Working As Intended: ‘Multiplex monotony’ and the death of the mid-budget MMORPG

Back in December, film editor and author Jason Bailey wrote a piece on Flavorwire called How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA. He spins a tale of the booming movie industry of the ’80s and ’90s, when mid-budget films were commercially feasible and commonplace. By the turn of the century, however, the movie industry had bisected itself; studios stopped committing resources to mid-budget films, “betting big on would-be blockbusters” instead and generating a hard-scrabble indie scene in their wake. As Bailey’s title suggests, that dramatic shift uprooted a generation of brilliant filmmakers and cheapened the art of films and filmmaking for everyone.

It’s no stretch to say we’re witnessing the same phenomenon in the world of MMORPGs.

Our Titanic; their WoW

Prior to 2005, mid-budget MMOs were common. We had a dozen or two of them, all contentedly putting out patches and expansions, surviving on modest playerbases (well under 500k, usually) and modest budgets. It wasn’t perfect, but we enjoyed options, variety, and stability.

World of Warcraft changed everything. Surprising even Blizzard itself, WoW capitalized on an increasingly online, increasingly global audience and bloated the playerbase expectations of gamers and the industry forever. For the last 10 years, we’ve mocked any MMO that doesn’t have millions of players (i.e., nearly all of them). We complain about “WoW clones” and then scoff at any game that does anything differently and yet can’t pull in the same numbers WoW does. What once was normal is now seen as risky and “niche.” Our standards shifted because of an outlier.

The movie industry had its very own WoW: 1997’s insipid “disaster romance” Titanic. Titanic’s $200 million budget was astonishing, two and a half times the cost of its studio Paramount’s second-highest film. And Titanic brought in over 2 billion gross revenue, nine times what its closest rival did. Like WoW, it exploded in part because it appealed to a global market and succeeded both domestically and overseas. Thus, the movie industry’s standards likewise shifted because of its own outlier; since then, Bailey explains, the average movie budget has spiraled out of control, almost doubling in the last two decades. Abandoning their previously diverse portfolios, large studios began chasing Titanic’s impossible dream. Paramount, for example, puts out fewer movies today than it did then, most for significantly more money. Mid-budget movies have simply been squeezed out. They might have turned modest profits, but the top studios won’t chance them, not when there’s a chance to make even more on something far more common-denominator.

We’ve watched studio after studio and publisher after publisher throw mountains of money at one MMO after another, each trying to make as much money as WoW by doing what it thinks WoW did and expecting (hoping!) it will work again.
Bailey calls the result “multiplex monotony,” and we’ve seen its effects in the MMO industry too. Warhammer Online. Age of Conan. Star Wars: The Old Republic. Elder Scrolls Online. WildStar. So it’s no surprise that the major themeparks showing on every screen are more or less the same; it’s what publishers believe will make the most money in the shortest amount of time. We’ve even witnessed the baffling sunsets of mid-budget MMOs that were by all accounts turning a profit. Single-minded return on investment has become the only goal. Portfolio diversity is over. MMO studios that diversify and invest in a range of titles — TrionSOE/Daybreak — are punished in a world where pump-and-dump (or business model bait-and-switch) appears to be in a publisher’s short-term financial interests, whether we’re talking MMOs or video games in general.

It’s not that AAA studios have been averse to risk; it’s that they’re taking exactly one risk, over and over and over: WoW or bust. And when the result has been bust, they have become nervous about the MMO market on the whole, withdrawing entirely rather than being content to retreat to more reasonable mid-budget ventures.

Going indie

Some exiled moviemakers are going indie, but Bailey’s sources suggest that the indie movie scene is itself suffering from overcrowding. While there are more indies being produced each year than the year before, they’re competing for an even smaller slice of the overall funding pie, meaning it’s never been a worse time to go indie. It’s simply not worth it for veteran directors to compete in that environment — “I have no desire to be a faux-underground filmmaker at 68 years old,” John Waters is quoted as saying — and so we all lose out on their expertise and vision.

How many high-profile developers has the MMO industry lost as a result of budget polarization and the global economic recession? Maybe we’re not as badly off as the movies just yet; Kickstarter has allowed the Richard Garriotts, Mark Jacobses, Chris Robertses, and David Brabens of the world to return to their craft. But most studios eke by on crowdfunding if they eke by at all. For every Camelot Unchained or Elite: Dangerous, there are a dozen Das Tals, Ascents, and Project Gorgons. Kickstarter is crowded too, and Kickstarter fatigue is palpable. In a world of $1 apps and Steam sales, indie game design can feel more like charity work or “portfolio building” than a serious career. And unlike filmmakers, MMO developers have no version of “cable TV” to turn to, no safe or respectable fallback, no easy path to make money while the industry recovers (though I imagine we could make cases for MOBAs, mobile, and board games).

