Massively Overthinking: Why is no one meeting the obvious player demand for big MMORPGs?

    
95

Massively OP reader ichi_san has a burning question about the state of the industry.

“Lots of people seem to be looking for an MMO they can get into – consider the rush into Bless as an example. Lots of games are being released, but most (or even all) have some glaring issues, like pay-to-win, lockboxes, ganking, poor optimization, heavy cash shop, horrible gameplay, and so on. There’s the WoW model and other semi-successful formulas, and a lot of unexplored territory. The market seems hungry, and there is a bunch of history to build on and new territory to explore, but either gaming companies don’t understand their customers or greed/laziness/expediency get in the way, such that we see release after release that fails to scratch the itch. Am I missing something – are there fun MMOs with good graphics and fair monetization that I’m missing? Or is there a gaping hole in the MMO scene, and if so, why isn’t someone filling it?”

I’ve posed his question to the writers for their consideration in Overthinking this week. We’re long past bubble-bursting here when all of the still-major MMORPGs are four years older. What exactly are we looking at? Why is the obvious demand for MMOs not being met?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think a big part of it is that other, non-MMOs are in the online multiplayer space filling a lot of those needs. Survival and battle royale games are just one type in a long line of PvP options that have grown out of the MMO (at least in terms of Fortnite and its building play). Monster Hunter scratches the raid itch. Sea of Thieves has been my more “MMO”-y go to, unless you want to count Pokemon Go, since my neighborhood is basically a PvP zone that’s dealing with faction politics lately. For socializing, it’s generally Overwatch or something free to play someone’s suggested we play together (like Fortnite).

That’s without the monetization issue. On the one hand, free to play gets you more entry-level players. On the other, the monetization is rough. It gets gambley, and that’s looking like it’s under siege. If I were making a game today, I’d probably do a vanity store, but that hurts crafters and tests whether or not players may want to play just for maybe a slight variance on an item they can just buy. You’ll notice I don’t play anything subscription-based because, at least in my circles, it’s too hard to find a single game everyone plays that’ll be worth it.

To note, I’m also leaving out the impact of social media. For me, as a kid, the biggest allure of the internet was meeting new people who didn’t share basically the same worldview as people in my town. Games in particular helped introduce me to that. Forums that made you sign up and the need to upload and link screenshots created a tech knowledge barrier of entry for the unwashed masses. Now, you take a picture and just hit a “share” button. You swipe for dating. You share links to asynchronous browser games or mobile apps that have social media baked in. The social and persistent nature of the non-gamey aspect of MMOs has been streamlined. It’s why I’m feeling like the next “big” MMO is either going to be VR, AR, or a graphical launcher (think Steam, except your icon is also a playable character). The genre just needs to reinvent itself in a visceral way to get beyond one-upping the last trend and back to creating trends.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Part of it’s down to how long it takes to build a really good MMORRPG. When investors and publishers aren’t funding a genre for five years following a bubble collapse but its games take five years to develop, there are no games coming out for a long time. The games that are being made are smaller versions of MMOs. We’ve talked about the unbundling of MMORPGs before, and it’s basically what Andrew is talking about above me, so I won’t do that again, but that’s what we’re looking at: a bunch of MMORPG concepts, now spun out into their own limited but extremely popular genres like survival games and MOBAs, bleeding MMORPGs.

But the MMORPG players didn’t actually go away. They’re just camped out in older MMORPGs waiting. Waiting for MMOs they desperately Kickstarted to actually come to fruition. Waiting for somebody to take up the AAA MMORPG mantle again. So it’s no surprise that when a company shows up and claims to be the messiah, people are willing to follow. But of course, when that game sucks, or the monetization model sucks, or both, people just go back to the existing older MMOs that still reliably churn out content. Right now, those failed messiahs are all coming from the East, from where existing MMORPGs are being teleported across the ocean to see whether they’ll gain traction here. There are even some big-name Asian companies focused on building MMORPGs specifically for the West. But nobody, arguably save Amazon, is currently making a AAA MMORPG in the West.

Obviously there’s demand, but the question for investors and publishers is whether it’s worth the risk and money and time to try meeting that clear demand and still possibly fail (because making good MMORPGs is still hard) when they could instead chase the flavor-of-the-month and definitely make some easy cash. As we’ve written before, every industry goes through these cycles of not being willing to take risks, or rather, being willing to take only one risk over and over as the actual art shrivels up and dies beneath it and then eventually is born again. Investors and publishers do not care about art. They do not care about the genre or innovation or communities or longevity. They do not care about the dream of the Holodeck. They are here to make some money off us and flee with it the instant things might go south. And nobody runs successful MMOs that way. MMOs require nurture. Nothing planted in a broken greenhouse will survive winter.

