Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Spreading pessimism

If you follow my blog, you will have noticed that I have expressed a lot of pessimism on the subject of MMORPGs this year, and in the last months of 2011. I expressed my belief that the story-driven gamplay of SWTOR would lead to problems with a lack of longevity of the game. I talked about how the fact that MMORPGs are so similar to each other leads to an increasingly fast hype-release-disappointment cycle. And I questioned whether any new game, even if it has some good new ideas like Guild Wars 2, could still "save" the MMORPG genre from a slow decline. Today it seems I was somewhat ahead of the curve: The pessimism is spreading and is becoming mainstream.

What made people realize that not everything is well with the genre is the events at 38 Studios and EA Bioware. Scott Jennings talks about the incredible amount of money wasted killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming. The cost for making these games has gone up enormously, while the huge number of games now available has decreased longevity and profitability of each individual game. The days where you could make a PowerPoint presentation with a bullet point listing World of Warcraft's profits to immediately get a hundred million dollars from investors are over. It is now probably more risky to back a MMORPG than it is to back a movie. While several companies did reasonably well with MMORPGs, only one got filthy rich, and all attempts to reproduced their success failed. The best-selling MMO product of 2012 will be Mists of Pandaria, and that is *after* everybody already announced the death of WoW.

I do think Arenanet is going to make money with Guild Wars 2. And I do think that Blizzard is going to make money with "Titan", although that one might already have a different business model than World of Warcraft. But on the other hand I think that everybody who gave money on Kickstarter to some MMORPG venture is in for a disappointment. And the next guy proposing to make a $100+ million MMORPG with a monthly subscription business model will just be laughed at by investors. I believe that both in terms of player hours spent per year and player dollars spent per year the MMORPG genre has peaked, and is in a slow decline. And I don't see a Jesus Game ahead that will save the genre.

I'm starting to wonder why we haven't heard anything about Titan yet. Even if it was just a concept and a couple of screenshots (ie. like project copernicus have shown).

But one thing is for sure, someone at some point is going to really go for a FPS based MMO and then be surprised when they don't get many of the long standing MMO players to play it. (Maybe they'll get a load of new shooter MMO players instead though.)
At least Warhammer 40k should release in another form, well I hope it does...
I was with you until you came to your conclusion. The MMO space us too profitable to be left to Blizzard only. Hours and revenue can only go up. But instead of the monolithic release you will have hundreds of free to play games. Nor do oi think the MMO paradigm is broken for more modest goals. We're just not going to see another stab at a WoW kilter for five years. As a film analogy MMOs can still work if you're looking for half a million subs for some number of years. Hopefully that will allow for more creativity in the space too.
I was with you until you came to your conclusion. The MMO space us too profitable to be left to Blizzard only. Hours and revenue can only go up. But instead of the monolithic release you will have hundreds of free to play games. Nor do oi think the MMO paradigm is broken for more modest goals. We're just not going to see another stab at a WoW kilter for five years. As a film analogy MMOs can still work if you're looking for half a million subs for some number of years. Hopefully that will allow for more creativity in the space too.
Tobold, not saying it's a "Jesus Game" or anything but have you read up on a game coming out of the Asian market called Archage? I think it's got some promise (as much as I can for a game I haven't played) to be something different and interesting.

I'm mainly waiting for 1) a release date and 2) that it's even in the ballpark of hype. Not enough people know about it (I think) this point for it to be labeled and anything killer but I don't think that's what they're going for.

I'd love to know your thoughts on it.
Oh and in the vein of being on topic, I don't think the genre is dying I just think it's shrinking. MMO's have always been risky ventures. I remember seeing lots of interviews from early EQ days saying they didn't know if people would actually pony up the cash to pay on an ongoing basis.

Plus I hope by this point investors would be smart enough to realize that Blizzard is the anomoly not the rule. There are plenty of profitable MMO's out there. On top of that the F2P model is (for now) bearing fruit. DDO certainly has enjoyed a second coming in terms of players. Rift and Eve certainly seem to be not only surviving but thriving.

I've said it for ages that I think the real wow killer is still out there but I think a wow killer will look nothing like wow at all.
I basically agree but that does not add much to the discussion, but Advocat Diablo suits me.

1) The conventional wisdom tends to be wrong; rather it is correct until some disruptive technology shatters the status quo.

