Vague Patch Notes: MMO sunsets and the myth of meritocracy

    
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Elegy.

A few weeks back, I talked about why a given MMO might have failed even when it possessed good qualities. It was a response to something that I see get passed around a lot any time a given game sunsets or winds up in a half-alive maintenance mode. And clearly I was being some kind of predictive wizard with that, as last week saw the sudden and rather brutal shuttering of four separate games (Eden Eternal, Twin Saga, Defiance, and Defiance 2050) along with the end of a reboot effort for another (Anthem).

And predictably, people came out of the woodwork to explain how if these games had really mattered or been loved they wouldn’t be shutting down in the first place. No surprises there.

One of the things I mentioned in that first piece was how this sort of clarion call is nearly always a bad-faith criticism, but today I want to take on the same basic problem from the other side. I don’t want to examine why a game could shut down without the problem being “the game was bad,” but rather I want to look at why there is this assumption that no one played the game or even just that the players fell below some vital critical mass to justify the continued effort.

Now, at face value, you can probably tell for yourself this is wrong. But consider this, if necessary. The core conceit I saw put forth, for example, was that if nearly as many people cared about Anthem when it was running as when it got the reboot shut down, the reboot project wouldn’t have been shut down.

Except that’s ignoring the fact that the number of people who were invested in the project up to that point clearly justified a year or more of work by a reasonably sized team of developers to reboot the game, work that wasn’t going on in secret or in addition to other projects. This work was largely done out in the open, the people in charge knew what these people were working on, and it was decided that keeping Team Anthem working on this project was a productive use of resources for quite a while.

And then it got shut down because it would have needed to pull resources from elsewhere to justify an arbitrary deadline, and the people signing the checks decided that now was the time to pull the plug. That’s all it comes down to.

You might wonder why that happened. Keep that wondering in mind. We’re going somewhere with this; for now, stick a pin in it.

I'm sorry this is the only long-form article you're likely to get, Twin Saga.

When you get to smaller games that are being shuttered, there are fundamentally two reasons to ask whether or not anyone cares. The first reason is a genuine good-faith or at least minimally bad-faith argument put forth by people who simply don’t know anyone who’s into the title in the first place. It’s really easy to assume that Twin Saga was floundering without players because, well, you don’t know anyone who plays it and so it must not have had much of a playerbase.

But even that elides the fact that your knowledge of the MMO sphere does not equal the entirety of what it encompasses. I could argue that I don’t personally know anyone who’s very happy with retail World of Warcraft at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people happy with it. This is why I spend a lot of time searching down information from a wide variety of sources to make sure that I know more than just my own limited perspective and still assume that my perspective is limited.

Yet that’s fundamentally a problem of ignorance. The other reason to ask why to care is more insidious and far more destructive. It assumes that MMO development and success is a pure meritocracy, wherein all of the best projects get the best people and the worse projects get progressively worse people. Failure, in this conception, is not only predictable but almost justified as an outgrowth of having a lower-tier team working on the project in the first place.

It’s an attractive view that assumes success is an outgrowth of skill and thus altogether deserved. And it only has the slight problem of being absolute nonsense with no resemblance to the real world in any way, shape, or form.

Ooh, it's meat time.

You know what game I don’t care about in the least? Star Wars Galaxies. Absolutely nothing I’ve ever heard about that game or seen about it makes me even remotely interested in playing it. But that doesn’t mean the game’s official shutdown was somehow justified by my apathy toward it.

This was a game that did have fans who loved the heck out of it, even after the NGE. It was a game that had a vibrant and active player community. It was shut down solely because the licensing fee for it was jacked up to unreasonable levels to “clear the board” for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Period end. There was no meritocracy in play here.

But for some people, it needs to be merited. There’s this strange obsession with the idea that all of this must be justified, that a game shutting down must come about because it somehow “deserved” this facet, because what’s the alternative? That all of this is being made in service to the whims of a system that has a very different set of priorities than you do?