This polarization of movie budgets, Bailey argues, is partly a result of the inflated cost of marketing films. “In the modern, crowded multimedia landscape, the kind of saturation that makes [movie studios] feel comfortable — even when it’s promoting a giant tentpole blockbuster that everyone is fully aware of — is very, very expensive,” he notes. “Sometimes it’s 50 percent of the production budget, and sometimes it’s even more.” It’s hard to find comparable numbers for tight-lipped MMO studios, but one need only look at their fleets of PR and community staff, social media outreach, Blur Studio trailers, conspicuous TV commercials, and drenching of websites like ours in ads to realize that marketing is surely a huge slice of AAA games’ budgets.

Indie studios can’t emulate that and so don’t even try to compete on saturation, meaning they are free to focus most of their budget on the game itself. But mid-budget movies — and their MMO counterparts — are stranded between those extremes: too expensive to go indie, but not profitable enough to merit the attention of marketing-obsessed studio execs, and not “vertical” enough to be spun out into multiple monetizable properties beyond the film or MMO that is the core product. They’re just good movies, good games. And that is no longer enough.

Is the status quo sustainable? Bailey quotes Steven Spielberg’s assertion that we’re due for an “implosion where three or four or maybe even half a dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm again.” Other sources argue that film studios are risking it all with their overreliance on foreign sales and specific genres (like the oversaturated superhero genre). No one seems to believe that the “new normal” for movies is going to last for long.

Maybe that won’t happen to MMOs. Maybe our bubble has already burst, which is why we see fewer AAA MMOs than we once did, never mind AA games. Or perhaps studios like Blizzard, which has already abandoned one expensive, incomplete MMO in favor of broader diversification, or Daybreak, which has already been forced to tighten its belt, are heading off the inevitable “implosion.”

Cyclical industries

Bailey ends his piece on a hopeful note.

Studio filmmaking may be on the verge of the point it reached in the mid-to-late 1960s, when a bad run of bloated, runaway productions, reflecting market calculation rather than vibrant storytelling, just about put the studios out of business. The movies only managed to save themselves because the suits handed over the car keys to young filmmakers with original stories to tell and a new way of telling them. That’s how the New Hollywood movement was born — less out of the inspiration of the new than the desperation of the old. And since it’s a cyclical business, that might be what saves the movies again: the urge to burn it all down and start over fresh.

MMO are cyclical too. The people running the MMORPG industry have been here for a long, long time. The “indie” hyper-successes on Kickstarter are veterans, too, and some of them helped create the problems we face now. As Justin and I discussed on this past week’s podcast, the next few years are shaping up to simulate the dawn of the genre, with the folks behind Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and even Shadowbane all lining up to take another shot at being the next big thing.

Maybe they can solve the industry’s problems. They certainly have tugged at the nostalgia heartstrings of this MMO vet. But maybe funding them is just prolonging our affliction. Maybe it’s time for the MMO industry to hand over the car keys.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Friday Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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binn05
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binn05

Nice article :D

Anarwen
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Anarwen

That’s why I’ve always admired Cryptic. It’s small enough so that you actually know who people are. The problem is that they have to compete with the AAA studios. STO  has to be as good as SWTOR or everybody ignores it.

thatchefdude
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thatchefdude

Nucleon SWTOR has to be seen as the original intended business plan of being a premium service subscription online game, as a massive (yes, massive, not average) flop…..

For a game with 5 years of development of roughly $200M of dev costs plus an extra $50-100M marketing costs to not even be able to survive as the original model intended for longer than 11 months, is absolutely terrible….

In fact, if their was a textbook on massive flops in the history of the MMO business, SWTOR would be one of the major chapters….

Observer98
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Observer98

doctoroverlord 
I think first generation MMO players had a community they enjoyed playing with, and that made a big difference.  Without community, there’s little to keep one in most games.  I spent years in DAoC playing with many friends and acquaintances.  Was that because DAoC was an excellent game?  Maybe, maybe not.  It was easier to put up with non-optimal mechanics when the reason you played was due to the other players around you. Community focus went away with WoW’s success, which brought in huge numbers of a different type of player.

