Queen Elizabeth once memorably referred to a particular drama-filled year in her life as an “annus horribilis”, which shows that any phrase, even “horrible year”, sounds grave and fraught with meaning if you say it in Latin. And as far as game development in 2009 - well, it may well be time to bring out the dead languages, because last year was decisively an unpleasant year to be an MMO developer.
The Great Recession: When “Developers, Developers, Developers” turned into “Layoffs, Layoffs, Layoffs”
The hardest challenge facing MMO developers in 2009 was, umm, remaining an MMO developer. As the global economy imploded at the end of last year, the gaming industry showed that, contrary to the opinion of some clueless analysts, gaming is very much not immune to a recession. Just ask the folks at SOE. Or Turbine. Or Funcom. Or Mythic (twice). Or NCsoft. Or.. uh... me. Or... anyone at EA, as the gaming behemoth shed 1,500 workers (including the Mythic layoffs listed above).
Even at the larger, more successful companies such as Blizzard, job security wasn’t a sure thing. In fact, Activision Blizzard’s CEO, Bobby Kotick, literally bragged about how he was leveraging the current climate of insecurity to make his employees work harder out of stark fear. And he could get away with it, because, well, hey. Recession. 10% unemployment. What are you going to do, leave? Making things even worse, many of those lucky to be not technically unemployed were hired as ‘contractors’ (including, again, myself) with their employers avoiding having to give any benefits such as insurance, holiday pay, or, well, any assurance of stability whatsoever. (EA studios in particular switched many of their positions to contract labor in the past year.) You can talk about whatever challenges in design and production you like - if you’re not able to meet payroll or pay medical insurance? That tends to overwhelm any other issues.
The constant drumbeat of layoffs throughout 2009 changed the MMO industry. Before 2009, it was difficult to find qualified people for many positions on MMO teams, and experienced MMO developers were actively headhunted by competing companies, with some of the ruder recruiters literally calling you at your desk asking “Hi, want a new job?”. Those recruiters don’t call much any more (maybe they’re looking for work themselves). Instead, every job opening posted is instantly swamped with qualified (and overqualified) applicants. Many formerly vibrant cities (such as my own Austin, Texas) are seeing so many people leave the area for the few still functioning development hubs, such as Seattle and Montreal, that it’s hard to see any new studios forming easily there. Many game developers are leaving the industry entirely - even though the prospect of employment in the wider economy isn’t much better. The result: far fewer MMOs in development, and the few that make it out the gate take less risks. (Oh, and many of my friends are out of work, still.)
Facebook saves the gaming industry! Not.
2009 was the year everyone discovered that everyone else was playing Farmville. The usual suspects rushed out the door to proclaim that Facebook was the new gaming platform to end all gaming platforms. This was because the usual suspects didn’t actually play any Facebook games. Most of the games on Facebook, limited by what the platform can do, are overly simplistic, intentionally easy (aiming at the ‘mass market’ which some luminaries apparently believe are functionally incapable of playing anything more challenging than Bejeweled) and more often than not less “games” and more Trojan horses aimed at collecting demographic data and micro-transaction fees. This robber-baron attitude was personified by Zynga, the Facebook gaming behemoth responsible for Farmville and Mafia Wars (itself so much a clone of an earlier game that Zynga was sued for $10 million), whose modus operandi is to acquire games developed by others, make them as spammy as possible to irritate your friends and garner free “viral” advertising, and monetize the unholy hell out of them, by whatever unethical means are necessary. No, really, whatever it took. Just ask the CEO.
I knew that I wanted to control my destiny, so I knew I needed revenues, right, [bleep], now. Like I needed revenues now. So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I dont know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it. *laughs*
And it worked! For Zynga, anyway, who’s now one of the largest online game providers in the world, with 60 million daily users for their various products. Too bad they left such a trail of destruction that Facebook finally introduced a “lite” version that, not coincidentally, removes all application-related spam from a user’s feed. Hey, Zynga’s already got their market share.
Ironically, although this will probably spell death for smaller game developers dependent on viral spam to get the word out on their titles, more experienced game development studios who have a clue on how to market games without blasting updates into everyone’s Facebook feed may have a leg up in the emerging post-Zynga Facebook market. And as someone who’s looked at the current offerings and cringed, there is certainly room for a Facebook-centric game with, oh, I don’t know, actual gameplay as opposed to endless multi-level marketing scams.
Free to play or Subscriptions? Oh hell, let’s just do both. No one will notice.
This trend didn’t start in 2009, but it was certainly embraced by anyone with a will or, seemingly, a pulse. As developers started casting about desperately for new revenue opportunities to try to stave off even more layoffs, increasingly, and irksomely, studios decided to hit up the people already paying them for more money.
Sony Online at the start of the year introduced an item shop pushing micro-transactions into all their games - including venerable subscription-based games such as Everquest and Everquest 2. Blizzard continued a trend of picking off the stray nickel at the edges, adding more and more “value added” services such as race change surgery and finally, just adding their own pet mall. And in what may be the most egregious example of holding paying users upside down and shaking them until quarters came out, Champions Online started selling full skill “respecs” for $12.50, after insisting that adding them to the game was a bad idea.
Now, don’t get me wrong - I’m all for game developers making money. I mean, I’m a game developer, and I like money. But treating players -- paying customers -- as an endlessly renewable resource to be mined for candy is not only ethically suspicious, it’s counter-productive. Because in today’s economy the pocketbooks of your customers are as tight as yours are, the last thing they’re going to want to do is shell out $20 for a shiny +12 suit of Extra Special Value Chain Mail, and if you design your game so that +12 Value Chain Mail is necessary, your users will inform you that no, it’s not necessary because your game is not necessary.
At which point, you get to go back to the point about “layoffs, layoffs, layoffs”. Which really is the keystone for 2009, which, for MMO development, truly was a horrible year.