Your mission today, should you choose to accept it, is to participate in an experiment. I want you to write up a nice long piece about all the things WildStar did that were, in fact, really good. Suggested areas of focus include the housing mechanics of the game, the art style, and the uniqueness of its combat. I assure you that at some point after posting, you will get at least one person asking the age-old question: “If it was so good, why did it die?”
All right, first you’d probably need a platform about the size of MOP here, and so it’s probably not a great experiment. But you can take my word for it.
I talked a while back about how our metrics for success vs. failure are already a bit skewed when it comes to MMOs, but this is sort of the flip side to that particular discussion. A lot of people will respond to positive talk about something that died with a question of how good it could really be if it didn’t survive. And while this is almost always a bad faith question, I think there’s something to examining it as a genuine question… because it is a good question.
Specifically, it’s a good question that’s pretty easy to answer in short order. While we’d all like to believe otherwise, success is not solely a meritocracy. Merit definitely has a place, but it is possible for you to put out a game that is objectively better in every way than another title and still fail due to the weight of franchises and expectations.
It’s not nearly as common as people would like to pretend it is, but it is possible.
So if an MMO is so good, why might it no longer be with us? Well, just off the top of my head, I can think of a bunch of reasons. Keep in mind that often several of these are co-existing in the same space, so while a game gets praise heaped upon it, it’s with the understanding that, say, it had other terrible systems and a terrible business model that crippled it. But let’s just look at some potential reasons individually…
There were major problems not generally discussed: There are heaps of praise offered for the systems I just mentioned in the opening when it comes to WildStar. You know what doesn’t tend to get praised? The endgame, the game’s gearing system, the combat balance, or the character talent/specialization system. It may very well be that while aspects A, B, and C were all really good in the game, elements D, E, and F are all so well-known to be bad that most people just don’t bother bringing them up at all.
Combat was not fun for some reason: This one comes up often enough that it deserves its own call-out. As I’ve talked about before, we fans can be violent little monsters, and sometimes unfun combat can be enough to cripple the heck out of a game right from the start. Why it’s not fun can vary a lot; sometimes abilities just aren’t interesting, sometimes the flow is poorly managed, sometimes it’s just not explained well.
This doesn’t usually mean that no one liked the combat; after all, I’ve found myself able to have fun in Star Trek Online’s ground combat, the element of the game that even the designers regard with a certain amount of grimacing obligation. It just means that the combat, as a whole, had some issues that made it less than popular.
There were business antics crippling it: City of Heroes was making money for itself. What it wasn’t doing was stacking up to what NCsoft wanted and funding more of the MMO division, or Paragon Studios’ other projects, or maybe both. We’ll never know the whole story there, but we do know that the game didn’t shut down because it just wasn’t making any money and no one wanted to play it.
The game was managed terribly: Sometimes you can have a game that seems like an absolute slam-dunk being managed by people who have no business being in charge of an MMO. There are live games we can all think of being managed by people who don’t have half a notion of what they’ve got. With insufficient advertising, a bad business model, bad content delivery plans, or all of the above… well, it’s easy to take an otherwise promising game and turn it into an absolute mess.
Money ran out and so did content: I tend to think of this as the Funcom Problem – a promising title is made with promises of more content, the game isn’t immediately a big hit, money almost immediately dries up and thus the development budget is slashed. Suddenly, an otherwise all right title suffers from the fact that it just isn’t getting any sort of updates, crippling it right out of the gate and often leading to more players leaving. Which, in turn, cuts revenue more…
Licensing issues: I’ve talked about this a bit when talking about the pitfalls of IP-licensed games, but let’s not forget that at least one well-known and loved game wound up flatlining chiefly because the owners of the license didn’t want it to keep going and priced it into oblivion.
Lack of awareness: No one can play a game that no one knows about in the first place. This is highly variable, like all things, but a lack of proper advertising or push to get people interested and invested in a game can be incredibly destructive. After all, a game that has great crafting and combat but has insufficient players is by definition a failure of a title. You need that awareness.
And this isn’t by far a list of every conceivable reason why a game can fail that doesn’t take away from quality. I am sure that people in the comments will come up with other things that I didn’t, or refine these ideas into subsets, or otherwise show that there’s a lot of space to subdivide and narrow in on what makes a given game into a failure.
The point here wasn’t to provide an objective and all-encompassing list because that is difficult to impossible. Heck, it’s hard to narrow down to just one or two reasons even for games we know that managed to fail pretty spectacularly. These things even cover games that might not be all that good otherwise. (I’m hard-pressed to see much positive to be said about Shroud of the Avatar, and that game has definitely suffered from severe mismanagement.)
The point, rather, is to narrow in on the answer to the initial question. If this game was so good, why wasn’t it a success?
The answer, then? Because there are lots of reasons a game can fail that have not much to do with specific quality. It’s possible for a game to have amazing combat that’s entirely fair for people to talk about with an air of praise and amazement even as the game itself floundered and never got much mainstream success. It might even not have deserved big success. But there’s not a pure connection of merit to overall success and financial impact.