Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Adapting to MMO Churn

I enjoy the occasional time "offline" from my hobby reading and writing about MMO's.  It's a change of pace and a chance to get perspective on the way things have been going, both in my personal gaming life and in the bigger picture.  My thought, sitting back and observing the major discussions of the last month, is that this entire genre - players, developers, financiers - is still struggling to adapt to the current reality that MMO's are no longer a long-term commitment to a single title. 
  • Business model discussions remain the hottest issue in MMO's, in part due to Blizzard's effort to create the infrastructure and groundwork for a significantly expanded cash shop in World of Warcraft.  The upcoming title Wildstar is actually announcing in advance that they intend to make a business model announcement in the future. This environment is affecting the direction of game development, as studios struggle to recoup ever rising costs, but no one seems to have found a solution that is as mutually acceptable to both producers and consumers as the monthly subscription was in the days where players stayed put for the long haul.   
  • Increasing portions of the innovation that we're seeing in MMO's focuses on lowering entry barriers to combat the effects of churn on PVE groups and guilds.  WoW announced a new raid format with flexible group sizes in early June.  SWTOR is rolling out story mode flashpoints which remove the requirement for the holy trinity, and has also added guild bonuses that require players to be in guilds that have at least 25 active accounts.  Titles including FFXIV and WoW are adding instanced content intended to train players to function in groups.  These features simply weren't necessary in the old days where players stuck with games for the long haul and were forced to learn to group as they leveled. 
  • Another topic of the day is the decline of MMO bloggers - especially blogs that focus on a single title.  In an era where more and more people are hopping in and out of games, the investment required to set up a dedicated blog for a single title is harder to justify and sustain.  The same seems true for single-game podcasts - the recently concluded 200-episode run of Casual Stroll to Mordor is the highest profile example, but I've been seeing both smaller numbers and shorter runs on game-specific podcasts for a while now.
  • I think the story of the Pandaria era in WoW is that Blizzard attempted to use incentive design to replicate the level of daily engagement that players had in Azeroth back in the days where people stuck with the title for years.  My view is that people stuck with WoW in 2005-2006 largely because no other title on the market in that era was as focused on solo play, and that people formed legitimate social bonds that led to ongoing long-term engagement as an accidental consequence of not having anywhere else to go.  You can get players to log on for daily quests, dungeons, and raids, but you cannot replace genuine social ties with an alliance of convenience motivated purely by the fastest path to the daily incentive reward.  Instead, the artificial drive for commitment leads to faster burnout. 
People who lived through the old days and liked them continue to hold out hope that some future niche-focused title can recapture the level of stability that MMO's took for granted 8-10 years ago.  I wish them the best, but I see this outcome as highly unlikely.  The wide array of titles on the market today is a huge driver of player mobility, and a major challenge for retention - I believe a title that succeeded in this approach would need to be revolutionary, not merely evolutionary, such that no one who played the new title would be willing to return to anything we have today.  If the road back where we came isn't likely, and the place where we are now isn't financially sustainable, then the only hope is to adapt to modern demographics and find a way forward.  It's just not clear whether and how this can be done. 


Azuriel said...

It's not even just the variety of games on the market today, but a large portion of them are F2P too.

The real danger to long-term design, as I see it, is that your game has to be more fun than my alternatives 100% of the time. My tolerance for boring dailies is approaching zero, as I realize I could be playing something more entertaining instead. It used to be that the reward at the end of 30+ dailies was worth it (plus it gave structure to socialization), but that is no longer the case. I can socialize outside of the game, and I have dozens of alternate opportunities to have fun right now.

There is something to be said for my residual longing for a sense of gaming "investment," but that's clearly not a deal-breaker any longer.

Bhagpuss said...

My problem is having to much of a good thing. I always played more than one MMO concurrently; I was playing The Realm between sessions of EQ even before the launch of Kunark and from then on I tried to play just about every MMO I ever heard about.

Subscriptions acted as a brake on over-ambition, as did a smaller number of MMOs. As the various F2P models made inroads and the number of English-Language MMOs mushroomed, however, playing, even trying, all of them became completely impractical. I still do my best, though.

I'm of the firm opinion that if I woke up tomorrow to find all the MMOs had been switched off except one I would be able to play, with great enjoyment and for a very long time, almost whichever one was still there. A lot more of my pleasure in playing any of them comes from within me than from the games themselves. I just love playing MMOs and unlike other long-term players who seem to burn out, my fires bank and burn more intensely all time.

It's only because there's now so much choice that I end up complaining. I'm really quite annoyed that there's so much more great stuff that I know I'll never have time to enjoy. If the whole genre implodes and only a few percent of the titles remain, I don't believe that will necessarily be a disaster. And out of that ruin, new shoots will grow.

Although I actually think endless urban sprawl is a more likely outcome than collapse.