Combine that with having less games to hop to and from back in the pre-WoW days, player retention was much higher.

eLdritchMD
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eLdritchMD

syberghost eLdritchMD Nyphur Wratts Estranged I didn’t object to the notion of Blizzard looking hard at EQ and making something they perceived as better.

I objected to “accessible clone of EverQuest” and “EverQuest was basically the entire MMO industry” 

1. Anyone who has played both EQ and WoW should realise how very, very different they were. Since then EQ has become a bit more like WoW, given but that wasn’t always the case. Starting at f.e. EQ having barely any quests prior to WoW coming around. I would argue that “accessible EQ clone” is an oxymoron.

2. EverQuest at its peak had between 500k and a million subs. 500k also happened to be the peaks for UO and DAoC and there were quite a few other western MMORPGs like Anarchy Online, Horizons, Asheron’s Call and Star Wars Galaxies as well as quite a few asian ones like Lineage which at one point had 4 million paying customers, long before WoW even scratched 2.

“Certainly, I think WoW took a lot of great ideas from EverQuest. EverQuest is the big foundation for WoW.”

Half Life was also the foundation for Call of Duty, yet I would hardly call CoD a functional half life clone :P

syberghost
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syberghost

eLdritchMD syberghost Nyphur Wratts Estranged So, the executive producer who created WoW says they based it on EQ, and you say they didn’t. Who are we to believe?

I think I’ll go with the person who would actually know:

http://www.computerandvideogames.com/190535/interviews/wow-wrath-of-the-lich-king/

“Certainly, I think WoW took a lot of great ideas from EverQuest. EverQuest is the big foundation for WoW.”

breetoplay
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breetoplay

Nucleon SWTOR had dropped well over half its sub base and suffered gigantic layoffs and forced exits of major designers in its first year of operation, and not the sort of layoffs you see from a switch to a live team, either. It pulled out of the nosedive after its F2P transition and is now one of the more popular MMOs, which is great. I’d absolutely mark it as an initial flop that only found its place in the MMO world when it stopped trying to be/take on WoW.

Nucleon
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Nucleon

SallyBowls1 Modrain So far we haven’t really seen an MMO evolve from a bad game into a good game. It’s hard to rebrand yourself like that. In addition usually the studios and developers abandon ship before that point comes around. The closest thing is what we saw with FFXIV but honestly I believe that to be the exception rather the rule. I mean how many studios will take an MMO off market, make 0 dollars, and work on it for 2 more years before a re-release.

Nucleon
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Nucleon

This is a case where the gamer reality and the financial reality don’t match up. The games that we deem flops actually aren’t. We all believe SWTOR was a giant flop, but the game made a profit and according to all indications, including financial statements, is still operating at a profit today. As much as we like to believe, investors and business people aren’t that dumb. If the status quo of WoW-clones was causing financial loses, the business community would change their practices. For them, the model is working, so why change.

For us, the model isn’t working but we fail to see how we, the audience, fit into the transaction. In my eyes, we are the causes of our own misfortune. We deride the next WoW clone or another Call of Duty same as the first, but we still buy it. As long as we keep buying the games we supposedly hate, they will keep creating them. As long as we keep lining up to see the next comic book movie, they’ll keep making them. I think we’re all ashamed to admit that the ultimate reason for the state of the industry isn’t some Scrooge McDuck in a studio boardroom, but rather our own inability to ignore the hype.

If it’s worth anything, I bought GW2, Rift, FFXIV, and Wildstar, so I’m as guilty as anybody.

wolfyseyes
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wolfyseyes

I’m not denying that publishers chase the money. That wasn’t my point necessarily. I genuinely still believe that divining where this genre will go is about as possible as determining which direction a slug will travel, and perhaps just about as pointless to the end user.
You also bring up the point of a game being allowed to adapt…which is a big part of my own argument. Now, whether every company is willing to do that or not is hard to ultimately pin down, but I also do truly think that those who invest in starting or launching an MMO are aware of the risks inherent, or at the bare minimum are made aware of the fact prior to pulling the trigger. That MMOs can adjust is unique to this form of entertainment, and so it sort of flies in its own vector, in my view.
Of course, this is all opinion bookended by my mention that I don’t claim any level of internal knowledge. I’m just an enthusiast. A simple gamer trying to voice his ooinion and get into discussion…which I thank you for providing. It sounds like you have a different level of somewhat first-hand knowlefge and so perhaps you carry insight I don’t have…but this form of entertainment is way too wibbly a thing to pin down, even if similar-looking patterns are emerging.
And if I’m wrong, I will be the first to admit as much when it all crashes around my dumbass ears. Should it come to that.

