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Massively Multiplayer Mailbag #1 - You Ask, We Answer

Column By Jason Winter on March 10, 2014

Welcome to the first Massively Multiplayer Mailbag! The way it works is simple: You ask questions about the MMO industry, whether it be about the industry, a certain type of game, or a particular game itself, and I'll give the best answer I can based on the current available facts and observable trends, both past and future. It's like those sports columns where someone asks the columnist if he thinks Player A will hit 40 home runs or Team B will win the Super Bowl. (Prediction: World of Warcraft will win the Stanley Cup.)

For this first column, I went to my blog and asked some of my readers to hit me up with a few “seed” questions. For the future, you can send me your questions at JasonWinter@mmorpg.com. I'll answer as much as I can!

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Mattsta asks: For a couple years the idea of the Death of the Subscription has been floating around as more and more MMOs were released without one. This year we have at least too big games (ESO and WildStar) releasing with subscriptions. Do you think that these are outliers or that there is still a place for subscriptions in MMOs? Do you think think these games have the intention of remaining subscription based games or are just trying to quickly recoup development costs before switching to a F2P model?

As with any competitive business, MMOs can't operate in a vacuum. Subscriptions might still be a good idea for some games, but the fact remains that there are a ton of quality games – and, admittedly, quite a few that aren't so high-quality – out there without subscriptions, and as long as that's the case, they have a huge advantage over their subscription-bearing brethren.

I agree with the growing sentiment voiced by folks like John Smedley that subscriptions for MMOs are pretty much done. Since Turbine kicked down the sub wall in the West with Dungeons & Dragons Online in 2009, exactly one AAA MMO that launched still has a sub: Final Fantasy XIV. It's doing fine, by all reports, but it's only been out for six months. Plenty of other games launched with subs, like Rift, The Secret World, DC Universe Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic, but have since abolished them.

I think the days of strict “sub is your only option” are essentially over. Games that offer some other alternative, like WildStar, might be able to stick around. And the “cash in quick on early sales and then go F2P” is probably going to be viewed as an option for games like ESO, though, in listening to interviews, there's the equal chance that the ZeniMax crew truly and honestly believe they have something special that they feel vast numbers of people will line up to throw their money at them for years.

Personally, I like ESO, but I've also got about 10 other game launch icons on my desktop, none of which cost me anything to play. That's not to say I won't sub for a few months to try it out, but will it become something I get so wrapped up in that I feel is so much better than my freer options and that I have to keep playing (and spending money on) for years, as many have done with games like World of Warcraft and EVE Online? Unlikely. Buying and then subbing to an MMO for three months and then leaving might look good on the quarterly profit statements, but it doesn't do much for a game in the long term. If it did, then SWTOR would still have a sub.

Zax19 asks: In relation to the recent paid level 90 boost in WoW, what’s your opinion on creating a strictly raiding focused MMO? Do you know of any that skip traditional solo PvE content in favor of well-done group content?

Yes, there might be such a game out there, but I don't know that it's an MMO, strictly speaking.

I'd argue that there are four “gameplay types” in an MMO: 1) Exploration-based/open world PvE; 2) Limited-group/instanced PvE (dungeons and raids); 3) Open-world PvP; 4) Limited-group/instanced PvP (battlegrounds).

Most AAA, full-feature MMOs give you all four. It seems like the games that leave out some of those, especially #1, are not traditionally labeled “MMOs” but still give you a feel that's similar to that aspect of an MMO. DayZ and PlanetSide2 only have #3. League of Legends basically only has #4. (Yes, you can play against bots, but it's a very small part of the game.)

So would a game that only has #2 – which is what you describe – still be called an “MMO,” even if it had classes, leveling, and all the other trappings of an MMO(RPG)? Does Warframe fit that bill? With only four players, it's more “dungeon” than “raid,” but even if there was a hypothetical game that let you bring a group of 10 or 20 players, and had all the character-based elements of an MMO, without the open world and PvP, we probably would think of some other name for it.

That doesn't mean it wouldn't be fun, enjoyable, or profitable – Warframe is plenty popular – but if you're looking for such a game, broaden your search terms and maybe you'll find it.

Chad Cowder asks: What genre is really missing a quality MMO right now and is there one you think has promise for that genre coming soon?

Most major MMOs these days are fantasy or “hard” sci-fi – “far-future, spaceships, laser guns, and aliens” sci-fi rather than “near-modern and gritty” sci-fi like cyberpunk or post-apoc. Developers are hesitant to break away from these two extremely well-established genres for the same reasons that they're hesitant to break away from station-to-station themeparks: They've been proven to work, and they're something that everyone understands.

It's hard for a company to take the financial risk of developing a “risky” MMO, whether that risk is in the gameplay or the setting. It's hard to argue with that mindset when the few that are touted by bigger companies either underperform (like The Secret World and The Matrix Online) or never see the light of day (like The Agency and maybe World of Darkness). That's why most of the games that break from the fantasy/sci-fi mold are by smaller companies.

I'd like to think there's room for more MMOs based on historical, non-medieval eras, as most fantasy games are. A free-wheeling, gunslinging Wild West MMO, perhaps? Or a good (i.e., not Gods & Heroes) Roman Empire MMO? I think those could work, but we're unlikely to see them from a major studio – at least until an smaller/indie dev “gets it right” and proves there's money to be made from the idea.

Tyler F.M. Edwards asks: It seems like a lot of people believe sandboxes are the Next Big Thing. Do you think they will ever come to threaten themeparks in a major way, or is it all just a lot of hot air?

Sandboxes can be popular – more than they are today, where there's really only one (EVE Online) that gets mentioned in the same breath as the “big boys” – but “pure” sandboxes will probably never match more structured, themepark-like games in pure numbers. Accessibility is king, and games that appeal to a wider base will, by and large, have more players than ones that have a steeper learning curve or are more difficult to get into. That's how World of Warcraft become the juggernaut that it is.

That said, I think we're going to see a shift away from both “pure” sandboxes (like EVE) and “pure” point-to-point themeparks (like WoW and its various spin-offs). Developers are realizing that people are getting tired of the strictly linear approach of themeparks but they also have seen enough ambitious sandboxes come and go to realize that's not the approach either.

I think that the trend will be toward a merger of the two styles – “themeboxes” or “sandparks,” if you will – that try to incorporate elements of both. We're already seeing it, in games like Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online. SOE realizes this, and while they certainly are billing EverQuest Next Landmark and EverQuest Next as sandboxes, they know they can't make them purely anarchic affairs and expect them to draw in, and retain, the number of players needed to sustain them and turn a profit. The “Holy Grail” of sandboxes, Star Wars: Galaxies, as much as it's been touted, took two years to sell one million copies. Today's AAA releases expect that many sales in their first month, if not before launch.

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