Last Friday’s WildStar news made me sad. I’m sad because there are two games at war within that title. One of them is a charmingly flexible sandpark; the other one is what I think our dear editor is thinking of when she calls the game World of Warcraft But They’re In Space, since it launched with all of the worst parts of WoW‘s endgame from its original launch without much to improve upon the formula. I really like the former part of the game.
Whenever we wind up with a title in that state, of course, people ask a simple question: Why doesn’t the studio just do a reboot? It worked really well for Final Fantasy XIV, which went from an industry punchline to a success story that’s still building momentum. So why don’t more studios just reboot MMOs that aren’t working?
The answer is that it’s not that easy. And it can conveniently be broken down into several bullet points for this particular column. So let’s get to it.
1. It’s really expensive
Whenever people ask Naoki Yoshida how he managed to pull off the reboot of Final Fantasy XIV, one of the points he cycles back to is the simple reality that Square-Enix was footing the bill. The company has to satisfy its stockholders, but every single part of the company does not have to be making money at every moment. Thus, the team behind the game could afford to basically build an entirely new game behind the scenes while the old game was still running for free for quite some time.
The majority of MMO developers are not in that position. Square-Enix could support a team working on a new product, but we’ve seen what happens with Funcom when LEGO Minifigures Online underperformed badly. The company has investors it needs to satisfy, and it cannot just casually reboot a game while expecting other parts to take up the slack.
2. Major changes need to happen
Rebooting a title with the same people in charge is not going to work. The people in charge made the decisions that led the game to its current place, and if that situation is untenable or undesirable, they’re not just going to make new decisions or have new thought processes. The people who were already there were trying to make the best game they could, and it didn’t work.
The result is that you need a huge amount of change in the game’s staffing, which is also expensive and also requires people to learn how to work together. That’s a whole lot of work to resurrect a floundering title.
3. Players may not follow
Do you want to know how many veteran players of Final Fantasy XIV bounced off of the new version? It’s hard to have absolute numbers, but it was a sizable percentage. That hasn’t hurt the game too much, but that’s mostly because only a dozen of us kept playing the game after launch for various reasons. (My reason is that I make terrible decisions on the regular.)
Darkfall had a similar problem with its reboot – the redone version of the game was meant to address lots of player complaints, but enough people apparently felt that the reboot strayed too far from the original purpose. Thus, we have two more reboots which are rebooting the game back before the original reboot. Life is weird.
4. The transition is rough
Once you announce that you’re rebooting your game, there’s an obvious question from players in the middle of the live game: “What happens to us?” If you’re changing everything, that means that whatever is happening now is going to cease to matter at some point… but when? And why? And how will things transition? What will change? What happens next?
You can see this happen even when a game is just going free-to-play, with people asking why they should bother subscribing now when they won’t have to in a few months. This isn’t just a matter of players not following then; it’s a question of why they should stick around now because it’s harder to get people back than to not lose them in the first place.
5. It requires an investment in the title
Rebooting a game means rebuilding from the ground up. You don’t do that if your game could just as easily be built without the title. To use a completely arbitrary example, the amount of time and effort necessary to build an Asheron’s Call 2 reboot could be just as easily spent building Asheron’s Call 3, and the former has a better chance of attracting new players.
You did know you wanted that, right?
6. It requires new people
By “new people” I am of course referring to “new fans, new players, new everyone.” The reasons are pretty obvious – if your existing fans/players/etc. were enough to support your game, you wouldn’t need to reboot it. So you need to be attracting new players to the game, and that means convincing people who have left and people who have only heard of your game in a negative light that it should be checked out.
In other words, you aren’t just building a new game. You’re launching a new game with a fraction of the old game’s playerbase. Which leads to an indisputable conclusion…
7. Just rebooting isn’t enough
I’m not a huge fan of Marvel Heroes, but I think the game’s annual self-rebranding is a minor stroke of brilliance because it allows the title to keep re-inserting itself in people’s memories from a marketing standpoint. That’s something to remember with a reboot, that you need a full-court press of new coverage, new information, new branding, new advertising, and so forth.
Consider all of the things mentioned before about expense in this context, as well. This is already a pricey and big project, and sinking money into the necessary marketing just makes it even bigger. All of which, again, can be applied to a new title that doesn’t already have a strike against it.
8. It’s an intense amount of effort
This is every bit as major a project as making an entirely new game. That’s what I’m getting here. It’s also the added stress of making the new game line up with the old game in ways that aren’t going to ruin everyone’s fun and enjoyment, and you have to keep the lights on while you do all of it.
Even smaller changes like free-to-play conversions are big changes, requiring a fundamental rework of the game’s core structure and how rewards and accounts are handled. And with all of that said…
9. It can still fail
Free-to-play doesn’t save every game. Some games make that smaller transition and still die due to a simple lack of money. Champions Online is limping along, but its free-to-play transition and massive system overhauls failed to bring in players. A reboot is more work, more money, and more gambling for something that can leave you in the exact same position.
10. There’s only one real success story
This is the really big thing to consider. Suggesting a total tear-down and reboot of a game has worked – once. One time. And the result has been a major success story, but it’s a lone data point and a surprising one in an industry that has far more stories about trying to change everything and failing spectacularly.
It’s not that it can’t ever work again. It’s that the amount of work needed to make it work again is so high that it’s rarely worth trying to make it work again, and it was a gamble even the one time that it did work out well. Reboots are simply not viable on the regular.