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

    
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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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Schlag Sweetleaf

3:06

binn05
Guest
binn05

Nice article :D

Anarwen
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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
Guest
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.