Tobold's Blog
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Has the MMO-lite model failed?

Atari announced they are ditching Cryptic Studios, maker of City of Heroes/Villains, Champions Online, and Star Trek Online, with Neverwinter in development. Cryptic has a rather peculiar business model, producing MMORPGs which have considerably less features than classic MMORPGs, but offer other genres than just fantasy. Apparently that wasn't a financial success, so Atari is looking to sell the studio they bought just two-and-a-half years ago.

That makes me wonder whether the feature-lite MMO is really viable at all. Measured by cost per hour of entertainment, MMORPGs aren't all that expensive even in their full-featured version. And there are some "WoW clones" out there which offer nearly the same amount of features as World of Warcraft and are free to play. So unlike other businesses, for example cars where a low-cost car with few features makes sense, a MMO-lite doesn't really appear to have a viable place in the market.

What do you think?
I measure my cost in hours, and my entertainment in more subjective terms. An MMO-Lite with less features takes the same time to play, but provides less enjoyment per hour if I have to fight with things like a substandard UI, missing socialization/communication tools and so on.
Cryptic didn't make MMO-lite's, they made incomplete MMO's with a poor business model that was aimed at gouging customers. (I know MMO's are never complete, but they were far from ready for release)
City of Heroes was/is a brilliant game I am still subscribed to for over six years now. I am pretty sure it was a financial success as well. It has so many excellent features that other MMOs are only slowly starting adopt.

Champions Online was the project that killed Cryptic. It was an unnecessary MMO that spoiled their name. In a rush to rescue themselves the rushed STO out of the door as well. Which only hurt them more.

A non-WOW-ish MMO can work very well if done in a polished manner. COH is prove of that. Cryptic was just so arrogant to think they could duplicate that half-arsed.
Champions Online has the Xover Quests which are absolutely wonderful. Every MMO out there would do well to learn from it.

Other MMOs have done sidekicking, and again I think more MMOs would do well to use that as well.

Finally, though it came late, FFA, really improved the gameplay of Champions Online, as well as making it easier for new players to make viable characters.

Those are the strong positives of Champions Online, and honestly, along with the Character Creator (the biggest positive of the MMO), it is the reasons why I play the game.

The adventure packs are fun, and honestly, if they can find a way to get people to give it another look, it would definitely look better than it did on release.
A tier 2 MMO needs to be less grind-intensive than WoW.

I would be much more likely to dip into new games if they didn't require 100% of my gaming time to stay competitive/play with my friends.

If progression could be de-emphasised, in favour of cosmetic rewards and Steam achievements, it would seriously improve the health of these games.
Well if you follow the financial results coming out from various publishers lately. The companies who were releasing a "fruitbowl" of mediocre games (i.e Square Enix) are making huge losses. Those who focussed on their "hit" franchises and built on top of that are doing well (i.e. Ubisoft)

So it sounds like a good plan getting rid of franchises that is not worth building on further.

Maybe Atari have "new" plans for D&D and Neverwinter and is looking for a way to keep Cryptic away from it ;-) .

I can only hope Atari is consolidating their resources into focusing on specific franchises and doing it PROPERLY.

However none of this might mean "MMO-Lite" model is a failure. Cryptic built a "platform" with CO that simply was not great. They then proceeded to build STO on top of the same platform and expected the franchise to carry it.

Cryptic was going for a Farmville -> CityVille -> GagaVille -> SpaceVille -> WhateverVille , except their orginal "FarmVille" never took off. They wanted to bring out some "skinned" version of an MMO every year. They were better off making single player RPGs with the platform imho.
Right now there are only low-cost MMORPGs and 'free' MMOs and that's it.

What is missing is a normally priced and a luxus-priced MMO.
Obviously CO and STO are failures, but I wouldn't say they were meant to be "MMO-lite." It's more that they were released incomplete.

