Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Implications of MMORPG-Hopping

I'm apparently what Syp would call a "Salad Bar Diner" of MMORPG's. As Syp puts it:
"...you’re flitting between games, but it’s not out of desperation to find something to hold your interest — it’s because you like to sample them all (or at least a nice variety). Any future titles that come down the pike are welcome additions to your buffet.
There are other names (the dreaded "WoW Tourist") and tweaks to the description (for example, I tend to have a vague plan of where I'm heading next, which Syp places in a different category), but the charge is basically true.

As Tobold points out, most of us don't have $50 million to fund development of a game just for us, so we're left to choose between the games that are currently on the market. Complaining about the devs' priorities is good for raising your blood pressure and your blog postcount. However, it's relatively unlikely that Blizzard is going to bring out more content more quickly because PVD says so. If studios are going to reduce content development into a business decision - e.g. raids need to be more accessible to justify the development time spent making them - there's no reason for players not to do the same.

As a result, when I run out of stuff to do in a game, I try not to take it personally (though sometimes I fail). If it's a business transaction in which I'm offering up my gaming time and money in exchange for entertainment and the other side is not delivering, the rational thing to do is to take my time and money elsewhere. With very few exceptions, the studio in question will be happy to save my character records and take my money at some point in the future when their product has improved. (FFXI was the only recent subscription MMORPG I am aware of which actually purged inactive account information, and they finally reversed that policy last week.)

So What?
There are some advantages and disadvantages to salad bar dining for the game-hopper. However, these primarily affect that one player. The broader, and more difficult to answer, question is whether this sort of activity actually has an effect on the game's development (and, by extension, the future content that's available for the people who aren't switching games on a monthly basis). Two cases come to mind off-hand:
  • Salad bar diners decided they weren't interested in a second helping of Warhammer, leaving the game with four times as many servers as it needed.

  • In the days since WoW patch 2.3, the game's focus has shifted heavily towards accessible content. I suspect that something cataclysmic must have happened to subscription metrics in the aftermath of the TBC launch and patch 2.1 to convince Blizzard to make such a major shift in content philosophy.
On the other hand, the game's development budget is ultimately going to be affected by projections of the game's revenue. There are limits to how democratic the game design process should be. After all, us meta-gamers are apparently a little too good at judging content based on incentives. Perhaps the salad bar hopper's opinion is a bit less important than the dedicated fan's, because the latter is more likely to continue paying fees year round. Still, everyone's subscription dollars go into the same balance sheet at the end of the day.

The one major danger is that hopping in and out of games will diminish the variety of options available at the salad bar. A behemoth like WoW can afford to have players leave to try other games. Smaller games, whether from major studios or independent developers, might find themselves in a downward spiral of decreasing budgets, which hurt retention and force more budget cuts until the game finally folds (as the Matrix Online announced last week).

Then again, if, for example, LOTRO goes the way of AC2 while I'm waiting on the next expansion, what could I actually have done about it? I doubt that my $15/month (less with the various and increasingly aggressive deals they're offering) could ever be the difference-maker in a game living or dying. Maybe Tobold is right when he suggests that big RMT spenders can carry a game that might not be able to scrounge up enough revenue via subscriptions, but this route raises its own design challenges.

The salad bar plan ultimately means having more alternatives, which insulate the game hopper from issues - up to and including the demise of the game - that crop up with any one of the items on the menu. For that reason alone, I wouldn't have it any other way.

1 comment:

Stabs said...

From an industry point of view Salad Bar diners are generating much more revenue than people who play one sub-based MMO and stay there forver.

The Salad Bar Diner last year probably tried AoC (box + sub), WAR (box + sub) and bought the Lotro expansion while still being subbed to WoW for most of the year. That's a lot more expenditure than a year's WoW sub + expansion box.

I hate to say it but the AoC model makes a certain amount of business sense. Over-hype your product, sell a million boxes, give everyone the best starter zone ever seen then let your product quietly die so you can economise on the servers and patching schedule as interest dies.

I'm sure AoC will make a lot more money than Darkfall ever will and I'm also sure it will shut down for good a lot sooner.