This week's layoffs at EA - particularly at Mythic Entertainment, who run Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and Warhammer Online - are a sore reminder of the economic situation. In the past year, we've seen several MMOs close their doors: Shadowbane, The Matrix Online, Dungeon Runners, Tabula Rasa, and about half a dozen various free to play MMOs. Other games, named and unnamed, have been axed before they even entered a playable phase of testing.
As gamers, sure, we're concerned about the economy. But we're also very concerned about how it affects our gaming. Budget cuts, or staffing cuts, mean a lot more at an MMO. Because MMOs are staff-heavy and require constant supervision from multiple teams (customer service, server maintenance, new content development, etc.), we have good reason to be concerned. Our MMOs aren't just games that can be cranked out of a basement. They aren't Torchlight (at least, not for another two years.)
Our gaming addiction of choice isn't one that can just be put on a shelf of a store and never be touched by the game staff again. MMOs require maintenance, and players expect three things: new content, maintenance on current content, and customer service. So layoffs scare us, particularly when they're at a company backing our favorite game (or game to be). We're a group of gamers who have seen good games cut before they hit market, watched decent games die off before their prime, and watched bad games continue to thrive. We're skeptics of the industry.
So a letter, like Jeff Hickman's recent one, while good intentioned, doesn't do a lot in terms of reassurance. Generally, we know things are worse than we are told. The letter is really no better than a press release: sugar coated truth. It further doesn't help that EA is being tight-lipped about the layoffs to the press. We have no way of knowing whether Mythic's games will continue to be sheltered under a special economic fallout umbrella or if we're sailing a doomed ship. Our skepticism will continue, however, and an Executive Producer letter won't stop the rumors that Warhammer Online is going to be crushed within a year.
There's talk, too, of players needing to adjust to new subscription models. Yes, of course we're adjusting to the fact that there are free to play and freemium games, and many of them, in fact, are - gasp - fun to play. I'm referring to the attitude that "micro-transactions are the way of the future;" the idea that players should become accustomed to having to pay not just for "perks" but standard game play in little chunks that end up costing more than a subscription fee. I'm not calling micro-transactions inherently bad. I'm calling the attitude that we should be good little gamers and swallow whatever the companies give us a load of bull. This is an industry of luxury, where our dollars make decisions for the industry. We shouldn't be bullied around.
Unfortunately, it seems that at least the larger half of the industry is going to continue to press us into their business models. MMO players are viewed largely by society as addicts, enough to be labeled such by psychiatrists and financial analysts alike. In ways, the MMO industry is becoming, in attitude, much like the coffee, tobacco, and alcohol industries - it doesn't matter to some what they make, because there are paying addicts who will keep the cash flow rolling in. Consumers may have a choice among brands, but the industry as a whole continues to profit. And as historical evidence will show, addictive substances - vices, as they're called in the investing world - rise in profit when people are suffering economically. Misery seeks escape, and company, when it comes to an MMO, and clearly video games are an escape from real world dilemmas and disasters.
That, too, is something the industry doesn't seem to understand: most of us aren't in denial when we say we aren't addicts. By all means, there are addicts among us, addicts who should be seeking professional help, or at least seeking the aid of an organization like Online Gamers Anonymous. However, most of us that play MMOs are fully in control of our hobby. We may be more involved in our game development process than any other subsection of the gaming industry, maybe more vocal, but that doesn't make us addicts any more than someone who has to watch the newest episode of So You Think You're Smart Enough to Sing in My Glee Club every week. Just like we don't need to be bullied, we also don't need to be labeled or treated like socially handicapped people.
I think we all understand that times are tight, and that sometimes good games, just like good people, get tossed aside to keep companies afloat. Still, there are a few things as players we want from the other side of the fence:
- Communication. Don't leave players hanging in the dark, wondering if a game they've supported for years may be in the trash bin within a few months.
- Honesty. Stop feeding us feel good press releases, and give us the facts. Optimism is good, but not when it obscures a very real chance of bad news.
- Respect. Don't assume that we're addicts, escapists, or otherwise unconcerned about how we spend our entertainment money.
I realize that gamers may not be entitled to any of these things, but their use goes a long way in a very personable gaming industry.