Working As Intended: Brute-forcing the MMO industry

    
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If you’re a music fan, and you probably are since you’re a human, you’ve probably come to grips with the sense that somehow the music you grew up with felt different, maybe even better, than modern music. It’s tempting to bin those suspicions under nostalgia. But a few years ago, I watched the Thoughty2 video on the decline of pop music, along with around 11M of you, and it changed the way I think about music and the way artforms are shaped by industry – and that, in turn, applies to MMORPGs and specifically to New World.

Hang with me here:¬†Thoughty2’s video points to academic research that suggests pop music has seen a dramatic change in harmonic complexity, timbral diversity, dynamic range, instrumentation, depth of sound, experimentation, and lyric intricacy over the last few decades, all for the worse; consequently, popular music is becoming ever more homogenized with the same instruments, chord progressions, volume, and patterns keyed up to sound familiar to the point that they are literally, well, samey.

There are several interconnected reasons for the shift, including the fact that charting pop music is often written by the same handful of people, but the real thesis is that how we are selecting industry winners has changed. Where once radio DJs drove song play and album sales rose and fell based on whether the audience actually liked the songs, now the industry is brute-forcing winners, picking for us which songs we’re going to hear, which songs become familiar, which songs we think we like, which artists we get to follow.

In other words, rather than risk millions of dollars signing musical acts that may not take off, record studios instead pick a pretty face and promote the hell out of it, taking advantage of the “mere-exposure” effect by which we grow fond of things we encounter frequently.

“Instead of allowing the public to grow to like an artist and then make their own mind up about the quality of their music, the industry now simply makes you like the music, thus removing all the financial risk. […] Have you ever noticed how ‘that’ popular new song seems to follow you around everywhere you go? It’s on every single radio station, it’s played in your favorite stores, the supermarket, all over the internet, even in the latest Hollywood movies and popular TV shows. This is no coincidence. What that is, in fact, is the record label’s $3M making sure that that new single is quite literally everywhere, completely inescapable. You will hear it whether you want to or not. […] We all have different musical tastes, but they are sadly being overridden, diluted, and emulsified by the brainwashing activities of big record labels, the repeated and constant exposure to manufactured songs that we’ve heard a hundred times before.”

Now, this video is focused on chart-topping pop hits, not underground artists who are just as creative as the generations before them; Thoughty2 argues that the modern music scene has plenty of talented bands, but they’ll never be signed since they don’t fit into the risk portfolios of record labels, which is a shame. “Music as an art form is dying. It’s being replaced by music which is a disposable product, designed to sell but not to inspire,” he concludes.

This is where we flick the channel back to MMORPGs because New World’s launch has definitely made me wonder whether we’re watching a similar brute-forcing of the MMO market.

In fact, this isn’t even the first time I’ve talked about this phenomenon. Way back in 2015, I did a piece called ‘Multiplex monotony’ and the death of the mid-budget MMORPG; it riffed on a film critic’s description of the collapse of the movie industry into one that pumps out eerily similar blockbusters one after another, with little diversity or experimentation and almost no room for mid-budget successes or ideas. That was all before COVID, which has since reshaped film again, but at the time, I argued we’d seen the same thing happen in MMORPGs thanks to World of Warcraft. When WoW became an unexpected blockbuster, every major gaming corporation wanted a World of Warcraft of its own, so we’ve suffered a decade and a half of watered-down clones, the loss of the burgeoning creativity we saw in the early aughts, no budget for mid-size MMOs, and the grift-studded trainwreck that is the indie crowdfunding scene.

But New World is a bit different. It’s not a World of Warcraft clone, for starters. (Its closest cognate is rather obviously The Elder Scrolls Online.) Amazon Games is part of a trillion-dollar megacorp, but it’s a newbie in the video game industry, with its two previous games flopped and canceled. It really, really needed this game to succeed to recoup all those losses (and I don’t mean just the financial ones). So it’s making that success happen come hell or high water.

Like music studios, game studios flush with mountains of money can make their games appear everywhere. New World is all over Reddit. It’s in your Discords. It’s dominating Twitch. It’s on Twitter and Facebook. It’s plastered across mainstream outlets. It’s on indie outlets. The TikTok kids are probably doing TikTok kid stuff with it. You couldn’t avoid it even if you wanted to. And while some of that is absolutely organic (of course people are going to talk about the first new AAA MMORPG to come out in years), not all of it is. I’ve seen sponsored content on big websites that normally treat MMOs as their favorite whipping boy. Influencers were sent gifts. Some streamers openly discussed being given incentives to stream it. Twitch viewership was inflated by folks trying to score cosmetics in-game. You probably noticed Amazon is even advertising heavily on this very website as I type this. The company has the money and reach to ensure that you will notice this game. And the more you notice it – the more you’re exposed to it – the more you want to play it.

Personally, I’m having a good time in New World, ridiculous queues aside. I have my complaints, but mostly, the game is enjoyable and what I expected – when I bought it with my own money. It’s not my forever game, and it isn’t the most creative or me-catering MMO of all time, but it’s fun. So I’m not really mad that the game is the FOTM and everyone’s hyped (or been influenced into being hyped) about it.

Likewise, there’s nothing in that list of things Amazon is doing to promote its baby that is actually inherently awful. I’m even bound up in the system myself, being the current editor of a publication that has covered the genre obsessively for almost 13 years. But it’s all part and parcel of the way video game marketing is and has always worked in the age of social media: We’ve all seen big gaming corps like EA and Activision make similar moves to manufacture virality for their products. That part isn’t new.

What’s different here is the stakes. Amazon’s staggering wealth makes EA and Activision look quaint by comparison, and money drives so many decisions in the gaming market already. So many good MMOs died because they didn’t have the funding that others had to buy their way into a second chance. I don’t want all the creative mom-and-pops driven out by megacorps that can afford to take immense losses in the short-term to buy their dominance long-term. But I’m also not sure how anyone can hope to compete with one of the richest companies in the world.

Then again, even having more money than god and complete control over ads and search engines couldn’t make Google Stadia a thing.

The saving grace here is that Amazon doesn’t actually control your playlist (and every playlist everywhere) the way music publishers and platforms now do. For now, game companies can spend millions on marketing a big hype-fueled launch, but MMORPG worlds still ultimately live and die by the multitudes of players who choose to spend their precious time in them, live in them, stay in them. The public is still “voting with their ears,” as Thoughty2 phrases it. And sure, I would love to see New World usher in a new era for the MMORPG genre as investors once again see it as a blue ocean worth exploring. The kids logging into New World right now don’t remember WoW’s launch, have never seen a launch this big, weren’t around back when MMOs were at their peak. A renaissance would be amazing.

But it only happens if New World is cared for earnestly by its keepers long-term – not treated as a “disposable product, designed to sell but not to inspire.”

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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