Massively Overthinking: Is there a ‘do or die’ moment for MMOs now?

    
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We know what we know.

This week MOP’s Eliot and I were chatting about the wild summer the MMO industry is about to have, what with a whole bunch of major titles about to drop expansions and big updates. Among them, of course, are The Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantasy XIV. “We live in a world wherein ESO and FFXIV provide the most steady and substantial regular content updates in the industry,” he joked. “This timeline is weird.”

And he’s not wrong. Final Fantasy XIV had so many problems at launch that SE took it offline for a massive do-over. And Elder Scrolls Online struggled in its adolescence too. But now? Now they both win awards and pump out content and have risen to be top MMOs in the genre. It took them a few years, but they recovered, excelled, and were rewarded by the paying MMO populace for doing so.

I’ve been wondering about what that says about the genre. We’ve long been told that games have a “make or break” “do or die” moment, but it’s early in their lifespans, right? If a game can weather its first month or first 90 days, it’ll probably be OK, but it’ll never see those initial numbers again – that’s the conventional wisdom. Apart from outliers – EVE Online, World of Warcraft, RuneScape – it’s always seemed true. But in this third decade of MMOs, I’m not so sure.

For this week’s Overthinking, I’ve asked our staff to reflect on the top games in our genre. Is there a “do or die” moment for MMOs now, or was it always bullshit? And if so, when is it?

Andy McAdams: I’m going to agree with Ben here. It will only end in tears to expect a game to be flawless out of the gate, especially as something as complex and complicated as an MMO. I think the “Do or Die” moment for games has less to do with a discrete moment in time and more about the reaction of the studio. When we look at the difference between FFXIV or ESO and say Wildstar – the difference is pretty drastic. FFXIV and ESO both actual responded to their customers feedback, show humility and actually tried to fix what was broken–and they were pretty successful. Wildstar never really had the “we dun effed up” moment. In fact, despite a fair amount of post-release negative feedback, it still doubled-down and followed a fairly steady decline. It was only after several years that Carbine finally, resentfully started to pivot — but it never really made a mea culpa speech or really did much to really drive the message of its change in focus. Thus it never really recovered and had the “hardcore cupcake” moniker until the day it died, despite being a really, really fun game.

Games have a fair number of options in today’s market. I wouldn’t say a ton of options, but definitely more than we’ve ever had before. Developer hubris (or lack thereof) is what in my mind, creates that “Do or Die” moment for the game.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): It’s never wise to expect a polished, finished MMO right out of the gate. What impresses me is if a studio weathers the initial inflated expectations, sticks to its guns, and continues to pour resources into the game over the 12-24 months post launch. If it shows me that it believes in the game and doesn’t plan to abandon it, I’m more willing to give it a fair shake. I’m always wary of studios who start laying off or shifting staff around within the first six months after launch.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I suppose I asked this question because I do think there is a do or die moment for these games, but I also think the window for that moment is moving around.

If I think back to when games like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online launched, yeah, they had a few months to prove themselves and didn’t – because people would just go back to World of Warcraft or one of the other solid first generation MMOs. Most of the top-tier MMOs right now have been running five or so years or more, and apart from themselves, the competition from other MMOs just hasn’t been as fierce. People don’t believe that “if this one sucks, there will be another one next month, so I’ll just bail” – because the trickle of MMOs has slowed down so much, plus WoW hasn’t kept the pressure up at all. It’s given games like XIV, ESO, Guild Wars 2, and Black Desert the breathing room to really ground themselves and expand, and with varying degrees of success they’ve done just that. We’re seeing the positive effects of that now, finally.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m almost entirely certain that the concept of a “make or break” moment is utter nonsense. There’s certainly demarcations one can see where a game hits a turning point point or establishes its stride, but that only ever seems to be clearly visible until some time has passed after the fact. What has always made MMOs most alluring to me is the ability for them to change, but that only comes if there’s patience, both from publishers and from players.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): A lot seems to depend on whether or not the developers communicate with the players about the issues and what they are doing to do to fix them, and whether or not players believe that the issues will actually be addressed. When the developer is in for the long haul and is actively showing (more than telling) the players that they’ve been heard, I think a game can recover. If players feel like the developer isn’t committed to making the game better, or if they feel like they are being cheated and lied to, they are going to burn the place to the ground and dance on the ashes.

