Around the time I started working at Massively-that-was, there was an article that I quite liked talking about how four high-profile MMO failures were not necessary. It was a product of its time, but the point was made that these games didn’t have to wind up in the state they were in. The mistakes that were made were not unexpected problems, but entirely predictable ones that anyone could have seen. Heck, some people did see them and pointed them out, but nothing was changed.
I think about that a lot when I think about other MMOs and online games because there are a lot of titles that, even if not entirely failed, are in states they never needed to be in. These stories are, at the very least, stories of some failures where the failure was not an inevitable end state, nor are they messes that had to be made. The writing was on the wall, the warnings were given, and someone just kept on keeping on and ignored all of the signs. And here we are.
1. Champions Online
I’m starting the list with a game that both broke my heart and had every reason to knock it out of the park. Champions Online was a game developed by veteran staff of Cryptic Studios, the people responsible for City of Heroes originally. It had an established IP, and more to the point, it had the chance to build from the ground up to address CoH’s weaknesses while adding on to its strengths. This was a game that had so much going for it right away, and even the subscription plus costumes for sale (unusual, at the time) wasn’t enough to make it unplayable.
You know what did? Two things. The first was that it managed to make its free power selection as opaque and unintuitive as possible, thus ensuring that players would need multiple respecs… which were sold for money. That’s a problem. But the second problem is that it managed to take the thing people loved the most about CoH with its ad-hoc grouping and wide-open structure and completely abandon it right from the start.
I really don’t know what was being chased after with this design. All right, I have some idea, but I’d like to give Jack Emmert more credit than “let’s make CoH with the endgame focus of World of Warcraft and no guidance for making your characters.” A lot of those problems have been trimmed up now, but the damage was done ages ago. There’s not really any life left in Champions Online; what we see are residual muscle spasms.
2. Star Wars: The Old Republic
Speaking of WoW’s endgame, here’s one of the most egregious offenders I can think of. Star Wars: The Old Republic spent most of its gametime being a pretty good version of a story-based MMO when it launched, enough that its flaws felt like things that could be patched or improved. Then you reached the level cap, you went to Ilum… and the game threw up its hands and told you to start running your dungeons until you could get up to raiding. It was a direct and transparent rip on an existing endgame that bore no resemblance to the game you had been playing up to that point, and it had nothing to recommend it.
You could forgive the fact that the game as a whole was clearly doing its best not to reinvent the wheel, but it was less possible to forgive the game for trying to blatantly copy the wheel when you didn’t come here for that wheel in the first place. By leaning hard on the idea that everyone was just going to be satisfied with droplets of story and the same endgame people had left behind, players were more inclined to leave the entire game behind. Now we have a game flailing for an identity, with the fans who stuck around divided on whether or not the story is worth bothering with any longer.
A recurring theme here is that a lot of these games were designed to support Y when it turned out that players liked X. Instead of celebrating X and making that a major focus, these are titles that doubled down on Y and crippled X. The thought was “now that X is gone, players will learn to love Y;” the reality was “now that X is gone, players will leave.”
Darkfall’s main problem was that it was always a niche title for people who wanted to play open PvP amidst a sea of teleporting ultimate killing machines in heavy armor. This is all it was ever going to be. Then the title went through an ill-advised reboot that reset things into a world that actually had some pretense of game balance, and players were uproariously angry about it. Rolling things back slowly fixed nothing.
The reality might be that this sort of gameplay does not have a sustainable population for reasons that are too complex to go into for this column. But that’s still the X that people were here for. They weren’t interested in the Y of balanced PvP struggles, they wanted that unbalanced PvP nonsense. Asking players to suddenly embrace a totally different game style was never going to pay bigger dividends; it just alienated the people who liked things as they were.
Can you believe that WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online launched at just about the same time? At launch, it seemed like it was pretty clear which one would win out in the end; one of them was bad at pleasing its would-be fans and had numerous issues, while the other was fun to play from the opening moments while dripping with personality. It had housing, it had humor, it had… a raiding endgame that resembled vanilla WoW in the fever dreams of people who really did not remember how simple those raids were very well. And thus it went.