Remianen
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Remianen

wolfyseyes This genre gets to adapt if it is allowed to do so. But leopards don’t change their spots and woe be unto a developer who decides to make drastic changes to its MMO (hi SWG). MMOs change in the same way a brunette becomes a blonde. It’s almost never a truly substantive change and is often more cosmetic than anything else. EverQuest has changed greatly over its lifetime but that’s an evolution. If mercs had been added in 2001, the game would be dead by now (or boasting a playerbase roughly similar to A Tale in the Desert or Istaria).

It’s nice to try to be an idealist and to believe that every entertainment option exists in a vacuum but that’s not reality. Do you deny that games like EVE and Anarchy Online would not see the light of day in today’s environment? EVE in particular, grew its playerbase organically (at one point, until Monoclegate, increasing its subscriber base by 10 or more percent every year since its launch). That wouldn’t fly today because publishers are looking for the quick lick. They’re looking for bank robbery type operations (in and out, nobody gets hurt). There are many parallels in the entertainment industry. I’m actually hoping the genre starts to follow the TV pattern. I work for a company that went all-in on reality shows over 10 years ago and now produces tons of them (many of which never see the light of day), including one that glorifies teenage pregnancy (and its spinoffs). To us, that would mean tiny little games like EVE in 2003 or ATITD or Istaria are so cheap to make (relative to their big budget counterparts) that you can churn out up to 40 of them for the approximate cost of one AAA title. And if ONE of them becomes even a modest hit, it perpetuates the cycle.

sray155
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sray155

breetoplay Fresh Meat Absolutely agree with you bree. A big part of the issues that MMORPGs face these days is that they’ve become the Yugoslavia of video games: three or four different interest groups who get slapped together into a “one size fits all” game despite the fact they actually have very little common interest beyond RPG style game play. An MMO that focused solely on early era style of grouping required 99% of the game play could do very well (more like Everquest 1 back at launch); as could a game that focuses on a shared world single player experience with any sort of grouping being completely optional at all times. Every big name MMO is trying to carve out a piece of the middle of the road, despite the fact that after WoW takes its share there’s nothing much left; simultaneously, they leave areas of the market with huge potential completely untouched because WoW hasn’t bothered going after them.

goldstariv
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goldstariv

doctoroverlord I was just going to write that… A very VERY good read.

breetoplay
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breetoplay

Fresh Meat I don’t think that single-player MMOers are the problem any more than I think that people who think grinds and forced grouping are the problem. I know they are an easy scapegoat, but I don’t have a problem with the industry making games for them. The issue for me is that the industry is stuck making only games for them. It makes sense for other gaming markets to a degree, but not for MMOs, not if you hope the game will last more than three months. You really can’t beat WoW at WoW’s game by copying WoW. Just like any other industry, you’ve got to find something that WoW isn’t and go be that. That’s where the money is.

Feydakin
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Feydakin

breetoplay Feydakin I knew that’s what you meant but it also left it open enough for me to make the comment that I wanted to make, so… ;)

Alatar
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Alatar

Interesting point of view, I suppose. In 2001, I could play Ultima Online, EverQuest, or Dark Age of Camelot.
In 2014, I could play them also. A lot of other games have come and gone, but I’m not sure that the mid-budget MMO is history. I’d argue that EVE Online, for example, is a classic mid-budget game. It’s very solid in its player base.
The only truly alarming thing I see is sunsetting MMOs that aren’t profitable ENOUGH (City of Heroes, Vanguard). That seems worrisome to me.

wolfyseyes
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wolfyseyes

So here we are once again, bemoaning the faults of the genre and worrying about the short-term when there is a lot to be happy for and this write-up fails to take in to account that these games are a marathon and not a sprint.
Understandably concern is healthy and normal to have. I get it. But at the same time there seems to be a bit too much assumption and divining attemots…even though these divining attempts use maths and prior data from an entirely different form of entertainment. I still don’t think this takes into account that this genre, by its very design, gets to adapt and grow and change around metrics of its playerbases.
But then, I suppose I should thank you…I finally have inspiration for a blog this week…and respectfully disagreeing has always been a cornerstone of discussion held here which I truly appreciate.
Pardon me, I have a WordPress post to make.

