In his column a few days ago, under the headline "Where Do MMOs Go Wrong?", MMORPG.com Industry Relations Manager Garrett Fuller put forward his thoughts on three major reasons why titles fail. Coincidentally, I was leaning toward a similar topic, although with more of an F2P focus, for my turn to speak out today. As you can see, I opted to follow through rather than shift directions.
For starters, I totally agree with Garrett's first point about games not making strong enough initial impressions. This is something that has annoyed me for years, all the way back to the days of UO, EQ and AC. To use the last of these as an example - not that the others or Korean counterparts of their generation were meaningfully better - how much fun was it to kill bunnies by the warren or to explore those areas where newbies could survive, which were largely empty? At that time, we could tell ourselves that since these games were pioneers, their designers had no real way to know better. But this was a partial justification, not a complete reason or explanation. And it didn't magically make the early play more enjoyable.
Fast forward to 2011. Overall, the situation has certainly improved. However, it's still not difficult to find MMOGs that don't deliver very much fun immediately. Although such judgments are subjective and thus won't be universal, many of these games give me the feeling their respective teams didn't focus sufficient attention on grabbing people right away.
The F2P angle to this is that when all I've done is download and install a client, I'm less invested in giving a game a few days or even a few hours to start being enough fun for me to continue playing until I get to the better parts. It then seems to follow that titles using this business model ought to be designed accordingly; i.e. they should assume they need to take hold of me or at least move significantly in that direction right away. Some do this better than others, of course, but frankly, it's not highly unusual for me to play one for a couple of hours or less - sometimes a lot less - before deleting it from my hard drive, never to return barring highly unusual circumstances. (By the way, I'm the same way with subscription releases when I don't pay for them).
Another area in which a fair number of games seem to fall short is avoiding the urge to incorporate design elements intended to widen its potential target demographic. Crafting is a relatively common example. You can probably name an MMOG where this feature was quite basic, added very little if anything to the play, and thus didn't really help pull in or retain users. In such cases, I naturally wonder whether the time and effort that went into creating it could have been better spent improving something more important, something that's part of the title's core appeal.
Here again, my feeling is that the consequences of this pitfall are generally more significant for F2Ps. Part of my thinking is based on their having smaller development teams and budgets, which increases the need to allocate both these resources as cost-effectively as possible. Another consideration relates to how consumers tend to make their purchase decisions. For the most part, while they may look at long shopping list of features and factors, only a few end up weighing heavily in the actual choices.
If I happen to place a high value on crafting, I'll look for releases with fully featured core systems, not less complete, secondary ones. I'll also care very little if at all that a title focused on PvP, raiding, questing or whatever also lets me make some stuff. So, I think quite a few games, both F2P and subscription, would have been better had they fallen prey to less feature creep.
The impact of not doing so is often more than one might initially think. After all, when features are there, it's only natural to talk about them. Unfortunately, that isn't necessarily optimal. To give you a simplistic, artificial example, let's assume you're making a game you sincerely believe will deliver your core design goal, an unmatched guild PvP experience. Your primary target audience is people for whom this is the single most important element. Including realm-based and individual PvP probably won't represent a major stretch of your focus, but can you truly say the same about something not so core, like crafting? Will having it and thus publicizing it result in significantly more players? I think not, and hope more teams that still have time will do better in implementing narrower but more fully realized feature sets.