COX is another beast entirely. It doesn't have the same features as a pure diku clone, but it's a pretty deep game that has some amazingly fun zerg gameplay.
If there is a place an MMO should be "lite", it's the main game, not the extra features. It's like you are always saying about the need for a leveling/exploration mmo and a raiding mmo. Choose one and do it well. After you have that down, add player housing, crafting, AH, whatever you want. Those features add value and extra things to do in the off hours from the main activity. Make the main fosuc of the game fun first, then add as many features as make sense.
My only experience with Cryptic was Champions Online. Champions lost me with their choices on the free to play model. I would have paid for some archetypes , but they weren't offered. But what really killed it for me was that the Silver archetypes did not seem to be built to solo well. They seemed to be built to need frequent star refill from the item shop. With greater choices of archetypes and a toon who could solo past level 12, i would have played and paid more.
I read somewhere that Atari is actually aiming for a more social-networking-casual genre and Cryptic wasn't exactly fitting the bill. Besides, after seeing how big corporations *coughActivisioncough* can sometimes put strain on the development teams, something good may come out of this after all.

Obviously CO and STO are failures, but I wouldn't say they were meant to be "MMO-lite." It's more that they were released incomplete.

Actually, I wouldn't classify STO as a failure just yet.

It has received some good revamps in its gameplay systems, has a ground combat revamp coming up and the devs seem determined to push out content in a nice pace.

The fact that were hiring (iirc) new people to help push out the feature episodes faster is not exactly "bad news".

Both STO and CO were buggy incomplete games when they came out. I don't think Cryptic aimed at MMO-lite model specifically. Ad to that that the whole concepts (scifi and comics) are niches compared to fantasy and you can't really expect a huge success out of them.

On the other hand it seems to me they specifically aimed at a casual pace of progression instead of a the standard "rush to the endgame for the fun to begin" model.

And before you ask, yes I play STO and over the last 4 - 5 months the game keeps getting better (expecially with the Foundry).
My only experience with Cryptic was STO and it was highly disappointing. Being a Trekkie, I pre-ordered and spent some time in the beta. It was obvious that the game was not ready for release but they went live anyway, and predictably it was a total mess at release. Then you tack on the "C-Store." I'll tolerate cash store nutiness from an F2P game, but don't charge me a sub and then ask me to buy things on top of that. I've heard STO is a lot better now, but with this news, I'm not prepared to give them my money again.
While Cryptic originally made CoX, however that game really didn't take off until Paragon Studios took over, and that's been several years now. More or less free of Cryptic's taint now.

Cyrptic is just a lazy company who just out right copy paste with very little thought in place. STO supposedly has gotten better, but the launch was so bad, and word of mouth so contaminated, that very few will give it a second shot.

Too many companies are getting involved in the MMO market as if it were a 'get rich quick' scheme, and instead of making long lasting quality products like UO, EQ, DAoC, ect.... we get DCUO, WAR, and CO.
I played CoV for a while. I felt it lacked variety a bit, but I certainly wouldn't call it incomplete as such.
I have to disagree with Nils, I think the problem is that there is no MMO-lite pay scale. If they have a subscription, it is $15 a month and no less. Even the free browser based games run the same scale Free2Play model as a fully fledged Free2Play MMORPG. It is their own fault that very, very few people pay anything.

Why do these games assume they can provide much, much less, but charge just as much as a "fully featured" title? There are tons of games on Steam which sell for $10-20 brand new, Live Arcade has tons of games which sell for less than that. The MMO-lite model needs a similar pay model where customers feel "it's so cheap, I might as well just pay it."
Crytic is failing
What Cryptic created failed

--- I don't know if I would call what Cryptic did MMO-Lite
--- I would put them in the Software_Quality-Lite business actually

This is a Real World example of Free 2 Play failing.

Perhaps it would be good to revisit basic economics here. You only make money on your product if you can charge for it.

OR... if you can trick people to play your game, trick someone to host your game, have the hoster sell advertising, get the hoster to pay you a percentage of advertising revenue, AND THEN trick players to see advertising while playing.

Therefore you have the following options:
Sell Quality Game for money for OR Rent Tricky Game to Facebook.

NOTE: before I get the finger gamers rage commenting on me... FYI 5 mill daily game downloads on appstore but only 600k purchased at about $1. Not worth being discussed as a real business model.


Luxury priced MMO...
I like and have liked the concept for sometime. But...