Gosh, if that were the case, your favorite game or games might be subject to a shutdown for arbitrary reasons just like the games you don’t care about, and the only thing that’s keeping them running are whims and what the budget looks like on the balance sheet. It’s possible for a game to have a solid fanbase willing to overlook its flaws, a reboot plan on the table that would work, and for someone in charge to decide that it’s just going to cost too much money, making all the time spent working on that reboot plan a complete waste because it’s getting thrown out.

And that is… kind of scary! It’s not exactly heartening to think that WoW, for example, continues running because of ontological inertia and that people currently busy running the game to the consternation of players are being checked on by people who don’t care if players are unhappy so long as the game meets its financial targets. Heck, that’d mean that it’s possible for things to be successful or fail entirely separate of their artistic merits.

A belief in meritocracy when it comes to the survival online games is far more comforting. It’s much more pleasant to pretend that Anthem just didn’t have the support it needed from players and thus the real problem is that people who are missing it now didn’t give enough Support Energy or whatever, so it failed. That’s way better than seeing issues with an underlying system or leadership that may not be something you can actually control one way or the other.

It’s a nice fiction to believe in. But it is a fiction, and it serves only to demoralize and marginalize actual developers doing hard work to improve games by blaming them for shutdowns that they likely worked like mad to avert.

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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aleccia_rosewater

maybe there would be fewer sunsets if there were fewer games to begin with?

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Bruno Brito

Eh…not really?

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Brack Carmony

I feel like there is a difference in the usage of the word ‘Deserves’ here. When someone says that there are rational reasons for a game’s failures, that is not to lay blame on a particular party. If people see a game’s dropping subscription base, that does not mean that it is instantly because of X or Y factor. But when people embark to make a game, they need to know what the rules of the game are. Making a self-funded game is going to give you different benefits and hazards than going through an established publisher.

The selection of funding is part of market meritocracy at work. Even as consumers we are playing a part in the meritocracy. The types of games we choose to play, whether we get info from established companies paid to write articles, or personal bloggers, or streamers, or just clicking on random ads. All of those small decisions we make are factoring into the entire economic process. I’ve stopped following the hype machines of large publishers, they tend to be massive disappointments, instead, I try to follow specific gamers or developers that focus on the games I’m interested in.

There are thousands of ways for a company to do things that are factors that lead to their success or demise, some of those can be moral or immoral, but most are amoral. There’s no inherent moral reason that a 5% return on investment should be treated as the minimum viable investment for your investors. Or that you opt to give a 10% pay cut to all your employees to stay afloat. Or that you chose to develop an in-house graphics engine. Or that you streamlined your combat system to the point of making it unfun for your original audience. Or that you went with a Zombie game just before The Walking Dead became a hit.

So when we say something is deserved, that is not to say it out of glee or self-righteous indignation. It’s just that there are rational reasons that would cause people to cancel working on the project. Just because the decision doesn’t seem rational to you, doesn’t mean it’s not rational by their own judgment.

No developers of failed games are not bad people, they aren’t even necessarily bad developers/game makers. They just made bad business decisions. Usually, over-promising, or underestimating difficulties, and while many of those decisions have huge question marks over their effect, it doesn’t mean they didn’t make those decisions.

Now if you want to use these examples as a reason to suggest more investment of fans into indie titles, I can agree, but it’s not like those aren’t ladened with their own tragic cases.

If we want to use it as justification to create new sorts of IP rights for abandoned games, similar to the mechanical licenses for music, then great. It’d be awesome if there was some way for people to collectively power a CoH server with protection being applied to both parties.

I’m all for companies trying new ways of organizing themselves. But it needs to be a movement started from the people forming those companies, not just for some third-party observer with no real skin in the game.

But let’s be real, the real reason this article exists is probably that you needed an article to post. A handful of examples, some generic stabs against everyone’s favorite punching bag (greedy capitalist corporate types), and you’re off to the races.

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Arktouros

A handful of examples, some generic stabs against everyone’s favorite punching bag (greedy capitalist corporate types), and you’re off to the races.

Reporting in :)

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Zandohaha .

“If people see a game’s dropping subscription base, that does not mean that it is instantly because of X or Y factor.”