I am a day-one player of No Man’s Sky, a game that promised more than it delivered at launch, and consequently suffered intense backlash and demands for refunds. Fast forward to today, and it is very different game getting a much different reception. All of the updates and additions were free, and it is much closer to what people wanted. A lot of people are giving it a second chance. I would say that Hello Games fished its game out of the toilet and made it right, and now it is reaping the rewards of doing the right thing, even if it was done late.

On the other hand, I also sometimes play Bless Online. The expectations for that game were also sky high, and people were just as bitterly disappointed, but it doesn’t look like there’s a recovery coming. There seems to be a feeling that the game has just failed and will be shut down like all the previous releases around the world, which makes people not even want to give it a chance, even when they can play it for free. People don’t trust Neowiz, and they don’t believe there’s a real commitment to fishing Bless out of the toilet.

Hey, I was there for the Anarchy Online launch, and if you told me it would still be around in 2019, I would never have believed it. Sometimes straight up miracles happen.

Tyler Edwards: Cynical answer: Games can get a second chance so long as they’re part of iconic franchises with huge funding behind them and massive brand recognition. Seriously, think about it. Both Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy are among the biggest names in gaming. They have resources most developers can only dream of, and that more than anything else is why I think their MMOs were able to turn things around.

Slightly less cynical answer: I don’t entirely buy into the idea that there’s ever a “make or break” moment in the first place. MMOs are not like most other forms of entertainment. They’re not sold as a one-off and then forgotten. They’re evolving worlds. Anyone who expects an MMO to be perfect at launch is destined to live a life of disappointment, and (almost) any game can turn around a bad situation in time, given its developers make the right decisions.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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Toy Clown

Andy McAdams spoke things that ring well with me: FFXIV and ESO are both famous for having a development team that listens to their playerbase. Not just listening to all of them, but managing to pick through the overly-vocal toxic section of gamers and listening to the ones that were a bit quieter, but had their finger on just what the problems were with an MMO.

I’m especially impressed with FFXIV’s development team led up by Yoshi-P, who is the rock star lead of MMOs in his own right: He listens, he’s empathetic, and most of all he’s passionate about what he does and it shows. That’s a big difference between someone who’s paid the big bucks to produce and someone who’s passionate about what they do.

Oddly, I never cared much for FFXIV, but it grew on me due to how much care goes into the game and that attracts players who feel the same way, which results in a stable, mostly fun player base. I’m attracted to “nice” after playing through toxic player bases that caused me to darn near hate online gaming. It’s a breath of fresh air to play ESO and FFXIV. Nothing chases me away faster than a toxic player base. It’s why even though I enjoy BDO and return to it a couple of times a year now, but I never allow myself to get involved with the player base.

I will say that I’ve got an eye on SWTOR as of current because it looks like they are starting down the road of listening. They’ve had so many set-backs plus embarrassing moves coming from the studios that back them. I’d like to see the game make a come-back. Here’s hoping!

How produces and dev teams treat their player base has a lot to do with whether I want to play an MMO or not. A dead-set stance of “it’s our way or the highway” mentality chases me away, but a game team saying, “We’d love to add this to the game, and we’re up against these challenges, but give us time, okay?” works far better with me.

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Anstalt

The do-or-die moment for MMOs is fairly large: it’s between the launch of itself and the launch of the next competitor.

From 2005-2012, that meant the do-or-die moment was pretty short, you only had a few months to launch, prove yourself and hook your playerbase before the next big thing launched. Many of us like to think that we’re careful, discerning buyers of games but in reality, the majority of the MMO playerbase is still massively swayed by advertising and so the next big thing has a big advantage in attracting new players if your launch didn’t go well.

Since 2012, MMOs have been dying. Less and less are getting made and the old ones aren’t doing well.

