What is your MMO’s Unique Selling Proposition?

There’s a fairly basic marketing theory known as the unique selling proposition.  I’ve been contemplating MMO design, as I usually do, and made a connection between design principles, the MMO market, and this simple concept.  Many of you share my belief that developers don’t understand their market, their customers, or even the games they are trying to make.  I’m convinced there are some developers (and/or their corporate overlords) who literally believe copying a successful game will yield success.  Let’s see why they are wrong.

Here’s a basic USP template:

For [target market] the [name of product] is [single most important claim] among all [competitive frame] because [single most important support].

Pretty common sense stuff.  You figure out what market you want to target, what your most important claim is (point of difference) within your frame of reference (defines who your competition is) and you give a reason to believe (why you should buy).  Now pick any random MMO in the last 5 years and try to figure out their unique selling point.  It’s pretty tough, isn’t it?  What makes it even tougher is when a company will fill in the blanks, but what they actually do — the product they actually create — doesn’t align with their goals.

How many games come out of the game targeting a very specific market?  I think most say “we want to appeal to everyone!”  How about SWTOR?  What is (was) their single most important claim?  Is it story? Is it their instanced content?  What makes them stand out?  What market did they target, and what supports their claim?  Maybe they could say their rich story is enhanced through fully voiced dialogue, but is that the most important aspect they want to provide their players?  It was certainly one of the most expensive components of their game, and in the end I’m pretty sure most people didn’t care one iota about the dialog when deciding to quit.

A good MMO will be designed for a specific market, with a very clear explanation (supported by proof) of why it is different.  I’m confident that any MMO failure in the last ten years can be easily identified if you run it through a simple checklist, and it’s not something you have to do in hindsight; run any upcoming MMO through the process and you’ll quickly see potential problems.  People don’t want more of the same or a game that isn’t well thought out to appeal to a specific group for a specific reason.  One size fits all design doesn’t work.  Start making some choices and execute on a plan.  Stand out, be different, and own your space.  Easily 50% of oldschool MMO success can be traced back to having a unique idea that appealed to a specific group of potential players.  They did what they did better than anyone else, and what they did mattered to the players.

  • “Easily 50% of oldschool MMO success can be traced back to having a unique idea that appealed to a specific group of potential players. They did what they did better than anyone else, and what they did mattered to the players.”

    That’s exactly what I was trying to say here a few months ago – UO, EQ1, DAOC, and vanilla WoW all did something that no other game currently on the market was doing. As a result, each game enjoyed an era of limited to no competition for that targeted demographic – not the result of greed mind you but the justly earned reward for their innovation. WoW version 1.03 wouldn’t have lasted the requisite 90 days in 2012 before failing and going F2P, but back in 2004 they had the solo-able MMO market cornered for long enough to get their game up and running.

    That said, the market has not shown a ton of patience for games that launch with less than a full feature-set. It’s hard to spend that much time on your unique selling point if the market demands that you must have PVP and endgame group PVE and crafting and soloable leveling content, because all of that stuff is going to eat up your entire budget multiple times over. I remain skeptical of several of Mark Jacobs’ choices, but I definitely tip my cap for his willingness to say that his new project isn’t going to half-ass the whole genre, and is instead going to focus on one or two things he’s prepared to try and do well. Whether people are turned off if/when they show up and he wasn’t kidding when he said the whole game was going to be PVP remains to be seen.

  • SWTOR’s dialogue options weren’t that good. If the best one can come back with is “What about that comment about the ergonomic chair?” then they have forgotten the high quality interactive dialogue choices of old BioWare games such as KOTOR or Jade Empire.

    SWTOR had a lot of voice dialogue options, but very few of them were unique, clever. or even funny.

    You are right about the failure of trying to appeal to everyone. An interactive well scripted KOTOR3 would have been most pleasurable as opposed to the “accessible” mish-mash MMO-RPG-PvP minigame themepark they squeezed out.

  • SWTOR has differentiated itself from the competition. It has its own niche.

    Naturally there are a few follow up questions that cannot be easily answered:

    1) Is this niche a sustainable audience?
    2) Will EA keep the game alive on its present revenues and costs?

  • After so many MMO games is very hard to find a new and unique selling point. Also all companies want to maximize their profits and is not possible a big company try to target a small market, even if there is a risk to fail to appeal in large market..

    the companies who target small specific market is probably not because they chose to do so, but because they don’t have the resources to make a bigger game with many features and go for larger audiences.

  • A lot of this has to do with an argument my fiance and I got into this morning while discussing the Bioware san francisco shut down. We have a close friend who works for Bioware and I texted her the bad news when I found out. She responded with “yes, she told me that Bioware was shutting down several plants.” I responded “studios, not plants”. She then responded with a profound statement: “They churn out a product, correct? Then they are plants”

    This struck me dumb for a moment. That, right there, is the crux. Game companies are no longer love children of people who play the games and love the games they play. They are a faceless entity endlessly churning out products in an attempt at a profit grab.