Everyone thinks this is a non-starter. The REAL luxury software Multi-player offering should be a HW-SW hybrid offering that has huge last mile (ok km for you euros) network pipe, top of the line graphics support, top of the line graphic display bundled into the software offering. THIS would truly be something. In effect this would make one server - multi-million user worlds possible.

FYI - Microsoft did try to do something like this... could not get the telecoms on board.

Not to be Cryptic but... I work in the real world not the virtual world we would like.
My take is that MMO-lite are good if and only if there is another innovative "disruptive technology" out there to be found.

I.e., the value of MMO-lites is not that the game customer can play a game for 80% of the features of WoW for 10% of the cost. The value of MMO-lites is if the game designer companies can produce ten+ titles for the same cost as one TOR, then you are much more likely to find the "next big thing." The cynical evolutionary theory of innovation is that instead of one Brilliant Designer developing the Next Big Thing, that you have a number of good designers get stuff out quickly and based upon cross-fertilization or copying, you evolve a better product the customers enjoy.

Maybe it is advertising supported; or something besides leveling by killing 8 foozies or no levels or a different way to handle the RMT vs subscription (although I think EVE has it about right) or a way to have player-driven story so that not all the experience is coded up by the roller-coaster developers.

Alas, that is the theory. But in the real world, you can have a perfectly fine piece of software that it is a bad product because it must compete with an entrenched product like Microsoft Office or WoW.

Is your world view:
a) WoW is too big to be dethroned and will rule forever
b) innovative MMO-lites will show us the way
c) just like it takes another multibillion corporation like Google or Apple to take on Microsoft, it will take a multibillion dollar gaming company with an AAA MMO to change the landscape
d) PCs are last millennium Android/iOS is the future
I agree with what Samus stated. Cryptic tries to pass off MMO-lites but at the subscription price of full fledged MMO's. And on the other end, their MMO lites are much more robust and expensive to produce than most of the FreeToPlay games.

I really think there would be a great place for MMO lites that charged $10 for game and $5 month but had no 'cash shop'. Then players would be equalized (so no more pay to win) but the game would be in the 'budget' strikezone.

Brindle's comment is very interesting. Have you considered researching what kind of an effect the F2P/Cash Shop movement has had on how people pay for their gaming time?

What I'm wondering out loud about - is what kind of an effect that the new revenue models are having on people, and how they are guaging their "total cost" to entertainment value. I've been paying my WoW sub(off and on) for over 6 years now, and anytime I want to take a break I just unsub.

But with the two F2P games that I've actually spent money on, I'm finding that my enjoyment wanes much faster due to the knowledge that if I dont buy the Cash Shop(premium services) items, my progression is limited not by how much time I have, but by how much disposable income I have.

I'm wondering if the MMO-lite failures you suggest arent ones caused by poor game design, but rather a psychological effect, where the various pay models are affecting players perspectives, where being competitive over a long time frame is being skewed more by the money factor, rather than being skewed by progression elements where a persons "disposable playtime" is concerned?
Agree with Chris and Brindle above.

I'm an older gamer, perhaps I'm not representative, but I find F2P games kind of...superficial or something.

I need to make a commitment to really enjoy my game. And that's the psychological effect that makes me avoid F2P games.

They're like prostitutes. An MMO-Lite might be fun for a drunken roll in the hay with my credit card (that I'll no doubt regret), but I really want a long term relationship with an MMO that I respect. I'll even pony up for a ring.

Now that's just wierd.

Seriously, I would probably be more inclined to try an MMO-lite if it had a more predictable pay structure, and I knew what I was getting. I just don't trust $2 for this, $3 for that when I don't know how long I might last in the game, anyway.
I like Bristal's expression about commitment. I too am above the current demographic, and I feel that a MMO should be a commitment. But might there be a different sort of commitment other than time to feel productive?

Are there other ways to interact with a game that will be rewarding? I don't like the heavy correlation between time invested and in-game performance.
I wouldn't say Champions Online and Star Trek Online were financial failures because they were "MMO-lite". They were financial failures because the execution of the games simply wasn't that good. Cryptic rushed them out the door with very little polish and some pretty half-assed "features" (sector space, woo!).

