2009: A Year of Shitty MMOs

I read Scott Jenning’s blog post about how terrible the year was for MMOs, and I had to agree that it wasn’t a fun year for MMO companies. “But still,” I thought to myself, “If I had my own blog, I would have a couple of counter-points to make.” That’s when Sandra reminded me I have something called Elder Care, or Elder Scrolls, or something like that. I finally remembered my password, and here I am! Um, I have some counter-points to make. (Put your vitriol helmets on now.)

Fate Was Not Kind To You, WAR, Because You Were Developed By Morons

Some readers have asked me why I didn’t pick on Warhammer Online. The fact is that I did write about how doomed they were… but those posts never left the “drafts” section of the blog, because it was too easy a target. It’s like making fun of the mentally challenged kid: you don’t get points for showing them up. Anybody in the industry could have predicted what happened to WAR with 100% accuracy.

Gee, was WAR created by somebody who thinks people who disagree with him should be “burned at the stake”? Wait, and did that same article point out that WAR was developed primarily by inexperienced developers because they were easier to cow into obedience? Yes? Wait, literally? That wasn’t even exaggerated? Huh. And they said they hate playing other MMO’s because it “gives them ideas”? Weird. Maybe… maybe… could any of that have had something to do with the tons of newb mistakes they made? Nah. It was probably just the economic downturn.

In case you are confused by sarcasm, what I mean is the company deserved to fail due to their incompetence and they did, and anybody surprised by this is probably surprised by other predictable things, like the sun rising. They made a DAoC clone that wasn’t as compelling as the original, with a weaker IP (sorry, Warhammer tabletop fan(s), but it’s true: your IP is not even as big a draw as the free “Vaguely Camelot” IP), and they spent an amazing amount of time and money making the game, yet launched it with a pittance of content. And then they did all sorts of crazy things, like opting not to open forums, even for support. This made many players’ initial experience, including my own, pretty miserable. I had originally predicted they would have only 100k by their first-year mark, and I don’t know what exact number they have now, but I’d be a little surprised if they have that many playing customers.

Champions Online Falls On Face

I just canceled my Champions Online account yesterday. The place is a ghost town; I’d be confused and amazed if they have more than 50k subscribers (because, if so, where the heck are they?). Frankly, the game was launched way too soon, and they did the dumbest thing you can possibly do to a fragile game: they made a launch-day patch that made the game tons harder. After months of beta-testing, they threw ALL their data out the door, jacked all the monster difficulties way up, and shipped it. What kind of an idiot would do that? Actually, every newb team makes this mistake. It’s caused by thinking, “Holy SHIT, players will reach level 50 in a month of play! We have to fix it!” And so they fix it, all right. They make the game so un-fun that nobody bothers to get to 50 at all. Ta-da!

The thinking is really just that simple, and it’s always this stupid knee-jerk last minute reaction among the team. MMO’s need players to survive, and a traditional boxed game gets 90% of its players from its initial launch. So MMO companies are really keen to keep all those players paying for at least three months… ideally six months. But they realize they’re out of time, so they just flip some knobs, twiddle some monster skills, and hope for the best. Inevitably, they would have been better off letting people level quickly. Some might get bored, but they are likely to come back later when more stuff is added. If you make the game into an unbalanced muckball, everybody’s experience will be terrible and they won’t come back.

Sandra and my newbie experience was pretty amusingly bad. Our level 13 characters got stuck, unable to continue playing because we picked the wrong skills — we could no longer defeat monsters anywhere near our level. We had to roll new characters! That was basically when Sandra quit. I kept going a while longer, but the imbalances were pretty dramatic (both too easy and too hard, randomly, in every aspect of the game), and it sapped the fun out of being a superhero.

It’s better now, actually. It’s kind of fun now. If you like playing in a ghost town. Because there’s almost nobody left. If you want to play, I recommend you do it now! It’s getting hard to find PvP arena groups as it is… soon it may be impossible. I don’t know what they’re gonna do… well, if Cryptic can hold on until the Xbox 360 version launches, I’ll be happy to give the game another shot on the console.