Lots of people need to think this way though.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article about a game shutting down without going to the comments section and seeing a disgruntled former player blaming the failure of the game on lazy, incompetent developers who “didn’t listen to the playerbase”. Even though listening to the playerbase too much is almost always a terrible idea.

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Ardra Diva

if you’ve got an HDR 4K set you probably already know that sunsets have never looked better than they do in Dolby Vision. Would like to see HDR support in my MMOs as well.

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William Sims Bainbridge

MMOs with serious cultural value should be preserved in a virtual museum, no longer commercial but belonging to everyone. Today, anyone can play the original 1982 Hobbit game online. In 2010 Rumilisoun published “Rebirth of Worlds,” in the computer magazine Communications of the ACM, advocating “Build a digital library of pioneering virtual worlds as a living laboratory of history and social science.” Now having reached 925 hours, she is my main-main in Lord of the Rings Online. Defiance is worth preserving, as Fallen Earth would be if it does not spontaneously revive. I would add some unpopular MMOs with interesting content, like Gods and Heroes set in ancient Rome. Is everybody aware that A Tale in the Desert, set in ancient Egypt, still survives with a marvelous community of under a thousand players? MMOs are not just a business, but an artform and an important part of history. A new law should end the copyright for an MMO that is no longer supported, also requiring its software and data to be archived in a government agency or non-profit organization. Oh, here’s Rumilisoun…

Rumilisoun.jpg
Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

MADE is the museum you’re looking for, when it recorporealizes post-COVID. The big publishers (read: corporate political donors) fight every DMCA exemption granted to preservationists. The last time, the ESA attacked academics and accused them of just wanting to play dead games instead of preserving them. As if that would be a bad thing in the first place. The ESA is bad.

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Schmidt.Capela

One interesting example of how wrong the assumption that the best team with a higher budget always achieves more success is the comparison between two of Disney’s animated movies, The Lion King and Pocahontas.

The two were developed at the same time, but Disney employees believed Pocahontas would be by far the most successful of the pair; it was, after all, based on a beloved American tale, while The Lion King was an original story with Africa as the backdrop. Most people who got a choice of which project to work on chose Pocahontas; as a result, Pocahontas got the first pick of company talent, higher budget, more promotional tie-ins, higher marketing budget, and opened in far more screens. The Lion King, while still having Disney production values, had far less company support.

Long story short, The Lion King performed almost 3x better at the box office.

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Ardra Diva

that’s entirely based on the script. The Lion King was fun for everybody, whereas Pocahontas was preachy and finger-pointing.

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Bryan Correll

You know what game I don’t care about in the least? Star Wars Galaxies.

Careful. Bree knows where you live.

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Arktouros

This is a really weird take all around because it’s taking an argument for a specific scenario and applying it to all games that have shut down. Like obviously games have shut down for other reasons beyond “no one played the game or even just that the players fell below some vital critical mass to justify the continued effort” Even if we ignore the case of SWG as you mentioned we can also look at COH/V as another classic example of a game who shut down despite all reports saying they had a fairly healthy and profitable population.

However, you can’t really make that kind of argument when we’re talking about a game like Defiance which according to Gamigo, “We concluded that both games could no longer sustain themselves.” That isn’t some mystery case like COH/V or bad faith argument. It’s taking the company’s own words to show no one played the game and they quite literally fell below some vital critical mass to justified the continued effort.

In the case of Anthem, it’s absolutely reasonable to argue that because people have abandoned the title that it’s no longer worth continue working on overhauling it. Most people take this argument extremely personally for some reason rather than the logical conclusion to a series of actions and reactions. Game company fucked up released a bad game. Players walked away. Game company says they’ll fix the game. Game company runs into issues, re-examines scenario and says they can’t justify continuing and stops. The game company fucked up first, sure, no arguments on that point but we can’t ignore our reaction was to abandon the game. That’s also perfectly fine, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t bemoan something you walked away from went away. Well I mean, you can, but why would you? You didn’t like it enough that you walked away from it, what makes you think you would have liked the revision? It’s just weird.

