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The Free Zone: Year-End MMOG Hopes And Wishes

By Richard Aihoshi on December 23, 2014 | Columns | Comments

Year-End MMOG Hopes And Wishes

This being my final Free Zone column for 2014, my first inclination was to choose a topic in the looking back vein. When I started considering possibilities, I immediately dismissed the idea of doing something “me too” like best of awards, which the site does far more prominently than I could anyway. Instead, I decided to discuss a few ways I'd like to see the MMOG development and publishing industry change, however unlikely they may be.

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More design transparency

While I can't think of any way to measure it via quantifiable data, I've long held the opinion that design transparency has been on the wane. Whenever I look back to my first half-dozen years or so covering MMOGs, one of the things I distinctly recall is that teams were considerably more open about what they were doing. What's more, it didn't stop there. They were also more forthcoming with information as to what was under consideration.

What caused the gradual erosion that has occurred since then? It would probably be too simplistic to suggest there has only been a single reason. That said, I have no real doubt that the tendency of some observers to treat absolutely everything as if it were a promise became tiresome pretty quickly, thereby discouraging teams from stating anything less than completely “safe”. Over time, this evolved – or perhaps devolved – into the situation we have now, where what we're told all too often falls short in terms of real meatiness. 

Another factor I'm unable to explain or understand is the way teams appear to have become increasingly fearful that exposing their ideas will mean they're “stolen”. This mystifies me because as the industry has released more games, the scope for doing things that are actually innovative or novel enough to be worth stealing has shrunk – some might say to virtually nil. Think about it. Nowadays, how often do we see elements touted as new that really are? In most of these cases, how much harm would there be in releasing more information earlier in the development process?

So as not to tar every team with the same brush, I will state that a few are significantly and consistently more open than the rest. Sadly, they are outliers, and very much in the minority. I'm not naive enough to think this will change across the industry any time soon. But neither am I so jaded as to abandon hoping that a few more bright spots will emerge.

More receptivity to external input

One downside to not releasing more information earlier is that it reduces external feedback. I'm not suggesting teams consider anything their fans suggest. Overall, however, I think they do themselves, their projects and ultimately their players a disservice by not being open enough to outside input. It's easy enough to come up with your own example. Just pick a game you know reasonably well, then ask yourself if any part of it foreseeably could / should have been designed and implemented better.

To be clear, I'm not saying the entire industry is completely unreceptive. The situation isn't either/or. It's a matter of degree. In my opinion, the vast majority of teams err by not being open enough. Maybe it's a form of NIMBYism. I'm sure it can be difficult to admit that a fan's idea is better than your own, even more so when you have a fallback; if your original thinking doesn't pan out, you can modify it later. Unfortunately, I've also seen instances of denial, although thankfully not very many, where teams simply refused to accept negative feedback that seemed abundantly valid.

More creative marketing and public relations

Snap quiz. Name an MMOG that stood out creatively this year for its marketing and/or PR. For me, nothing jumps to mind. What I saw was a whole lot of me too. Here again, I don't believe this is due to a single reason. However, a key one is that quite a few companies think it's “safe” to emulate what they see in the marketplace. Somehow, they appear to miss that this isn't a good way to build a distinctive or memorable brand image. It's even more difficult if you're trying to do so with a small or tiny budget, as most free to play offerings must.

As a former marketing manager, albeit over two decades ago, I'd really like to see some more creativity in MMOG marketing and PR. What's more, I know there are still under-utilized ways to get more bang for the proverbial buck. Here again, I can't envision a sea change in attitude happening, but I'm still enough of an optimist to wish and hope that a few titles will see the potential to benefit by not playing it “safe” like all the rest.

Closing queries

  • What's your opinion on the current state of design transparency in the industry?
  • What design decisions stand out in your mind because it should have been easy to foresee that something different would have been better?
  • What's your opinion on the industry's current state of receptiveness to external feedback?
  • Was there an MMOG marketing or PR campaign that you feel stood out this year for creative reasons, not degree of visibility or personal preference?
The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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