“Of course Cryptic will stay alive!” you say. “They have Star Trek Online coming out in a couple months!” Uh, hrm. Well, here’s where I don’t pick on Star Trek Online because it’d be like making fun of the mentally handicapped again. Sorry, guys. I love the IP, and I know Cryptic is working hard, and I’d love to be proven wrong, but I can’t see it happening. STO won’t be substantially more polished than Champions was at launch. Why? Because it’s a significantly more complicated game, and it’s launching much too soon to be good enough. It will be lucky to retain 100k subscribers a year after launch. That number would be fine, except they probably need a lot more money than that to keep the lights on at Cryptic HQ, let alone repay their debts.

Aion Core Gameplay Involves Grinding and Being Murdered Repeatedly

Oh god Aion is a beautiful game. I don’t just mean the inhumanly pretty avatars. I mean the whole world has great art direction. It feels like Asian Disneyland From Hell. It’s wonderful. Cute kangaroos hop up to you and box you to death. Mole people squeal and fall over in mid-combat, too excited to keep fighting. One of the first surprise encounters comes from cute animated stalks of evil corn. There are beautiful lakes full of loons calling, fish swimming, adorable lobsters nipping at your feet. This game has serious atmosphere.

But it has the biggest grind EVAR. I had lots of friends who started it and were excited by it, and they have all left, except for one. The invariable reason? “This game is grindy as hell.” It’s got serious pacing problems, and for a PvP game it takes WAY too long to get to the PvP part.

And then when you get to the PvP part, turns out it’s full of these bird men who are 20 levels higher than you who continuously kill you, for fun, just for the hell of it. I had read that there were, like, these elaborate tiers of combat, so I could occasionally fight people somewhere near my level. That has yet to ever happen. Well, sometimes I can sneak up on an enemy while they’re fighting in PvE, and gank ‘em. That makes me feel like a big dickhead.

I’m still paying for Aion, but… I can’t see myself staying in it for much longer. And I lasted longer than almost everyone I know. The worlds are still relatively populated, though not nearly as much as two months ago. But it’s a beautiful game, and the US maintainers are desperately trying to fix things — they’ve gone to double-XP weekends every weekend in order to try to get people up to higher level so they can PvP. Will they succeed? Search me.

Aion is still a big hit in its homeland. But it’s a just modest success in the US. And the sad thing is, it’s the biggest US hit of the year by a long shot. (Ignoring WoW, which is on its own scale.)

Big-Ticket MMO’s Still Sucking, Facebook Games Growing More Fun

Another thing Scott’s blog pokes fun at are the terrible Facebook games that seem to be soul-sucking leeches, designed to hook players like crack and then spam their friends list for more suckers. Those games really are pretty terrible. But why is everybody focusing on these leech games? They are the dying breed on Facebook.

I was just working on a Facebook game with a lot of actual gameplay. It’s in Flash and it’s actually got a real virtual world and avatars and everything. And content and gameplay and so on! This is the future of Facebook games: actual games that happen to be integrated closely with Facebook.

Smart devs should get in on this while they can — there’s still time to make one of these second-gen Facebook games… that is to say, games with actual content. But I understand if you want to just make fun of Farmville some more instead. It is definitely easier.

Games Are Nickel And Diming Me, But I Am Still Not Angry

Another thing Scott’s blog pokes fun at is how games are charging for more stuff now. He listed off a lot of examples, but none of them were at all upsetting to me, with one exception: charging for rerolls in Champions, because Champions was designed to need lots of rerolls in order to play well. So charging for it is exceptionally mercenary for a subscription-based game.

But the other stuff? Charging for world transfers, race changes, character renames, whatever? Yeah, go ahead. In fact, please do more of it. I like these sort of options and I don’t mind paying a few bucks for them. You are not losing customers by adding a for-pay race-changing option. You just aren’t. It’s not a problem. I don’t know what Scott is smoking.

Conclusion: It’s The Business Model, Stupid

It’s tempting to say that these big-league MMOs are suffering primarily due to the economic downturn. But I have a hard time buying it. The Flash casual game market has really heated up this year; our FlashGameLicense.com brokerage site is showing huge monetary growth in terms of online games of all sorts: casual, hardcore, whatever. I’ll admit that no Flash product is as hardcore as “go to the store and buy a $50 box to play this game”. But DDO is apparently breathing new life into Turbine as a “freemium” downloadable game. Champions and Warhammer could be doing this, too. Why aren’t they?

