Recent Events May Result in a Better MMO Future

The past month has been full of terrible things for the MMO industry: Pitch Black Games closed down and cancelled Dominus, EA laid off 40 percent of the SWTOR team, and 38 Studios closed down with what some are predicting as an industry damaging event.  Michael Pachter, an analyst who I actually enjoy watching, says that it may take years for MMO investors to come around again.  Scott Jennings surfaced to share his thoughts and said that these events are “killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.”  I have been saying the very same thing for years.  Allow me to quote myself:

I’m still 100% predicting a MMO crash where all hope is lost until we look to the east on the fifth day and see Gandalf some developer bringing the industry back to its roots.

I stand by what I have said over the years.  I do believe that the industry will struggle.  I always thought it would be the players driven to their breaking point, but the McMMO publisher/investor woes and a highly publicized financial disaster definitely expedite things.

This is where I strongly believe, and predict based on what I know about these games and their development, that something good can come from these disasters.   When I stand on my soapbox and shout to anyone who will listen about MMO’s returning to the gameplay, returning to what worked, and MMO’s being about the core fundamentals that saw games lasting years instead of 3 months,  I am usually met with comments that resemble something like this: “Investors don’t want to put money into games like that.”    Well, it looks to me like investors may not want to put money into anything right now, and what better time to see the MMO fundamentals return than when smaller studios will have to focus on the niche gameplay mechanics instead of satisfying the masses to repay investors.

Older games were made on small budgets.  UO, EQ, DAOC, SWG, and many other older MMO’s from before this generation were created on smaller budgets, with smaller teams, yet lasted for years at a time and introduced what it meant to be a massively multiplayer game to the world.  I don’t subscribe to the doom and gloom that wants people to believe MMO’s are forever ruined due to these recent events.  I know there is always a strong foundation for developers to fall back on — and they will fall back on it well before they throw in the towel.  For length’s sake I won’t quote myself again, but I’ve written something on the subject of building upon what worked that is very relevant today.

Whether or not this actually happens, the MMO industry can’t keep going in this direction.  I choose a positive outlook because I believe it means we’ll see better games in the future; Games that focus on creating gameplay that actually resembles a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

  • Agreed and hopeful, this will keep those investors that are not true gamers from making these short term MMOs.

    I’m looking forward to the rebirth of real mmorpgs.

  • i am really not sure its a good thing at all.

    the small guys who try something new go under. while the big games with money pump out what they want. and we play because that is it.

  • @Don: That’s the whole point. The big games with money may not happen anymore from anyone but a select few, and by a select few I mean Blizzard. EA’s behemoth is failing. A company with millions upon millions more than some of the greatest MMO companies ever had went under. It may be left entirely on the smaller companies to make MMORPG’s, and to get players interested they’ll have to create games with unconventional mechanics.

    @Untos: I think I fixed your phone’s auto-correct errors. Let me know if you meant to say something different.

  • I don’t think going backwards is the answer, something needs to change for sure but I’d rather see new innovations in MMOs. All the nostalgic games you mentioned lasted for years, but it’s possible the games lasted for years because there wasn’t any competition. I never like old school MMOs like EQ, I would play them for hours and think to myself, “why am I playing this frustrating crap?” My problem with SWTOR and Secret World beta is they’re just WoW with a new skin, I played WoW for years and am bored with it. Give me something different and maybe I’ll play for more than a few months.

  • What, we may return to the days when this genre was not whored out as some 15 min flash game and instead turned back towards being a multi-year hobby?

    The only thing I see on the even distant radar that appeals to me is what Goblinworks is trying to get off the ground.

  • i know but it only takes one 🙁 Blizzard have been running things for years. how many mmorpgs have they killed so far.

    all they need to do is give us a date for the next game the next xpack.

    cant help but think 2 months after GW2 comes out blizzard will hit us with something new.

    all WoW as ever done is take things from other games and do it better then anyone else. they call we go running 🙁

  • I wonder how much elaborate graphics has to do with games going over-budget, either directly due to design costs or indirectly due to having to make everything else run properly in such a demanding setting?

    Another indirect effect comes into play when there is lag/low frame rates due to the inability of player’s computers or just insufficient game engines to make the it run smoothly. People don’t stick around if their games run like a slide show. Both WAR and SWTOR had significant frame rate issues that drove me away.

