Perfect Ten: Why trend-chasing doesn’t work at all for online games

    
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What you are chasing and will not get.

Video games have always been a remarkably insular field; that’s the nature of development. Someone produces Super Mario Bros, and a few years later Sonic the Hedgehog sounds like a really good idea for some reason. But then you have games like The Great Giana Sisters, games that don’t try to just copy parts of what made the inspiration good but just copy the whole thing with one or two changes.

For normal video games, this can work out decently; a game that just doesn’t get much traction still sells some copies, hopefully. Just because Croc wasn’t Spyro didn’t mean that no one bought the former. But for online games, these trend-chasing games are almost always dramatic failures that litter the landscape. Why is that? Well, there are pretty good reasons, and today seems like a good time to talk about that.

Oh look.

1. The game misses second-move advantage

The early bird gets the worm,” you’ve been told. You have probably not been told the second part of that expression; in full, it reads, “the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” And this is a well-known element of game theory, that moving second can actually give you distinct advantages in terms of knowing what went wrong the first time.

However, when you’re producing a game that’s specifically riffing on a well-known title that’s become a big hit, you’re missing that second-move advantage, too. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds had lots of second-move advantages based off of games like H1Z1, while Fortnite had a fair number of advantages as a second moves building off of the prior game’s success. Yet any subsequent battle royale game has already missed those chances. Why? Well…

2. It also misses critical mass

By the time Warhammer Online came out, it was competing with World of Warcraft. It did so by being almost exactly like World of Warcraft, but with some slight tweaks to entice players from World of Warcraft. Except that when you’re dealing with a game that’s so heavily reliant upon other players, trying to draw people away from the game that’s already running and established is a dangerous ploy to begin with.

That’s always the problem with these types of titles. They’re not chasing customers who might want to play this game; they’re chasing customers who already play another game and might want to swap. Which is probably why…

3. The design is backwards

Good game design is about trying to accomplish certain things based on overall design goals. If you can figure out how to do something based on existing designs that work well, so much the better. Sometimes they even just overlap; City of Heroes and Guild Wars both leaned heavily on questing for progression, but that wasn’t stolen from WoW – it was just convergent evolution, especially for games that came out in 2004 and 2005.

But then you get games where the goal isn’t “have players do X” but “do game Y, but better.” Instead of adding and changing elements based on the needs of the gameplay, you’re starting from the point of just copying another game and then tacking things on to it. Which is one of the reasons that…

This failed for lots of reasons, let's be real.

4. Any innovation is response, not organic

In order to get people to play League of Legends, all Riot had to do was sell people on the merits of the game itself. In order to get people to play Infinite Crisis, the team could market it as “like LoL but with a bunch of superheroes.” Similarly, Master x Master basically sold itself as “like LoL but with PvE, and also some superheroes that will make people pretty angry for reasons that should be immediately obvious.”

Remove LoL from the equation, and you don’t have a game any more. Defining yourself as a mirror of something else rarely provides a clear picture. And part of the reason for this is…

5. There’s no additional insight

If you play Alganon for some reason, you will have plenty of quests, and you will start out in a forest with lightly rolling hills as a human character. Why? Because that’s what WoW did, so it must be the right thing to do. By contrast, even in the earliest days of RIFT, you started out in wildly different zones in the middle of a hideous battle to give you a sense of the stakes in play. One is being made with an understanding of why WoW was designed a certain way and what it hoped to accomplish. The other was not built around insight, but around duplication.

Of course, duplication is an easier trick to pull off, which is important for these because…

6. Turnaround time is a problem

When something comes out of nowhere to become a huge success, the key element there is “out of nowhere.” No one could necessarily predict this. We were all surprised when everyone decided that pretending to be a farmer on Facebook was not just profitable but insanely so. Which meant that tons of people rushed to produce the exact same thing in short order.

Except that, you know, game development is slow and difficult to do. It’s very easy to throw all of your resources behind building this new title and still have it take the better part of a year… at which point the trend has moved on. Because, you see…

Sort of?

