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The Devil's Advocate: Room for Many Realms

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on February 15, 2013

Tobold and Syncaine are two prolific bloggers with divergent attitudes toward MMO gaming. Both believe strongly in their ideas about what makes a good MMO, but they rarely ever agree on a given topic.  In a recent pair of blog posts, spurred on in part by the Camelot Unchained announcement, the two were again at odds about what a good MMO was.

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I’d like to spend today’s Devil’s Advocate discussing the ideas from those posts. I feel they’ve both taken their points of view to opposite extremes on the spectrum of well-intentioned commentary.  As much as there is truth to what they both say, perhaps the more apt discussion piece on MMOs lies in between their rhetoric.

Tobold’s Talking Points

In his blog post, Tobold talks about a “distortion of reality by nostalgia” due to the plan to create Cameot Unchained.

His explanation is as follows:

 If today a game released and got 250,000 players, it would be considered a failure. There were "WoW is dying" posts in response to the news that WoW was down to 9.6 million players. But Dark Age of Camelot, which only ever got 250,000 players at its peak, and is now well below 50,000, is by some still considered to be the holy grail.

He also reasons out some things. He discusses how people have a tendency to think their starter MMO is perhaps the best MMO out there, “and from there on it went downwards.”

He also says there was never a time when MMOs were best, saying, newer games built on what existed prior to it, with patches adding new things, fixing stuff and making things better. The problem, however, is the burnout on a game, where he says the perception of continuous improvement is tainted “by the fact that MMORPGs get more boring the longer you play them.”


Syncaine Says Otherwise

Syncaine’s rebuttal is interesting because he calls reactions and comments to Tobold’s piece “an interesting look into the MMO genre and how it’s currently in a state of correction.”

He continues:

To put it bluntly, SW:TOR was the last of a dying breed. We will never see another mega-expensive themepark focused on refining what made WoW work, primarily because it’s now been confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the model does not work; not in WoW now, not in titles trying to be it.

The rest of his rebuttal goes into a discussion about knowing the audience you want to sell to, and making sure you grab their attention properly and keep them engaged in your product. He also defined what a successful game would look like with a game most people don’t see as a success: Darkfall.

To most Darkfall 1 was not a success, because it never got above 100k subs and Aventurine’s track record was and is, well, let’s call it special. And yet DF1 was a sub-based MMO for three years, had three expansions and launched a second server six months after release, and now has a sequel of impeccable quality (snicker) in beta.

He ends by reminding people that MMOs, at least for now, are still a niche product in the world of gaming with, as he says, “one unique and unreproducible outlier.”

IM DA BES

To be frank, I think Tobold’s post, while making a few good points, is filled with holes. This is primarily caused by him making sweeping statements and asserting subjective statements as facts.

While I agree with Tobold when he says there was never a time when MMORPGs were “best,” I disagree with the logic by which he got there, partly due to my own experiences.

My first MMORPG was Ragnarok Online, and while I loved it at the time, I now think aspects of the game were inherently lacking. I find my second MMORPG ever, World of Warcraft minus any expansions, to be some of the most memorable moments I’ve ever had in a game, and yet I do not consider either MMO to be the best. I don’t really think there is a “best” MMO: just one that agrees with an individual’s sensibilities at a particular point in time.

That Blasted Outlier

Syncaine’s last statement in the essay I linked above is really the kicker here, and perhaps the cause of many MMO problems today: World of Warcraft is the outlier and not the norm for the MMORPG gaming industry, and trying to reproduce the results created by an outlier is bound to break hearts.

I appreciate WoW, but I now realize it was not the norm. Due to WoW’s popularity and clout, a lot of games tried to emulate or surpass its success. Star Wars Galaxies instituted changes that altered how it was played to some reportedly significant extent. Warhammer Online wanted to surpass WoW, but could not do so.

We then have Syncaine’s example of SWTOR, which did not meet expectations of players and of its owners. Its transition into its current revenue model reinforced the idea that something wasn’t working.

New Situation, New Outlier

I disagree with Syncaine when he says the expensive themepark approach will not ever truly work. That sort of thinking falls into the same trap Tobold fell into, which is in disregarding the changing landscape of gaming as a medium of entertainment.

Some factors to consider in this changing gaming landscape: the number of games in the market, the genres they represent, the increased popularity of MMO gaming and its subsequent insertion into popular culture, the development of the audience drawn in by existing games, and the competition with other forms of entertainment for a user’s time.

I think we are currently at a point where there’s a game for everyone, and if there’s something that’s missing, someone’s trying to fill that void in the gaming industry. Right now, there are a ton of gamers introduced to gaming through a ton of different games, and that means there are now more niches in the MMO genre than there were during the days of the Multi-user dungeon.

What this means is that Syncaine’s note about catering to a specific audience and ensuring they continue wanting to play and pay for your game is an important point. Much like pen-and-paper roleplaying, this is a resurgence of niche games, and many developers can successfully play a part in providing good entertainment for a specific gamer set, so long as they consider their market more intelligently and aim for modest successes rather than trampling the competition.

I believe that there will be a game that will, in the future, replace WoW as the outlier. It may possibly increase the popularity of MMO gaming the way WoW did when it came out. When it does, we’ll probably see this resurgence of niche again as that outlier phases itself out with time, provided history repeats itself.

The bottom line, thus, is this: many MMORPGs can coexist peacefully in this new gamer-rich environment, whether they be expensive setpieces that attempt to trounce kings or niche games. They just have to consider their goals, their expenses, and the kind of success they want to achieve in the gaming industry.

That said, I look forward to making room in the labyrinthine halls of my computer hard drives for many new realms of adventure.

Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains The Devil’s Advocate and The Secret World columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for Rappler.com as a technology reporter. You can find more of his ramblings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.


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