20112 are better than they’ve ever been.

According to loud protest and falling player numbers, on nearly every single subjective measure, the MMOs released in 2011 and 2012 aren’t worth p(l)aying with for long.

That’s a hell of a gap to cross. It’s not about developers doing their job better, because they are (at the industry-level) delivering on their job tasks to a higher standard than ever before. Instead, it is about players no longer feeling it, no longer getting the connection that would see them pay for a subscription fee month after month for years. There are just too many free options out there that will serve a similar enough need and players are at a point where every small miss-step is a flaw worth quitting over because some other MMO they like (but may not play) has that feature or hasn’t made that mistake.

Which is why this age of MMOs is in decline. I’m sure some people will show up in the comments bearing their favourite crosses – sandbox! PvP! player housing! innovate! make EQ / DAOC, but with better graphics and all the new stuff I like! – but that’s not going to save the MMO any more than story as the fourth pillar was going to. MMOs are released that contain those features, but for a critical mass of players they aren’t done correctly so don’t count.

And MMOs need a critical mass to work. MMOs without critical mass go into maintenance mode or get shut down.

In entertainment media like video games, the subjective experience beats the objective delivery. You can point out that TSW is in pretty much every technical and content production way imaginable a better MMO than Everquest, but then someone will go on about that time in EQ when they managed to get there corpse back after a dangerous run and it was THE BEST TIME EVER and not something that TSW can match. (They probably won’t tell you or will downplay how many hours it too to re-level that character up, which isn’t something they’d stand for today.)

If you are in a situation where you are doing your job better than ever, but your customers get ever more dismissive of your output, it’s time to find another job. Because even if they are right – you might think you are doing your job better, but you really aren’t – it’s not an easy thing to turn around.

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17 thoughts on “The Single Biggest Problem Facing MMOs Today

  1. I think maybe that the things they are doing objectively better are maybe not the things they should be focusing on.. My magic eight ball isn’t giving me any hints what those are though

    I also think that the player base has become far more diverse in their interest and have better learnt now what they like and don’t like, so a broad approach to mmo features and designing to a median is no longer appropriate.

    • I agree about the segmentation of the market – for a while there were a handful of fantasy MMOs, one or two sci-fi MMOs and then a few other more ‘niche’ titles. Today there is so much choice that just aiming for the middle / a small improvement on what’s familiar isn’t enough for a critical mass of players to find it attractive any more.

      A while back I thought that there was a market of around 500k to 1m players who’d be there to try any new AAA MMO – and maybe there was for a time – but then TSW comes along and only sells 200k boxes. MMOs now have to try to be ‘massive’ with active player bases that may number in the low tens of thousands, not the 100s of thousand that used to be the norm.

  2. I just came at what I think is the same problem from a different direction. I believe that the MMO’s of a decade ago thrived despite the actual gameplay. The game was something that you would do with your friends, and your friends hopefully remain interesting even if there hasn’t been a patch or even if that bug hasn’t been fixed yet. Today’s products are orders of magitude better as games, but those same aspects make them much more suited for players to play them and move on without ever making the type of friends you are willing to pay a third party to rent on a monthly basis.

    • or rather, now that we have much better options for that social interaction, people go to where they can find it, instead of creating it out of MMOs. We’re going to be able to look back at UO and EQ and WoW in a few years and say ‘people played them, because they were the only large, persistent population places to gather; now those same places are called Facebook, Word Feud, Instagram and League of Legends’.

      It will turn out that we weren’t in those older MMOs because they were *good*, but because they were the only available options at the time. Doesn’t mean they were bad, of course; just that their popularity was not related to any measure of goodness.

      • I agree with both of you as well – for a while there MMORPGs were the best option at what they did. They were the ones who built online communities around games and held large scale events, plus set-up the ground work for guilds.

        Today there are a host of more polished options if you are interested in (say) PvP or being part of a gaming community. What was unique about MMOs has been eroded.