    John says that the companies that choose smaller markets chose them due to limitations, that may or may not be true. However, back in the old days a game company made a game that the developers wanted to play, with features that they thought were fun. So, in essence, they chose a smaller market due to a lovingly crafted product.

  • @Bernard: I’d go as far as to ask if the niche they’ve carved out is a plan B as a result of failing to identify their unique selling proposition and designing for it from the start. Showing the Bioware founders the door, and the collapse of Bioware in general would point to a very clear yes.

    @John: It’s hard to find a unique selling point if you’re entering a competitive frame already heavily dominated by the competition. Assuming that you’re right and it’s impossible for large companies to make money on targeted titles (I don’t agree), and they’re proving they can’t succeed making large titles, shouldn’t they exit the market entirely?

  • At some point the unique selling point can be so little, that it might as well not be more than a marketing thing, or not turn out being what they said it would be.

    GW2 – was a good game, but their selling point, the events, was not really what they said it would be imo – More like stuff that happened on a loop, more or less.

    SWTOR – Story, which meant fully voiced, better than normal, quests. Good, but not good enough for a MMO

    Rift – Well, had the Rifts, which are nearly gone now. It seems they turned it around, now the selling point are more “hard-core” raids

  • @Cthreepo: You can see that the weaker the selling point, the greater the chance of the game being a disappointment. Remember, you have to include the target market and the competitive frame. Are you aiming for the casual, hardcore, f2p, niche, etc. Are you a sandbox, themepark, etc. Do you focus on pve or pvp?

    I think these questions are one of the biggest reasons why GW2 was ultimately a bit of a letdown for me. I didn’t feel like they had a solid grasp on what their target market was, or where they were trying to compete in any of the markets.

    So you can see it’s really easy to have a partial USP.

  • I think this is ok if you’re a small studio or indie developer who wants to target a niche audience but when you get into striving to create an MMO with broad appeal you need to target many factions of MMO gamers and to me I prefer an MMO that is broad in scope with many systems in place over something that is niche and devoted to 1 or 2 core concepts.

  • There are a myriad of unique selling points still available but it always takes a good entrepreneur and visionary in the industry to see something that isn’t there yet.

    You can check any MMO reporting site and see a list of upcoming sandbox titles (which I find exciting) because right now that is the untapped market. Even the “good” sandboxes leave a lot to be desired so filling those voids will be a future sandbox game’s unique selling point.

    A game could come out giving crafters as rich an experience as adventurers and that would be a unique game. Just one suggestion I’ve made is to make crafting more active like combat and give players a list of skills and masteries to level up beyond the simple Armorsmithing and Jewelcrafting skills. Other people have made some good suggestions too.

    If everyone simply says there’s nothing unique left to discover then there won’t be.

  • @Zederok: For every segment of a broad MMO audience you elect to target, there must be a substantial portion of the game capable of entertaining and maintaining the interest of those players. You can say you want to target a wide appeal, but if you game ultimately only appeals to the uber casual group that wants to run dungeons once a week, then you’ve ultimately succeeded at making a game for one group.

    So when you say “I want my game to appeal to everyone!” My question would be, “How?”

    @Gringar: I agree. I think there’s even plenty of room for a large developer to make a “broad appeal” game as long as the game is unique and clearly identifies and executes on how they’re going to meet the needs of each segment of players within that mass-appeal market.

  • I guess, I don’t disagree with the premise, but really, you can’t see the USP argument for most of the recent MMOs? You’re just not trying, I could do that off the top of me head.

    SWTOR – Established IP and Bring BioWare (Mass Effect/Dragon Age) style guns & conversation storyline to an MMO environment.

    GW2 – No subscription, elimination of traditional mmo design restrictions (holy trinity, non-cooperative quests, endgame)

    Defiance – TV Show tie-in

    WoW – Established IP, Quests, Soloable

    Eve – Spaceships, Few rules on player interaction

    Warhammer – Established IP, Public Quests

    Whether these USP’s are enough to actually drive an audience is another question (obviously not that many people wanted BioWare conversations in their MMO grinding), but no one gets to blow millions to build an exact copycat game. Even Zynga had a USP on all their clone facebook games (it’s “We (Zynga) have better monetization/analytics than anyone else in the industry, so if we build the exact same game we’ll have better retention and spend than the original” if you’re curious).

