MMOs: Smaller was Better

Yesterday’s entry got me thinking once again about how big an MMO really needs to be in order to be a success. I’ve never been one to think that because a game is “profitable” then it must be a success. If your MMO lived for 6 months and you paid your debtors and made a  few bucks you’re still a failure in my book. MMOs, from the business side that I view them, are all about long-term monthly revenue.  This bring me to my point for today: MMOs do not belong in the hands of large developers. MMOs (Typically. Ignore Blizzard.) aren’t good business for publicly traded companies with big overhead costs, shareholders, etc. MMOs are good business for small to midsize teams — single, autonomous companies.

Here are a few easily observed trends in today’s MMO market.

  • As MMOs have grown more popular, the games themselves have become relatively worse.
  • The bigger the MMO developer,  the worse the MMO.
  • 250k subscribers means the game will shut down soon.

The trend I’ll focus on is the last one. When did something like 250,000 subscribers become a bad thing? When did 100,000? The answer goes back to my point earlier — when the companies became too large and their interests too great. 100k subscribers can be $1.5 million in monthly recurring revenue. 250k subs is $3.75 million. I work for a relatively small company right now with < 50 employees making much, much less than that each month. As the marketing director I oversee everything from product development to customer acquisition, and my budget is so frustratingly small that I have to squeeze blood from a stone every single month. Give me a budget based on $3.75 million a month and I can work miracles the likes of which you’ve never seen.

Our current predicament really boils down to MMOs becoming too big for their own good. Despite being very, very lucrative and successful, MMOs aren’t a product or an industry capable of sustaining large publishers of the McMMO model. MMOs belong in the hands of smaller companies where a little goes a long way, and the “little” suddenly becomes a lot. Will we ever beat back the hungry money grabbers in suits? Probably not for a while, but when MMOs sink so low that they suddenly become less appealing, we’ll see a reboot. That’s just simple economics.

Out with the Old, In with the New?

Posts here tend to reflect back on older games, our love for them, our memories, what worked and didn’t, the evolution of MMO design, etc. As a result, we often see a theme in the comments section:

“X game would never work if released today. If X game were released today it would fail. People don’t want X game.”

Those saying these things are correct, but not for the reasons they think. It’s like anything old vs. anything new. People want and gravitate toward the newer thing. The market changes as people’s tastes change. What we want and think is heavily influenced by the here and now of our culture. But don’t lose sight of why something worked in the past.

An old PDA if released today would fail. Why? Because people want the iPad. Does that make what the old PDA did bad, or undesirable? No. People still want a touch device, an organizer, something that can make phone calls, store contacts, take notes, play games, etc. People still want the same things, but they want them ‘sexier’. The limits of what we desire today have expanded. There’s no reason why new games can’t do what those games did while taking into consideration the proper expanded desires of today’s market.

I think Apple has done a nice job proving this point.

iphone evolution

‘The original iPhone would never work if released today. If the original iPhone were released today it would fail. People don’t want the original iPhone.’ That doesn’t mean we disregard everything from the original iPhone. We take what worked and we adapt it for what the market demands. The market demands bigger? Give them bigger! The market demands faster, more color options, higher resolutions? Give it to them! But the core concept and design of the iPhone — from the user experience down to the very core of what the iPhone does — remains consistent and can not change or else the iPhone ceases to be the iPhone, and would fail.

So when I see people saying that a game like EverQuest, DAoC, or SWG wouldn’t work today, I’d like to see proof that someone has really tried. Release a sexier version of DAoC, EverQuest, or even SWG (maybe The Repopulation?) and let’s see if it simply wouldn’t work. My honest belief is that it would work, just like it already did, and it work a heck of a lot better than the games releasing today with models that are supposedly ‘what the market demands.’

Lobbies, and Resets, and Point Farming! Oh My!

This whole Crowfall ‘campaign’ thing is giving me a headache…

I see people talking about temporary worlds, reset timers, people having no reason to keep playing until after the reset if they are guaranteed to lose, how much someone wins if they join a campaign late, jumping ship to a winning campaign, victory conditions, and on and on.

Holy crap guys are you hearing yourselves?

All this talk of temporariness, campaigns, and trying to maximize how to earn the most “points“… It’s sounding like Battlegrounds — this is like Alterac Valley on steroids. It’s sounding like Warhammer Online’s RvR all over again. Do I need to start waving my arms screaming “BAD IDEA” yet?

