Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Cost Of Letting Go

Scott Jennings' pretty slideshow about the lifecycle of an MMO player already lured Spinks out of several weeks of retirement, so I suppose there's no harm in joining in.  His bottom line is that MMO design is not set up for players to come, enjoy the game, and leave.  I'm inclined to agree, but I don't see how to address or ultimately solve this problem. 

It's been a less-than-great news week in MMO's.  Wildstar, which by Tobold's estimate sold fewer than half a million copies, announced that they were dropping pre-launch promises of monthly updates and consolidating their remaining players onto "megaservers".  Most people who are actually playing Wildstar seemed to agree that something had to be done to consolidate the remaining playerbase, but objectively it's hard to see this as anything other PR-speak to avoid saying that they are merging servers.  No designer goes to the bother of launching with the 2004 server model and realizes out of the blue three months later that it might be better if everyone playing the game could actually play together, with the added bonus of removing pesky dedicated servers for roleplaying, non-English language EU servers, etc.  Meanwhile the Elder Scrolls, which was the other late spring release that was going to save the big budget subscription MMO business model, has announced layoffs

So why haven't the presumably intelligent people behind these projects caught on to Scott's simple advice to "let it go"?  Or perhaps is that exactly what Zenimax has done?

Re-defining MMO's to have a beginning, middle, and end and a tidy way for scaling as players come and go hits basically all stakeholders in the current genre. 
  • As Scott's slides describe, many old school MMO players are playing to be with their friends, not for the game on its own merits - for these players, accepting churn means that the experience they wanted is already gone.  
  • For investors funding these hundred million dollar projects, the reality that you won't turn each copy sold into $200/year in perpetual subscription revenue means that you can't recoup your investment.  
  • And for the developers - I assume this was Scott's audience - the logical consequence of his modest proposal is the ship-and-layoff-the-team model that single player games publishers have done for years. Some number of players will continue to pay to rent an online version of the Elder Scrolls to use like a single player title, it may not be possible to retain the rest no matter how much you spend on continued development, so why NOT launch with a solid base to monetize and then cut your losses on any continued development expenses?
I've spent the majority of my gaming time and budget in 2014 on Marvel Heroes, which I play functionally as a single player title, so I suppose I'm the market that you gun for under Scott's approach.  This approach, however, has its costs.  In over a year post-launch, Marvel Heroes has added only a single new story chapter - the new one for last year's Thor movie takes me about 30 minutes to replay - so the beginning, middle, and end may be closer together than most players will be prepared to tolerate.  It does not appear that the team has suffered layoffs, but hero releases and events feel increasingly rushed, while everything else is routinely delayed by weeks or months as the team focuses on additions that actually bring in more revenue.

I'm not disagreeing with Scott, as nothing about the decade post-WoW suggests the old ways work - clinging to shipwreck debris might seem better than nothing but won't save you from the whirlpool threatening to suck you to the bottom of the ocean.  The challenge is that from where we are today the cost of letting go is obvious - either you end up somewhere completely different from old virtual world MMO's (as I have), you jump on a bandwagon likely headed for catastrophic failure, or you gamble your money on a crowd funding project that will take years before potentially ending in catastrophic failure.  It's just not clear where the other side of the maelstrom leads. 

(P.S. On that cautionary note about crowd funding, Camelot Unchained announced this week that it was delaying its alpha by six months, with a vague promise that the over nine thousand backers who pre-paid for alpha access over a year ago will be compensated with some combination of founder's rewards, in-game currency, and game subscription time if it slips further.  The unspoken assumption is that there will eventually be a launched game in which to grant these compensation measures.) 


  1. I struggled to follow Lum's point. If MMOs aren't intended to go on forever, what the hell is he point of them at all? I expect most of the major MMOs I have played to outlive me. The life expectancy of any good MMO should be decades. If not, why make them at all?

    Where the doom and gloom comes from beats me. Yes, there are some spectacular failures now and again. WldStar may be one. The huge majority of MMOs carry on for years though. Do we really have evidence to suggest that most of the best-known names won't hit their 10th or 20th anniversaries? Why would that be a bad thing either for the players who stick with them or the developers who depend on them for a living?

    The idea that it's THOSE devs that would make the next gen MMOs if only they didn't have to keep the old games on life support makes no sense. It will be new talent that breaks the ground for the next wave, just as it is in every other medium.

    The sky is not falling. The barbarians are not at the gates. Not the virtual gates, anyway.

  2. I wrote a response on my site.

    I too don't really get his point. The best interpretation I could come up with is focus on your core gameplay even though you know people will eventually leave. Avoid going outside your core gameplay just to retain people.

    Not sure if that's what he meant, or even if that is good advice, but that's the only interpretation I could make.

  3. Here is where perhaps it would have helped to actually hear the talk instead of just see the slides. :) My guess is that at some point, at least on paper, you would assume that people will stop funding the development of $100 million MMO's unless there is a means for them to recoup their investment that doesn't revolve around player retention rates from 2004. In which case it would be on the people who make the games to find a way to design them that does recoup their costs so they do get the funding to proceed.

    No, this has not happened yet (or Wildstar and TESO would not exist). No, this does not mean that you pull the plug on a game that is operating at a profit just because it isn't going to recover its costs in the foreseeable future, though you can (NCSoft) or as a less extreme measure perhaps you sell the game/studio (Cryptic), cut back the staff (Zenimax?), etc. No, nothing will stop a possibly irrational person with money from pulling a Curt Schilling. But, on paper, at some point rational people should cut off the funding stream.

    Or perhaps I'm wrong and the way things are being done is perfectly sustainable despite layoffs, forced business model revamps that have hit every single big box subscription title launched in the last nine years and 21 months, etc etc. The fact that this hasn't actually happened yet could support this theory.

  4. Yeah, super late here. But, since I'm working on the game specifically called out at the end of the post for being late, perhaps I have a good excuse.

    First, the idea of MMOs having a definite end isn't new. Richard Bartle proposed it in his book Designing Virtual Worlds. Bartle's argument was that MMOs should take hints from the Hero's Journey, and at the end the Hero is master of both worlds, and can travel between them freely if he or she so chooses. He said by designing around the assumption that the player must keep playing, these games frustrate the end of the hero's journey.

    Here's the thing, though: a game already had a definite ending. A Tale in the Desert had "Tellings" where the game ended and restarted. I would say this didn't necessarily help its chances of success. This is not to say that the whole concept of "what is an MMO" should not be reconsidered from the foundation.

    Green Armadillo wrote:
    ...people will stop funding the development of $100 million MMO's unless there is a means for them to recoup their investment that doesn't revolve around player retention rates from 2004.

    Perhaps the problem isn't the assumption of 2004 retention rates, but rather that these games need a hundred million dollars poured into them. Camelot Unchained may be running behind schedule, but the game is being made on a significantly smaller budget than the recent big-budget MMOs. And, frankly, that's a huge reason precisely why I think you should have confidence that the game will see release where many other may falter; the game doesn't need WoW-level subscribers or retention to be wildly profitable.

  5. I have no useful experience with the Tale in the Desert business model, but I assume the point was NOT for every player who had played to the end of the Telling to take their memories and their wallets and move on to other products. While these are far grander than your typical weekly raid/PVP reset, my understanding is that starting over allowed both players and the developer to continue a sandbox experience that would otherwise have been disrupted by all the existing progress.

    In hindsight, I should have been clearer that the problem is not JUST to launch, but to launch with a level of quality that will persuade players to stick around. There isn't a lot of data to prove whether people who say they want a niche title will tolerate niche production values, and a fair amount of data to support people who are disappointed canceling subscriptions in short order.


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