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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Raleigh-St-Clair
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Raleigh-St-Clair

People always point out that AGS is part of Amazon like it gives it some incredible advantage but, based on what I know of Amazon’s business practices, AGS will have been given a tight-ish budget and the instruction to get it right, and if they don’t, Amazon will just cut them. Gamers don’t seem to get this as they think gaming is the most important thing on the planet and Amazon must be itching to be a gaming force but, honestly, it didn’t get to be where it is today by throwing good money after bad on random projects. Google is run in much the same way. AGS doesn’t have the free pass many seem to think it has. As for the coverage of New World, let’s stop and consider. It’s the first Western AAA game in a long time. Do people seriously think it won’t get spoken about? And particularly as it’s decent, even more so?!

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mike foster

People who play games often overestimate how important games are to companies that are not exclusively built around creating games. You’re right to see it in Amazon–in fact, Amazon being so huge is the opposite of an advantage. Here is a company that can cut its entire gaming effort overnight and bill it as a tiny experiment that didn’t work out.

HOWEVER one should always think through to the broader goal. What does gaming give Amazon in terms of strategy and business? Look beyond just one game–what markets does it unlock, what ground does it gain? Amazon is entering the game space but I doubt it’s solely driven by trying to create a successful game. I wonder what the core chase actually is.

I think perhaps looking at Epic and Unreal might give us SOME insight. Fortnite is a success, sure, but it’s primarily just a demo for the engine from the perspective of someone like Sweeney. There’s gotta be something underneath it all.

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Drake S. Redway

THIS is the op-ed I’ve been looking for. I knew damn well that I could not be the only person that noticed the whole internet being astroturfed with New World ads and a deluge of coverage/puff pieces.

It’s absolutely obvious why that is, given whose funding the studio responsible. And it definitely gives you perspective on how manufactured and rigged the whole industry is. And this extends far beyond games and music, to just about every faucet of industry, finance, and commerce, here and abroad.

This is why multinational corporations (and, by extension, the corporate-funded governments of the world) serves as the anathema for humanity at large.

Corporatocracy. It’s a hell of a thing.

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air2522

I don’t think New World will be profitable but it will survive as long as Amazon supports it financially. People know way too much about MMO so even Amazon floods the internet with advertisement and positive reviews, the game will eventually die because, honestly, it is not a fun game at all and quite boring actually. Comparing with games like FF14, WOW, Black Desert, New World looks like a game developed by an indy game studio. Graphics are bad, performance is poor. Character animations are awkward. Gameplay is nothing new. They need to come up with some kind of innovation because people are not new to MMO like in 1998 anymore, do not copy and paste as it will make the game look cheap.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

“It was a bright cold day in September, and the clocks were striking thirteen...”

brave new world.png
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Anstalt

First off, I disagree with the analogy with the music industry. I’m sure the pop genre has suffered at the hands of big record labels, but the 80s were quantifiably worse than today (according to science…), plus the internet has destroyed much of the control that record labels had on the music industry.

On MMOs, I have no fear about brute forcing as a strategy……because it is unlikely to work.

Brute force marketing, such as is being discussed, only works when you expect to get 100% money out of the customer up front. Buying an album, buying a cinema ticket or a DVD, you’ve extracted all the money you ever will out of that customer. So, you can brute force it because you expect to make your money very quickly.

MMOs are different. Not many are B2P, and none of them could survive if all they ever asked for was an upfront price. MMOs rely on repeated income, not a one off payment. This means that even if you use a brute force marketing strategy, the game still needs to be good enough to keep the customer playing long enough for them to justify spending more money.

That isn’t happening. A shit game is a shit game, and players will see through it.

If you want an example of this failed strategy, look no further than SWTOR. Huge dev budget, huge marketing budget, but they made a shit game that couldn’t hold players attention for very long. Within 3 months of launch, the game was already headed for financial failure, hence the quick and aggressive switch to F2P and the dramatic reduction in ongoing development.

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Schmidt.Capela

And the more you notice it – the more you’re exposed to it – the more you want to play it.

I believe I’m an exception, but my brain kinda works opposite to this. The more I’m exposed to advertisement of a single product, the more annoyed I grow with it, and thus the lower the chance I will enjoy it or even give it a chance. Maximizing the chance I will purchase something requires making me aware of it without exposing me so much to it that I get annoyed.

