01 June 2013

MMO Don't Work in the US?

This is why I should never "plan" on what I am going to write about on here.  I have the attention span of a............


............... oh look a kitten!  Yeah I still plan to write about Storm Legion.  I have half the post sitting in draft form in Word.  But every time I go to finish it, something else seems to grab my attention.  So to quote a "beloved" MMO developer we all know and love, it will be finished "when it's ready."  Until then, another bit of news caught my attention that I wanted to share my opinion on.  Apparently MMO's don't work in the US.


The Definition of Success

For the TL;DR among us, the chairman of Take-Two Interactive (maker of games such as Borderlands, Grand Theft Auto, and BioShock) claimed that MMO's cannot be successful in the US market and that only two would qualify as successes in his mind, EverQuest and World of Warcraft.  Now let's give this gentleman the benefit of the doubt and assume he isn't an idiot.  The success of the two titles he mentioned cannot be questioned, but at the same time one cannot question that other MMO's have been successful in the US market as well.  So the issue then becomes what is meant by success.  Obviously he holds some threshold in his mind about what makes a successful MMO, and based on that criteria only two games meet his definition.  Being a corporate official, it is safe to assume that "success = profit," but even that would not exclude many other MMO's that have made a profit in the US.  So how much profit is enough?  This returns to another interview with another figure in the MMO world, Scott Hartsman.  I've linked this interview before but I'm going to do it again in case you haven't read it before.  I'm also going to use one of his charts for illustration because I absolutely love it.


Courtesy:  Massively

Now Hartsman is talking up front development costs for an MMO, not profits in the strictest sense, but the two concepts are directly related and the problem Hartsman illustrates is (in my mind) part of the reason Zelnick of Take-Two thinks MMO's "don't work."  Zelnick looks at the development and maintenance costs of an MMO and has determined that based in part on those costs, MMO projects cannot be sufficiently profitable as to qualify as "successes" and therefore will not be supported by his company.  It also brings to mind situations like Square Enix saying that the Tomb Raider reboot "disappointed" despite selling almost 4 million units.  If that's a disappointment, what would have been a success?  This brings us full circle back to Hartsman's original argument and that is the expectations for success and profitability in MMO's are reaching a completely unrealistic level.  It is getting to the point where your game either needs to really be the "next WoW" in terms of long term profit, or your game has failed.

This is bad news for everyone.  If the bar is going to be raised so high that only another game on the level of WoW will be considered a success, then fewer and fewer games are going to be made resulting in fewer and fewer choices for the gamer.  Syp even hypothesized that this was ultimately the reason for Blizzard scrapping Project Titan.  They were afraid of the expectations.  They knew that whatever followed WoW would have to be better than WoW.  Zelnick makes passing reference to this in his interview, noting that a "competitor" had recently scrapped an MMO project.  So if even the mighty Blizzard is intimidated by the ever changing definition of "success," what hope does that leave for lesser developers trying to make their mark?

Well obviously it is not all doom and gloom.  Not every developer (or even publisher) holds to the same definition of success that Zelnick and his ilk imply.  Even other big companies and associated IP's like The Elder Scrolls Online are willing to take their shots in the MMO marketplace.  So it's not like Zelnick holds a monopoly of opinion.  But he is an illustration of a scary trend.  More "big name" publishers may shy away from MMO's due to the perceived costs and few "successes."  Take EA for instance.  They thought Star Wars: The Old Republic was their golden ticket.  And while free-play salvaged that title, it certainly did not perform as they hoped.  Will they green light another MMO project in the future?  Although I think many gamers would say "good riddance" if EA decided never to make another MMO.

Crowdsourcing and Kickstarting

The customer can always "vote" with their wallets in terms of what companies and games to support.  And this is perhaps even more true with MMO's and their sustained nature... be it through conventional subscriptions or cash shops, MMO's encourage you to spend money over time.  Well, what if you could spend that money up front in terms of supporting a game?  If publishers are unwilling to support MMO projects due to the problems mentioned above, are there alternatives?  The latest trend involves "crowd sourcing," seeking donations from the community at large to support a project.  Kickstarter is the most well-known example of this, but there are others as well.  Is this the future for games deemed "too risky" by conventional publishers, or perhaps even developers who simply want to be freed from the expectations of said publishers?  Time will tell.  I am curious to see how projects like Star Citizen or Shroud of the Avatar work out.  If they prove successful (there's that word again) it could permanently alter the way games are made.  But it seems we are a few years yet from these projects coming to fruition.  In the meantime, my approach will be to wait and see.

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