The reason they don’t is that small MMO companies are venture-capital collection machines. They seem to exist to get venture capital. They do not exist to eke out a modest profit off of their games; they need to show HUGE (500%) return on investment in order to keep getting more venture capital. So what happens when their game isn’t a 500% ROI game? They don’t try to salvage it and turn a nice sum. They immediately go about desperately making another game, another gambit, another roll of the dice, maybe we can keep this boat afloat before the VCs shut us down, maybe they won’t strip us for parts if this next game/expansion/repackaging/acquisition is a hit!

VC’s are used to most of their bets not paying off. That’s why they demand such huge rewards from the ones that do. Would it be possible to take 5 million and make a game that returns 15 million in ten years? Yes, that’s not even that hard. But good luck getting only 5 mil in venture capital. You’ll need to set your sites bigger. You’ll need to go for the mega-game that jousts with WoW’s popularity in order to get venture capitalists excited.

It’s a dead-end dream for most companies. The thing Sandra and I have always wanted to do in the MMO world is take one of these modest games, these Champions or Warhammers or Asheron’s Calls or whatever, and run them, and turn a tidy profit for many years. That dream is hard to realize because these companies aren’t interested in turning a minor profit on a game. (With the very notable exception of SOE, who is happy to keep a game going as long as it’s in the black. Good on ‘em. Note that they aren’t a venture-capital company, though.) For most game companies, when a game goes out the door and flops on its face, it’s not time to repurpose the game and figure out how to make a profit — it’s time for a hail-mary pass with the entire company.

In other words, yeah, these 2009 MMOs sucked. But not really. If the stakes weren’t so high, these would all be little success stories. They “suck” because they threw millions and millions at a product, scrambled as hard as they could for a few years, and then rolled the dice to see if they got rich instantly. They didn’t. So, bam. They suck by fiat.

I think we’re seeing that infusing game companies with fifty million in venture capital is not a reliable way to make or run a game. But we’re at a dead spot right now, where MMO’s are still too hard for a small privately-funded team to make, but not profitable enough for a VC firm to get rich off of. So the games keep imploding, the same sad story over and over. And yes, there will be more of the same for 2010, but we’re going to start seeing more of the small companies making names for themselves, showing reasonable profits and carving into the mainstream gaming audience. 2011 is when the flood-gates will finally burst.

Conclusion Part 2:

To be clear: I don’t mean to be picking on Scott Jennings. It does seem like I am, but this is just what happens when you single-source your vitriol-post. Scott’s a good guy who knows what he’s talking about, he won’t mind.

So, yeah, this is why I try not to share my random game opinions on the blog unless there’s something constructive to add. But I guess I’m averaging one hate-post a year, which isn’t too bad.

So yeah… I’ll see you later, when I finally manage to get the next of those Psychology for Designers articles completed!

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35 Responses to 2009: A Year of Shitty MMOs

  1. Longasc says:

    People on the other hand often say 2009 was shitty for MMOs, yet for some reason predict that: SWTOR won’t release in 2010, STO might or most likely will suck, Cataclysm comes in late autumn, and Guild Wars 2 and Diablo 3 won’t release before 2011 for sure… yet still say 2010 will become a better year? I dare to say, it might become even worse, unless Cataclysm gets hyped to the Stratosphere and people will play it because it is at least something new in this year? FF XIV, DCUO and all other games I can think of at the moment have announced to reveal their release date in 2010, so much about that.

  2. Ravious says:

    Hear, hear. In 2010 I am excited for….. Lego Universe. The end. Sure, I will likely fall prey to Cataclysm, but like you said it’s its own genre, and I hope that SOE’s The Agency will launch on PC (but they have been awfully silent as of late). I posted on KTR, that one of my biggest non-GW2 dreams is that WAR does repurpose… that EA realizes that we can still make some money, and Turbine did it pretty well with DDO so let’s try! Aion nearly just confirms that you cannot make an MMO for the entire world without re-tooling it for different MMO cultures.