  • @TheOtherThomas

    Sorry I gotta disagree, as someone in the industry (though not on the dev side), that’s really not the attitude I see (maybe it’s because I’m on the business side, so there are more people who’ve worked in industries that really are just out to make a buck, but I doubt it). Not everyone’s a massive gamer, but even in the Big Evil Publishers people want the game to be fun, and to have a big audience (not just because big audiences are profitable but because it IS their baby and they want to share it with everyone).

  • @Shutter:

    SWTOR – This is likely the worst of them all in terms of a unique selling point. The market was never clearly defined, nor the competitive frame. If you say “everything for everyone” you’re fooling yourself. The best thing they had was their name, and if that’s your most important claim then you’re in trouble.

    GW2 – This one is a competitive frame with support, but with no market. Who are they making a game for? Remember a few months ago the debacle with introducing more gear stuff?

    WoW – Clearly has a solid USP. No doubt about it. WoW was the last of the unique generation. Yes, what WoW did was originally unique.

    WAR – Targeted a market, had supporting claim, failed to identify and capitalize on their single most important claim. Second worst on the list.

    I have to point out again the problem with having either a complete lack of, partial, or misaligned USP.

  • I am confused by this topic. Keen is asking us to name what audience a particular MMORPG is after? I mean you could just as well do that yourself. Its not like its hard to point out.

    “points to the post above me” Seems you already did.

    Oh and it still makes me feel awkward the moment I read about WAR. Had high hopes for that game and played it.. up to lvl 33 or so where it became stale.
    There was so much wrong with that game.. items with stats that did.. yeah what? Not even the devs could answer that one.


  • @Zyler: I’m pointing out how the USP and game design are often either not aligned, incomplete, or ignored entirely, and how they are related to a game’s success. And to clarify, the USP is not just what audience a particular MMO is after, but how that MMO will appeal to the audience chosen -AND WHY- it will appeal.

    The lesson to learn here is that MMOs are often half-cocked, and people then wonder why they fail.

  • Hmm, well if the take away lesson is “MMOs are often half-cocked”, then Keen, you’re officially proclaimed our resident Professor of the Bleedin’ Obvious 😉 Not a bad thing btw, since that sentiment needs repeating and repeating until everyone’s ears bleed hearing about it. And then repeating some more.

    You have to agree though that both the USP and the game design change, for a number of reasons that probably warrant a separate blog, no? Besides the obvious chasing the buck that is.

    GW2 set out to mainly grab the GW player base. I have no idea how well they managed that, I think they did quite well – and then the goalposts were moved to “get moar subs=bucks”, and the development effort shifted to accommodate.

    Looking at WAR, STO, SWTOR however, it would seem that there wasn’t really a USP in action. Unless “we dangle *this* IP and hook however many fans of it that we can” is a valid USP? I’m not sure it is, but then again I’m no marketeer. If that was the USP it actually worked quite well, since the goals never included “retain players”. I mean, seriously, when I saw the terms of the lifetime subscription for STO I smelled a big dead rat there and then. (Game had not released, I did not do any betas and did not read ANY previews)

    Then again, there is so much bull in the gaming industry in general… It speaks bull drinks bull eats bull breathes bull… Probably more than any other entertainment industry?

  • @Shutter: Thank you for the counterpoint. I didn’t mean to make it seem like I thought all development houses were just in it to make a buck. It just seems that games are getting more and more generic and disposable, especially in the MMO space.

    The teams are much larger, the groups that oversee those teams are getting larger, and it is usually not the folks doing the programming that are making the decisions.

    I am in software development (not games, sadly) and I know that when I worked at a grindhouse (a development studio who’s primary purpose was to pump out code as fast as possible) that I was not the one making the decisions. Even if I knew in my soul that this decision was bad for the product, I wasn’t able to change the course.

    I recently moved to a much smaller development team where my input and opinions have much greater weight, and can change decisions that our upper management make.

  • @keen

    Yeah, I’ve got to massively disagree with you on SWTOR. I don’t think your assertion that they wanted to be ‘everything to everyone’ is supportable. To me their goal was pretty clearly “Lets make WoW, but be better on story because we’re BioWare and that’s our strength, and use a strong established IP to start strong and to attract people who are tired of Tolkein-esque fantasy”.

    Obviously it wasn’t appealing enough for millions of people to stay subbed, but they easily have one of the more concise and straightforward business plans (i.e. Lets do WoW but do the part we specialize in that much better).

    (As another aside, it’s always funny seeing SWTOR maligned as a failure, it’s still a half million or so subscriber title.)

  • SWTOR went F2P because it couldn’t cut it as a subscription MMO. They don’t have a half million subscribers.

  • “I don’t think your assertion that they wanted to be ‘everything to everyone’ is supportable.”

    They set out to make a voice acted story-driven game for RPG’ers.

    They created a PvE world.

    They tried to include open world PvP.

    They tacked on arena-based PvP.