So get comfy in the existing MMORPGs. Find a studio that actually does care about this genre, and give that studio your monthly fee because we’re gonna be here a while. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better. But it will get better.

Tell me how I'm supposed to breathe with some air.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The short answer is “yes” with a “but,” the long answer is “no” with an “although.” Unfortunately, we have only time and space for the short answer, so you’ll hopefully forgive me for just giving that. (There’s a lot to unpack here.)

See… part of the problem here is that MMOs aren’t like other video games. You don’t get 2-3 new entries in the field every year or so, you can’t just quickly pop out another one based on a similar engine. They’re not Mega Man games, in other words. You’re supposed to be playing these things for several years, at least in theory, and that’s what they’re designed around. So on that level, it’s totally understandable that studios with existing MMOs that are doing all right aren’t rushing to pump out another one.

At the same time, people are people. Some of us really crave that novelty, and that doesn’t go away just because you’re throwing your hat into a field where the games are designed to launch and run for a really long time. We all want something new sometimes, and over time the little bits of discontentment with your favorite title start to add up and feel like insurmountable problems. Sure, there’s an element of never being satisfied, but there’s also the very real problem of just wanting something new to try.

And we’re coming off of a few years in which there were new MMOs coming out on a very reliable basis, deep in the midst of finding out all of the aspects of business models that don’t work well… and so you wind up with a certain population that’s going to rush to the New Thing because it’s the New Thing, and is not going to really be heedful of any warning signs up until they become impossible to ignore. Bless Online in particular seems like a title wherein the writing was on the wall for a long period of time, but there were people with enough of an interest in “ooh, something new” that all of the warning signs got written off until they could no longer be ignored.

Of course, the follow-up part of the question is when you get into the messy stuff. “Are there fun MMOs with good graphics and fair monetization” is a question that relies on a lot of prior assumptions to answer. I can think of three off the top of my head, but in order for you to concur you have to find the same things fun that I do, enjoy the same graphics, and feel the same way about monetization.

It all speaks to a certain breed of player discontentment and search for shininess that is, sadly, too long of an answer for this format. But the short answer is that yes, there’s a hunger – but it might not be one that any developer could ever fill.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think “hungry” is an excellent word to describe the community. We are hungry for new MMORPGs, but good ones, full-fledged ones, and ones that aren’t trying to rip us off. That’s a tall order.

We’ve been hungry for a while, since WildStar launched and perhaps going back to Guild Wars 2’s launch. It’s been a long time since a western studio with big chops and a budget to match has thrown its weight behind an MMO, which has left the community without obvious candidates to anticipate. So instead, we’re getting indie MMO projects, semi-MMO titles, and eastern imports these days. None of those are bad, mind you, and it’s my great hope that we’ll see some breakout hits from those indie games, but I’d still like to see more.

Look at the gobs of money that players threw at Crowfall, Chronicles of Elyria, and Ashes of Creation during their Kickstarter campaigns. Look at the fervent hopes of Star Citizen fans that are pinning everything on this game. Yes, there is hunger.

There’s also a good indication that the online gaming genre is in transition right now and struggling to find its identity and the next big thing going forward. Virtual reality still doesn’t seem quite ready for prime time, but that’s one avenue that studios have been exploring. Figuring out monetization is key as well, because studios need the money and have to get it in a way that doesn’t make the consumer feel ripped off or abused.

Another thing that could really save and revive the MMORPG industry is for technology, such as SpatialOS, coming along to help developers to create big budget-looking MMOs without having to create the engine and infrastructure from scratch.

I think there’s a lot of exciting developments ahead and some great gaming in our future. So stay hungry, fans!

All over again.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I know I want a good, deep, immersive MMORPG virtual world, and I keep waiting, hoping, and watching the horizon. But to play devil’s advocate here, is that really what the masses want? I worry a bit that we are afflicted with the malady of our words not matching our actions. And by we, I mean the gaming populace. Yes, it seems like we all want a great MMORPG, but few — if any — of them seem to do especially well. And the folks watching the bottom line are seeing this, and perhaps surmising that no, we don’t really want MMORPGs. On top of that, all the personalization and variety in gaming is a double-edged sword: I love that folks can find what they want, but it fragments us off into much smaller groups. Developers don’t want smaller groups; they want large masses.

I’d love the answer to be for devs to just get back with the program and make the ideal MMORPG, but that definition is different for so many of us that I fear no developers will find it worthwhile. As a whole, we are a hard bunch to please, and possibly even harder to figure out.

Your turn!

newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Reader
Tithian

“Lots of people seem to be looking for an MMO they can get into – consider the rush into Bless as an example.”

Completely disagree with this. There are TONS of MMOs to get into, but people don’t pick those. I doubt people have exhausted the supply of games out there, and there is enough variety to cater to all settings, play-style and business models.

