This past weekend Massively posed the question, "Is permanent 'autopilot' preferable to shutting down an MMO?" Normally I wouldn't go out of my way to address a question like this, but browsing through the responses, I was reminded of a couple of realities that I have commented on before in my blog's previous incarnation. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about them again for the benefit of those who are new to the blog because they affect many aspects of my opinion and commentary regarding MMO's as a whole. It mostly has to do with a group of players that I refer to as "The Informed." We'll get back to that concept in a bit, but first I'll touch on some of the other comments people made.
Opinions are like...
The responses fell into three general categories. The first was, "Is this really a question? Of course we would rather keep playing, even with no updates or support!" These folks were generally of the opinion that games are supposed to be fun, and so long as the game IS fun, it doesn't need formal support and people can continue to play it if they find enjoyment in it. I found it interesting that some people observed that this is essentially what games USED to be before the advent of DLC. A game was what it was. There was no updates, addons, etc. You had to be able to enjoy it simply "as is." Now when we buy a game (MMO or otherwise) it is almost expected that we will get MORE of it somewhere down the line.
The second category were those who said the game should continue to run, so long as it contained enough content to remain enjoyable for more than just a few weeks or months. Replayability was also a factor for these folks as well. Essentially the game either needed to be fun enough to play over and over, or have enough built in content so that repeating things would not be an issue. Mention was made here of World of Warcraft as an example of a game with sufficient content that "replay" would generally not be an issue. I would tend to agree. Whether you like them or not, you have to admit Blizzard has gone out of their way to build in things to do within their game. On the other side of the coin, people brought up some of NCSoft's shutdowns like Tabula Rasa and Auto Assault. Why keep games running when there is nothing to DO in them?
But it is the third category of responses I want to address the most, because these responses return to my point about The Informed and how the MMO industry is perceived. This third group of responses returned to the old "Themepark vs. Sandbox" argument essentially saying that if a game was player driven and had mechanisms for player created content, formal developer support is not even needed aside from infrastructure and customer support. Now I will say up front that Sandbox advocates are probably the most vocal minority in the MMO community, even more so than the hardcore raiders or PvP types. If you listen to these folks, Star Wars Galaxies is the greatest MMO ever made and we should all still be playing Ultima Online. I have no problem with either of those games, or Sandboxes in general, but their passion proves my overall point.
The Vocal Minority is NOT a Majority
The Informed is a term I use to refer to the portion of the MMO community that is "active" in the sense of reading or writing blogs, reading or posting on forums, and keeping up with news regarding the industry. By definition, you and I both are a part of this group. We take a higher degree of interest in what goes on in relation to the games we play and the industry as a whole. But what we in this group tend to forget, is how SMALL of a group we really are. Different people throw around different numbers and I won't bother to quote them here because they are mostly either anecdotal or pure guesswork, but suffice to say that The Informed make up a very small percentage of MMO players. But because we are vocal, because we share our opinions, because we are up to date with what is going on, we tend to fall into the trap of believing that WE represent the opinions of ALL MMO players. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The question Massively posed and the responses regarding Sandboxes is a perfect illustration of this point. If Sandboxes were truly as popular and well received as these responses would make you think, then one would assume that Sandboxes would be the dominant form of MMO today, but even a more casual follower of the industry knows that this is far from the case. Sandboxes are largely dead, in the Western market most certainly, and even in the overall industry. Aside from small niche games, EVE Online carries the Sandbox torch almost alone in the West, with the upcoming ArcheAge being localized for Western markets by Trion (wondering if they are having second thoughts on that investment after End of Nations essentially died and Defiance is limping along at best.) So what we have is a disconnect between the opinion of a vocal minority, and the reality of the industry itself.
Why does this matter? Because it creates a sort of... miscommunication regarding what the industry as a whole should look like. Publishers and developers understand this reality. They know that the people who post on their forums and blog about their games only represent a small percentage of their potential customer base. So who do they make their games appeal to; that small group, or a broader constituency? The answer is simple economics. They make games to make money. That is why the MMO market is dominated by Themepark style MMO's and (increasingly) by "free-to-play" payment models. These are the games that appeal to the broad base, not the desires of The Informed. Now to be sure, publishers and developers know that The Informed can create (or destroy) the public perception of a game, and so great efforts are often made to appeal to us. But at the end of the day, our needs and opinions are not the primary motivation.
(This is also where Kickstarter and other "crowd-funding" platforms can come in, as the success of projects like Star Citizen and Camelot Unchained can attest to. But that is a topic for another post of its own someday.)