  3. Powerdp says:

    “The thing Sandra and I have always wanted to do in the MMO world is take one of these modest games, these Champions or Warhammers or Asheron’s Calls or whatever, and run them, and turn a tidy profit for many years.”

    I don’t even work in developing and that’s such an appealing idea to me too, it’s more to do with grimacing and a feeling of unseized opportunities. Have been playing the unlimited trial of WAR recently and it’s actually quite fun, plenty of people in RvR and public quests, and the “Forces of Destruction/Order” does give a feeling of camaraderie and is inviting to new players. Some good ideas all in all, but still it’s cluttered with some uninspired design. Public quests which should be the jewel in the crown are a little lacking, being more social PvE than instancing or phasing is ever likely to be, especially when you’ve about 16 people clustered around what was designed for half that number, where’s the scaling? The disappointing fact is that if the uninspired bread-crumb trail of quest hubs was cast aside and PQ’s expanded and designed as a lead in to the RvR taking place in the middle of the map, it would be more engaging funnel leading to the core of the game and give the feeling of an army marching to engage an enemy, with skirmishes on the periphery.

    It probably goes back to your other point that VC companies are less likely to cast a critical eye over their game, take what works and expand it and casting aside what doesn’t work (although WAR seems to be getting too deeply cut at the moment, or rather complete zones left fall by the wayside), but more likely to just start on again on another game.

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  5. Ysharros says:

    You underestimate the entertainment value of your vitriol, which also happens to be pretty well-informed. ;)

    Do let me know when you take over Asheron’s Call from Turbine, I’d love to go back. Make em upgrade the gfx first though, counting one’s own polygons is SO 2001!

  6. Kaltano says:

    While not driving the customers away, I have to side more with Scott on the charging for extras thing. Though it’s more correctly charging for automated database changes. I’d love to switch my Alliance paladin to the horde in wow, but $30 for something thats essentially free for them? $5 i would have considered. Name changes i can kinda understand charging for so people can’t just escape the reputation they’ve created for themselves with the push of a button. My problem isn’t being charged for extras, but if it costs them nothing, shouldn’t that be part of the normal service?

  7. Angry Gamer says:

    I agree totally with this post. What a shitty year for MMO’s

    2010 won’t start off any better with that shit that will be Star Trek, but it should look up

  8. Nelson says:

    What a great rant! I pretty much agree with all of it. The only thing missing is you failed to critique Warcraft. I can’t decide if 2009 was a good year or a bad year for Blizzard. I quit WoW myself.

  9. Michael Scott says:

    Wait… Weren’t you the lead developer for AC2? One of the worst MMO’s ever made? I am confused by your decision to write a post about this industry.

  10. Kaltano says:

    “Wait… Weren’t you the lead developer for AC2? One of the worst MMO’s ever made?”
    From what I’ve heard AC 2 turned out as it did due to Ken Karl and Microsoft making Turbine rush AC2 out the door, most of the problems with testing were due to his promise that every AC player would be in the beta by a specific date. He kept that promise despite the game being in no condition to have so many testers at once. This is what I heard a few years ago however, of course Eric will know a bit better what went down.

  11. Eric says:

    I had nothing to do with AC2′s gameplay until after the game shipped. While AC2 was being developed, I was an engineer, not a designer, and I was in charge of things like the scripting language, and localization tools, and other very boring but important features. Most of which worked out pretty well, technically speaking. They used the scripting language and the localization tools in all their later games, for instance…

    But supposing for a moment that I was the “lead developer for AC2″… someone who watched the implosion of a game for the very reasons outlined in this post… wouldn’t that make me just about the best person in the world to write a post about it? Especially after seven years of hindsight? I think that would make me a pretty bad-ass blogger. But there was no “lead developer” for AC2, in the sense of “the buck stops here”. That role was spread among many people at Turbine and Microsoft. That was kinda one of the problems…

  12. Michael Scott says:

    I recall things a bit differently. But then again I was a DT player and remember the community feedback sent to you that was either ignored, or worst; acted on in completely opposite to what the players wanted.

