Vague Patch Notes: What we mean when we talk about MMO success – and failure

    
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Yesterday, aside from love being such an easy game to play, MOP’s Justin graced us with a Daily Grind asking about why it was RIFT didn’t do better. I read it and found myself nodding along, saying that the game never really did light the world on fire like its designers wanted. And then I stopped and asked myself what world I lived in where nine years of operation and three expansions for a game that’s still running counts as not doing well.

I mean, what metric could I be using there? That it failed to dwarf the juggernaut of World of Warcraft when it launched at nearly the height of that game’s power and prestige? That it has faded a bit going on nearly a decade post-launch? That it isn’t living up to what I could point to for some other second-tier games and it has languished to a certain extent under its now second publisher? These are kind of bad metrics. And the fact that they’re the first ones that come up in my mind should be an indicator that we still don’t really have good standards for judging MMO success or failure.

To a certain extent, we know what the far ends of these curves look like. It’s not hard to point to games like Black Desert, Final Fantasy XIVand The Elder Scrolls Online as successes. It’s also not hard to point to games that failed, or at least not hard to point to the idea. When was the last time you thought about games like Asta or Otherland? Memorable games that fail are unusual, though some of them (like Bless Online) fail so spectacularly they become memorable in that failure.

But there’s a lot of midspace in there. Games like RIFT that didn’t light the world on fire but still did well enough to keep steady updates for nearly a decade. That’s not failure, it’s just… not the same kind of unqualified success as our big success stories. And it’s hard not to look at that and compare the game to, say, Lord of the Rings Online, which is older and still receiving regular content updates. But even then, there’s also some back-and-forth about that title and how successful its latest ploy for “pay for content” will go over.

We don’t really have the mental architecture to deal with this aspect of MMOs.

WHAT THE NOW

The success or failure of video games in general is already sticky and hard to nail down a lot of the time. Kingdoms of Amalur, if you’ve somehow forgotten, was a massive sales success by basically every standard aside from the numbers it needed to move. A brand-new IP from an unknown studio selling 1.2 million in the first three months? That’s great. Except that the game needed around 3 million to break even, something that was basically never going to happen.

The game was a critical and commercial success, and it still resulted in the studio shutting down. By that standard it was a pretty notable failure. Of course the real problem was much more related to incompetent management, greed, and general overwhelming ambition, but that’s the whole point. Our language here is imprecise.

It gets even trickier with MMOs because our standards for the genre are often about longevity. This is kind of understandable when Ultima Online is still online and getting updates after 23 years, but it is also… well, limiting. Not every game launched an entire genre, after all.

Heck, we even have a hard time parsing shutdowns when there is some justification. City of Heroes is one of my all-time favorite games, something that basically everyone reading this is probably already well aware of. The game managed an impressive run before it shuttered despite still being profitable. Tragic? Definitely. I was even there in the protests. But is that more tragic than if the game had shut down later for lack of players?

Would it have shut down eventually from being unprofitable? For that matter, would players still be as angry about it years later if that had been what caused it to shut down? Would you really have efforts to create spiritual successors and a rogue server revival that managed to be huge news if the original game had just run out of players and been quietly shuttered?

I don’t know. I don’t really have all of the answers here. What I know is that the game was a moderate success, but it certainly wasn’t a success on the level of the games we talk about as the “big five.” But… until there were the big five, there weren’t even five. There was WoW and then there was everyone else, with a nod usually spared to UO and EverQuest as the previous definers of the MMO paradigm.

Oh, and do you need me to point out that other games were being successful when EQ was out despite not reaching its level of overall market penetration? I imagine not.

Still running.

As much as I’d like to have a pithy summary or an absolute set of laws to lay down about how to deal with all of this, I ultimately don’t. All I can do is observe that it seems up to this point we’ve generally been pretty neglectful when it comes to consideration of the wide spread between success and failure.

There are a lot of games that don’t dethrone the market leaders. That’s inevitable. And it’s tempting to think of those games as failures, since that was kind of the ideal goal; heaven knows Warhammer Online would have loved to get those subscriber numbers. But there are many games that didn’t become the new cock of the walk but still found their way to a sustainable population, and if a game has kept going for nearly a decade, I think you can usually consider it at least passingly successful.

But by contrast, you’ve got games like Champions Online. It’s been on de facto life support for ages, seeming to do just well enough that the team at Cryptic doesn’t want to shutter it but never reaching anything remotely approaching success. At best, it gets the occasional dab of content here and there. Just not enough of a failure to counterbalance Cryptic’s other successes, then… and clearly successful enough on that metric, even though it’s arguably not a success.

It’s complicated, as I said. It’s all complicated. And as much as I’d like to provide a clear-cut answer or rule about what should be done moving forward, the reality is that it’s just ultimately too complicated. There are too many variables and too much external stuff to consider.

Was RIFT a success? I’d argue so, even if it seems to be sliding into its twilight years under Gamgio quietly. But we don’t have any way to deal with games that were successful enough to have done well but not successful enough to be investments for more than a decade. We need to find some ways to acknowledge games that may be well-loved but don’t have 23 years worth of content and updates to keep putting out.

And I am certain that we’re going to keep having some issues when talking about these games until we start figuring out how to mark the differences between success and failure beyond the end points.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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