  • I agree. The failure of the WoW-clone model is nothing but fantastic for MMO gamers. It sucks for the people who worked so hard to make them to watch them wither and die, but long term this will be better for the gamers.

  • Die wow clones! Die!

    Prime is probably the saddest loss here as they had a great game concept based on what people loved about Daoc.

    I am hopeful people will look at this and stop making wow clones.

  • Hopefully people will stop rolling the dice on yet another “WoW killer” and instead spend their time and money on more modest projects that can be successful without having to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

  • I hope you’re right Keene.

    We haven’t seen GW2 or TSW perform yet, though. Maybe one of those will point the way to a rebirth of sorts.

    Also on the horizon are Neverwinter and Planetside 2. None of those four seem to be EQ/WoW/SWTOR clones. I hope they all succeed. But if the market and audience can deliver just one success, there’s hope.

  • “I’m still 100% predicting a MMO crash where all hope is lost until we look to the east on the fifth day and see Gandalf some developer bringing the industry back to its roots.”

    Dear god I hope not, I can not stomach the thought of playing an Asian themed game, call me xenophobic if you must but I dislike greatly the Asian Art Style, the Chainmail Bikinis, the hyper-sexulization of the character avatars, the Rosey Red, sun shiney after noon carebear themed vistas, and the metrosexual male avatars. This isnt even to mention the street fighter flashy anime style combat animations. I want my Eurepean, dark & gritty High fantasy with dirt and unkempt appearences, you know the stuff that looks life like and not a saturday morning cartoon for 10 year olds.

    Its a dark day in MMO worlds where we are waiting on an Asian developer to save the genre. In my mind if thats the case then the genre is dead already.

    • @zederok: I see what you did there. I hope you see what you did there. Lord of the rings reference and all…

      @Illy: Good point.

  • The gaming business is having a hard time because entertainment of all types is taking a hit. When times are tough, people stop spending ( unlike government ). When people are watching every penny they spend, recreation spending just isn’t a priority.

    Ever since Pitch Black closed their doors, my gaming radar shifted to The Repopulation. The company creating The Repoplation is a small indy company just like Pitch Black. I hope they can hold on during these hard times.

  • This could be a good thing for single-player games, too.

    TOR was a second rate single-player game. Imagine if they’d have taken a fraction of their budget, picked one of the better class stories, and flushed that out into a KoTOR or ME-style game. What a game that would’ve been…

  • Goblinworks seems to be speaking your language about old school development perfectly:

    “…The future of the MMO space lies with games that have small teams, small budgets, and plan to start small and grow over time, rather than launching with a huge big bang. And Theme park games are very unsuitable for that design paradigm. Sandbox games, however, are a perfect fit.”

    There is a Kickstarter for their game Pathfinder Online right now:

    I will consider myself cautiously optimistic about the genre if this game gets funded.

  • To be clear, that KS is strictly for funding a tech demo for them to go on the road and sell investors with.

  • Given the ridiculously long development cycles, it is entirely possible that even if all new MMO investment stopped today, we would still see MMOs coming out up until 2020. Copernicus started in… what, 2007? Titan is still in the oven and Bungie has something up their sleeve (assuming it isn’t Titan itself).

    That aside, if you think people would be satisfied going “back to the MMO roots” wherein their game had less than 200k people kicking around (20k is more likely), I wish you the best. I mean, we already have games like that, and if people aren’t falling over themselves to queue up A Tale in the Desert or whatever already, I’m not convinced they will give the next indie Steam MMO a chance. It is not as though we can even say “EQ with better graphics” because better graphics are more expensive. It will simply be… “EQ with X feature instead.”

  • 3 words:
    Guild Wars Two.
    If they don’t screw up with content additions and changes after release.

    I don’t believe in an updated EQ or DAoC. Nobody wants to grind anymore, not even most veterans except a few nostalgics wearing rose colored glasses. What the market needs, beside welcome innovations like GW2, is a REAL sandbox MMO made by a major company, and a company that doesn’t think sandbox means FFA PvP. Ultima Online 2. Considering the success games like Minecraft had, I have no doubt such a game would be successful.

    Until then, I’ll be happily playing GW2, which is the new Asheron’s Call for me. Still theme park oriented, but giving way more freedom than the usual WoW clone.