7. Players are already burned

After that year of development, people have tried that game, either liked it or didn’t like it, and moved on or continued playing. This is where we’re getting into that issue mentioned above about courting someone else’s players, but it’s also important to note that when you don’t have much time in the first place, it’s much less likely that you’re going to have a game that can address the problems of all the people who left. Heck, that even takes for granted that people who left before all left for the same reason.

But even if you assume that doesn’t matter, you’ve got another monster waiting in the wings. Because…

8. Short development has some pretty big issues

Star Trek Online was not produced as a clone of anything (well, internally it used tons of the architecture from elsewhere, but it wasn’t trying to duplicate another game). It also was produced on an insanely short timetable, and the game is still trying to recover from the fact that it was hacked together in barely more than a year. When it launched, it was worse. It’s a testament to the game that it isn’t a buggy, unplayable, unfun mess, and some people might even argue that.

A quick development doesn’t just mean bugs, it means that you don’t have time to try a system, iterate on it, and come up with a better way of doing things. Your first take on a system is your last take on a system, and the lack of iterative processes means you’ll be stuck with any bad ideas for a very long time.

And it gets worse. Because, you see…

You can't get far by just duplicating someone else's work.

9. The company itself can catch the fallout

One of the things I remember seeing about Infinite Crisis was disbelief and horror that Turbine – Turbine, one of the greatest innovators in MMORPGs! – was turning into a company that just pumped out clones of existing games. It was a mark against the company as a whole and something that greatly distressed lots of fans. I wouldn’t say that it helped usher the fall of the company, but it sure as heck didn’t make the company more robust.

Combine that with the fact that a lot of your staff probably isn’t on-board with the game and is just doing it because they have to, and you can find yourself in a place where even a short-term success with the clone has poisoned the well. But far more often it’s worse even than that…

10. Online games are a marathon, not a sprint

This is something that gets pulled out a lot, but I don’t think a lot of companies necessarily internalize what that means. It doesn’t mean “you can start off hideously unsuccessful and then succeed later” with a title like, say, LawBreakers. It means that even a big success can’t stop there. You have to keep chasing something new, producing more, innovating, and so forth.

Even if your clone can break into the big time by luck, the game itself wasn’t your idea. You don’t have any follow-up because it wasn’t your idea in the first place. So even if there’s a flash of success, you find yourself unsure of where else to go, chasing a trend straight off of a cliff.

But sure, make another battle royale game. That’s going to work out great.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
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Bryan Correll

second mouse gets the cheese

And here’s what happens when they all go for the same target at the same time:

http://cfs9.blog.daum.net/upload_control/download.blog?fhandle=MEd6RUlAZnM5LmJsb2cuZGF1bS5uZXQ6L0lNQUdFLzYvNjY0LmpwZy50aHVtYg==&filename=664.jpg

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Sally Bowls

I am conflicted re “10. Online games are a marathon, not a sprint”

I feel “Online games used to be a marathon, not a sprint.” Is that the optimal business strategy today? Instead of slowly building a game that will be a MMO for a decade, what if you made several smaller, quicker games? If you know the game you start working on now will be a hit in the market of many years later when it launches, that is fine. But not everything is a success (see Titan, EQN, …)

A recent trend business term is “fail early.” Perhaps instead of one marathon games, create ten smaller games: 4 are killed immediately, 3 soon, a couple do OK/fine and one you decide can be the next Minecraft. If PUBG is shut down in a year, does anyone think the dev will wistfully say “we should have created an MMO?”

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Sally Bowls

I essentially agree with the premise and the points. I would add that a missing business issue is the “network effect” component of critical mass. I.e. in multiplayer games, especially where playing with friends, then the value of a game goes up non-linearly. A game with 200,000 players is worth more than two each with 100,000. It is more likely you can find someone or a friend to play with the more people are in the game. These sort of markets tend to be “winner-take-all.” The end state is probably not going to be 1B people using FaceBook and 1B using MySpace but 2+B using the
“winner.” (Speaking of business, not citing the obvious https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-mover_advantage but discussing 2ndMover is … quintessentially Elliot.

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Rheem Octuris

This probably should have just been a soapbox article :p

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Sally Bowls

I can see that.