For all its faults at launch, TESO redoubled its efforts to improve matters, to make combat more fun and impactful, to add new systems, to make the game more accessible and fun. WildStar, by contrast, was so scared of backing away from the idea that dungeons and raids should be the most hardcore thing ever that by the time they realized no one was having fun, people had already left. Like SWTOR above, a game was made where people didn’t want to play once all of the fun content was exhausted, and the fun content was gone pretty quickly.
5. Pokemon Go
This one had every reason to be an utterly slam dunk, to the point that a lot of people were calling Pokemon Go a slam dunk long before it actually had done the stuff necessary to count as a slam dunk. But it was also one of the many games falling into the trap of telling players what they wanted to do, because Niantic decided that what people really wanted from this franchise were PvP gym battles.
If you just wanted to catch them all? Well, then, you were going to find it harder and harder to catch any of them. And once there was no longer that thrill of catching anything novel, no one was going to drop money on the Pidgey that you already had dozens of times over and didn’t want. But prioritizing that would have meant not chasing gym battles, I guess.
6. Secret World Legends
If you asked people what the biggest problem with The Secret World was, you’d probably hear a lot of people mentioning awful combat. You would probably not have heard lots of people talking about how its business model was a problem. Secret World Legends addressed that problem by doing both, and then… not updating for an extended period of time, except to add in the Agent system. Which launched without sufficient availability for the eponymous Agents.
The game doesn’t need to be here. The defense people had trotted out was that this was the only way to make new content viable, but increasingly I agree with the theory that it just allowed a clean slate to wipe out lifetime subscribers. The new content that was supposed to materialize hasn’t, and I think most lifetime players would have paid for new content if that was the only way to make it happen. None of this had to happen.[Since this section was written, Funcom announced the long-promised new update for next month.]
7. Global Agenda
Let’s be real here, SMITE made Hi-Rez Studios a whole lot of money. But Global Agenda never really had a chance, because it launched and continued with such a jumbled focus and unclear business model. It’s not the worst offender, but now it remains available for people as a perpetual museum of something that’s never going to be updated again.
Equally baffling is that when Hi-Rez had some spare money to start updating something again, this game wasn’t on the list.
8. Diablo III
The funny thing is that what killed Diablo III isn’t really any one decision. It’s not the real-money auction house, which was a terrible idea that should have died in design but then did die with the first expansion. It’s the fact that Blizzard has displayed that they don’t know what this game actually is. It’s that the game is billed and sold as an always-online title but developed and staggered as a single-player game with a definite lifespan.
Players can’t take it offline, so the game gets maintained like it’s a perpetual title like an MMO. But it really isn’t, and so it kind of languishes without the ability to just end. Adding in the Necromancer seems oddly appropriate, given all of that.
9. Das Tal / The Exiled
The open PvP thing is always going to have some serious issues, but The Exiled (formerly Das Tal) had a whole lot of passion and not a whole lot of ideas about how to make the game sing. It was like the whole game was built around specific moments that the designers never knew how to completely make happen, and as many times as they tinkered with it that stuff never actually sang.
However, full credit to the designers – they had to move on once it didn’t work out, but the game stayed online and they tried every option they could to keep things running. It didn’t have to end like this, but I respect the sheer vigor of a tiny team doing all that could be done to correct the ship, even if it was too little, too late.
A gorgeous and (by all accounts) well-designed MOBA, Gigantic was making hosts of bad decisions long before it reached the point of doom and despair. Originally planning a Windows 10-only launch was itself a bad decision; for a MOBA breaking into a crowded field, you want your audience to be as large as possible, which is the meta-version of “assuming people will just do things.” By the time that changed, a lot of people had already written it off.
But if you want an even bigger meta thought, there’s the fact that all of Gigantic’s art and knowledge and creativity was being leveraged to create something that was, at the end of the day, a clone of something that already had its success, and its successful imitators. Perhaps that’s another lesson to be learned, then, about coming into a crowded field when all you have is a tweak on existing formulas.
Maybe it did always have to be this way. But I don’t think so. It feels like this is what happens when you ignore the signs and let this happen.