Recent layoffs at Funcom and Mythic should tell us that MMOs aren't in a healthy place right now. Compared to five or six years ago, there are relatively few new games in development claiming to be the next big thing. That's mainly because the big thing happened (we're talking about WoW here, naturally), and who's going to try and claim they can kill it? Leading up to WoW's release and ever since, the MMO landscape has been littered with failed releases and half-successes.
If you were a fan of Asheron's Call 2, The Sims Online, Dungeon Runners, The Matrix Online, Tabula Rasa, then you know the pain of seeing your game shut down. Even if your game is still in operation, if it failed to hit the critical mass that a publisher requires to call it a success, it will probably have a direct impact on your play experience in the form of minimal live development and customer service. Successful games are few and far between, with people choosing aging but reliable games over newer offerings.
These days, companies tend to take a short-sighted view of the MMO subscription lifespan, and if a game isn't a hit right out the door, they are quick to slash the live development team to a skeleton and they begin considering the right time to sunset the service. But the problems that result in an MMO's closure usually have their roots early in the inception of the project. We have enough history behind us that we should be able to see where we're going.
So, why do so many games fail, when it's clear that there's a potential market in the millions? You should be able to reach and appeal to at least a few of them, right? Fact is that in many cases, it's because developers and publishers are screwing up.
Some games were released just plain broken as a result of bad development. Vanguard and Tabula Rasa's launches were just befuddled messes. In these cases, developers bemoan their release dates and wish for three to six months to really polish it off. To translate, they failed at project planning to identify risks and issues early and spent all of their venture capital before the game was done. They needed a cash infusion to pay salaries that they should have planned for but didn't, so they launched their broken game. One has to ask how they spent the previous five to seven years if a few months would have made such a difference.
Unfortunately, project planning isn't the answer when the game itself is a mistake. The Sims Online had an ok launch as MMOs go, but EA/MAXIS failed to comprehend that playing The Sims online didn't have to mean MMO-style virtual world. The fun of The Sims stand-alone game came from its customizability, the ability to play out fantasies about killing your avatars or sleeping with everyone in the neighborhood and using the cheat mode to build awesome houses. It didn't mesh with the game-balance and code of conduct drivers behind the traditional MMORPG.
Even a good game has to struggle to succeed. To this day, I maintain that PlanetSide was one of the best things that SOE ever released. But the market didn't understand it. As one of the first massively-multiplayer FPS games, people couldn't justify paying a subscription fee when Counter-Strike servers were free. The game offered little to role-playing gamers, who we already knew were willing to pay a subscription fee. Its major design flaw was longevity. It was the best online game you ever played for 30 days, but you eventually reached a point where you had done everything and it became repetitive.
Something that doomed two of the higher profile closed games was a change in service. Both AC2 and MxO transitioned from one publisher to another and lost customers in the switch. Something that we don't often reveal in the world of subscription MMOs is that we rely on the passive customer. The best customer is the one who never logs in. They require no service and take no toll on server capacity. For whatever reason, whether they simply don't check their credit card balance closely or there is a game-related reason to stay subscribed, such as veteran rewards.
However, in transitioning, both of these games hemorrhaged customers and the population plummeted like dinosaurs after the asteroid struck. Continuing your subscription required action, and if you weren't paying attention to the monthly charge on your credit card statement, then you probably also weren't paying attention to the service notices that the publishers sent instructing you on how to switch to the new subscription.
Can a game come back from the brink? Yes, and some have done it. EVE Online launched to mediocre subscription numbers and lingered at sub-100K subscription levels for two years, to later become one of the top MMO populations out there. Dungeons & Dragons Online recently revamped its business model to one based on a combination of traditional subscriptions or a free-to-play option with microtransactions to generate revenue. I'm not privy to the numbers behind this move, but if you can judge a population by (link: http://www.quantcast.com/ddo.com) web traffic stats, the game is resuscitating nicely.
But turning a game around isn't easy, and some may stand on the cusp of making a difference and still fail. I had the chance to be a part of a game revival that ultimately didn't take. In 2004, PlanetSide was struggling with its population. The game had one of the most committed communities I've ever encountered, but its subscription numbers weren't to the expectations held on the business end. However, the remaining team knew that we had something special on our hands. We dug in and did everything we could to sustain the population. Where the game's subscriptions were expected to slide continuously throughout the year, they held steady. The community even helped us through their own guerilla marketing campaigns, which didn't make the population explode, but certainly helped us stay even.
This didn't escape the notice of SOE management, and we were given another chance. Development commenced on the game's biggest update up to that time, which would be released in conjunction with the Aftershock compilation. That update contained the Battlefield Robotics (BFR's, or Big F'ing Robots), which did wonders for our press but were a source of controversy for our population. We made the mistake of introducing a mechanic that changed our game, rather than enhancing what was already special about it (and I'll be the first to say that there was a lot of goodness to check out in PS). Whether the whole idea was flawed or simply aspects of its implementation are for another debate. The end result didn't re-energize the game and brought negativity where we needed nearly universal good karma to succeed.
Lord of the Rings Online launched in April of 2007 and as far as I am concerned, it was the last successful triple-A MMORPG launched (I think Free Realms is a good game too, but it's kind of playing a different ballgame). That means that we're coming up on three years before another MMO succeeds and we're placing a lot of hope in Star Wars: The Old Republic and DC Universe Online to bring us back to a place where we can feel good about a major game release. But I'm also hoping that past failures don't scare developers from innovating. I'd love to see another stab at an MMOFPS (which SOE has made mentions of, yay!) or even a new sandbox style fantasy game like Ultima Online back in the day.
One last thought on the changing online game landscape: I find myself using the term "MMORPG" less and less, as the release landscape consists of a flood of imported games and casual social games. Their longevity has yet to truly be tested. But I do know this: with the ease of transition from one free-to-play game to the next and the glut of Mafia Wars clones on Facebook, service will win the day. Those companies that show a commitment to ensuring a consistently smooth experience will sustain their customers and their revenue. Those that never focus past the monthly sales figures will learn what natural selection is all about.