The topic I keep puzzling about as we see so many bandwagon games being (IMO fairly) ridiculed for jumping on the bandwagon: are the related questions:

Why do we expect MMOs (the MMO market) to be different?
And why is the MMO market different?

When a Turbine or NCSoft announce a MOBA, I (and I think many) roll our eyes for the 10 Elliot Reasons above and others. It seems like a high-risk move and almost certainly a mistake. Same for 2018’s FotY, BRs.

Yet we are all pushing and hoping for new MMOs. Are we just in a MMO filter-bubble? Are there MOBA and BR players looking at new MMO announcements and wondering why the Ten Rules of Elliot don’t apply to them as well?

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PurpleCopper

Battle Royale games seems like a really tempting proposition, even though it’s chasing trends, because the risks are so low and the the rewards so high.

BR games are so cheap, fast, and easy to make. PUBG and Fortnite has already made near a billion dollars in revenue in less than a year. Unlike a Moba or MMO, the barriers to entry for BR games are pretty low and high potential rewards.

I’d say that there are still some room for BR games newcomers. PUBG caters to the hardcore/realistic crowd. Fortnite caters to the casual cartoony Minecraft crowd. And now we have Radical Heights which caters to the… video-gamey crowd? It’s certainly different, anyways.

Also, MOBAs and MMOs tend to have a large time investment due to it’s nature. But BR shooters tend to be easy to pick up and matches finish pretty fast. So people are more likely to play multiple BR shooters as opposed to playing multiple MOBAs or MMOs.

But I don’t know what will happen once even more serious BR contenders enter the ring, there’s H1Z1 Twisted Metal, the inevitable DICE Battlefield BR mode, The Ubisoft BR mode for either Wildlands or The Division 2, and then there’s Paladins Battlegrounds.

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Weilan

Word. I hate Battle Royale, it’s more stupid than the previous fads – MOBAs, Hero shooters, Asian WoW clones, Korean action MMOs…

In this one you spawn, pick a starting spot, walk around collecting weapons, then you look around to kill others and when you die you start over, and then over and over again… it’s so devoid of any thought whatsoever it’s just sad.

I can’t wait for this fad to pass.

And regarding Radical Heights, I don’t think it will succeed, Fortnite and PUBG have already taken the top spots, anything else will just live in the shadow of those two.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

And then you have the exception to all the rules, which falls under the Bond Theme “Nobody Does It Better.”

WoW was not the second MMO or even the third, but it did do a lot of things better.

Same with Hearthstone, HOTS and OW. They weren’t first with any of those types of games. They weren’t even second. But they got the defining mood and spirit of all of them just right for a great many players.

If you can’t be first or second, then you be Blizzard and take your sweet time to get it Just Right.

And though we might despise Blizzard for any number of good reasons or love them for an equal number, there’s no denying that they are the biggest T. Rex in Un’goro Crater.

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Schmidt.Capela

Yup, that is how Blizzard has always acted: they hack into the guts of everything else in the genre, plus a lot of games from other genres that could provide interesting mechanics; study them all until they have a deep understand of what works and what doesn’t; use that understanding to make something that, while derivative, isn’t a mere copy, incorporating elements from many different games; polish it, often more than the originals; and only then release it.

I’m not sure the current Blizzard has the talent to continue pulling that, though. I kinda lost the trust I had in Blizzard with Cataclysm and Diablo 3.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

My opinion is that doing an RPG is not like doing anything else. Obsidian, a pretty good stuido, has a lot of chops doing RPGs and still falters. And did someone say BioWare?

Blizzard has no experience doing RPGs and messed up the one RPG IP in their stable so badly, that they gave sunlight to an otherwise difficult and niche game, Path of Exile, to gain significant traction and outclass, out pace and out perform them in every single RPG check point.

Blizzard is rightfully embarrassed by D3 and keeps it locked in the attic like Rochester’s wife.

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Schmidt.Capela

Let’s not forget that Blizzard also did Diablo 1 and Diablo 2, both widely acclaimed in the Blizzard way (i.e., nothing truly innovative, but both games that took the best features from other existing games and presented them in a nicely polished package).

Though, yeah, Blizzard decided to close the studio that made Diablo 2 before starting to work on Diablo 3, so they lost most of their Action RPG expertise.