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

Fresh Meat People may be dumb;  but if a developer knows or should know what these “dumb” people want and tries to sell these “dumb” people what they “should” want instead of what they do want, then the developer is far, far dumber.  The developer can’t make people not want DF or no forced grouping.  All the dev can decide is whether they want to try to make something those people will buy.

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

Speaking of movies and games, a couple of factoids

1) Video games are much bigger than movies nowadays – compare Titanic with the billion dollars GTA5 did in its first three days
http://www.forbes.com/sites/christophercorrea/2013/04/11/why-video-games-are-addictive-and-bigger-than-movies-will-ever-be/

has some nice graphs of movies versus games.

2) It’s not just money it’s time
http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-disney-mobile-20141114-story.html

Chief Executive Bob Iger and senior leaders from each of the company’s five divisions said that traffic from smartphones and tablets is surging as they become the most-used devices for many of its consumers

The total number of daily users of Disney mobile games, such as “Star Wars: Commander,” has risen 51% since last fall, said Disney Interactive President Jimmy Pitaro. In fact, the world has spent more time (31 billion minutes) playing the “Frozen Freefall” game than it spent watching the actual movie, Pitaro said.

omedon666
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omedon666

wjowski This is why the things that really have legs in indie projects are as much toolsets as they are  games.  The only indie I’m following any more is such a thing, and while the community following it are all “MY WORLD WILL BE AMAZING WITH <insert list of optional features that will drive most sane players away>,” there is a sense of letting those people have their pipedreams… because I know I have people ready to play the game I will build, and it doesn’t matter what the other people build.

You can build a game to sell lots of copies, to build worlds be played in mid-level communities, and still have an “MMO” of sorts on your hands.  That’s what I’m waiting for.

doctoroverlord
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doctoroverlord

I just wanted to say THIS is the kind of article that make me so glad that the Massively Overpowered site is up and I hope you guys keep on posting stuff like this.  A fascinating comparison to the movie industry, it will be interesting to see how the two evolve.
I think MMOs are at a unique disadvantage compared to movies.   Old-school MMOs attracted a niche market of first generation video gamers -these were players who grew up on game’s with bugs and bad design and they learned to overlook them.   They formed communities back in a time when online communities were just starting and there were very few options available for that kind of experience.   These communities helped overcome the poor game design of old-school MMOs and established a firm customer base for the industry. 
But that generation of gamers has grown up and now have families and responsibilities that severely limit their ability to devote to mechanics and content like grinding or raiding which can be as time consuming as a second job.  
Even worse, the new generation of gamers have higher standards, I think.   They have grown up in a market where video games are not just the purview of nerds, games are mass market entertainment.   Old-school mechanics and the issues that go with them may not be tolerated as well and these gamers have many other options to find online communities these days.   MMOs are no longer one of the few options that can provide that. 
I have to wonder if this current trend of returning to old-school mechanics by old-school devs will see even the niche success from the past.  I personally believe that rather than trying to recapture the past, the MMO industry need developers who are willing do something different.  If this doesn’t happen, then non-MMO game developers will find ways to provide online experiences that previously only MMOs could.
It will be very interesting to see what happens to the genre, and it’s good to know that Massively will still be there to make note of the evolution that is happening even now.

Fresh Meat
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Fresh Meat

MMORPGs will never move forward as long as people quit games due to “lol no raids”, “no dungeon finder”, “too grindy”, “no PvP”, essentially, not being WoW. Those single-player gamers are the real problem.

Having involved in the FFXIV community for more time than I should’ve, I learned that people are dumb. It’s a worse vanilla WoW? Who cares, it has Cactuars.

I’m sure there’s a market for “My Little Pony Online” with WoW’s gameplay. And don’t you dare tell them that they have to make their own groups and then travel to the dungeon. That’s such a shitty grind, archaic mechanic catered to try-hards, some people have a life…. and so on.

EO_Lonegun
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EO_Lonegun

CrowingOne We are going to have to agree to disagree, because you are right in pointing out that it is the players who supported WoW. The gamers who helped with WoW’s initial success have matured, we are not the same people we were back then. In fact the the reason why I can confidently say that the success of WoW can be repeated is that my peers are openly saying that we want an alternative to WoW. If the right MMO gets developed that can capture the hearts and imaginations of those who originally supported WoW then lightning will strike twice.

imperialpanda
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imperialpanda

Two different issues here that were lumped together.
I have no problems with publishers only sticking with big budget MMOs. With the amount of time a player can potentially spend in a single MMO, I would prefer the offerings be those with the highest production value. I find playing one MMO for several years a lot more fun than hopping between different ones every few months. And when I choose that one MMO I’m playing for several years, I certainly don’t want it hobbled by a limited budget. I want it to be as good as it could be.
Lack of innovation is the second issue. The article makes it sound like it goes hand-in-hand with the focus on higher budgets. Doesn’t have to be the case. Of course, like everyone else, I would prefer if developers come up with good new ideas.

eLdritchMD
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eLdritchMD

thanks for that bree. very interesting read.

