Recently, I’ve thought a lot about the world of MMOs and, like everyone, I always wonder why someone doesn’t do this, or wish someone would do that. In my head, my requests don’t seem unreasonable, and while I’m sure that there is any number of technical, financial or other reasons that no one has come through, it is fun to examine each.
#5: I wish I could make me
Every year, I have a tradition. It’s a bit sadistic, but for some reason, I keep doing it. I go out and buy the newest version of THQ’s Smackdown vs. RAW annual wrestling game. I don’t do it because they’re stellar games. In fact, I believe they’ve allowed both gameplay and story quality to steadily decline each year. I don’t do it because I’m a huge wrestling fan, I’m not. While I do watch casually, I’m just not that into it, fact is that the only piece of WWE merchandise I own are these damned games. I don’t do it because I have a secret crush on the girl who works at GameStop, I’m happily married and my wife says I can’t do that anymore. So, why do I drop $60 every year?
The answer is simple: I can make myself. If I have the time and the inclination, I can sit in front of that character creator for hours and create a very reasonable Jon, all 5’6” of densely concentrated awesome, kicking ass and taking names. Plus, I’ve always wanted my own theme music.
Catchy tunes that are too cool for me aside, I want to know why I can’t have the same experience in a role playing game. Sure, this all might be an exercise in ego, but it’s my $15 a month and I want to watch a virtual me cut down some virtual boars. It’s how I’d like to play.
#4: I wish they would stop making IP MMOs
It feels like every second MMO these days is carrying some kind of external IP with it. I mean, look at the upcoming titles: Star Trek Online, Champions Online, World of Darkness, Star Wars, Stargate (assuming it’s even still in development), heck, even World of Cars and Hello Kitty Online. We’ve even seen announcements stating that Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were getting MMOs (though I’m pretty sure both projects are dead). Last year, the big releases where Age of Conan and Warhammer Online. Then of course there are Turbine’s offerings of Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online. Let’s look even further back at SoE’s Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online. The list goes on.
All of the above games, with very few exceptions, have one thing in common: They failed to meet their own hype and player expectation. Hype and expectation brought on in no small part by the strength of the IP that the game is based on.
That fact aside, making an IP MMO makes it hard for players to know who to blame when they’re disappointed. See, the initial instinct is to blame the developers, but the truth is that there is an intricate dance happening behind the scenes of an IP MMO between the IP holder and the developers and most of the time, it’s the IP holder that’s doing the leading if you catch my drift.
Generally speaking, the IP holder gets final say on pretty much everything about their MMO, sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a very bad thing, but in the end it’s really just one more cook in an already crowded kitchen and the diners are left wondering why the meal tastes so thrown together.
Yes, IP MMOs look good to an investor. Something familiar that already has a built in fan base looks like it should be in a position to make money. Does that mean that churning them out one after the other is a good idea? No, probably not.
#3: I wish that there was a more obvious distinction between Big Studio and Indy MMOs
An independent movie known as The Blair Witch Project cost $22,000 to make, but grossed just under 250 million dollars. It was a rare exception to a general rule: Everyone notices the big shiny studio-made blockbusters while anything made by an independent crew has to jump through many, many hoops just to get noticed. The same is true for MMOs. Often, independent MMOs come and go unnoticed by the general public.
Unlike in movies, it seems as though an independent MMO that garners the attentions of the mainstream audience isn’t destined for a multi-hundred million dollar profit and is instead doomed to over-harsh criticism. You see, the problem is that as soon as an upcoming MMO is brought into the greater public consciousness it is treated like and compared to its multi-million dollar big studio made counterparts. It just isn’t fair and it isn’t accurate.
By and large, independent MMOs are built by much smaller, less experienced development teams working on budgets that are powers of ten lower than the studios get. They are often prone to more bugs, less content, lower quality graphics and a host of other issues that make them seem inferior, but it is in the independent MMO movement that the largest possibilities for real industry innovation reside. While high price tags and large, experienced dev teams are nice, being small and self operated means that you don’t have large investors breathing down your neck, looking for a return on their investment. You don’t have a host of benefactors pointing to the 600lb gorilla that is WoW saying, “they make money. Why change a money making formula?”