This is why ESO and FFXIV have managed to do well. They werent good at launch, but they’ve had basically no competition at all, so they’ve had tons of time to get better (or, in reality, more time for bored MMO players to give their games a go because there is nothing else). For example, I’ve tried both and didn’t enjoy either of them but even I have been tempted to go back to them simply because there is nothing else to play!

If the MMO industry hadn’t been shrinking/collapsing, ESO and FFXIV would have had much greater competition so it’s unlikely they’d have done as well. They still have big name IPs so would have done OK but ESO, for example, had virtually nothing in common with an Elder Scrolls game at launch and I dont think the community would have given it the time to change if there were better games out there to play.

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Kickstarter Donor
Alex Willis

The key words for the future of the MMO world: iteration, and cadence.

Iteration, because as ESO and FF14 have shown, you cannot be committed to a static or dogmatic vision of your product. You have to be nimble, and adapt to changing conditions. If it’s broke…fix it.

Cadence, because games are now turning slowly into live services, or at least active ecosystems rather than simply “a game you play online”. The pace and inflection of your content changes really matter. We may not like the demands this places on us as customers, but it does make for some compelling content sometimes. Digital Extremes has shown how exciting a game can be when you say that your game is an ecosystem, and what it might become with a release schedule that is dynamic and responsive.

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Melissa McDonald

if the current/future model is all “PvP sandbox” or “battle royal” then MMOs as we know them are dead and gone.

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nomadmorlock9

The answer to this question is evolving as well. In the past there was so much competition for your subscription that if you lost your audience, you might never recover because there were always the next launch or another game.

As the MMO space has grown smaller and even fewer launches on the horizon, players have been more willing to re-visit something they might not have in the past.

This has given both ESO and FFXIV…. really all currently running games more chances to make a first impression and retain that player looking for a solid MMO.

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PanagiotisLial1

I will be direct on that. I expect most good(fun and maybe innovative) from some specific indie devs. I dont expect perfection – I havent seen a perfect mmo in its time/era and I started online gaming in late 1997 or so – but I do expect that gives a lot of things(gameplay depth) to do instead just a pretty world, open world pvp, carebears bait and nothing else. Also ESO and XIV are those that are backed by major companies(giants in their field) and could and did turn the ship. To be fair, ESO launch wasnt that bad but there wasnt enough content and people got done in 2 months or so. On mid tier I expect games like LOTRO/STO/DDO/SWTOR/GW2 and others to continue giving us some good expansions worth playing. And yes as much as the general opinion(which was fueled by who? ever thought if that opinion was convinient for anyone?) is that mid tier population games are “failed” I can tell you that while they cant offer you graphical fidelity of the top tier they can offer you good gameplay and more creative fun. Myself I am spending more time between SotA, STO and AO with some visits to other games like ESO cause I dont have enough time for all.

If I expect any potential surprise that isnt from Amazon(personal negative feeling for it) but more from funcom future projects cause I think there are more things planned that we can tell right now. Yet funcom is a lot make-or-break projects company so I wont dwell much thinking on it.

Now to answer your question/worry a mmo/mo works differently than single player games. On launch its usually the foundation, the main skeleton of the game and from there they keep adding up content while correcting any possible small or major errors(both bugs and design failures). The important thing in this industry is to never feel “safe and eased” as a developer. You always need to improve, or else the bigger the game the harder it will fall down(due to maintainance costs, salaries etc). Its very possible to turn a very bad launch around but you got both to actively fix what was wrong, start expanding, show no sign you “abandon ship” and finally communicate the improvements on all ways possible(email every registered user a newsletter, start some ads, make a login and recruiting campaign, some contensts etc)

micedicetwice
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micedicetwice

ESO launch wasnt that bad but there wasnt enough content and people got done in 2 months or so.

Hundreds of quests, HUGE world map, dozens of dungeons, both solo and group. First trials came out with the first FREE content update that added another big zone, and the second part of it soon after. It had bugs and few quite bad gameplay decisions were made but not enough content? I call BS. Maybe it was smaller than WoW or even Lotro at that time but come on dude, those games were older and got their updates. Division was poor on content, Destiny 1 and 2 were both, but ESO wasn’t. It was huge. Two months of burning through content doesn’t say shit about content, it says only about wrongly picked playstyle, because in games like ESO it’s quite stupid to skip everything and run to endgame. It was true back then, it’s even more so now.