The rest, I dunno, obviously most businesses have an entirely different agenda than I do as a customer who enjoys their products. We see this all the time in products where companies have business models that people rail against like loot boxes and other predatory schemes that are designed to take advantage of their customers. These immensely unpopular designs remain in place simply because of their immense profitability and players willingness to participate in them. So even in business models that games that are open/successful we have examples of all that matters is “what the budget looks like on the balance sheet.” Therefore we can apply that same concept towards failing games and see had players supported them with time and had players financially supported them those games likely would remain open regardless of whether or not they liked or disliked them.

That’s the biz, baby *fingerguns*

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Zandohaha .

“Game company fucked up released a bad game. Players walked away.”

But this is kind of the point he is making. This statement isn’t always correct.
Just because people stop playing a game doesn’t mean it’s “bad”. Gamers are incredibly fickle and have proven to be so with consistency.

I dunno, your mentality is weird to me. It’s one I see commonly among MMO gamers but your standpoint is assuming that players *should* play a game until the heat death of the universe and if they don’t then they don’t like the game. If you ever stop playing a game it’s because you now think it’s bad.

“You didn’t like it enough that you walked away from it, what makes you think you would have liked the revision?”

You can like a game and also not want to play it anymore for the time being whilst still being interested in future updates. This is normal. This is the majority. It’s bizarre to me that MMO gamers regularly get this concept so incredibly backwards.

It’s also quite common to play a game and see potential whilst also realising that the game is currently a bit limited and needs more development.

What sort of binary, absolute mentality are you working under that people either keep playing a game permanently, or, they stop and at that point completely hate that game and have zero desire to ever return to it in the future?

Also, in terms of “pReDaToRy” things (stop trotting out this tired phrase, it’s tedious). Again, don’t conflate a minority of incredibly vocal, anti-industry whiners on the Internet who go berserk about everything, with some sort of majority. The majority don’t care about those things.

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Ironwu

“… the only thing that’s keeping them running are whims and what the budget looks like on the balance sheet…”

I think this covers the whole issue in a single statement. I look at NCSoft and its treatment of CoH/CoV and see everything about corporations that simply don’t care about their customers.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Ahhhh here we go. CoX was killed because it wasn’t making NCSoft enough money and not that Paragon was playing fast and loose with the money they were paid to maintain CoX.

Sometimes good games are killed for reasons other than finances. Arguably the studio should have been fired (and criminal charges filed) and a new studio found to continue but that’s not how NCSoft operates. I do think they realize their error there and that’s why Carbine was given far too many chances to turn things around. Similar issue with ANet but at least that situation was salvageable.

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Arktouros

Isn’t a game not making NCSoft enough money a financial reason or did you type that wrong?

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

Plasma thought Ironwu was saying NCsoft canned CoH because it wasn’t making enough money. But Plasma was saying that on the contrary, it’s slowly become evident that NCsoft canned Paragon and CoH because Paragon was apparently told to stop working on that second secret game and didn’t, thereby wasting CoH’s substantial profits and causing the trainwreck.

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Ironwu

I can see why NCSoft might want to shed themselves of Paragon. But why shut down the game? It is obvious that Paragon was not actually needed to continue supporting and expanding the game.

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

Well, fwiw I don’t entirely buy that exact theory because I don’t think NCsoft would’ve entertained buyout bids as it apparently did, and also I suspect the NCsoft Korea corporate infighting and tax situation at the time factor in too. But either way, I doubt that the game would’ve had much success if NCsoft nuked the entirety of Paragon and dumped a game nobody left understood on NCsoft West. And Anet was on the eve of launching GW2. I disagree with the idea that another studio could’ve just taken it over or that Paragon wasn’t essential.

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Arktouros

Would you have to nuke the entirety of Paragon or just the management? Like if you expect them to deliver a game update and instead they don’t cause they were spending all their time on another game you’d think you could just replace those individuals who are doing that.

This is why I like my theory regarding the studio not hitting it’s ROI made it vulnerable to shut down even if it was “profitable.” If you mix in devs not doing what their job is may be just way easier to just drop the whole thing entirely.

