The Soapbox: Do MMOs still fall victim to the copycat curse?

When Radical Heights launched, I was inspired to put together a whole Perfect Ten about why trend-chasing doesn’t work for online games. Obviously, my chief focus was on games that wind up being developed at a rushed pace to cash in on trends and then run face-first into problems with chasing momentary trends, which… you know, you can just read the article; it’s linked right there. But it also prompted a follow-up question by longtime reader Sally Bowls asking why, with all of these issues, why the same rules don’t apply to MMOs.

The answer? Well, there isn’t one answer. There are three answers, all of which are part of the same set of considerations. For one thing, there’s the difference of development time and depth. For another, there’s the time before grinding. And last but not least, well… they do apply, really. But let’s take this piece by piece to talk about why trend-chasing for MMOs doesn’t quite provoke the same immediate reactions as it does for, say, MOBAs.

Development time and depth of field

This might have kicked off the genre, but it didn't complete it.How much can you change about a MOBA before it’s not a MOBA? It’s pretty obvious that, say, Heroes of the Storm and League of Legends are both MOBAs. But both games are also pretty similar in their goals and overall design – same basic interface, mechanics, and so forth. I saw some people even arguing that Paragon was the outside limit of what could be called a MOBA, and even that wasn’t so different from the aforementioned entries.

By contrast, the MMO genre stretches from Ultima Online to EverQuest to World of Warcraft to Defiance to Guild Wars 2. There is a lot of design space to explore there. Even if you start off exploring design space that’s pretty well-known (i.e., starting from “World of Warcraft but with story development and housing”) you have loads of different permutations available. There’s a whole lot of different systems that can be the same or different without changing the nature of the game as an MMO.

This is a good thing because developing an MMO takes a while. Significantly longer, really, than developing a lot of the more trend-chasing titles do. You have to develop a whole lot of content, game mechanics, interlocking systems, solutions for online persistence, and so forth. You could, if you struggled at it, knock together a battle royale game in a few months; you can’t do that with an MMO.

Consider that Star Trek Online took a year of development, had most of the systems already developed for a separate game, was being handled by a veteran team, and was still a minor miracle in the fact that it managed to launch in a playable state within that timeframe. It’s hard to chase a trend when it’s going to take you multiple years to show up to the party.

That doesn’t mean trend-chasing doesn’t happen, of course; see the third part of this particular column. It just means that starting to develop a game just to chase a trend is going to result in your being left out in the cold while the trend gets flashy and then dies out as the world moves on. And with more variation possible, you aren’t constrained by as narrow a mold as some of the most trend-heavy genres.

This went to a bad place.

The time to grind

Grinding happens in basically every game, eventually. You stop doing new things and start doing the same thing over and over. It’s not really a bad thing, per se; it’s just a thing. Every game has only so much stuff to show off, after all. But the time to grind matters a lot.

When you start playing the latest battle royale game, you are still basically playing every other battle royale game. There’s a brief period of time in which you get to learn about this particular game’s new mechanical wrinkles and control irregularities, and then you’re immediately into the cycle of “play that match again, over and over, to skill up and gradually unlock things.”

This is a problem when we’re talking about making these things sticky. If a new MOBA immediately drops you into “grind up your competitive rank and practice” after one match, then it has a mark against it compared to the games you’ve already played. You’re already into the grind, and in League of Legends you’ve already done a lot of this work and already unlocked stuff.

By contrast, MMOs tend to have a long time to grind. You could argue that there are only minor differences between raiding in Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft, but in order to get there, you have to reach the level cap, explore story content, and run across all sorts of other systems along the path. By the time you’re into “repeatedly run raids/dungeons/PvP matches,” you’ve presumably reached the point where you are already invested.

This isn’t to say that this is inherently a problem; if you’re having fun playing Overwatch, it doesn’t matter much if every given match is basically the same with a different selection of characters and maps. But if another game comes out with the exact same formula… you already have stuff unlocked in Overwatch, and you’re used to its quirks. It’s not exactly enticing to swap over to the grind in a completely new game unless that new game has something really compelling to it.

Conversely, MMOs are more likely to suffer from the inverse problem, where the front end of the game doesn’t resemble the game you are later stuck with when you reach the endgame. Ironically, this is where a lot of trend-chasing often winds up, like the pattern of slapping raid-or-die endgames after you’ve gotten used to doing other things for fun. (I’ve said before that a big part of what makes Final Fantasy XIV work is that when you hit the level cap, you are still doing what you did in the process of reaching that cap; the first chunk of levels isn’t a separate experience but a tour.) So you have space to fall for those new mechanics.