City of Heroes is a perfectly fine example of a "lite" MMO that has been a financial success. It's still chugging along today, and I'm sure NCSoft would have dropped it if it wasn't in the black.

Cryptic simply dropped the ball with CO and STO. They just weren't very good games.
"I feel that a MMO should be a commitment"

I couldn't disagree more, but I understand the sentiment. It's a matter of playstyle.

I do think there's a market for "lite MMOs", but they can't and shouldn't compete with the big commitment-demanding ones in equal terms.
Is there actually anybody out there who would like to play a MMORPG for months, but doesn't do it, because $15 is too much ?
Now, even if this person existed, would he play the MMO for months if he had to pay only $5?

And would he still do it, if there was a better game that costes $15?

I think these questions show that we are not within a reasonable price zone right now.

I'd buy a Porsche, if it were cheaper. I do not, because the price is too high. In such a market lowering prices makes sense. I'd never buy a Fiat if a Porsche costed like a tenth of what it does now. And that's the situation we are in with MMORPGs.
@Nils: So you're saying that the $15 MMO needs to have a price increase, for a $5 MMO-lite to make sense?
Pangoria, that would be one way, but it's not exactly what I am saying.

What I say is that as long as the price is not an argument for people to not play something, a decrease in price doesn't increase customers.

I just don't know anybody would rather play a $5 MMO that is worse than a $15 MMO, because it saves him $10 a month. But I know a lot of people who rather drive a $10k car that is worse than the $30k one, because it saves them $20k.

When buying computer games, in general, I never ever look at the price, because it is always a no-brainer! It is so low, anyway, that I can just look at the quality of the product.

Good for me, you might say, but I'm not a millionaire. I would like to have the option to buy computer games that are too expensive for me. But it's like living in communism: There's just nobody who produces these things right now.

I think there are a lot of other payment schemes you could do.

I played a game that was free to play with a limited basic account, but charged $20 a year for an unlimited "premium" account. I certainly wouldn't have paid $15 a month, but almost everyone forked over the 20 bucks.

I think you could do more with the Guild Wars model, charge $10-20 or so for the game and then have no subscription, make your money on reasonably priced DLC/expansions. Why does it have to be $50 or nothing?

You could also do something like $20 for the game or an expansion, which comes with 6 months subscription. You can also get 6 months for $10, but obviously that pushes people more to pay a little extra and get an expansion every 6 months.

Even the Free2Play model annoys me. I play some Free2Play browser based games that it is conceivable I would pay for some cheap conveniences, but those do not exist. Everything costs $10+ for even minor things. As a result, they have never gotten my money.

Why is this their price point? Why aren't they trying to get $2-5 out of as many members as possible? Clearly they expect that if you pay anything, it will be $20+ a month.
These are psycological questions. Rational persons calculate the amount that something costs and then decide. I agree that most persons don't seem to be very rational - especially when it comes to their disposable income.

Monthy payments have turned out to be not so bad in many areas. They don't happen too often to annoy people, and don't need to be too high to prevent people from buying stuff.

I am willing to explore other payment schemes, but I am very reluctant when it comes to busieness plans that create incentives for developers to create money instead of games.

Great games are made by companies that want to make great games. Money, then, always follows. It just doesn't work the other way round, as everybody experienced during the sharholder value craziness of the last decade.
Out of curiosity, why is an MMO-Lite a bad MMO?

If the gameplay is fun enough to play together people will do it. I mean, if people can do the same raid for 3 months before a new one comes out, you could easily make an MMO with less features (no PVP for example).
Nils, you have written a lot of very insightful stuff in these comments, but one thing (might just be miscommunicated):

Price isn't just drawn up in a lab by a bunch of guys determining what something is worth, it is based purely on "what the market will bear".

In other words, you charge as much as those damn people will pay.
So if WoW could be charging 20$, they would be. Who wants to bet Titan has a higher sub fee?

I think the problem so people have is they view price as something the company just picks randomly based on what their product is "worth".

If we paid what things were worth...companies would stop making them as that eliminates their profit.
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