20 December 2011

What IS Successful?

Ok I think we're all just about in Star Wars: The Old Republic overload right now, so I'd like to ease away from that topic for a bit.  This post is still somewhat related to SW:TOR, but speaks to broader issues within the MMO industry and not just that particular game.  The debate has already begun in terms of just how "big" SW:TOR will be and more importantly, how "big" it must be in order to be considered a success.  What I would like to discuss then, is just how we define a successful game in the MMO genre and where those expectations came from.  For better or for worse, any discussion of this topic has to begin with the industry's "ten ton gorilla," World of Warcraft.

Step into my time machine for just a moment and let me whisk you all the way back to................... 2004.  Yes I know, ancient history.  Well in the world of technology and gaming, it may as well be.  In this "dark, old age," MMO's were a very narrow niche of the gaming market.  You had games such as Everquest, Asheron's Call, and Dark Age of Camelot, all of which were considered highly successful games for their time.  But none of these games could boast a number like one million subscribers.  If a game had tens of thousands, or maybe even a hundred thousand subscribers, it was considered a successful and healthy game.  Now I am not going to get into the mechanics of these games in this post.  Discussing things like permanent gear loss, open PvP, etc. are topics for another day.  What I'm trying to focus on here is just the economics.

Enter... the gorilla.  World of Warcraft completely changed the way game developers and publishers looked at MMO's and the definition of success.  WoW opened the world of MMO's to a much broader audience.  No longer were they confined to the narrow niche they were in before.  And as WoW's numbers continued to surge with each year and each expansion, other companies looked to Blizzard with a jealous eye and looked to duplicate their success.  Many games came and went, all trying to match the multi-million subscriber numbers that WoW boasted.  Today these names make up a proverbial graveyard of so-called "WoW killers."  Games such as Vanguard, Aion, Warhammer, and Age of Conan are just a few that tried to knock the king off his throne.  They all failed for various reasons.  But the question should be asked, should all those games be considered failures?  Or is their only failure simply not being AS successful as WoW?

This is where I think that WoW really harmed the MMO industry.  Yes it opened the market to a vast number of new players that wouldn't have considered an MMO before, but it also changed how the industry measures success and manages risk.  Many of those games I listed above would have been considered successful prior to WoW's arrival.  They each have flaws, some more than others, but they are mostly functional and playable games.  But because they couldn't attract and retain several million subscribers, the companies that created them marked them as failures, cut their support, changed their business models, etc.  Other companies that had projects either terminated them entirely or scrapped them early due to poor expectations.  As a result the industry as a whole was robbed of potentially promising games... games that would have seen more attention prior to WoW.  In my mind this is WoW's true legacy... not the players it brought to the genre, but the way it narrowed MMO's themselves by redefining success.

And THAT is what I think is truly driving the push towards "free to play" in the MMO industry.  A game that is F2P doesn't have to count subscriptions.  They don't have to post that number against WoW's Asian netcafe inflated number and look "poor" in comparison.  Instead... they can tout how many accounts people have opened (like what DC Universe Online did after going F2P) and claiming what a success it has been.  Yeah, of course everyone will be inclined to open an account when your game is free.  But how many of those people will ever spend a dime on your game?  I openly admit, I have a DCUO account, but I will never spend a penny to play it.  This is the true lure of F2P.  By removing the initial barrier, you attract many more "curious customers" that you can then claim as "players."  Players, yes.  Payers?  Not so much.

And that brings us back to SW:TOR.  How will its success be measured?  Already people are comparing active servers and server loads between SW:TOR and WoW and the game has just officially launched.  Will a million subs be successful?  Will it need two million?  Even more?  Just a couple things to remember... SW:TOR is only launching in the U.S. and Europe, not in Asia where over half of WoW's "subscribers" reside.  WoW's subscriber base in those territories is five million tops.  Also remember that no other MMO in the US/EU can even claim one million concurrent subscribers.  I think EVE Online comes close, and RIFT wishes it had that many... but no one else is even in the ballpark.  So if after a month (when the 30-day "tourists" have left) SW:TOR posts somewhere between one and two million subs, let's keep that number in perspective before declaring its success or failure.  And let's think about just what it means to be successful at all.

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