Heck, some players enjoy playing just for the new mechanics. You might not want the grind, but you want the fun combat up to the grinding back-and-forth. This means there’s a drive to make the early levels different.

There's cause for concern.

The rules are still rules

Hey, remember when SWTOR launched and people on Massively-that-was were asking when we’d spin off SWTOR Insider? That was pretty funny. It gets funnier every year, even. But you don’t need to pick on that particular game; you can make the same joke about Warhammer Online Insider, after all. Or RIFT Insider.

The point here isn’t that these games are bad; it’s that these titles all worked really hard to directly emulate WoW in various arenas, and that arguably hurt them a lot in terms of longevity. It’d be hard to argue that SWTOR or RIFT are realistically big enough to justify their own spin-off sites at this point. Following the trends might not be as egregious in these cases, but the trends were still followed… and the results were still the same.

If you want to see some really follow-the-leader design, look to our various temports over the years. Those games are often pumped out in short order using similar basic engines… and then they fade away almost as quickly as they get brought out. We might not get the same sort of quick copy-and-drop games as we do in the MOBA genre, but no one has ever said that a game does better for slavishly copying WoW.

The big success stories of the past several years, in fact, have been games that specifically aimed to break out of trends in various ways. Games like Guild Wars 2, The Elder Scrolls Online, and the aforementioned FFXIV have all taken lessons from previously successful games, but none of them has tried to be “game X but with Y.” You can see how the developers learned the lessons about why game X was successful without trying to copy the surface elements.

And at the end of the day, that’s what usually kills copycats so badly: the fact that you can’t have the runaway success of Fortnite without understanding why Fortnite succeeded, what need it was filling, and offering something that fills that niche better or serves an adjacent one. The next successful battle royale game (if there is one) will be oriented in that direction, looking at the parts that work and building from that. The unsuccessful ones will be, well, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds but with a vague ’80s theme.

You can argue that SWTOR was going for WoW but with Jedi, and it still has enough players to keep running. But you can’t argue that it’s more successful than ESO, and that alone should give you an idea about how the copycat problem still hits MMOs just the same.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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Danny Smith

I think we had enough bad WoW clones that the studios that put out that sort of thing just moved onto mobas, then card games and now battle royale games. I mean lets be honest when mmorpgs are as unpopular in the mainstream as they are now when ‘online multiplayer’ is no longer a novelty but an expected baseline in most games the appeal to dump money into a copy of a hit from 14 years ago isn’t really there anymore.

Xijit
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Xijit

Uhm … Did everyone forget the term “WoW Killer?”

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

Why would game developers make MMO games instead of… literally anything else? It takes 4+ years and a ton of money to make a MMO, while any other type of game takes/costs much less.

It surely can’t be the potential recurring revenue that MMO brings, because non-MMO games makes just as much if not more revenue as MMO games.

So what gives?

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Crahzi Synner

Mmo Cashshops make a TON of money. MMO cashshops started the micro transaction money making strategy that a lot of mobile games use today. Mmo’s don’t have a limit on how much money you can spend on the game. While your triple A games are 60$ + maybe a 20-30$ season pass. a premium membership/subscrition at 15$ a year =$150. That plus the 10$ costume every so often ends up with even more revenue. Then you have the Mmo’s with loot boxes, people will pay hundreds if not thousands on a loot box with a super rare item/s in them.

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Sally Bowls

My guess is that MMOs lose out on the expense side not the revenue. I.e., even if the the MMOs might make twice as much money, they might take ten or twenty times the budget to produce. So a company might prefer to develop ten Hearthstones to one MMO.

The companies who know the real costs and profits, unfortunately, have been backing away from MMOs for the last five years or so.

To quibble with the numbers a bit, UBISoft last year had its first quarter where recurring revenue exceeded the revenue from selling the games. So the non-MMOs are getting somewhat more than 20-30; And if the average MMO player plays seven months, then that is just an average of $105 sub/premium per player. You are correct, the MMO is still more but the MMO has been declining as people jump around more than a decade ago. And the non-MMOs have gotten quite good/bad at getting more revenue, e.g. high schoolers spending $500/month on Fortnight, a free game.

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Sally Bowls

Implicit in all this that we are discussing for the same platform.

An Industry Lifecycle

So Turbine taking resources from LotRO to make yet another MOBA for the PC did not seem like a good idea. At all. Shame on them.