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drew who

I am just hoping one of the games in development like Ashes of Creation , Pantheon , Camelot unchained ,Crowfall or Star Citizen eventually release and live up to their potential .

I have my doubts about Star Citizen after following its troubled development but who knows they may eventually pull it off .

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Kickstarter Donor
Ken from Chicago

Oh, as for the main question at hand, where was the “Do or Die” moment for CITY OF HEROES? Where was it for WILDSTAR? Where is it for CHAMPIONS ONLINE? What about STAR TREK ONLINE? NEVERWINTER ONLINE? GUILD WARS? GUILD WARS 2? DCUO? EVERQUEST NEXT? ARCHE AGE? ASHES OF CREATION? SKYFORGE? etc.?

More specifically, where was their *common* “Do or die” moments where they were in the same timeframe, same condition, same reaction by audiences?

Or were there different moments for different games?

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Kickstarter Donor
Ken from Chicago

Did NO MAN’S SKY promise more than it delivered at launch or did people assume more and TPTB allow those assumptions to go unchallenged, uncorrected, to bloom and gain strength–instead of properly managing those expectations for the launch because, as is so often the case in with mmos and video games in general, the companies UNDERESTIMATED THE VALUE OF COMMUNICATION?

(Guess where I lean for the answer.)

Oh, wait, I got sidetracked, yeah, people assumed more at launch but the tiny dev team, well, one dev person up until relatively short time before launch, didn’t correct the rampant speculations. (Which happened because he / they underestimated the value of communication before launch, at launch and right after launch and instead went radio silent at the worst possible time.)

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Schmidt.Capela

It wasn’t just radio silence. When directly asked in interviews and such about the inflated player expectations Sean Murray would either refuse to correct them or even give intentionally ambiguous answers, like when he talked before launch about multiplayer. When speaking about his game and player expectations he was somewhere between deceitful and outright liar, and deserved every bit of bad publicity he reaped as a result.

While I’m distrustful by nature, with most devs I can at least trust them when they are giving specific information about features in their games. With Sean Murray I can’t trust even that, though to his credit he seems to have learned the lesson.

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Kickstarter Donor
Ken from Chicago

Oh, well if that’s the case, then that’s even worse, far, far worse than I had heard.

Staff
Mia DeSanzo

I pre-ordered the game just before launch on the advice of my nephew, and I adored it from day 1. I walked into it blind, with no preconceived notions.

Managing expectations is a hard thing, I think.

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Danny Smith

I think FFXIV and TESO chug along as the new old reliables because they are designing new content in the ethos of “hey, you know what could be fun?” and it doesn’t always hit the mark but it means you can take a long break and come back and go “what do you mean you can breed and race chocobos now?!?” or something.

Wheres games like WoW, Rift or even to a lesser extent LOTRO seem to design more around “will this be a good retention mechanic?” and that often leads to stuff just becoming dull. Games where eventually their big bads all run out but they try to pull out a new tier of villains not because of a burning desire to tell a story but because they need a reason to sell boxes and sub time.

Its part of the issue with longform persistent games really. We expect them to always add new story and new content and sometimes the developers change staff members, the writers leave, the company takes a shift for the sketch and plenty more reasons why mmo’s can eventually become “well we gotta fart somethin’ out!” design where its less experimentation and more a mad libs word replacement rework of paths well tread before just to keep the whales and ‘core heavy users’ locked in as steady income like a soulless factory production line.

Like don’t get me wrong i really don’t like FFXIV’s Eureka system but i’d rather see them try new things than WoW just doing raid or die forever and going “okay we exhausted all our villains, but we pulled a stargate season 9 and try to introduce a new power tier of villains that never existed before -shut up dont think about it- and we invalidate all previous villains by saying this was the really real threat all along and we mean it this time!” to try and wring just a bit more liquid out a very dry sponge.

K38FishTacos
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K38FishTacos

Dude, you’re comments are on fire the last couple of days.