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!