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

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

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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Adam Russell

Id say a game is a success if it makes enough money to fund expansions.

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Ixax

The Company, team, or person that made a game might be successful. This is because when people ask this question they are asking an economic question. The game is a product and when asking whether a product is successful people are asking a noneconomic question. They are asking whether the product is good or not, capable to doing what it should or not. This is an issue of intent more than an issue of language; meaning that it isn’t critical whether one calls the product successful or not as long as one maintains a proper understanding of the criteria under discussion. Losing that clarity results in a significant portion of the confusion discussed in the article.

One might say that the Coca-Cola company is successful because they sell a lot of product, they make money. One might say that the soda itself is good, it tastes good, it satisfies. Those two things are different and should remain different. A successful company is likely selling a good product, but a good product is not enough to make a successful company. The management of the company will have an impact such that some company’s with good products fail and some company’s with problematic products survive.

A number of difficulties with determining whether a MMO was successful arise from the failure to differentiate between the game and the company. In my experience, maintaining clarity of this distinction makes all the difference in being able to discuss this issue. The distinction makes it easier to keep an eye on the relevant benchmarks and to identify the important thresholds.

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Does not check email

Success is a state and elusive/fleeting quickly.

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Brazen Bondar

Well written. I think players and developers need to be more realistic about a game’s potential audience and stop trying to please all aspects of the gaming audience in every single game. Let there be niche games! Does every game have to rake in millions or is it ok for the game to make its development investment back and continue to carry itself financially without a huge profit? Would that be so terrible? If the game is in the black and enough players still enjoy it then that should be enough to be a success.

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Utakata

My view on this matter is rather simple: A MMO’s failure is when it shuts down indefinitely. All others are a success, but only in degrees.

…of course, the shut down of CoH and SWG throws a monkey wrench into that. So I would like to amend that to, justifiably shuts down. Plus, the afterlife of their respective emu’s demonstrates how unjustifiable those shut down where (and yes, and a good litmus test to their respective success as well).

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Anstalt

From my point of view (a consumer), there are three important metrics for success:

1) Is it fun to play?

2) Are there enough active players on my server?

3) Is there lots to do?

I couldn’t care less about critical success, i.e. review scores, as it’s extremely rare that journalists have the same goals as me, so reviews are only useful in exposing details rather than ratings. Some of the MMOs with the best critical success have been pretty big failures, further exposing the meaninglessness of review scores.

I don’t care much about commercial success, except that it feeds back into the studios ability to support the game. However, even when a game is a commercial success, expansions almost always seem to take the game further away from what I enjoy so it’s almost inevitable that a game will lose me after a while. Plus, commercial success doesn’t mean that the money will be invested back into the game, sometimes it is just pocketed by the studio / publisher or invested into the next project instead.

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Ken from Chicago

Yeah, I agree. I think a big part of mmo success is expectations and “buzz”. A small indie game has lower expectations to meet vs something from a major publisher or dev.

Also, if a game is getting a lot media coverage or word of mouth coverage, from, say innovative marketing and/or gameplay (eg, Wildstar’s pre-launch dev videos about housing and “paths”, City of Heroes’ “spiritual successors”, superheroes on a space ship, noncombat mmo, scifi mmos, etc.).

A modest game, doing reasonably well, not face planting but not taking the world by storm, making a reasonable profit with a modest playerbase? Not a “failure” but isn’t “buzzy” enough to be immediately thought of as a “success” (eg, Neverwinter Online).

I think NWO’s sister mmo might have snuck into success category, Star Trek Online. Aside from controversial lockboxes, it’s past a decade old and gets buzz from tie-ins with new Star Trek tv shows. Another might be No Man’s Sky.

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Ironwu

There are certainly MMOs that have gone that I completely blame the publishers for their ‘failure’. City of Heroes, Warhammer Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and others I cannot remember. These games could have thrived if the publishers had backed them through the tough times and/or had not insisted on game destroying modifications.

On the other hand, games that should have been great but that were destroyed by their developers are there as well. One of the most notable of those certainly has to be Wildstar. Those developers were so tone deaf to what the vast majority of subscribers wanted, even needed, that game to provide simply doomed it from the start.

Success is many different things to people. But I don’t think one can put down a metric that defines it for all games and for all people. I would maintain that all these ‘canceled’ MMOs that still have thriving ‘rogue’ communities would argue that they are more of a success than many currently running games.

Sixuality
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Sixuality

One metric I’m happy to use is expectation vs reality. Bioware/EA never came out and said they wanted SWTOR to do WoW numbers – not in so many words – but they didn’t set out to spend 300 million dollars on an also-ran, and SWTOR’s ignominious conversion to F2P within a year of launch and waves of server mergers, followed by years of desultory updates, is something I’d readily class as a failure. Sure, the game has made money for EA, but you just know it’s nowhere near the kind of money they wanted it to make.

For those games that aren’t seen as looking to rival WoW I think the bar is set lower – putting out a good update from time to time and keeping the lights on is an achievement in itself.

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Ken from Chicago

Yes, I recall they were saying they were expecting to launch with 2-3 million by the first month in sub only at a time when F2P was on the rise. And it launched I think around 1.5 million, which would otherwise had been viewed as a “success”–except EA had set expectations higher. About 6-12 months later it added F2P, but infamously was charging you for inventory slots and UI elements.

Despite awesome cinematics that surpassed the then Star Wars metrics, The Prequels, the game struggled and lost most of the buzz around it.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

I think it was more when us players watched the founders/creators both ‘get out of dodge’/take their money with them which saw it’s first dry spell. When the people with the money backing leave, it’s not a good sign. Then having it go f2p kinda doubled down on that, and it struggled for awhile. It did manage to get back into sustainable territory, but I’m wary of calling that thing a ‘success’.

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mysecretid

Insightful article, which articulates a lot of ambient ideas and questions which have needed better articulation for a while. Thank you!

Game assessment can be so subjective, and so prone to “groupthink”, it sometimes feels impossible to separate opinions from actual details.

Add to the fact that there always seems to be an over-loud minority of gamers who employ, shall we say, the “DJT Presidential Method” of game assessment: yell your opinions on a game loudly and often; ignore verifiable facts if they don’t match your opinions; and attack anyone who disagrees with you, and likes something you don’t like, or vice-versa.

My point being, I agree with you, Eliot — the are so many conflicting metrics for determining whether a game is “successful” or not, and quite a lot of them contradict one another.