Let’s admit it, what ichi_san is referring to are not the typical MMO players, but the locusts that want a fresh game to jump into for 3 months, play it obsessively to endgame within a month from launch, and when it becomes ‘stale’ to drop and then wait for the next hotness. This is the approach people took with Bless, and it would probably be the same pattern had the game actually not been a trainwreck. And guess what, this is not a sustainable way to get decent and sustainable MMOs, and the studios know it. They simply stopped giving food to the MMO Locusts.

The crowd-funding approach might work simply because the devs have a good estimate on what their playerbase wants, as well as how many people are invested in the game, so they kinda know what to expect when it’s time for launch. If, for example, AoC is developed with a core audience of 100k players in mind, peaks at 1 million and then drops to 100k again, then no harm done really, as opposed to a studio developing for 2 million and ending up with 100k subs.

Reader
Zandohaha .

Yeah. It’s not that MMOs went away, they’ve just changed. Traditional hotbar, tab target MMOs might not be getting released. However, you have what I class as pseudo MMOs that are seeing big releases. Activision have Destiny, Ubisoft have The Division, now EA have Anthem coming up, arguably you could say that Take-Two have GTA Online too.
While they may be missing some of the “massive” part of the MMO, they still fill a lot of the same niches. Raids, Dungeons, PvP, Loot progression, XP and Levelling, Guilds/Clans and other social aspects.

Given the rise of online features in games, it is no longer just MMOs offering the social aspect to gaming. Other games and genres are incorporating certain aspects of the traditional MMO without feeling the need to make a full blown MMO with all the cost and risks associated with it.

Reader
Sally Bowls

FYI: it’s not gaming, just MMOs that have slowed down

Microsoft’s Specter: “Gaming is now at its most vibrant,” he said. “In this significant moment we are constantly challenging ourselves about where we can take gaming next.”

He said that Microsoft is recommitting and harnessing the full breath of the company to deliver on the future of play. That includes experts in Microsoft research working on developing the future of gaming AI and the company’s cloud engineers building a game streaming network.

He added that the company is also in the midst of developing the architecture for the next Xbox consoles.

This year’s E3 has been a period surprisingly engrossed in the idea of turning what once was a physical goods, retail driven industry into something more akin to Netflix. Last week, Ubisoft founder Yves Guillemot told Variety that the ability to play games on essentially anything with a display by streaming the game from a server was going to reshape the entire face of gaming.

On Saturday, Electronic Arts unveiled just such a service. While still in development, EA said their cloud gaming initiative would allow people to play high-end games on mobile phones, on smart TVs and on low-end laptops like Chromebooks.

Reader
Sally Bowls

I can’t reconcile myself to some of the references to Kickstarter money. How is it gobs of money? Ashes of *** raised $3M, which is 10% of what the CEO said it would take to make the game. If they raised $3M each and every year, they would not raise a AAA MMO budget in your lifetime. Hell, cost of AAA MMO is probably inflating enough so that they would never reach it.

Wargaming recently laid-off 150 people who were working on an unannounced MMO. Isn’t that one MMO team more, probably a lot more, than all the devs on all Kickstarted MMOs combined. A few million dollars would look nice in my personal bank account, but IMO the resources spent on crowd-funded IMO are just insignificant compared to AAA MMO budgets.

Reader
Sally Bowls

It’s not like this is new. Over five years ago, CEOs were going public with this.

https://www.polygon.com/2013/5/30/4381742/take-two-chairman-on-used-games/comment/165459037

“We’re actively investing in online and MMOs, we’re just not doing it in the U.S.” Zelnick said at the Cowen and Company Technology, Media and Telecom Conference today. “MMOs don’t work here. A couple of our competitors have found out that through very, very expensive lessons. One of our competitors just recently announced they’re restarting an MMO project.”

To support his argument, Zelnick asked, “How many MMOs have been successful in the U.S.? Two. World of Warcraft and EverQuest. Kind of a bad slugging percentage.”

Take-Two is investing in online games in Asian markets he said, where “at any given time 10 to 20 are successful in China and generating revenue.”

Reader
Nathan Aldana

For the same reason people told us singleplayer games with narrative were dead a few years back, orkonami claiming nobody wanted Castlevania games anymore.

The industry is ran by executives who only want the most profitable live service experiences with lootboxes and they convince themselves entire swathes of games “arent what the public wants anymore” because it doesnt line up with their vision for everyone just playing one live service game for years on end.

Reader
chris D

What about Runescape? Runescape came out 17 years ago in the beginning of 2001 and is still very popular with weekly updates. And now they r bringing runescape to phones because of how popular it is. If thats not a good example of “meeting player demands” then idk what is.

Reader
gritzilla

The answer is simple: Money, risk, and time.

