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.
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.