  • It all comes down to the engine. Until the engines allow people to make a good game in 2-3 years this sort of thing will likely keep happening. Atm the games are just too expensive to make. Get a flexible engine that allows faster development and more innovative games can be made.

  • Or, it could be the end. Multiplayer games like League of Legends and other more casual (read: quick, low overhead) games seem to be on the rise. Traditional MMO’s might be back in the niche.

  • CCP. Eve.

    MMO Companies need to build niche games on very small budgets, so they can quickly become profitable with a limited player base, then use operating capital to fund successivly more elaborate and aggressive expansions that continuously grow their subscriber base.

    That is called a healthy business model. Thinking to go from 0 subscribers to 2,000,000 plus and investing 100s of million and thinking you will crack that nut is just iditic. Whats funny is that these big-wig investors haven’t realized this until now.

  • @Cyndre – Think you’re surely right. If you are writing an operating system say, you quickly find out is it’s any good by eating your own dog food and seeing if your hard drive works. But, with games you can endlessly fool yourself (and the guys that pay your salary) that you are on the right track up to the point that you release it – but after that you can’t fool your customers for very long.

  • @Cyndre:

    Yep that is what I have been saying all along.

    This is what WoW did, building themselves up through the challenging start up phase with a dedicated nerd base, and then insidious changing it to appeal to the larger more mainstream audience, thereby abandoning the original adopters degree by degree.

    Today AAA’s want to become WoW overnight without following the lengthy course they followed to get their large subscriber base.

    This approach also let them beat the bugs out of the game at the expense of the more understanding/tolerant dedicated nerd base and polish it to its current shiny state.

  • GW2 is getting so over-hyped just like every “next” major MMO release since Age of Conan. I’ve played it and I’ve pre-ordered, but it’s not the savior of the genre. In the end, GW2 is an e-sport game with some decent looking WvW PVP, but it’s not going to have the “immersion” that I think so many pre-WoW gamers miss. I doubt you’re going to have that much connection to your game world when it’s instanced left and right or to your character when you can’t even use the one you leveled with in BGs. I’m not hating on it, because I think it will be a decent game, but it’s hardly the MMO I crave.

    I’ve said for the last couple of years that it will take an indie company to make the MMO I really want, because I’m not a mass market gamer. I want some complexity, challenges and long term projects – apparently none of which conform to EA’s market research of what people want in an MMO. I love what Goblinworks wants to do with their MMO, but I’m skeptical of it getting launched. World of Darkness and Salem are two other MMOs I have my eye on, but they aren’t my favorite settings. I respect CCP the most of any current company with what they’ve done with EVE, but that isn’t my game either. I agree though, let’s pull MMOs away from the idea that they have to be easy and all inclusive. Like one of your readers commented, “MMOs are hobbies, not casual games.”

  • @MMOkay: “I doubt you’re going to have that much connection to your game world when it’s instanced left and right”.

    A common misunderstanding: Open world PvE isn’t instanced in GW2, there’s a single instance for everyone on a world (server). The same applies to WvW i.e. anyone in your world will be in a single instance of WvW. The only things that are instanced are dungeons & battlegrounds. In the BWE, of course, people got placed on overflow servers and there was a bug that split parties. However, being on an overflow server is optional – you can wait your turn to log on the main world, if you wish; and server queues will diminish anyway after release.

  • WoW is not killing all the new games. Wow itself is finally on a down slope. They had to entice people to sub with an offer of free Diablo. WoW xpacs are holding interest less and less. US and Europe subs are declining, while Asia is holding the numbers up.

    What is frustrating players is buying new games that last all of 1 month. Once people get burned too many times they give up trying. Especially when virtually nothing new is added to the gameplay.

    I share Keen’s thought that this could be good for the industry. Maybe devs with begin to focus on more self-sustaining gameplay and less tread-mill quests. Early mmos did not have quests for years and years, but players set their own path and were given the tools and rewards for doing so.

    Looking back in a few years, this could be one of the best things to happen for players.

  • The problem is that MMOs usually take 5-6 years from inception to release, so even if games companies have learned something from 38’s demise, it’s going to be a long long time before that translates into anything concrete.