If the MMO market has shown us anything, it’s that a AAA MMO costs alotta money, and comes with considerable risk. So many have been stillborn upon release. And those that did manage – battered and bruised – to crawl through that first year or so without folding, eventually cave to a scatalogical, overly diverse, and extremely (vitriolic) vocal customer base that each wants something a little different from their game. I often wonder how many broken minds have been spat out from failed MMO Marketing Research teams over the years, trying to make sense of their customers. You’d need to be crazy or have balls of steel to jump into the (large, AAA) MMO end of the pool. Wear a helmet.

Then there’s time. There’s just no way around it. You can’t escape it. The few that have managed to survive have so much content, that it’s warped the MMO players perceptions of how much content there needs to be in a game. You simply cannot develop enough game in ~2 years.

The solution (in my mind) is that developers choosing this market need to do the following, and never – EVER – back down. (1) Make YOUR game. Yes, I get that you have investors, I get that it’s a business; but you must understand that if you don’t deliver the game you promised – and continue to stick to your vision – we WILL turn on you. Hard. And then what? You lose customers and money. (2) Stop developing for the lowest common denominator. This genre is like 20 years old now. We know what we’re doing, and those that don’t will learn. Stop making formulaic, boring, unchallenging games. (3) Stop trying to please everyone. Stop trying to be WoW. WoW has the WoW market pretty much locked down. Surely I don’t need to remind anyone of the oldest business analogy there is: that of the buggy whip maker. (4) Build as much content as you can, get to work on that next big expansion with another big team before your game is released, AND have a team working on small bi-weekly updates – a single small dungeon here, drop an army of mobs in a place you’ve already developed, change a dungeon you’ve already developed with new mobs in different rooms, or add a boss, or change how all the bosses fight. Keep the game changing – constantly.

I dunno, I’m babbling. Could go on and on. Yet another armchair developer that has all the answers I guess.

Mewmew
Reader
Mewmew

They’re too big of an investment and too much work with a huge chance of failure still at the end. The studios would rather copy the latest trend for low investment and minimal work and hope it catches on.

There are a lot of long term MMORPGs out there that are really good right now. You can still play them. Just because they’re not brand new doesn’t take away from them, it actually makes them better in a lot of ways. Final Fantasy XIV, Elder Scrolls Online, Guild Wars 2, even some older games like Star Trek Online. There are a load of them out there for people to play still. We could go and list all the ones that still exist now somewhere and I’m sure there are a lot most people have never played. Quality games that you could experience now rather than waiting and hoping for another brand new one.

There also *have been* major new MMORPGs that came out recently such as Shroud of the Avatar. Some people seem confused and don’t even realize it’s an MMORPG for some reason (probably because it also has an offline mode but that’s a completely different character). People also aren’t flooding to the game because it’s not pretty enough for them and the systems are too confusing for the average bone head, etc. All that investment and the game isn’t that populated, the exact reason companies don’t want to take the plunge at the moment.

Big MMORPGs are such a huge investment that you have to keep supporting with a lot of money and employees afterward and there is just a huge chance they’ll flop. Not a lot of companies want to take the risk.

Reader
Drew Taylor

As someone who has been playing MMOs since EQ2’s launch, been part of the guide program and seen the rise and fall of many MMOs, the one thing it comes back to is nostalgia. The reason why this question gets asked is an attempt to recapture the amazement of that time when the MMO was still new. But here’s the rub: we have too many choices now. When WoW hit 10M subs, EQ and EQ2 were around as alternative but you only had them and Star Wars Galaxies to satiate the sci-fi fans. You really only had two companies competing (Blizzard and SOE, now Daybreak Games) in a game genre that requires large populations. With so many “fly by night” choices out there, you’re going to get low population and boredom from the players.

Think of it this way: remember when a new expansion would release? What would you do first? Power-level to the end-game content (probably took a weekend with XP potions, double XP weekend promos, and your buddies/guildies grouping up and tearing up the new stuff). Then what? You’d raid for your new gear sets. It took weeks for everyone to get it but during that time you were still working the kinks out of your raid plans and connecting with your buddies.

Now think of what happens when a bunch of new games come out? Now you have a real choice. Do you stay with the current game or leave? Most will leave. But if you’re presented with that choice multiple times consecutively, eventually by the time you come back to the original game everyone has left.

Now what? Do you stay and rebuild or leave and go somewhere else? That wasn’t an option really when you had only a few choices. Not only that but what about multiple subscriptions or Pay-to-Wins (aka F2P)? The consumer simply has too many choices for the MMO business model. It requires large concentrations of players to work. Not to mention the creators of these games need to plan for graphic updates to reflect the rapid progression in tech. Face lifts to keep things fresh are vital. This is a visual medium and CG doesn’t age gracefully. Assets are expensive but so is shutting down and consolidating servers because you don’t have enough players. Simply put, we need to pool our resources again and I really don’t see that happening when everyone is chasing nostalgic WoW money.