Rant: MMO Insanity
Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. It doesn't take a genius to take a step back and see how this can easily be applied the MMO developers, as well as those of us who follow and play the games. I believe that when you take a look at the genre over the course of the last 5 years or so, that a definite pattern can be seen that shows a series of events that loop over and over again. The outcome of this cycle seems to leave both developers and gamers surprised and burned, and for whatever reason both seem to try the same thing again hoping that somehow this time will be different. This my friends is MMO Insanity, and it's time to stop the madness.
Last week I had a lengthy vent conversation with some younger people who expressed to me their excitement about Star Wars: The Old Republic, and how their expectations were through the roof. It's definitely not an uncommon sentiment on a lot of the forums these days. As I look at the front page of MMORPG.com, SWTOR is the most popular game in development and over the last month is the most looked at game on the site. When I asked to have them explain to me why they were so excited, I was given a list of reasons that matches up with what I read on the forums here on a given day, but also fit perfectly into the cycle of MMO insanity.
Now let me preface this going forward that for the purpose of this article, I will be using SW:TOR as an example because at the time of me writing this, it is the big "AAA" MMO that seems to have everyone talking. It is not my intent to slam that game because frankly none of us have played it. It is my intent to try to show from an objective point of view how what we see today fits into the cycle of MMO insanity.
One of the biggest lures to the game is the fact that it is Star Wars. Most of us are nerds here, so its safe to say that Star Wars probably has a high favorability rating with people in these parts. Growing up, I was a fan of the tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, Conan the Barbarian, Matrix movies, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek (not really), etc. The fact of the matter is that despite no matter how much I was fond of any of these worlds, they translated into MMORPGs that frankly sucked ass. More often than not, we find ourselves playing the same game over and over again, even using the same exact button mashing combat system, but with a different theme (park).
What is even more frightening to me is the thought that despite this, developers are still trying to do the same thing with every random IP they can get their hands on. I remember reading a few months back about the prospects of a Twilight MMO, a Dragonball Z MMO, a Warhammer 40K MMO, maybe Harry Potter, where does it end? It doesn't end because developers know that there are those among us who will be blinded by our passion for the IP and not notice how shallow or linear the game behind it really is. Even if you end up quitting in the first few months, they succeeded at the cash grab for the initial sales.
Think about for it a minute. All of the above IPs had the rights snatched up by someone for the sole purpose of selling an MMO to you by capitalizing on your fondness to them. If you get these IP-based MMOs and remove that lore, more often than not your stuck with a game that is over-instanced, extremely linear, has shallow gameplay, and button-mashing thoughtless combat. Ironically these features can be found in pretty much all the MMOs people refer to as being "AAA".
One of the most common defenses for having unrealistically high expectation for the next "AAA" MMO is because it's being made by company "ABC", and they made this other great MMO that I loved! I've been in this genre since around 1997, so maybe its just me, but how many of the "AAA" companies have released more than one highly successful MMO? If anything, we should know by now that past performance does not guarantee future results.
I remember when Warhammer was coming out and everyone was praising Mythic for making another RvR MMORPG all these years after DAOC. Ah, good old DAOC, often considered as one of the better PvP MMOs to have come out. Then along comes Warhammer, based off an IP that we all loved from the tabletop games. How could it possibly go wrong being made by the same people who brought us DAOC? Without going over all the specifics, I think it's safe to say that this one turned out to be ass when they took everything that was good about DAOC and left it out of WAR.
I remember Everquest, everyone loved Everquest back in the day! Many years passed and we found out that the people who helped make Everquest formed a new company and were going to make a new MMO after all these years. Brad McQuaid told us about his vision for his upcoming game Vanguard, although the source of the vision was never confirmed. Somehow I don't think it included all of the employees being herded out into the parking lot and fired as the game went down the toilet.
I remember Asheron's Call, probably one of my favorite all time MMORPGs. Turbine was years ahead of its time in terms of the world, character development, monthly patches, and events. Years later we hear Turbine is finally going to make a sequel, Asheron's Call 2. There's no way they could screw that up right? After all they had Asheron's Call 1, all they needed was to update the graphics a bit and they'd have a winner. Asheron's Call 2 has been long dead and somehow the original is still online and operational.
Without going on all day, history shows us that most of these companies turn out to be one-hit wonders. Past performance does not guarantee future results. It is for this reason I look at a game like FFXIV and SW:TOR with skepticism. FFXI to me was one of the best PvE MMOs ever created, but the pattern speak for themselves and history shows we can't give anyone a free pass. SW:TOR will have EA stamped on the box, which is enough to make me squirm before going any further (even if its next to Bioware). Again for whatever reason, having one of these big name companies stamped on your box somehow makes your game "AAA".
Anyone else notice that the next big thing seems to cost a lot more to make than the previous big thing? I remember hearing about how expensive WoW cost initially to make, hearing later that it was dwarfed in comparison to the initial costs to make Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, and now hearing SW:TOR could be upwards of 150 Million. Does anyone else find it ironic that the game that spent the least amount of money initially of those listed above turned out to be the most successful? Could it be that there is not a correlation between dollars spent and final quality?! Who would have thought such madness, the world must be upside-down!
As the budgets for making these games goes up, it has to become even harder for them to make the game profitable from a business vantage point. The cost to buy the box or client for an MMO has pretty much been the same over the last 5 years or so ($50), and the subscription fee seems to universally be about the same as it was years ago ($15), so how do they expect to pay for this?
The answer is hype. EA stated that they are hoping for 2 million subscribers for SW:TOR, but think they will need over 1 million to reach the break-even point. In order to rope in that many people, they don't need us drinking the kool-aid, they need us chugging it. It's going to be their job to spend the next year trying to appeal to your love of Star Wars, show you all kinds of fancy trailers, and crank that hype machine to overkill. But hey, this kind of budget is what we expect from what is considered to be a "AAA" MMO.
The "AAA" Myth
What exactly makes a game "AAA"? When you think about all the games being heralded as "AAA" in the recent years, many of them go hand-in-hand with bombing in the market. There is always the huge initial surge of sales, and usually at the 60 or 90 day mark, 70% or more of the people have jumped ship. This to me sends up a red flag whenever I hear someone throw around those 3 letters to sell me on the quality of the game. We have accepted this as the norm today for all MMOs because we have been stuck in the cycle of MMO insanity for so long.
The entire "AAA" is a myth to me at this point. As I look back at the cycle of what are supposed to be big reputable companies, spending tons of money, milking famous IPs, I can't help but think we need to stop the madness. There is nothing wrong with being excited about an upcoming MMO and wishing it the best, but sip the kool-aid slowly before you chug it. MMORPGs are on of the fastest growing genres in PC gaming, and as customers we need to let them know that our money needs to be earned based on the merits of the game, not the IP, whose behind it, or the amount of cash being thrown around. If you chug the cool-aid every time you see it, they will keep selling us the same uninspired generic garbage with a different name on the box, and this genre will continue on its death-spiral into mediocrity.
Co-Leader of Inquisition