Not sure why but I never made that connection between MMOs and movies and I’m kind of a movie buff… so shame on me ;)

I’m excited for this next round of MMOs, brought to us by the 1st generation makers. It can only server to bring some fresh wind into the genre and I truly hope that they’re all successful to show other devs that you can make an MMORPG in a post WoW world that is nothing like WoW and still succeeds. We need that. The sooner WoW stops being the golden calf every other calf is measured against ,the better for all of us.

And even though your last question was rhetorical – I would absolutely LOVE to see more young dev teams diving into the MMORPG genre but I think we’ll need to see the old dogs swim a lap through the lake before the pups tippy toe into the water again ;)

eLdritchMD
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eLdritchMD

Nyphur Wratts Estranged a 4x  turn based space game huh? what is it called? I wanna get in on that :D

ChristopherPierce
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ChristopherPierce

breetoplay Feydakin I played some of the SWG emulator last week because I had never played preNGE, and it honestly felt really fresh to me. From the beginning everything felt really open in a way that no MMO out currently supports. It was also not nearly as inaccessible as people have said it was; I think the social aspect might be the biggest hurdle because we are just not used to that anymore.
The point is that update the graphics, make the social aspect a little more modern (but just barely more because as we know the social side of MMOs has declined in favor of convenience – yet I still think some of the newer ideas about grouping and stuff is relevant), and SWG would be amazing… because no one provides anything remotely like this.

dorn2
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dorn2

SallyBowls1

You’re only arguing the semantics of “mid-budget”.  The article is simply stating current MMO budgets are likely way too high.  MMO investors have been chasing an imaginary bubble that never materialized.

Polyanna
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Polyanna

The games you refer to as “mid-budget” only seem that way relative to WoW, which raised the profile of everything about this industry by an order of magnitude.  In their day, those games were “big budget” productions. It’s not so much that companies abandoned the “mid-budget” market as that the market simply became 10x bigger, and the expected budget for everyone grew to match.

There’s a really simple principle at work here that is not at all specific to MMO development, or game development generally, or even software production. Nobody in any modern corporation is going to get promoted — or even keep their job for very long — if they’re pitching ideas on how their company can cement its position in 53rd place in their relevant industry segment.

“Go hard or go home” yada yada yada.  Nobody is going to listen to anyone whose “big idea” is how to guarantee a second place finish.  The only things that get pitched — and the only things that are tried — are those that someone, somewhere, thinks will give their company some chance at “winning,” not just hanging around long enough to get an I Showed Up Award. Obviously not everyone is going to win, but those that aren’t at least aiming to win don’t wind up doing what they do for long.

Indie developers are different only in that they tend to define winning as being the best at something nobody else is even trying to do, which makes winning a bit easier. But that becomes exponentially harder to do the larger (and more risk averse) an organization becomes. And the result is that any company that isn’t operating entirely out in left field is forced to try and compete with whoever in the current market has the largest budget and the most success, regardless of whether they want to.

dorn2
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dorn2

wjowski

This is the big problem.  “Indie” only works when it can target a small niche.  Creative types find it hard to sacrifice their “vision” for something with a broader appeal.  MMO’s absolutely require that broad appeal though.  You can’t just sell a bunch of box copies and call it quits.

