On last week's episode of The Multiverse (where they also gave me a rather generous shout-out, thanks guys), Riknas' rant focuses on unknown free to play developers. As he says, some of the smaller - and most successful - free to play games are being made by studios that no one has heard of. Chris adds that, for players, supporting studios that we haven't heard of is the only way to drive real change. I don't disagree with either sentiment, but allow me to play devil's advocate.
Over the weekend, I got an out-of-the-blue apology email from a longtime commenter who felt in hindsight that he'd given me too much of a hard time for my take on his favorite MMO. The email said that he felt that defending the game against blog comments was necessary - i.e. that, if untrue claims were not countered, they could drive off new players and ultimately hurt the success of the game and its ability to continue. Personally, I don't think that any such apology is really needed - comes with the territory of expressing an opinion, especially if you're brave/foolish enough to play as many games as I do. It does drive home the point that the perceived stakes in the word of mouth business can be high. But is that really true?
Beyond the reach of Grassroots?
For those of us who aren't Curt Schilling, the fact is that our individual contributions don't make all that much of a difference in the fate of a game. (Schilling, incidentally, sounds like he's having a bit of buyer's remorse about having tied most of his net worth to his new studio.) A few players here or there, or even all of their friends, aren't going to make or break the success of a game with a multi-million dollar budget (that is to say, almost any game that could credibly deliver "massively multiplayer") in the short to medium term. The product either does or does not deliver, and the majority are going to base their payment decisions on that truth, rather than any matter of principle word of mouth crusades.
The paradox with supporting the studio that no one has heard of is that there is a factor that is correlated to whether the game can deliver - its development budget. No one is that worried about the mystery fourth Blizzard project, the supposed EQ3 at SOE, or the mystery possibly-Harry-Potter project at Turbine because these companies have the money to finish the development job. When you look at some studio that has yet to deliver a working product, like, say, Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment or Flagship Studios, it turns out that neither had the resources to actually produce the promised games.
CME's situation was so dire that they went under without ever launching their MMO (though they did try a non-MMO prototype that I'm gathering did not fare so well from the lack of fanfare). Hellgate's legendary launch failure brought down the studio, complete with the more promising Mythos project. Any additional funds that a player sent in the direction of those studios (e.g. purchasing additional copies just to support what the devs were doing) would have ended up in the pockets of creditors when the shops went under.
Is success pre-determined?
So here's a question - when we see a game that launches big and flames out - like, say, Warhammer or the two Cryptic games - versus a game that launches small and builds on positive buzz - perhaps Eve, Wizard 101, Runes of Magic, etc - can we really credit the word of mouth with that success? Or is the positive word of mouth just another effect caused by the games' success? Clearly, you can create a PR disaster bad enough to affect your reputation, but I'm less convinced that the effect in the opposite direction works enough to change outcomes.
Games live and die on their quality, and most of the work on that front isn't really something that can be patched in later because subscription numbers were 10% higher than expected.