Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Trust and Living in the MMOment

Technology site Ars Technica has a problem - 40% of its tech-savvy readers use ad-blockers. Fundamentally, this is an issue of trust. Viewing the ads on Ars requires that readers allow a dozen various servers script access to their browsers, and fires up Flash for extra security vulnerability potential.

Unlike suspicious email attachments or phishing sites, the browser exploit is problematic because the viewer has missed their last opportunity to protect themselves by the time the page loads. If you do not run ad blockers, you are literally placing the security of your computer in the hands of every site you visit (and, more problematically, every third party advertising network they sell space to). Even the most reputable sites on the net, like the New York Times, make the occasional screwup that could cost users their credit card info (and, as us MMORPG players are all to well aware, our game accounts).

Losing Trust in Developers
Keen's latest Allods update is a bit telling on why us gamers are so suspicious. Inevitably, the game's publishers were forced to lower the costs on their most excessively overpriced items. To make up the difference, they turned around and increased the number of these items that players would need to consume. Apparently, the price tags they launched the store with were the more honest representation of what the publishers wanted to charge than their concerned apologies that followed the uproar, so it was only a matter of time before they found some way around their supposed concession.

Really, though, this is but the latest in a growing trend of cases that prove time and time again that gamers trust developers at the peril of their wallets. Inexplicably large numbers of players apparently expected Star Trek Online to launch relatively complete and relatively free from additional fees to unlock industry standard features, despite the fact that Cryptic had just finished launching Champions Online shy of both bars. Players who sunk their time and money in now discontinued games like Hellgate or Tabula Rasa with the expectation that those games would continue similarly lost out.

The sad truth is that players cannot trust anything that the developers or publishers say about games anymore. Their job is literally to lie about whether the game is finished and/or worth playing, if that's what it takes to sell copies. Because games are propriety products, developed behind closed doors, there are limits to the ability of journalists to protect us from this. The only alternative is not to trust anyone.

The Peril of Living in the MMOment
The lesson that the cynical observer walks away with is to live purely for the moment. Why put a long-term investment into a character in a game that might not be worth playing in a few months?

In my personal experience at the moment, I'm willing to run my LOTRO character through the newly solo-able epic books to experience the storyline, because that is fun right now. I'm not willing to farm the literally thousands of trivial mobs I would need to kill to max out all of my kill deed traits, even if having those bonuses might be fun later, because it would not be fun now and I cannot be confident that I will want to stick around long enough for that investment to pay off.

The problem is that a certain degree of repetition is all but essential to the MMORPG business model. There is never enough content to go around, but the game needs to provide something that justifies paying a monthly fee - resources that are ultimately needed to support the continued development of games of the size and quality that players have come to expect. The idea that players characters represent a longer term investment that would grant easier access to future content was part of the payoff that kept players around. Nowadays, even if the game is still around a year from now, the gear you worked for will probably have been leveled in a gear reset.

If you look at it purely as a business transaction, the player's choice is straightforward - consume the fun parts, skip the boring, and take your business elsewhere the moment you stop being entertained. The problem, as with the adblockers, is whether that plan leaves enough revenue to support the content.

3 comments:

evizaer said...

I am working on the principles you outlined here. I haven't touched an actual MMO (Global Agenda doesn't qualify because I don't play it as an MMO) in months now because I don't find them fun. I will not pay for arbitrary timesinks. I won't pay to support a business model that is out to screw me and eat up thousands of hours of my time. I'd rather play shorter skill-based games that I find more fun all the time and that don't require a significant time investment.

Green Armadillo said...

The follow-up question, though, is whether we are prepared to do without worlds on the scale of a Norrath, Azeroth, Vanadiel, or Middle Earth. If half the players make a habit of canceling between content patches, while the other half don't pick up the game at all until the one year mark to wait out the launch bugs, there isn't going to be enough of a dev team left to finish the game.

Perhaps the size of the world no longer matters if you believe that developers aren't using their worlds effectively, but I'd like to think there's still some value in having a game world that's larger than a couple of DOTA maps cobbled together.

ZacharyPruckowski said...

The problem is that companies have unrealistic expectations - they budget for less dev time than they need, and expect far more subs than they get. The end result is that people are disappointed in the game, and the budget guys at the publisher's office are disappointed that they aren't beating WoW yet, and so are reluctant to "throw good money after bad", and focus on how to wring more blood from the stone or on their next attempt.

What the publishers and developers need to realize is that MMOs aren't like other AAA games - they don't top the charts their first week. Instead, they grow gradually. Blizzard didn't hit 11 million subscribers overnight, but that seems to be what publishers are expecting for their MMOs. Developers and publishers need to get more realistic business plans - ones which plan for a slow first year, and a gradual polishing and improvement into the game that'll bring in millions of subscribers.