Fundamentally I believe we won’t see good MMO’s until we go back to targeting 100~300k subs.  Indie MMO’s will never get close to that.

sray155
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sray155

The problem with Kickstarter and early access projects is that there’s already been so many failed/abandoned/borderline scam projects that consumers are already becoming fatigued. Too many projects are asking for a fraction of what they need, confident that they can just offer early access and everything will be fine; but what happens when Valve starts to crack down on quality control and early access, which is likely coming soon as they’re on the verge of lauching their SteamOS and consoles? in order to keep their customer service from being overwhelmed by tech illiterate users of the Steam Machine, Valve may very well prevent these Kickstarter projects from charging for alpha state games, which kills much of the early access scheme.

tominva2012
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tominva2012

A number of MMOs that set their sites on becoming “the new WoW” were good games that would have fared much better had they only set more modest goals for themselves. Too many new MMOs offer “sub-WoW” quality and features but charge “full-WoW” subscription fees, i.e., the seemingly sacrosanct $15/month subscription fee + a hefty $50 to $60 “admission fee” (the box/shelf price).
Pricey business models + mid-range game quality = disappointing results. Any thinking person should be able to do the math on that. 
These days, I usually just wait games out until they go B2P, F2P, or finally reduce their subscription fees to something commensurate with the actual value of the game.

sray155
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sray155

Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that’s isolated to MMOs: this article pretty much describes all AAA game development right now.
The big name publishers are throwing tens of millions on imitating successful games that already have a dozen imitators. These games keep costing more and more to produce and maintain, meanwhile consumers get more and more burnt out on the same thing over and over. Seriously: how many Tolkien-esque MMOs and military themed first person shooters does the world need? It’s an unsustainable cycle.
AAA gaming is likely headed towards a crash In the next few years: probably not like 1983, but it will swing the pendulum back the other way. A series of big name/big money projects are going arrive DOA, maybe one of the big name companies might even go under, and the big publishers will be forced to move back towards less money and more innovation.

ManastuUtakata
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ManastuUtakata

I think the MMO industry needs another SGW and a CoH. As we seem to be stuck between *WoW Clone* triple “A’s” that continue to stumble out of the gate releases that disappoint; indie type gank festivals that the *alternative* industry doesn’t think we have enough of; and the F2P parasites, which look lovely on the outset, but pull such fast ones that make the used car sales industry look entirely honest. So washout, grief and/or fleece…not much of a real choice in a world of so many MMO’s. But I digress…
…so a PvE sandbox and/or dynamic hero game…or even both. That would be something new and interesting. Though has been done, but done so rarely it might as well be considered new. Least in IMO. <3

breetoplay
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breetoplay

Feydakin I actually agree, and I debated with myself for two days over whether to change that last line because I wanted it to sound more rhetorical than prescriptive, and I wasn’t sure it did. :D I like so many of the old games even now, so I want to see what their original creators can do today before we despair.

Leilonii
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Leilonii

UtopianWarrior Leilonii Well those three I can’t even agree on. The Repop is way too scifi for my tastes and having played BnS it’s nothing special (no trinity gameplay is an issue as is the fact that it’s just too Korean in many ways). EQN is something I’m hopeful for but we don’t have enough concrete information to really make good judgements on that yet. Why does everyone have to stray so far from what’s good? Give me a good fantasy MMO with a trinity/quad role system, except make some modern updates like action combat. I don’t understand why companies suddenly think we want some thing else.

Feydakin
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Feydakin

Just to jump on the last thing said, I don’t think it’s necessarily time to hand over the keys as it were… I think that those industry vets that are fueling these Kickstarter projects and tickling our nostalgia had the right ideas back then, have the right ideas now and were willing to take the chances and try new things. The problem was the people that were in charge of the money… all that they could see was World of Warcraft, and more to the point, all the money that World of Warcraft was making. 
So they didn’t allow those people who are now industry veterans to make then games that they wanted to make. The money men wanted World of Warcraft money, so they all remade World of Warcraft, and we got ten plus years of shitty rehashed, throw-a-way MMORPGs for the most part. Now, with crowd funding, those guys can make the games that they wanted to make ten years ago… This excites me and givs me hope for the genre. Let’s let them keep those keys for a while longer. ;)

Damonvile
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Damonvile

wjowski Not every indie is like that but so many are the very few that stand out….stand waay out.

EO_Lonegun
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EO_Lonegun

Estranged Jay_Bird EO_Lonegun Nyphur I was able to break myself away from the Hypnotoad stare that is WoW because I wanted something different. The MMOs I play now aren’t necessarily better, but they are different and lend themselves to what allows me to enjoy a game with the time that I have.