  3. League of Legends. World of Tanks. Team Fortress 2.

    When I mention these names in MMO threads, I’m usually shouted down. They are not, according to the objective classifications, MMORPGs. However they are computer games and they have grown MASSIVELY over the last year.

    If we are asking where the lost bodies have gone, I would take a look at the above.

    There is some form of substitution going on for various reasons and I don’t think New Pricing Schemes, A Return to Difficulty or A Better Sandbox are the miracle cures that the MMO industry needs.

    • Someone else pointed out to me that TF2 was Valve’s MMO, and they are completely right. The titles you mention can be played either as the short play casual fun way or the hardcore, coordinated semi-pro team way. There is account progression and rewards as you ‘level up’. And they start off F2P.

      Plus by capping off the number of players allowed in an ‘instance’ (map) and simplifying game mechanics (e.g. no crafting that requires dev time and can unbalance other game aspects) the end result is more predictable and thus easier to design for.

      It’s the reason why the MOBA genre is booming while MMOs are declining.

  4. Just as City of Heroes recently found out that its effective audience at closing could fit comfortably inside Dodger Stadium, MMO fans are finding out that their fanbase is a lot more limited than they originally would have hoped. After 14+ years, MMOs are a mature product – there aren’t any new major game changing innovations to be had coming down the pipes that will turn not-MMO fans into MMO fans. The genre is effectively at capacity – developers and publishers are actually overestimating demand for MMO games as a product. The fans who clamor for X, Y and Z features in their next MMO are not new fans – they’ve been playing MMOs for a while and have something they want, but outsiders don’t consider those features important or find them ‘fun’.

    Every time I look at MMO blogs and news sites I note that content is almost always is directed at current fans and longtime players, especially old-schoolers. Very few places spend time to consider what a new player might look like or what draws in outsiders. Many are openly hostile to outsiders, not wanting their sacred games ‘dumbed down’. This is actively hostile to the interests of growing an audience. The fanbase then wonders why people dislike MMOs or find their communities to be elitist or hostile. There reaches a point when developers basically just have to ignore the fanbase as their interests are openly contradictory and hostile to long term business. The hardcore MMO fanbase is calcified, extremely picky, quick to judge, and shrinking relative to the growth of video games as an entertainment medium. If they continue to persist as they are (and they will) the end result is the same fate as the classic video arcade audience – a niche market for nostalgia lovers. Do arcades still exist? Of course. Are they significant in video gaming beyond historical purposes at this point? Not really.

    Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the growth of MMOs in general is its old-guard fanbase. It has not really meaningfully grown (in reference to the broader mainstreaming of video game culture) and it is now aging out and not being replaced. Shrinking fandoms often become extremely critical and negative (and even more elitist). This is not helping the industry very much. Objectively the games are actually getting better – the problem is no one cares. Just as an 80s arcade purist is horrified by modern games, an old school MMO fan looks at a modern MMO and finds nothing redeemable about it.

    • The 80s arcade purist being horrified by modern titles is a good example – there is still a holdover from that type that modern games are ‘too easy’ while ignoring that arcade games were hard because they wanted your money and didn’t care about telling a story. Games today are focusing on different things as a priority due to how the industry and player has progressed.

      I also agree about the old-school MMORPGers being the kind of audience you can’t satisfy – they are looking for the same kind of experiences that they had 10 years ago but they aren’t the same kind of people any more and they’ve had 100s more hours playing MMOs since then. But it’s like having the most fun ever at your 5th birthday party and then complaining when you do exactly the same kind of things for your 20th birthday that the party sucked because the clowns and bouncy castles must have been defective – there’s a failure to see that you as a person have changed and what you find fun has changed.

      But when they can’t find what they are looking for, they blame the game.

      MMORPGs as a niche is a very possible scenario. I have an opinion that the MMOs that succeeded did so not by having the existing base take it up (because they were likely already entrenched in the existing titles) but through convincing enough new-to-MMO players to come on board. If this is the case, trying to appeal to the old-school with any future MMO launches is doomed to failure. And sadly any new players who might be open to playing MMOs are being attracted elsewhere.