    Granted, we weren’t the majority of your player base. And maybe you really did have your hands tied. Maybe we just needed someone to throw darts at on the forums. Or maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. At any rate, if you are talented then it is too bad your name is attached to the flaming pile. As a player, I just saw lots of forum ju-jitsu, false promises, and a lack of PvP fixes that left a bitter taste in my mouth. I mean really, who has damage scale geometrically and hp scale linearly? You would think there would be be someone out there on the development team that would have seen the lighthouse before the ship crashed into it. The players all saw it and complained (this is just one example I could think of).

  13. Matt says:

    I just checked FB, and City of Eternals has 3,000 monthly active users– compared to Farmville’s 74,000,000.

    Yeah, yeah, new game, in development, all that. At least you’re not playing it safe when you predict the success of the 3,000 user game over the 74,000,000 user “dying breed”. :)

  14. Philipp says:

    What about LoL?

  15. Peter S. says:

    Ah, I know it’s off-topic, but since it’s been brought up I can’t resist asking an AC2 question that’s bugged me since, well, forever.

    I actually liked the game, for what it was. It was pretty, it was fun, but there was one extremely tiny thing that pushed me from it, bugged me like a tiny rock in my shoe, and I have to ask whatever happened with it. Ready for it?

    Tumeroks’ jump into water.

    Early in the beta, the Tumerok would do this graceful head-first dive when jumping into water. Really demonstrated they were a naturally aquatic type, complemented their swim animation… and late in the beta, it apparently broke, and they would do the same sort of flailing animation everyone else did. I always wondered if anyone ever knew about it, or ever fixed it. (Doubtless incredibly low on the list, but I can’t resist asking just out of nostalgia.) That little thing was the grain that tipped the scales to not picking it up after the beta, for me, and I’m just curious, remember that at all?

    AC2 was the first time an MMO went away, and I’ve always regretted not having had the chance to explore all the stuff it had (kept putting off playing it, mostly due to college, never thinking it could poof). It had its flaws, but it presented a neat world with interesting things in it, and had its own visual style.

  16. UnSub says:

    On Cryptic, I believe they are designing their titles to be financially successful at 100k players – it’s one of the reasons why the games get rushed out because they don’t want to blow the budget. It’s also a reason why they charge for a lot of things in the cash shop (although respecs can be purchased with in-game cash too in ChampO).

    As Atari’s MMO arm, I think they are also being pushed into building up a stable of MMOs ala SOE.

  17. Aufero says:

    Having just canceled my Champions and Aion subscriptions for approximately the same reasons you list above, I can’t disagree much.

    I think it’s partially a problem of expectations, though.

    I expected Champions to be a step up from CoH/CoV, since it was made by the people who had the experience of making those games. Instead, it had awful writing, lousy balance, and bizarre gameplay that depended heavily on choosing the right fighting skills, (choosing the wrong skills made your character all but unplayable) but rewarded you for avoiding combat as much as possible.

    I expected Aion to be gorgeous and grindy, (I was in the North American closed beta from the beginning) but I didn’t realize that I’d only experienced a tenth of the grind in beta, and that there was very little to the rest of the game *except* grind. I also hadn’t realized their North American CS team was going to consist of about ten people at launch. NCSoft knows better – I can’t imagine what they were thinking when they assumed the game wouldn’t instantly attract botters and RMT.

    Both games just weren’t the products I expected experienced teams to make.

    Oddly, the new game I *am* still playing is a maiden effort, much less polished than either Aion or CO. Fallen Earth has clunky combat and UI mechanics, mediocre graphics, bugs everywhere I look, and plenty of grind of its own – but it’s a sandbox world with complex PvP and crafting systems, quirky voice acting, engaging quests and story lines, and HUGE areas for exploration. I didn’t expect much from it, but somehow I’m happier with it than the other new games from 2009.

    Maybe I’d be happier with Aion and CO if I’d gone in expecting them to suck?

  18. VatecD says:

    @Kaltano

    Except these transfer services are not “free” to the developer. You have to factor in support costs for the transfers that go wrong. All it takes is one player who lost something “irreplaceable” during a transfer to rack up several hours of customer support, which costs money. Are these services overpriced? Quite likely. But do they cost the developer “nothing?” Not likely at all.

  19. Kaltano says:

    alright, so it sometimes costs them extra money.

