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Bill Murphy: Why So Many MMOs Disappoint

Column By William Murphy on September 30, 2013

We all know the feeling, right? New game comes out, one we've been dying to play for weeks, months, or even years. We get in there, we are awed by what we find, and then suddenly a few weeks, months, or maybe even days later it dawns on us... this new game isn't all we'd hoped it would be. Complaints start to settle in, disenfranchised thoughts about the game's overall design and structure take their toll, and eventually we stop playing altogether. We say, "I'll check back later" or "I'll never touch it again" and chances are neither will be true. We'll always watch that game, check back frequently either in person or via sites like MMORPG.com to see if the game has ever become what we always wanted. Or, perhaps more realistically, we watch the games that let us down hoping forever that they'll finally fail and sputter and die, as if our deserted hopes are somehow validation for a game's demise.  

This is the way of most MMO gamers. We are always looking for something new to love, and when we're not, we're spending that time hating something old.  But why does it have to be this way?

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THE LUST FOR WHAT ONCE WAS

There's a tendency, as written about here and across the MMO industry, for players to latch onto their favorite past games with a sense of erstwhile pride and more than a little bit of "rose-tinted" glory. We forget the reasons we left some old MMO flame, and isntead long fondly for the time in our MMO life when that game was the game. But the fact is, if we left a game and haven't been able to get back into it since those golden years, chances are its time in our gameplay life is over.  That's not a bad thing, but we're only limiting our future enjoyment of new titles by clinging stubbornly to "the old days".

IMPOSSIBLE HOPES

What the above wishes for a game's former glory does to all of us is set up impossible dreams for the games that come next. "Oh, this was the best in Heroes of Passover.  I really hope that Forge of Boulderforgery has this feature, and ten thousand others, or it won't be worth it." What follows is an industry-wide plague of developer, publisher, and player expectations set too high. It doesn't matter the IP, and it doesn't matter the budget... we've grown too expectant of our MMOs to have every good feature from every game that came before it.  We, as gamers, need to instead listen to what a developer is promising in its feature-set, and when the game comes out judge it based on its ability to deliver. Frankly, too many games over-promise on their content and features, and it's no wonder we wind up bitter and jaded after we lose interest quickly. But then there are those games that hand us exactly what was planned from the start... and we still bemoan the lack of a feature that was never part of the equation.

Ultimately, we all just want to be (fowl-mouthed) kids, playing pretend.

LACK OF ACCEPTANCE

There's also a prevailing trend in our genre to shun anything that doesn't meet the above impossible hopes, rather than accept what is good about a game despite its misgivings.  Now, I'm not saying we should lavish praise upon turds, but we should surely strive to point out the good with the bad, even if we really don't enjoy a game. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, they say, right? Well if only the squeaky wheels are noisily rumbling and never a good thing is said about something, what do you think the ultimate response will be from the industry? It won't be a sudden and swift change to fix the entire genre... it'll be the decimation and complete disregard of this pastime.  I don't believe we should all throw money at things we don't enjoy. But whether with financial means or with our words, we should strive to give credit where credit is due.  

THE CURE

There is no cure. No direct fix to the overarching problem of the entire videogame industry to hop from bandwagon to bandwagon onto the next multimedia craze.  That's how the entertainment industry thrives. Hype is not new, and in the age of worldwide connectivity, it's not going anywhere.  But here are a few things the industry and developers can do to temper expectations, alleviate mistrust, and revitalize a sense of forward movement. 

  • Open Up the Black Box - Let players in on your plans early and often.  Take the Kickstarter approach, even if you don't plan on crowdfunding. Because the best way to let players know what they're getting, and to find what they want, is to stop hiding and start telling.
  • Focus Fire - Don't aim for everything. Find your game, the game you and your team wants to play, and start with that. You won't necessarily need 5 years and $200 mln to make your game, if you realize that there's plenty of reason to make something with a core solid groups features as opposed to several dozen half-baked ideas.
  • Stop Trying to Dominate Our Lives - Maybe this is the opposite of the way the business has been run before, but I think it would behoove the industry to stop trying to be the "one game" in a person's life. The games that will succeed in the future are those that don't necessarily need to maintain one's sole attention across all other forms of media. There's too much out there for any gamer to consume, and while you'll definitely get hardcore folks that remain loyal for years, you simply cannot ignore the game-hoppers. But of course, there is always room for a few games that want to do just that... and those niche titles have a place too.
  • Don't Bake Too Long - MMO development is notoriously long-winded and this is largely because of the Focus Fire reason above. Just because other games have a feature, doesn't mean you need to. Not if it doesn't make sense in the scope of your project. By keeping development time shorter, you can get your game out before its ideas and look are stolen, dated, or otherwise lackluster.
  • Demo the Damn Thing - Also known as "Stop hiding." Get your product out there, in the press, and in the gamers' hands quickly. Don't wait and use beta as a marketing ploy, but rather tie it into the examples above. Let players in, let them tell you what works and what doesn't. Use the idea of community building long before a game's launch, and you'll be happier for it. CMs are all too often overlooked for their importance. Hire a good one, and let them direct the herd cats that is us players.
  • Try Harder - Above all else, this is key. I'm not saying MMO designers don't try hard. Hell, in my experience, these folks are the hardest and most dedicated workers and gamers in the industry. But the genre can be so much more than quests, loot, combat, and re-running tired content over and over. Let's try harder to make what we lovingly call "virtual worlds" actually feel like worlds.

The MMO genre is changing. Big budgets will still stick around, and those games will always get the lion's share of the attention. But as we're starting to see, smaller titles and niche products can make headway, gain steam, and become juggernauts all of their own.  This industry is too young to sit back and rely on hype to drive it forward. MMOs have always been about the players and the community. If they're going to grow, it needs to embrace this simple fact and stop treating every game like some super-secret project that will wow us, without our input.

Bill Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com and RTSGuru.com. He likes hanging out with his wife and tiny goofy son, while insisting his dogs stop barking though it goes against their nature. He loves to write, read, and talk about all things gaming. You can harass him on Twitter @TheBillMurphy.

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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Bill Murphy
Bill Murphy came on as a full time writer with MMORPG.com in 2010, his extensive knowledge of the genre and ability to turn a phrase have been a welcome addition to the MMORPG.com team.
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