  • The only thing i think needed for MMO industry is a new technology. the one allow all people to be jammed into single server without lag.. just like EVE’s single shard but with no lag or time dilation or whatever..

    – From the user perspective , the Game only -have single shard..
    – From the back end , the Game is hosted on multiple servers.. yet seamless to the players

    a really massive warzones , with lag-less 200 vs 200 or 1000 vs 1000 or even more…

    a really massive zone , with 1000++ players on it

  • “Older games were made on small budgets.”

    … compared to today’s budgets, perhaps. But at the time both UO and EQ were considered expensive titles because they required online capabilities (servers) and 3D development in EQ’s case, which wasn’t industry standard.

    MMOs have always been comparatively expensive and high risk ventures to ‘traditional’ titles.

  • I think its funny calling MMO’s doomed when the industry simply moved sughtly someplace else than US developed multi million dollar investor funded shit wow clones.

    The reaon those games die is not only because they don’t offer something new, the reason is there is so much alternatives than you don’t need them anymore. Hundreds of them, and all of them free:

    Why bother playing a $50 box WoW clone you need to pay $10 a month when you can try one of these. And some of them are pretty neat, if not all up to par to WoW standards.

  • It would be nice if it went that way, but i think it might not happen in that manner.

  • Although we emphasize different aspects of it, I think we’re heading towards the same place— MMO’s will shrink down to their core audience, which means it will become what it was in the 90s— an obscure niche gaming genre. What you call a return to roots I call a fad dying, but it seems like we’re describing the same basic phenomenon.

  • It seems a bit soon to predict an MMO crash, considering the number of games that appear to be peacefully coexisting.

    If you can find a niche and maintain a decent base, whilst controlling your costs, this is still the most profitable area of gaming. I expect most investors will be asking publishers why their new game does NOT have a multiplayer component with RMT/subscription…

  • I love this article. A true example of the market shifting due to consumers voting with their wallets.

    I am truly waiting for something crazy different. Really hoping Kingdom Under Fire 2 is a great game. Was excited to see that it’s in closed beta now.

    I just with there was more info on the MMO part of it and not just gameplay.

    Great article.

  • @Howdy

    Wow great video. Just awesome. Need way more info on this one. Thanks for posting the link.

  • @Howdy:

    The graphics look pretty slick. It could be a fun one if they don’t spoil it like every other Asian MMO requiring real money transactions to purchase “Kimchee of Domination”.

  • Pathfinder interests me. The people there are alot more mature and seem to know what they are doing. embers of cerb i think is not even going to get to the stage of mortal online or even darkfall.

    The only way we will see an enhanced funding for smaller niche games is if one person does it and has mimic-able success (the top contender for this was pitch black, thats down the toilet now). Plus i am not sure its as doom and gloom as its made out to be. Once 38 games is rear view mirror and a few MMOs have profitable launches investors will be warm again. We probably will not see Swtor type funding but easily GW2, rift, and secret world type funding.

  • I really hope you are right. A game like SWG was so much more immersive than one like SWTOR because you actually created your own space in the SW universe. I suppose SWTOR would be a fun single player game (I refuse to play any LA game since SWG was cancelled, so I will never know), but I cannot imagine it creates the same feeling of actually living in that world, without any of the sandbox elements of SWG.

    SWG could have lasted years longer if not for the unbridled greed of LA. It had a small but economically viable base of very dedicated and loyal players. Before WoW came along, an MMO with a few hundred thousand loyal subscribers was a success. If game developers go back to that mindset – and stop throwing around the kind of money Bioware threw at SWTOR – maybe we will see a new renaissance of small, niche MMOs with actual staying power.

  • I look at MMO development as pre-WoW/post-WoW.

    Pre-WoW, MMOs were made by game companies that wanted to make great games and make some money while they were at it. They were expecting a few hundred thousand people, maybe even half-a-million.

    Then came WoW. And it was a cash-cow beyond all gaming cash-cows. More than a billion a year in revenue. Well, that attracted the get-rich-quick and the let’s-make-a-killing crowd.

    Since then, MMOs have been pretty bad as a population. However, with the epic flop of SWTOR, I think MMOs will change direction again because the stupid-money, get-rich-quick/make-a-killing MMOs won’t get funding.

    But I think GW2 will be quite successful in what they do and other MMO projects that not so over-the-top stupid just may.