  20. wufiavelli says:

    Was not a horrible year. We saw the rise and relative success of some indy companies with darkfall and fallen earth. Neither of these games are smash hits but the companies have stated they were not going for blockbusters from the start. Global agenda and allod online are right around the corner and looking pretty positive. These are both semi indy and hopefully will be successful.

    Most of these companies success though it seems comes from patient single investors. Def the case with df and global agenda. FE i think also has the stable and patient backing from the parent company.

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  23. Mike Tomes says:

    Personally i agree it was a shitty year. I only tried Darkfall and WAR, since the others weren’t even a bit appealing to me, but for those i can say that Darkfall is really targeted towards some players and had quite primitive gameplay mechanics, as for WAR the only nice thing was the epic look of the game and that was based almost entirely due to the IP.

    Eric, i was wondering what you think of the so called Next-Gen MMO of Blizzard. Any ideas what’s going to be or what you would expect of such a title?

    Cheers and great blog

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  25. Dan Gray says:

    Concur on all points.

    Especially WAR. Yay for ‘superstar designers’ who don’t play other MMOs. Heard designing in a vacuum is awesome.

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  29. William Bordonaro says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

    How can anyone justify having a gem like AC2 sitting on a shelf somewhere collecting dust with hundreds of hours of content, while these terrible excuses for games are being released?

    Throw down some money for marketing and a re-release would be 1% of the cost of developing a new mmo and it already has years of content, not to mention a community of post-wow gamers looking for a new home.

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  31. Thallian says:

    Good write up, I’d never thought about the industry as being stuck between those tow things like that. Ty.

  32. Scott Schindler says:

    The failed cycle of MMO creation:

    Kill things > Get Stronger > kill stonger things > get stronger > run out of content.

    1) Players should create the content

    2) The purpose of getting stronger should be ANYTHING but a cycle for its own purpose

    What current MMOs are missing:

    economics
    creation / destruction of EVERYTHING
    scarcity of resources
    natural struggle
    real trade
    roles other than combatant, crafter
    diplomacy
    everything that makes real life a struggle and an accomplishment shifted into a fantasy setting
    skills-based advancement
    consequences
    IMPOSSIBILITY of cookie cutter character development
    skill degradation!
    a reason to have multiple characters OTHER than boredom, buff bot, or craft bot!
    a reason to fight, a reason to not fight, a reason to pray, a reason to rest, a reason to eat, PURPOSE
    a place to call home and a place to call hell
    did I mention consequences?
    undending ever-expanding chracter development that you could not possibly wrap your head around to min-max
    FUN
    AWE
    PASSION
    DRAMA
    PLAYER-DRIVEN
    no two servers remotely
    ever-developing player created and driven content natural to their needs, desires, and whims

    I have developed this game completely on paper. Can I have $20 million to be the next WOW? I don;t want to be rich. I don;t want to be famous. I want to play my game and from EVERYTHING I have read and heard so does everyone else. HELP!!!

  33. Scott Schindler says:

    lol, no two servers remotely alike, where did alike go?

  34. Scott Schindler says:

    BTW my game is called SOul shift at the moment. You have one soul but multiple characters that share it. You get rest for one while the others are played.

    Nothing exists in the world but 3 little towns when the server starts. Not even coins! Players have to create the first coins, the first tools, the first weapons, the first spells.

    They have to pray to gods for power and much, much, much more.

    They have to build the towns and protect them from the whims of petty and jealous gods. They have to provide resources to keep the town in good shape, they have to eat, they have to trade, they have to survive beyond just taking things from otehrs, but take things from others they will!

    If I could build a website I would put all my data up on it and look for VC. But for now it is just a dream with no one to share it with, well but you guys.

  35. Codie Morgan says:

    “But the other stuff? Charging for world transfers, race changes, character renames, whatever? Yeah, go ahead. In fact, please do more of it. I like these sort of options and I don’t mind paying a few bucks for them. You are not losing customers by adding a for-pay race-changing option. You just aren’t. It’s not a problem. I don’t know what Scott is smoking.”

    It would seem most players that actually spend money on F2P MMOs are likely to buy such race-transfers.

    It’s almost common practice in Rappelz.