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Pitchblack Games
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Dominus Column: MMO Darwinism

By Victor Barreiro Jr. on May 04, 2012

The death of an MMO is a difficult subject to discuss, mostly because I imagine online games as both games and the creation of some brilliant and talented people who can easily lose their jobs if an MMO goes bust. The day after I planned to write this article, the Dominus MMO shuttered before it could even get to launch, and the realization that there are people who may lose their jobs as a result of an MMO’s death is a bit disconcerting.

Regardless, the fact is online games die for various reasons. Today’s Devil’s Advocate is an examination of that, of how the death of an MMO, however depressing, is something that happens in order for the industry as a whole to survive or thrive.

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Without going into too much detail behind the actual definitions of Darwinism, MMO Darwinism is the catchphrase I will use to refer to the need for MMORPGs to adapt or fail at the market. What MMO Darwinism also puts forth is the idea that the health of the online gaming industry requires some MMOs or conventions from specific MMOs to die out in order to keep the MMO industry going.

Why MMO Darwinism Exists

The basic premise of MMO Darwinism is based around the understanding of finite resources. Of all the people in the world, there is only a subset of that that plays games, and a smaller subset of that group plays online games. Thus, unless more people play online games, there is only a specific amount of money going into online games to pay salaries, development costs, upkeep, and other things.

The problem is that while there are many online games out there that cater to a variety of tastes, game companies are fighting on three fronts. The first is toward the acquisition of customers and the revenue associated with folks who pay for something in the games they play. The second front is against companies that provide other forms of entertainment, such as television, movies, and other game types. Lastly, the third front is the attempt to grow the MMO gaming industry in order to find new revenue. This is the reality of the situation, and while it is not ideal, it is what folks in the gaming industry have to deal with.  

The Shift in MMO Conventions

One aspect of the growth and development of the MMO industry is the general phase-out or subsequent culling of outdated MMO concepts and its replacement with new conventions.

For instance, earlier MMORPGs had a tendency towards longer and potentially more difficult progression curves. As the popularity of MMOs grew, these leveling curves were smoothed out to provide a more accessible experience to a growing number of players, specifically to entice them to play the game.

The free-to-play (or pay-as-you-feel-like-it) transition of specific MMOs in recent years is also a development spawning from the need to keep consumers. Seeing some subscription-based MMOs were not producing as much money as could be garnered to keep things moving forward, companies had to adapt their games in order to let them fight on even footing and survive in the harsh economic landscape.

 The Death of an MMO

When it comes to the terrible subject of MMO death, I find myself thinking that ideally, no MMO should ever have to die and displace its staff. In an ideal world, however, everyone would have gainful employment they enjoyed, so I had to change my tune shortly after having that particular thought experiment.

That said, there are many ways for MMOs to die, and some of them act as reminders for those in the MMO industry that it’s a rather scary world to be in.

Of the various ways to go, I’d think the most agreeable (though still saddening) way for an MMO to pass is the sunsetting of the game due to contractual issues. Star Wars Galaxies had this particular issue and was soon replaced by Star Wars: The Old Republic. SWG also gave itself a definitive ending, which I thought was a rather spectacular way to say goodbye.

Perhaps the heartbreaking way to go is to accidentally delete your entire game and not have a backup. This happened with Sankando and HanGame’s M2 title.

The most common way for an MMO to go is for the game’s cancellation. With everything from indie browser games to AAA titles falling this way (we actually have a list), the “survival of the fittest” atmosphere in the MMO industry can be rather intense.

What MMO Darwinism Didn’t Count on

One thing that the idea of MMO Darwinism doesn’t count on, however, is the return of a dead MMO.

These MMOs, such as APB Reloaded and the recently announced “World of” Shadowbane, get second wind by having new investors come in and work on reviving the game with the adaptations that would have helped these games survive to begin with.

Sadly, this is a rather rare occurrence, and there’s no assurance that folks who used to play a specific game can even get access to the game again, as in the case of Shadowbane being a resurrection on Chinese shores.

The Final Word

Originally, I was one of those people who fell generally against the idea of MMO Darwinism, mostly on idealistic reasons related to people losing their jobs. Now, I still feel that people shouldn’t lose their jobs over a game shutting down, and I feel bad when it does happen, but I have opened up to the idea that the MMO games have to evolve and fight for their customer base.

This means having highly accessible AAA titles like World of Warcraft and RIFT as well as niche games like Fallen Earth, Wizard 101, and EVE Online. It also means having browser-based and mobile titles like Kultan or Pocket Legends. Having free-to-play and subscription games working off each other to provide innovations in gaming is a good thing. Having a lot of good games out there without supersaturating the market increases the base of customers who enjoy online gaming, which is a net benefit for the industry if these gamers enjoy multiple games and MMO tourism of a sort.

The biggest caveat to MMO Darwinism, to paraphrase a friend of mine, is that the fight for paying customers is fierce, and can result in games that are made for paying customers rather than for gamers. Design decisions ought to be made for games to be more fun, rather than for games to be addictive, but the culture of MMO Darwinism makes it difficult for some members of the industry to focus on gamers as people rather than gamers as dollar signs. That has to change if we want the MMO gaming industry to thrive and evolve as well.

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