      • This is just one example. Games are changing as developers and publishers seek wider audiences. This is hardly a new phenomena – I have lived through 5 generations of console game systems, the rise and fall of video arcades, and the so-called Golden Age of PC gaming. Video games as a medium have never been more popular than they are right now. There’s still a lot of resentment from the old crowd of any era by wanting to be considered special because they were into video games before it was cool. There will always be at least some demand for most any genre of game (witness the death and niche-rebirth of the Adventure game as a genre in the last 20 years) and there will always be purists harping on any change to a beloved genre.

        As for your last point – I agree 100%. Successful MMOs are successful specifically because they draw in people who have never played an MMO before – there are a huge number of World of Warcraft players who never even played any video games before WoW. MMO audiences have a lot of churn to them and the need to draw in new players to sustain a title is paramount to sustaining a high server population. This was true even in the days of Everquest – I remember a news story long ago just after it had sold its 200,000th copy with the comment that there were only 100,000 or so subscribers actually active by the time it reached that milestone. The reporter was wondering about the viability of a genre of game where less than half your initial audience has stayed on after 3 months.The audience has always been a moving one and successful games have always found ways to cope with that.

        The modern solution is to make games accessible to non-gamers. This infuriates the old-school base, but the old-school base isn’t willing to pay more to sustain old-school games that move past the point of financial viability because they always paid X amount before, why should it cost more now? Developers and publishers seek larger audiences for more money because they are a business. It isn’t getting any cheaper to make games, and devs and publishers need to eat/feed their families.

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  6. It should be noted that the bar for success has changed enormously. UO was a success in 1997 because it had 50 000 players. SWTOR was a failure in 2012 because it only had a million.

  7. Hi! Mid-term reader, first-time poster.

    I remember seeing something a long time ago, on a message board long gone, about the lifecycle of a genre. This was in the context of head-to-head fighting games like Street Fighter. But it doesn’t have to be about videogames – it can really be about anything, and once you know the cycle, you start seeing it everywhere.

    Unfortunately I don’t remember the details very well. I’ll try my best to replicate it, because it very clearly applies to MMORPGs (and other MMOs as well probably) as they are right now…

    1) A new game comes along that defines or defines a genre. With fighting games this was Street Fighter 2. For modern graphical MMORPGs this was probably Everquest. For MMOFPSes this was Doom. For adventure games this was Adventure. And so on.

    2) and 3) Lots of copying and innovation goes on and the genre matures. People remember the first game with rose-tinted glasses, but realise that they’re a bit clunky to the Really Cool Things that are happening in the genre right now.

    4) Saturation – There are far too many games in the genre. There’s little innovation left, and the new bells and whistles being added to new games in the genre just add increasing amounts of complexity that drive away newcomers.

    5) Decline – After a while, lots of the old guard are leaving, the genre has lots of little quirks and oddities and conventions that make it impenetrable for newcomers to join in, and the whole thing thing stutters to a stop, or goes into a very low output ‘maintenance mode’.

    At the time (the late 90s / early 2000s) the fighting game genre was clearly on its last legs. Very little happened with fighting games for a long while (especially in Western markets), until Street Fighter IV came along in 2008 and revitalised things, and went with “nostalgia plus extra oomph” to draw in old and new players.

    MMORPGs (and other MMO games) are either in the last parts of the Saturation phase, or are already in the Decline phase.

    • The life cycle of genre “popularity” is a very good point. It’s not necessarily inevitable (in my view, anyway) if a genre can keep re-inventing itself in some way – FPSs seem to have hung on to popularity for a long time now – but players do get weary when things don’t evolve.

      MMOs might be particularly vulnerable to this issue since you have to play at least 50 hours+ (and sometimes a lot, lot more) to advance your character to a reasonable status point. This required time investment is actually a deterrent to trying a new title that may have minor evolution over existing ones – what’s the point in spending all that time for something that feels and plays in a very similar fashion? But at the same time major changes are very risky, and possibly not worth investing in because the ROI wouldn’t be there.

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