OTOH, making a clone/copy of LoL for mobile got you the largest game on the planet: Honor of Kings/Kings of Glory/Arena of Valor/Strike of Kings. A Lineage clone for the PC would be redundant; Lineage M for mobile did $10M in one day. So games that might be pointless to come out with on the PC may do well in xR or Switch or Mobile or AWS/Azure or …

Cynical Sally says technology changes but human nature does not. So one day the next generation will be complaining on MMO sites about why would anyone ever play a MMO on their Apple Watch – the iPhone that they and everyone uses for MMOs has a much better screen and processor than any watch.

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TomTurtle

That delayed reaction is probably what makes so many MMO gamers feel jaded since an MMO’s true worth is more easily obfuscated.

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Witches

Original and copy are only a matter of perspective, when i first heard the original Sweet Jane i wondered why Lou Reed had made a crappy version of the Cowboy Junkies original song, i know this is hard for you guys to accept, but the millions that play or played WOW are still only a small fraction of the overall playerbase.

The problem isn’t the fact that they copied, but the fact that they made CHEAP copies, ESO, FF or GW2 are all well funded games, they are not lowest common denominator games like SWTOR or Rift, what STO lacks in gaming quality it makes up for in Star Trek cred, lots of the original actors collaborate with the game, so they found an alternative way to give extra value to the game, no one is playing STO because of its gameplay, graphics or anything gaming related.

Everyone would welcome quality copies, i would play scifi WOW, ESO or FF if there was one available.

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Sally Bowls

Triggered: Unsuccessful

FN is clearly kicking PUBG in the West. But PUBG

Market research firm SuperData report that PUBG generated $712 million in revenue through the eight months it was available in 2017. By comparison, the entire esports industry made $756 million in 2017.

Chinese gamers are the biggest buyers of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the rampantly popular battle royale video game that tipped 40 million global sales last month.(April’18)
Almost 40.5 percent of sales have come from the world’s largest gaming market, creator Brendan Greene told Yicai Global today.

We are putatively MMO fans. In the world of MMOs, we talk when an MLM Kickstarter gets three instead of one million dollars and my guess is 90% of the titles mentioned here will never see 100,000 customers. I.e., we are not mobile; we are in the cheap seats. For MMO players of all people to use “unsuccessful” anywhere near a game that took a dev team a half to a third of Carbine’s and make a game that did $712M in its first eight months seems IMO unfair and inaccurate.

That being said, shame on PUBG for squandering their huge lead and letting FN blow past them.

PurpleCopper
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PurpleCopper

Bluehole either has terrible programmers (looking at you Brendan Greene) or are just clueless when it comes to the Unreal Engine. It makes me wonder if perhaps Bluehole should’ve delayed the Early Access until a year later so that the devs could get more experience and iron out the bugs. Fortnite: Battle Royale was only released because of success of PUBG. Delaying the release of PUBG would’ve given Bluehole a big enough lead, but alas, hindsight is 20/20 I guess.

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Sally Bowls

IDK, as failures go, a team of 35 getting over a billion dollars of revenue is not the worst failure in gaming.

Re terrible programmers, even the Wiki has ” taking inspiration from the Battle Royale film, Greene had wanted to use safe square areas, but his inexperience in coding led him to use circular safe areas instead, which persisted to Battlegrounds.” He was a photographer, graphic designer, and web designer who learned to program.

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Sally Bowls

Synchronicity or CoH/GW2 petulance that I see the Master X Master Anniversary listed in the sidebar? :-)

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Sally Bowls

I agree with the common opinion that making a WoW clone is a bad idea, so it must be correct. :-) What I find unfathomable is that somehow people inexplicably think this means making an MMO that is not a WoW clone is a good idea.

IMO, financially: resisting the urge to make an MMO > WoW clone > “special snowflake” MMO

It also depends on how much money you have. It is simple (but not easy) to market something derivative (like a Galaxy 9 but with a better camera; like a Honda Civic but with better gas mileage/cheaper,…) But when your product is what is called an “evangelical sale” it takes considerably more money to sell. And the marketing and promotion of an MMO can already take over half of the budget, it takes deep pockets that I don’t see companies having the desire to do anymore. (With the disclaimer that financial constraints don’t apply to AGS. E.g., if you are disrespectful enough of shareholders to hire Smed, you can afford to piss some money away on an MMO. :-) Go New World!)

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rafael12104

Good artists copy; great artists steal. -Pablo Picasso

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Wilhelm Arcturus

Later stolen by Steve Jobs.

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rafael12104

Exactly.

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ghostlight

Gates to Jobs: “We both had this rich neighbor named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.” lol Definitely a classic zinger!