2) It is incorrect to say the MMO market is in bad shape; rather the non-WoW market is in horrible shape. E.g., the personal computer operating system market is a huge and profitable business; it's a horrible business for everyone who is not Microsoft. I enjoy solo play but all the forum warriors keep talking about "MMOs are social." If they are so social, then wouldn't the market consolidate into one MMO? The market prefers one Facebook, not FB , G+, Myspace, ... The users get a better gaming experience - one that matches their tastes better - if there are ten one-million subscription MMOs. The users get a better social experience if there is one ten-million sub MMO.

3) I do think that, like a Sony exec said, SWTOR is the last AAA subscription MMO. (I sort of relish that all the WoW haters will rage even more over non-subsription revenue models and that "MMOs are about social not gameplay" boils down to "everyone should play WoW")

My extreme long shot remains Google: they spend big bucks on a browser engine/infrastructure so a design team can focus on game play and not physics , installers, chat, mail,...

Not so long shot - the disruptive technology is non-PCs. If you want millions of users it would be easier if a lot of them could use iPads and even smartphones.

IMO, the missing piece is how to integrate sandbox & rails. Only Blizzard can afford to create all the rails content to keep the "l2p casuals use bottles, pros use catheters" crowd from consuming it too soon. So there needs to be a sandbox element. Yet especially in this ADD world and where experienced MMOers expect an obvious path of kill-ten-pigs quests, there needs to at least be some rails, especially at the beginning.

@spinksville - I think there are many obvious reasons why Blizzard is not talking about Titan. EA (last year) or Terra or Secret World or Copernicus are new and so don't cost any sales to promote themselves well in advance. Every word Blizzard says about Titan has a tiny detrimental impact on today's WoW. The last thing a BMW dealer wants is some out-of-control BMW executive talking about how great the 2014 model will be. That is not going to sell cars today.
Guthammer, nothing can only go up forever.

MMO players have a career. They get into it, they play for a few years, burnout, spend another couple of years looking for a new MMO that will do it for them again, and then they wander off and play other games. Whether this is because of the demands of life, family, and career, or they no longer respond to the endorphin release of new gears and levels depends on the guy. But the number of people who are willing and able to play these things for decades is very small. Those casuals are casuals for a reason; they aren't that concerned about it. They can walk whenever they feel like it. The last decade has seen a dam break; tons of people who would have played an MMO but couldn't because they didn't exist got their fix. There was a lot of pent up demand. That demand is sated now, or at least is being sated. I think a serious decline is inevitable because I just don't know where enough replacement players will come from. There's only so many nerds coming up the ranks.

So Tobold is mostly right. I wouldn't put it quite the way he has though. MMOs will shrink to the population who genuinely enjoys the genre in spite of its limitations. I will not be a part of that population, but I don't see anything wrong with a niche genre that is precisely what the fans of that niche want. For some reason the fans of niche products always harbor fantasies about their hobby coming to dominate the world, but that domination always comes with the destruction of what they liked about the niche in the first place.

Forget world domination and appreciate the games designed to appeal to people who really like MMOS.
I'm a recent (2 years) and older (53) wow player. My sons and I have 4 accounts with various styles of game play. All look forward to MOP. My eldest has been hot and cold with wow 3 times over the last 2 years depending on his friends and the expansions. I expect all of us will be playing a year from now. Blizzard has smartly given us Diablo to play to fill the time between 4.3 and when MOP hits. The people in Diablo advance characters there while still maintaining a toe in WOW. When MOP drops those players will come charging back. Although I dont see a "return to vanilla" in terms of the number of players in WOW, I believe Blizzard has a product and strategy that will continue to entertain for another 4-5 years. Facebook may or may not even exist by the end of that time span.I suggest that for privacy reasons FB will be replaced by people assuming WOW-like avatars to represent who they are IRL. Refer to the Web based "The Guild" and the movie "Surrogates" with Bruce Willis.
Can anyone comment on the expected sales Revenues expected from the sales of Mists of Pandoria in China?
You ahead of the curve? I know some people who have been pessimistic for .. almost a decade now. ;)

Yes, MMORPGs are heading in the wrong direction for .. like forever. It's not just nostalgia, because not even (especially not) new players are attracted anymore.

Today's MMOs are made for MMO veterans who are not willing to take the time play a real MMO. Only these veterans like playing their kind of little-time MMO.

There are no new lots-of-time AAA MMOs which could be played by new players. That's why the real MMOs have died out and the little-time MMOs are played only by veterans.
I know some people who have been pessimistic for .. almost a decade now. ;)

Yes, I know somebody who predicted WoW would lose most subscribers after a few months. I also know a lot of people who said that MMORPGs were going in the wrong direction since Everquest. But that wasn't based on something like profitability or overall user numbers or hours played or anything. It was simply "I don't like the less hardcore games they came out with after EQ".
I think the genre is far from dying as much as just changing. I predict that the next huge genre shattering MMO will be very different from what we consider the standard MMO today.