Crowfall is sounding extremely arcade-like in its design. It’s also showing signs of being needlessly complicated to be different. Those aren’t good things. Those are warnings signs for a potential 3 monther. I’m in agreement with those saying Crowfall is not an MMO. For all of the bellyaching we all do for something better, I’m somewhat shocked by the hype and excitement over yet another world of instancing, lobbies, point farming, and campaigns.

There are way, way too many warnings signs right now. I’ll maintain my same position on Crowfall: It’s worth keeping an eye on… but yeesh I’m doing it from a distance.

Good Teams Delay Games

Feels like early access, alphas, betas — whatever you want to call them these days — are so heavily monetized and marketed that the next logical step is QVC/HSN. Even browsing the news sites this morning I see games that aren’t even in beta going ‘on sale’ for a discount — Wtf?  When someone sells access to their game and pushes it hard I start losing respect for them and their product.

Over the past few days I’ve witnessed what feels like a breath of fresh air: Devs failing to meet a deadline. Yep, I love it. Why? Because (1) They had a deadline and (2) They are communicating about it. Who am I referring to? The City State team working on Camelot Unchained.

I’m an original Kickstarter backer for Camelot Unchained so I get the almost-daily emails from Mark and the team about their progress. What I love is the ‘realness’ in them. The ‘crap we missed a deadline and failed you’ and the ‘Here’s what’s actually happening in the office’ live streams. Yep, I’m still a fan of transparency.

While I’m not a huge fan of the “buy access to our game through one of fifty tiers” shops, even those in Camelot Unchained, I like and respect a team that won’t launch a half-baked product and respects quality control.

What I REALLY want to see is a MMO gets announced, the team works on the game, they market the game, recruit testers, sell the game, launch the game, then support the game and continue development. Sounds like 1995-2007, I know, right?!

Anyway, keep up the good work CSE. Delay the alpha. Delay the beta. Delay it all. Rushing is for games with overlords and no vision with a lifespan of 3 months to a year. It’s not worth being in that category.

The Support Role

Some of my fondest MMORPG memories came from playing a support role. Today’s MMO’ers can’t fully appreciate what it actually means to be a support class — most probably think it means healing. Today’s MMOs focus squarely on everyone being a DPS class. Even the “holy trinity” is being done away with, and by “holy trinity” I mean the modern version which did away with the original true Tank, Heals, and Crowd Control trinity. Everyone just smacks the mob until it dies and rolls out of the way of telescoping red lines and calls it a ‘group’.

Support classes usually had one role in the group: Make everyone else better. This wasn’t the easiest role to take on for many reasons. It’s difficult to be the class that doesn’t actively do something like do the most damage or ensure no one else gets hit. Often the support role is under-appreciated by ignorant players, and it can be a thankless job — even more so than healing.

Some of my fondest memories are playing an Aug Shaman in Dark Age of Camelot. My buffs were so dang good that people wanted me in their group and were willing to have me take up a slot just to give those buffs and very little else. I felt extremely important, especially when downtime used to be a real thing. What’s downtime? Perhaps that’s best left for a post unto itself, but suffice it to say downtime was when the group had to wait and do nothing to regain mana, stamina, or health.

Support roles could also be a little more dynamic, but that often meant being a ‘jack of all trades’ and doing lots of things decently but nothing good or great. I’m thinking back to my year playing a full-time Druid in EverQuest. They could heal and dps along with others (not great but helpful) but they could also root, snare, debuff, pull decently, and buff.

I’ll even go as far as including the EQ Enchanter as a support role. Although capable of incredible DPS when played by an expert in the right situation, the Enchanter was best known for two things: Crack and Mez. Again, probably meaningless to the modern generation. Crack was a buff called Clarity that would greatly enhance mana regeneration. Mez was a spell that rendered enemies incapable of moving or attacking as long as they were not damaged — essentially allowing your group to fight multiple monsters at once while only technically having one enemy active.

Support roles were done away with over the years because specialization has been done away with and seen as a weakness. Players used to pick a class that was really good at one thing, and that one thing wasn’t just  broad “DPS” or “tanking”.  Classes used to be very, very specific and known for anything from being the class that can mez to the class that can pull (I realize even “pulling” is now a foreign concept).

Now everyone needs to be able to DPS, take a hit, do some sort of self-healing, have a buff that falls into a category of buffs, and wear bitchin’ gear. There’s this idea out there that ‘If I can’t do it all then I’m being gypped and robbed of my fun!’ Lots of entitlement running rampant.