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Bill Murphy: The Problem No One’s Talking About

Column By William Murphy on November 02, 2012

Otherwise known as “Two months done, what’s next?” Back when this genre was a shining little toddler, stumbling around in sharp corners, and drooling all over itself, there were very few games on the market.  If you wanted to be, or considered yourself, an MMO gamer you basically had a handful of games to choose from.  Those days are gone though.  And now, much like any other genre in gaming, players have a smorgasbord of titles to choose from.  Many may play alike, sure.  But don’t kid yourself into thinking that every FPS is a shiny and unique little snowflake either. 

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The problem is MMOs by their very nature are dependent upon players sticking around in game for months or years at a time.  The FPS of the week can get away with ten-hours of gameplay and a box sold. Big AAA online games that are services and not finite experiences cannot.  From my vantage point, there is no easy solution to this issue.  But there are two culprits that stand out as barriers to the MMO adjusting for a more crowded marketplace: revenue model and content-based design.  It’s my belief that an MMORPG can still retain lots of players’ attention, but it’s probably best to avoid the “OMGFailure!” hyperbole by looking towards these two solutions.  It’s my belief that a flexible revenue model and non-content reliant design can lead towards a more successful game in the long run; both from a financial standpoint and a community reaction standpoint.

WHY A PROPER HYBRID MEANS SOLVENCY

I don’t believe that a game has to be F2P to survive these days.  I still think that games which plan from the very beginning to adopt and adhere to a hybrid model are better off than anyone else.  I’m not saying that shoe-horning the F2P or Freemium model into a game after launch is a bad idea; I just see it as a cry of “Oops, we’re not worth $15 a month and now we know this.”  Instead I believe that the games confident enough in their design and ability to attract players and keep their attention will be better off in the crowded market by adopting a F2P or Freemium model.  Even Guild Wars 2’s “No Sub” model seems to work, even though the barrier to entry is still there (the initial box fee).

The barrier to entry is a very important thing that MMO developers need to work around.  You might sell a lot of boxes initially (I can think of several games that have), but unless you can keep people playing and paying thereafter, you’re headed for disaster.  World of Warcraft’s meteoric rise was a fluke.  There’s not anyone who can claim it wasn’t anymore. But there are millions of Western MMO gamers who want more of these games.  They just don’t want them to all be the same, and lately… they don’t want to always be forced to pay a subscription for a title they might only play here or there for a few days.  The amount of choice in the market is now detrimental to the subscription model.  There are simply too many games competing for that space at this point in time.  A game whose business model and revenue stream are built from the ground up to deal with the fluctuation of a F2P or hybrid subscription model is going to be far more stable in the long run. 

Now this leads me to the second (and likely more important) message of this article.  Even with a low barrier to entry, and even with a properly monetized store (no pay-to-win, fun and meaningful but still optional spending), it is likely the game could still face the biggest of problems: it could suck. It could and likely will have a finite amount of content.  And on top of this all, even if the game is serviceable and interesting?  Even if you’ve spent millions on its quests and bells and whistles? Players will eat through all that far faster than you can make more for them to digest, and they will get disgruntled and leave to find some other game.

WHY SYSTEMS (NOT CONTENT) SPELL LONGEVITY

Content is great.  In my mind content is the best way to push the world’s story forward, if it’s story you’re trying to tell.  But it’s not always going to be something players want to repeat over and over again.  It’s not something they’ll always happily “redo” while they wait months for new additions.  I’m not here to argue the virtues of sandbox over themepark, but rather to say that all MMOs could deal with a whole lot more systems design, and a lot less of a focus on content.  If content is the story, quests, dungeons, and PVP maps then “Systems” are things like housing, player-made quests, stores, region-controlling PVP, player-made dungeons, and so much more.

When you look at a title like Neverwinter, it has a fantastic mix of developer made content that players are likely going to zoom right through.  But what’s brilliant about that game is that Cryptic’s Foundry will allow everyone to become a Dungeon Master and create their own campaigns.  You’ll have the good and not so good, but the social sharing and voting system will let the cream rise to the top.  What’s important about the Foundry is that it can and will give the developers breathing room between “content patches” as players will likely be plenty busy designing and enjoying their own content. Content takes time, resources, and more time to churn out.  And there's never been one developer (not even the rapid-paced Trion) that can meet the needs of its customers with content coming out faster than its players can devour it.  Yet with a well-designed systems in place, the game can perpetuate itself and players can drive the growth of the world while the developers are free to work on content and make things that are truly special.

A game with solid systems design over one that relies on consumable and exhaustible content is one of the biggest design hurdles for the modern MMO studio to overcome. Which is funny, because I’m pretty sure Ultima Online overcame that hurdle years ago.  But the times have changed, and old ideas can and will be adapted to fit the times.  I’m not about to claim that this will “fix” the problem of game hopping.  In fact, I’m quite certain that it’s better to have lots of choices and competition than just one or two big names on the block.  And even with a hybrid model and a focus on player-driven design, a game can still be crap.  There are plenty of games out there that are awful, despite doing all of what I’ve mentioned here. 

But from my perspective? Purely focusing on subscriptions and consumable content is a dead end for anyone in the post-Azeroth world. The future is going to be bright if we can look to the genre’s past and reshape it to fit the present.


William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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