You want a huge WoW level profit cash cow of an mmo? Find a way to put it on something like Facebook or Smartphones/Tablets. There are millions of potential customers out there that are not being targetted by traditional mmos.

If you need proof there are plenty of people out there who have never tried and are not familiar with mmos just look at Diablo 3 and all the people who are just now for the first time experiencing things like always-online that we as mmo players deem as normal for our mmos.

The market is out there. The genre just needs to (and in my opinion will) change to reach it.
Ok. So its all about "filthy rich" to argue if MMO's are dying?

There are hundreds of MMO's out there which are highly profitable which you never write about.

So MMO's are doomed? No. The typical large mouthed multi million dollar "I am an American Production so I must be good" shit is dead. Yes. Very.

Everyone else is prospering. Oh, did you know that there are some MMO's having more players than WoW? That one game even has 3x the population in Europe than WoW has?

Yes, it makes less money, but hundreds of millions are okish still - at least for me.

Note: never mix up subscription based MMO's with "MMO's" in general please.
@Nils: what is your definition of a "real MMO"?

I find that the current state of affairs is simply market saturation. To say it in another way: MMOs can be profitable, companies put out a ton of MMOs, but there simply are not enough players to play them all.

And of course every single blogger has a solution.....

....and it's so bad that it would insta-sink even WoW if it were implemented. :)
Tobold. You single-handedy killed the MMO industry with the power of your blog pessimism. I think you might have Wizard of the Coast running scared.
@Helistar: perhaps the secret of a profitable MMO is simple: just find out what the Syncaine, Gevlon, Nils et al want and then do the opposite?
@Hagu: if Pandaria is successful, then I would say that your approach will be experimentally confirmed :)
>And I don't see a Jesus Game ahead that will save the genre.
Why not CCP's World of Darkness mmo?
@Random_Phobosis: Are you... serious? First of all, it's being done by CCP. Not known for being inclusive. If anything, they're known for catering to an audience who mercilessly jeers and derides anyone who exhibits traits such as decency, honesty, trust or naivety.

Everything I've seen about WoD, with its permadeath, reliance on social and physical backstabbing, and clustering together into might-makes-right social clumps for safety indicates their attitude in developing it remains no different. You only have to dig up interviews from devs to hear them talk about all the horrible things you can do to each other, or read the comment responses with people hungry to know how they can dominate each other, to realize this isn't a game for anyone who likes low-stress, cooperative exploratory ventures.

It will NOT be mainstream enough to be the 'Jesus Game'. It will be niche. Niche games won't save the genre by their very definition, since only a small percentage of the market plays them.
Sure, I'm serious.

I don't think social backstabbing is what makes game niche, mechanics are. For example, there's Mafia/Werewolf, a board game which is played for decades by people not actually knowing what boardgames are. Then there's Munchkin, which was a first modern board game for a fair number of gamers in my country (and that's not because of its thematic appeal, since it works even for people who haven't played a single rpg in their life).

I often play Resistance with casual non-gamer crowd, and it rocks precisely because of cutthroat backstabbing. Humans are already equipped with all the skills they need to make each other's life miserable and enjoy it, they just need a good ruleset which makes the ride fun for everyone involved.

I'm sure drama is actually appealing to most players, I mean, not grieving/attack-at-4-am-while- they-sleep/burn-Jita-kind of drama, but genuinely tense, psychological stuff.

The mechanics, on the other side, can be a big turn-off. If CCP manages to make the game more social instead of grindy (and by social I, of course, mean real social interaction, not "social" social) and use intuitive concepts instead of lots of numbers, then the game could theoretically be more accessible than WoW, and that's Jesus enough for me.

Prince and Blood Hunt from CCP's interviews look like intuitive, tense concepts. I like it.
Then there's DayZ, which is all the rage now. It could probably serve as an example of niche mod on incredibly niche platform, which became popular exactly because you can experience fun, harrowing things without inane mechanics bogging the game down. You can't make Jesus game without breaking new ground.
Subscription MMO revenue is in decline, but is it true that MMO revenue as a whole is in decline?

I'm skeptical as to whether less hours are being spent on MMOs either, with the explosion of F2P games and their exposure on platforms such as Steam.
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