Bree Royce
Staff
Bree Royce

What we know about the company’s finances suggest that wasn’t the problem, though. It had long since recouped its initial R&D costs (the game had run for over eight years at the time) and was an easy money printer. Also, they were pumping out kind of a lot of content – the money-making kind, like paid powersets – the year they got nuked. It’s not like CoH was abandoned for game #2. That’s why it was such a shock.

But yeah, I think there’s a lot more to it than “NCsoft got mad” or “but money.”

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Arktouros

The big thing I’ve learned working for a corporation is that profitability is 100% not enough. Just because something is making money at a certain point isn’t enough to justify keeping it going. It’s about how much money you could be making if you were able to take the funding for that department and put it somewhere else instead. Like even if the initial investment was all paid off there’s still costs associated with keeping things going. It’s still really weird to just axe something like that for sure, but anytime I’ve seen something like this where it doesn’t make sense it almost always invariably comes back to someone thought they could get more bang for their buck elsewhere.

If Paragon was indeed working on something else and not generating enough paid content (as you say, for sale power sets) as expected then that just makes that return on investment look even worse and even more ripe for replacement.

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

Which falls apart because that’s not what NCsoft then did. The owners were too busy infighting and scoring tax writeoffs.

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Arktouros

I dunno, I admit I haven’t followed up with what happened after but seems like something no one would publicly really hear about. Not like you say you’re shutting down a game then also publicly say you’re diverting all the funding to this other project instead.

However I also 100% admit my bias here and on this topic that I’ve worked in a corporation for so long that it’s hard not to see the basic corp greed angle as the default one. What most people seem love attributing to malice and stupidity are often times just the most logical route forward when you consider profitability (even if on the surface most people can’t understand it).

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Ironwu

Homecoming proves that Paragon was not essential and that the game could have continued with minimal effort on the part of NCSoft.

Bree Royce
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Bree Royce

Honestly, I don’t think this flies. Homecoming (and the other servers) have now been up for two years, if you don’t count the seven years of development under Score – that wasn’t done overnight with “minimal effort.” And while I’m personally pleased with the amount of content these servers have been able to put out on volunteers and donations (I am currently playing, even), it’s nothing compared to what a properly paid and outfitted dev team can do, and that’s what we’d expect from a professional company. Heck, it’s taken NCsoft two years and the licensing for HC still isn’t done. There is absolutely no way they’d have been able to switch gears and not have it be a trainwreck.

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Ken from Chicago

I still never understood why if NCSoft didn’t want COH, why not sell it–or license it. They could have easily indemnified themselves. If they were worried about it taking players from its other games, why not get new management and crack the whip.

Sigh.

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Bruno Brito

Do any company even does that? Like, i would love it, but it never seems to happen.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

In terms of MMOs changing ownership. It has happened. Technically SOE to Daybreak, Trion to Gamigo, PotBS to a player group. I’m sure there’s a few others I’m forgetting about. I think the simple reason many of them don’t sell a particular game off to someone else is the effort required and the legality of it. Even with Daybreak’s current situation, they had to break down into individual studios as separate entities.

Part of this can also be explained by the reasons why server code just isn’t handed out or offline versions made of games that are going to sunset. Having been involved in forum discussions for several games in the past, the gist I gathered was that the biggest factor preventing these games from living on offline or through another owner were legal and licensing issues. Is the game engine licensed? What was the specifics of the contract for the music in the game? Is the physical server code proprietary (both the servers that the game runs on and for the player log-in DB). Needless to say, there seems to be a lot of legal muck that has to be slogged through in order for an MMO to change hands, let alone be developed for an offline mode. The efforts to do so, as much as we would like to see them happen, just don’t make it feasible for the company to actually attempt.

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Bruno Brito

But i’m not talking about overtakings or bankrupcies. I’m talking about a company actively looking to a team of passionate developers and giving/selling them the reins of the game. The only game i know of that had this happening is Neocron.

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Zandohaha .

Onboarding and getting a whole fresh team up to speed is not as easy as you seem to think it is.