Zaeja
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Zaeja

@Modrain I think this is an important distinction, but not only for the reason you’ve given.
Movies really only have to be successful once, at launch. With enough hype and PR, you’ll get enough bums on seats to make the investment money back, and there really aren’t any significant ongoing costs to worry about.
With persistent worlds, there are presumably huge post-launch costs involved – servers, maintenance, customer support, community management. Even a wildly successful initial launch doesn’t necessarily translate into commercial success if player numbers drop off too quickly, as we seem to see far too often. I tend to think this is why traditional PR approaches to new MMOs aren’t very helpful (lots of buzz/big opening weekend/etc), and why the gradual pay-to-beta and soft launch approach is becoming much more commonplace. It just makes sense to build an invested community who you can see will stick with the title (and get a feel for the longterm size) rather than trying to catch the much bigger but more fickle FIFO crowd.
Actually, I think indie games have the advantage here over big budget titles, simply because the ratio of pre-launch r&d to post-launch growth budgets are much more likely to be realistic and scalable.

syberghost
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syberghost

Nyphur Wratts Estranged and people have to remember, what WoW did was make an accessible clone of EverQuest at a time when EverQuest was basically the entire MMO industry. This can never happen again; accessible MMOs are a dime a dozen. Heck, they’re free a dozen, with optional microtransactions. :)

EO_Lonegun
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EO_Lonegun

SallyBowls1 You almost made me shoot water out of my nose with that one.

Modrain
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Modrain

SallyBowls1 Modrain Gottphoenix It’s not exactly the best message, indeed, but if we consider only what is Minecraft – an indie game with little budget (I’m not even sure notch quantified it), little polish, and very niche graphics that appealed nonetheless to millions of people, it’s relevant.

wjowski
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wjowski

I would argue that, more than anything else, neither the AAA companies or the indie developers are interested in putting out a fun, compelling experience for players.  The big publishers are largely only interested in monetization, wringing money from the customer at every turn and opportunity (yes I get ‘it’s a business’ and all that but it’s rapidly reaching a breaking point).  From name changes, to server moves, to triple-dipping sub+box+expansions schemes, to straight up cash shops. We, the consumer, are regarded as little more than a pack of dairy cows.

And then there’s the indie efforts.  Top to bottom every one is more concerned with entertaining the devs than the the players.  Every one basking in the false triumph of a successful Kickstarter.  Every one dripping with a condescending, almost insulting aura of ‘Everyone’s got it wrong but us’.  Crowdsourced vanity projects and tired nostalgia acts are not the future of gaming.
So yeah, if this is where MMOs are headed we might as well start chiseling out the headstone now.

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

Gottphoenix To tie in to the article, maybe 500k is *not* viable – it is too expensive.  Maybe it is a bimodal distribution where the goal is to be one of the many games that have 50k or one of the few with a million. And occasionally, you aim for 50k and skill+luck get you to 500k. But to aim for 500k, you need to be far more efficient at producing MMOs than current developers seem to be.  idk – Story Boards? procedurally-generated maps/art? real project managers?

Gylnne
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Gylnne

EO_Lonegun Nyphur Don’t agree. Agree with http://www.livefyre.com/profile/72361511/ as he has stated in other threads Wow’s success is based on millions of warcraft lovers before the game went online. Wow players are Wow players who play Wow.:) After you strip away a few million who play other MMO’s you are still left with millions who play it because it is part of Warcraft.

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

Modrain SallyBowls1 Gottphoenix Minecraft selling for two billion dollars may not send the right niche message to future developers who may be focused less on interesting, quirky play and more on the fact that they would settle for a few hundred million.

Nyphur
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Nyphur

SallyBowls1 UtopianWarrior Nyphur EO_Lonegun At this point, Star Citizen isn’t the next big thing. Thanks to crowdfunding, it’s the current big thing.

Nyphur
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Nyphur

Wratts CrowingOne I think the crux of the arugment is that WoW did a good enough job of making an MMO and making accessible to a far large audience that it was at the top of the genre as consumer trends pushed the entire genre. It was the biggest fish in the pool when the fish food started pouring in, so naturally it got most of the food. Without a big fish in the pond (a really polished and accessible MMO, in this case), we would have just seen slow universal growth instead of one massive success.

At some point, WoW’s unprecidented size for a western MMO became its own attractor and that caused a positive feedback loop, which is exactly what you see in the sub numbers for the first few years. The exact same thing happened with Minecraft thanks partly to youtube coverage and to League of Legends thanks partly to livestreaming.

SallyBowls1
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SallyBowls1

breetoplay Wratts I think one definition of failure and success is whether the shareholders are glad they did the game.  I use “artistic success” to determine another success.  Titanic and Citizen Kane were both “successful” movies, but along very different metrics.

My point is that i would consider Wildstar – the exact game that is shipping – wildly successful if it had cost $5mm.  But it didn’t so it isn’t.

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