    They put in plenty of crafting options.

    What MMO groups was left out of their plan?

    If one could seamlessly pull all of these elements together then we might have had an amazing game. As it was it imploded fostering one of the most frustrated, antagonistic, and divided communities I have ever participated in within an MMO.

    I see it as the failed paradigm for an ‘everything to everyone’ design approach.

  • @Gankatron

    Soooo….you’re saying they made a mainstream WoW-style themepart with voice acting for RPGers? Isn’t that what I just said?

    Groups they didn’t chase? Large scale RvR pvpers. Arena/Esports pvpers (not sure what arena based pvp you’re talking about, do you mean the battlegrounds style pvp?). Cooperative PvE players (I’m thinking non-raid, Public Quest style stuff). Roleplayers. Player organization builders (e.g. Eve corporations, Tera player government, etc.). Action RPG players (a la GW2 or ESO).

    I could probably go on, but that’s off the top of my head.

  • @Keen

    SWTOR was well north of half a million in August, probably down closer to 500k when it went F2P. Maybe they dropped off drastically after that, but given that the servers seem way more vibrant now than they did even back in the summer I’d be really surprised if they were down to <300k or something now (which would still make it one of the larger MMOs).

    I don't want to derail the conversation completely into nitpicking over SWTOR though. Mostly I just want to make the counter-argument that games are harder to make, designers are not as completely clueless, and that niche targeting is not as viable as is sometimes assumed in the threads here.

  • @Shutter: They didn’t chase nichers. That sounds like mass appeal and what WoW did to me.

    I’m fairly positive SWTOR didn’t have 500k subs when the decision was made to go F2P. If they did, I’ve love to hear justification for losing 7.5M guaranteed monthly income in favor of letting people play for free and hoping they’ll pitch into the cash shop. The people in my MMO network all agree that the cash shop isn’t worth it, and they’ve all bowed out (many who stayed up until F2P).

  • My two cents about SWToR numbers is that last year, in multiple earnings call/presentations, EA said that if they had 500K monthly subscribers that was a “pretty good business model” for them. So, is it possible that they had 500K when they made the switchover, of course. OTOH, you really don’t want to say that you had a good model going and then switched it over to do worse. Now, I don’t know what their numbers are now and I certainly don’t know what they were when the switch occurred but again, you don’t like to say things like that on record and then mess it up, bad things tend to happen when you do. Like him or loathe him, JR isn’t stupid and losing 100M+ in top-line revenue is not a good thing unless you replace it with more. 🙂

  • Taking your words out of my mouth, I actually say is that SWTOR is a single player/co-op RPG with an elaborate focus on personal story line development, plus a weak attempt at instanced PvP battlegrounds, and poorly executed open PvP tacked on as an after-thought, with copious amounts of blue goo thrown in for crafters to sell on the GTN, the end result which is about as an expansive (and unrealistic) design approach as I can envision in the MMO marketplace.

    I assume that we aren’t saying the same thing as we seem to come to significantly differing opinions as whether this represents over-reaching accessibility.

    I believe you have a far more broad categorization of ‘everything to everyone’, so much so that no MMO would likely fall into such a category (some of your examples of potential target audiences might be considered at odds, such as WoW theme park and EVE sandbox mechanics).

    I don’t believe that anyone literally means every possible play style to all possible people, but instead I see it as an attempt to grab multiple, potentially poorly compatible segments and force ably squeeze them into all within one game; this philosophy was enacted throughout SWTOR.

    I have not personally experienced such a failed attempt at accessibility to multiple markets in any other MMO. It set out to appease everyone, and people left in droves as different groups of players were put at odds by incompatible, non-seamless, and non-immersive game mechanics..

    Forum posts were some of the best indicators of the level of divisiveness fostered by this appeasement approach. I remember constant arguments between the PvE’ers, PvP’ers, and RPG’ers. I think my favorite single example was that of the PvP’ers who objected at having to be subjected to the story-driven game mechanics in this purported MMORPG; the irony should be obvious.

    The thing is the game’s eventual inability to reconcile their multiple stated objectives was predicted well in advance of launch within this blog and others. I consistently came away from discussions having no idea if SWTOR was going to be primarily a story-driven RPG, a PvE theme park, a PvP e-sport, or open-world clone wars style grand battle; it turned out to be all of the above, and in the end had the appeal of New England chop suey enchilada salad ala mode (I am glad that they didn’t try to add player-driven EVE corporation sandbox mechanics or I would have been obliged to provide another theoretically incompatible food group descriptor).

    Even before their ill-fated Ilum reveal, I never could wrap my head around how they would pull it all together, but since it was BioWare I figured they would sprinkle some left over KOTOR fairy dust on it and it would all make sense at launch, …not so much.