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Sally Bowls

I like the nuance in
http://tobolds.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-ubisoft-formula-versus-blizzard.html

I.e., the idea that it is not just that Blizzard games turn out to be better than a competitor but that they were designed to be better. Is “better” just an outcome, or is it a design goal?

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Really good article, Sally. Thanks for the link.

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nobleeinherjar

My first thought was, “Aww, I kinda liked Giana Sisters.” But I was thinking of the Twisted Dreams game on Steam. I had no idea it was originally a Super Mario rip-off.

As someone who never liked MOBAs, I rolled my eyes at every attempt to chase a piece of that pie (though I know some games like Infinite Crisis had devoted fans, and it sucks that it got shut down).

But even as a PUBG fan, I’m already tired of the Battle Royale train. Though that might be because I find all of the suing* and claims of who really invented the genre to be dumb. Eh, but I guess it’s nothing new. Chasing trends happens in every medium.

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rafael12104

Perhaps Boss Key and Cliffy B should have read this article before dropping Radical Heights into early access. Lol.

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mike foster

I’m super interested to watch the future of Battle Royale, as to me it seems like a game mode more than a game. Unlike WoW clones, or the MOBA race, which needed a team to like, make a new game, BR is something you can copy-paste into any existing shooter.

Like…for SURE Battlefield and CoD have BR modes this year. They’re crazy if they don’t. BR especially seems like a genre that will suffer a lot of saturation due to how easy it is to basically add “big map, parachute, circle killy thing” into any game that already has shooting mechanics.

I can’t think of another recent clone example like that, where you could just take the popular thing and stick it INTO something else. MAYBE TCGs???

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Bree Royce

Definitely TCGs! SOE/Daybreak pioneered that in EQ2/SWG. Irony. :P

MOBAs still seem like MMO battlegrounds with preset toons to me. So maybe that just means that just because they could be dropped into a bigger game, doesn’t mean they can’t also stand alone. The “unbundling” of MMOs, etc.

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mike foster

It does seem like one path for success in games is to pull one mechanic out and focus on it super hard, like exploration, or combat, etc.

BR is going to be an interesting ride.

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Schmidt.Capela

It’s the “do just one thing, but do it really well” mantra that is common in business.

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Sally Bowls

IMO, that tends to be true for most non-generic products. You and your competitors have hundreds of features and attributes. So you have a sentence or two (“the elevator pitch”) to get into the headline of an ad or PR mail.

So you decide upon and focus on the USP (Unique Selling Proposition) for your product. And once that is the main thing you are going to be flogging with your advertising/PR budget, might as well put some development dollars behind that USP instead of some other feature that is not going to be mentioned much.

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Robert Mann

11. Everyone knows what you did. They know it BEFORE you release the clone. They see it, they sigh, and they ignore you by and large. Why? Because you put out something that has no value other than being a virtual copy of something else… which means that they are better served playing that something else. Not only that, but you also have a population that you can join with many advantages, so the only reason to go elsewhere would be the potential epeen of being first. Enough for some, but not for very many.

12. The game you are copying isn’t the game you are copying anymore. That is to say that, while you wasted time and resources making a clone that won’t succeed for all the other reasons, somebody was doing something no matter how minor to innovate. That game that was the basis for the clone has now latched onto that, and built something that you are failing to copy. Meanwhile, even if you somehow succeed at taking significant market share that other game is making serious bank…

13. Which means that they have the resources to outdo every gimmick and attempt to outdo them you pull off. You’d be better off just working on their game for them.

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Schmidt.Capela

Actually, if you manage to take significant market share, it means you likely found a different niche somehow, so just double down on elements of that niche the market leader can’t copy without creating a NGE situation for their game.

It’s similar to the situation between PUBG and Fortnite. A big part of what makes Fortnite such a strong contender is the zany imagery, crazy fast-paced action, and the absurd but fun building mechanics — all of which are things PUBG devs wouldn’t be able to copy without destroying their game in the process.

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Utakata

14. The cheeze sandwich. Because it worked for WoW, doesn’t mean it works for every multi-user game. Just saying.