Massively Overthinking: Are boutique MMOs the future?
This week’s Massively Overthinking question comes to us from Kickstarter donor Taemys, who just so happens to be a guildie of mine. He’s clever, and so is his concern:
I put his questions to the Massively OP writers, who as usual were happy to overthink them!
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): Big blockbuster games are high-risk in the MMO market and have no chance of meeting the expectations set by giants like World of Warcraft or the original EverQuest in its day. I think last year was the first time publishers and investors really got that message, especially with Blizzard cancelling Project Titan after having invested so much money into it. I’m not so sure that means we’re heading toward a world of smaller MMOs, but the past few years have definitely seen a resurgence of smaller multiplayer games. That may just be because publishers and investors are now belatedly chasing the massive revenue of games like League of Legends, Hearthstone, Crossfire, and World of Tanks, but there’s no doubt that it’s a trend.
Smaller studios developing smaller games is a much safer and more economically viable option in today’s flooded games market, and the cost of developing a small game continues to decrease year-on-year. We have powerful content-creation tools like Substance Painter now using an affordable subscription model for indies, cheap availability of powerful engines like Unity 5 and UE4, scalable cloud computing services for hosting dedicated game servers, and crowdfunding to get over the first stage investment hump. It has never been easier than it is right now to develop and deploy a small MMO or online multiplayer game, and on that basis alone I think that’s what the future looks like for MMOs. We’ll still get the occasional blockbuster title riding on a popular IP, and I’m sure we’ll see a few unexpected breakaway hits and more games that straddle the MMO to standard multiplayer divide, but I think we’re going to see a lot more MMOs that aren’t chasing that impossible-to-achieve number 1 spot and are happy to exist in a chosen niche.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I won’t say “never” on another mega-blockbuster. Way too much of the planet is still more or less cut off from the full power of a global internet and has yet to weigh in on the subject of virtual worlds. WoW capitalized on emerging markets, and there are markets yet to explore.
But personally, I want to quibble over the word niche. When we use it nowadays, we’re not using it as a compliment, especially when we’re applying it to anything smaller than WoW (under 10 million), which is almost everything, or smaller than EQ (under 500k), which… OK, again, is almost everything, and certainly every larger-scale Western MMO prior to WoW. In the early aughts, no one was looking at MMOs with several hundred thousand players and lamenting that we’ll just have to accept “niche” status, you know? Those games felt plenty big then. I refuse to see small- to mid-size MMOs as a negative. They’re not niche; they’re normal, and they always have been. They’re the past, the present, and the future. And they’re perfectly sustainable if they haven’t spent like a game 10 times their size.
But when we use niche and boutique to also describe content breadth, I think we normalize games that have no ambition, that cut so many features that they’re barely worthy as MMORPGs anymore, let alone as virtual worlds. That’s something I definitely won’t accept. If that’s our future, then this has been an awful waste of time.
Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): I certainly hope we don’t see anything with WoW’s mass appeal again. MMO feature sets got small as the MMO community got big. My preferences aside, yeah, it’s a foregone conclusion that niche is the future. MMO players don’t want to pay for their entertainment nowadays, and meanwhile the cost of developing even a feature-deficient themepark retread is getting out of hand. You won’t see big MMOs made in that climate.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): For the near future, I think that may be the case. Bigger only games are still being made, but mostly at the fringes of MMO society (such as Destiny, The Division, or GTA Online). It’s a smarter way to lessen the risk for big-budget titles by appealing to a wider audience.
It’s hard to see a future when big-name studios decide to drop the resources and budget on a project on the scale of the games you mentioned. However, it’s easier to recognize how the industry is changing in positive ways to allow smaller developers more freedom and to provide them with better tools to make worlds that have the potential to be quite large down the road, given a growing playerbase and popularity.
Then again, there could be large-scale MMOs in the works we don’t know about because the studios aren’t ready to reveal them. Crowfall — what I would deem a mid-sized MMO — practically came out of nowhere and was widely embraced throughout its crowdfunding campaign. And let’s not forget that some established, experienced studios, such as Daybreak and Cryptic, are still going forward with new MMOs that aren’t aiming to be small potatoes.
Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I do not think that we will see another WoW. That was likely a once-in-a-lifetime thing. However, I don’t think that large, triple-A MMOs are out of the question. I believe that some studio somewhere will hit a mark that no one else has. I’m imagining something like The Witcher 3 or maybe like Minecraft turned into an MMO that for some reason it strikes a chord with a lot of people on PC and console.
Mike Foster (@MikedotFoster, blog): I think smaller, niche MMOs are probably more fun for the people who play them. The big name titles striving to land millions and millions of players are always going to build their feature sets around what works for the most possible people, which often results in watered down ideas and half-hearted implementations. If I were building an MMO today, I’d certainly take the EVE model — aim for just 200-300,000 players and build a game that they’ll stick with for over a decade.
Will we see anything as big as WoW again? Probably. Will it be another traditional MMORPG? Probably not. World of Tanks has more players than WoW ever did. League of Legends is riding the crest of the MOBA wave. The next big thing will most likely be something none of us saw coming, just as usual.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): No, I do not think we will ever experience anything of the scope of EQ and WoW again. It is almost ironic that the reason we won’t see such a massive congregation of gamers in one place anymore is because of the massively larger number of folks we have playing MMOs now! There are just too many different wants/tastes/expectations in the pot now to flavor any one game to the liking of all, and just too many entrees to choose from. I think the smaller, niche games will be the best going forward, as these games give a group of players what they want — what they really, really want! — and that will make for a passionate, dedicated playerbase that will be loyal enough to a title to keep it going.