At that point they have the important question to ask “why should we put that team on project X instead of project Y or Z”. Not every project can win. City of Heroes didn’t.

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styopa

What?
That is a …rather tangled, definitely belabored rationalization.

Yes, I guess(?) it’s conceivable that games rise and fall on things other than their merits.

But not likely, unless you discount that “own merits” has second- and third-order impacts.

It’s not super complicated; the basic principles are laid out in several very good books by Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, and Thomas Sowell.

Person A wants to make some money. (Whether ‘A’ is a person or a vast corporation is irrelevant to this model.) To do this, they
Think up something people want.
Make that thing and offer it for sale.
If the public likes it and buys it (assuming the price is calculated correctly including externalities), Person A continues to make that thing to continue to make more money.
If the public doesn’t like that thing at the price offered, Person A can either a) lower their price as long as their net profit is positive, or b) stop making that thing and make something else with the opportunity costs.

That’s it. It’s really quite clear.
Now, in the real world there are factors of imperfect information and – what you seem to be running aground on? – time lag.
See, costs are largely predictable. I have X employees making Y wage over Z time, that cost is easily calculable for any future point in time. (Same with rent, cost of production, etc.) More importantly, those costs are long term and often locked in through things like employment contracts.
But customers…ah, they’re fickle. They come and go, unless you can cagily lock them into long term contracts. So there one needs estimates. The person running the business is essentially educated-guessing at what demand will be over the cost-timespans that the owner is locked into.
Given that they don’t share this information with consumers nor even bloggers, I guess this can give results that seem arbitrary?

Here’s an example:
Let’s say we have a moderately successful game that’s barely making a profit.*

*note: IRL “making a profit” generally ISN’T ENOUGH. You may have VC investment that INSISTS on a 7% return or whatever on their investment, meaning a net profit of 7% is “just breaking even” in this context.

If, looking at our employment contracts, energy prices, lease rates, etc we see our costs rising steadily at 3% annually. If we don’t see player growth predictably growing at 3% as well, we’d be idiots NOT to shut the business down. EVEN though the business is ostensibly making money, and may be reasonably popular.

Is this ‘arbitrary’? Not hardly. And yes, there are all sorts of externalities (as you mention, licensing fees are a big one, if you’re dumb enough to base your product on someone else’s IP – but then, doing that concomitantly also gave you presumably access to a chunk of ready-made consumers as well) but cogently thinking through those sorts of externalities is something a reasonable consumer SHOULD be doing, if it really matters that much to them.

I do weep for the lack of economic fundamentals in our secondary education system.

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Schmidt.Capela

This is a good description for your run-of-the-mill products.

It often fails in spectacular fashion when applied to artistic endeavors, though, including games, because you have to predict not just customer demand, but also customer taste. Which is why big studios get formulaic so often; lack of innovation cause issues but reduces a lot the risk of the new product iteration failing to please customers.

(The same lack of predictability plagues startups, mind, including those that have nothing to do with art; even the best team with ample funding will fail more often than not when the task at hand is developing a brand new business model or a new product unmoored on the current market offerings.)

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Zandohaha .

Also market share with games.

No economics text book would have laid out a formula for the developers of Valheim to predict that their game was going to explode. It’s a lot of intangible, external factors and not every game can do that. You are making something to the best of your ability and hoping that it catches on, but it’s not guaranteed to and just because it doesn’t, does not make it a bad game.

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Zandohaha .

Get off your high horse and stop being so arrogant.

Real world scenarios are not as cut and dry as your economics text books have lead you to believe.

None of what you say is relevant in regards to the merits of a game as both a piece of art and a piece of entertainment and that is largely what the article is trying to convey rather than the ability of a company to successfully run a business. Maybe try and understand the initial point before condescending people.

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Ken from Chicago

“Eliot, you’re a wizard.” 👍😀

Also brave as all get out. I would be a bit more … diplomatic … about one of my boss’ favorite games.

That said, without sufficient evidence to the contrary, and sometimes despite considerable evidence to the contrary, humans favor a world that justifies their POV, themselves and their place in the world. Even if that world is virtual. 👍