I’m also the kind of person who often gives the top of the charts a wide berth, be it in music, be it in gaming. Heck, I spend far more time playing indies (and spend far more money on them) than I spend playing AAA games.

(Incidentally, New World is annoying me. Though it makes no difference, as I wouldn’t play it anyway.)

BTW, as for Twitch drops: if I ever go after any, I will drop the stream quality to 160p (the minimum), mute the tab, and minimize it. I also make a point of never interacting with the stream, not even looking at the name of who I’m “watching” the stream from, as otherwise my annoyance at this dumb promotional stunt nonsense might leak onto the streamer, who isn’t really responsible for annoying me.

(I liked better when companies used Facebook for this kind of thing, asking for upvotes; I would upvote whatever was asked, get the prize, then overwrite the upvote with a downvote.)

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EmberStar

Twitch already had to think of that, after people did exactly that with Warframe streams – the twitch window can’t be minimized, and can’t be fully muted. It doesn’t need to be the top window though, and doesn’t have to be really audible… just not actually muted. I normally find a streamer who doesn’t annoy me, and leave their stream running with the volume most of the way down in a window behind the game (which is running in true Fullscreen anyway.)

They’ve also recently changed it so that when you do get a Twitch drop, you need to manually claim it before you can start accruing time towards a second (if the promotion offers more than one bite at the apple, so to speak.) They can’t force you to chat, but they can prevent you from popping up twenty streams and leaving your computer to silently watch them all for you while you go to the movies or something. (Which, again, is exactly what people apparently did with the first couple of Warframe stream promotions.)

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Schmidt.Capela

It’s why I mute the tab, not the stream. Chrome (and I believe other browsers too) allows me to mute the tab without the site being able to do anything about, or even detect it.

I’m not sure about the window needing to not be minimized; I could swear I got at least some of the latest No Man’s Sky drops with the window minimized, but I can’t remember if I minimized the window or if the browser was just showing a different tab on my second monitor. In any case, a muted window behind the game window (and with the quality dialed so low it’s less of a drain to my system than an animated gif) isn’t much of an annoyance.

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Damdrara

That can’t be right cause I got all the New World drops with the stream muted. Don’t remember if i minimized the window or just tabbed to something else though.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

It’s entirely possible they’ve changed the rules again now that getting a Twitch Drop also requires clicking on the “claim” button in the inventory window that they added just for Twitch promotions. The reason they made it so the window couldn’t be muted or minimized was tied to how they did the *original* Warframe promotions – you got reward drops every half hour or so for every stream that was open. People would find five or ten or twenty people streaming Warfrmame, open *all* the tabs and then harvest drops for eight hours while they were at work.

This had a ton of negative effects for both streamers (bloated viewer counts of viewers who didn’t even care what channel they were watching) and for the game (because the constant pings from Twitch from a bazillion stream-farms started to functionally DDOS the game a bit.

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Paragon Lost

If New World is a renaissance, it’s one lacking soul from what I can tell from the side lines. Not one person as waxed on about the lore, quests and world history that I have noted. Including none of the writers on this site when Bree asked of the staff their impressions of New World in the article yesterday.

I’ve not seen any posters has gushed on about the breadth and depth of lore, history etc. Quests have been mentioned in a rather lukewarm sort of way at best. I’ve seen some what I consider viable complaints how quests and looting work though.

I predict that the in game population will decline heavily within six months or so. I hate to be so critically negative but I’m not seeing much here that’s being listed that’s “good” about New World. I am seeing a lot about how pretty the game looks and that’s about it. Everything else sounds mixed bag at best.

Which is too bad, a new good AAA mmorpg would have been nice. I hope I’m wrong in my prediction. Those having fun I hope are having fun 8-12 months later and that Amazon continues to pump money into improving and expanding New World. I worry though that if the population declines rapidly due to shortcomings that are entirely Amazon’s fault that Amazon will quickly pull a Google. 🙁

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Kevin Kershaw

Couldn’t agree more. I hope this is the renaissance. It’s been a long slog of none at all, shitty MMOs, and bs Kickstarters. It’s a breathe of fresh air. I hope it last more than a few months.

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MightyForty77

I got bored of this game only after watching a few minutes of random Twitch stream. Getting too old for AAAs it seems. Prefer playing casually old titles nowadays that might be ugly, rough around the edges, yes, but at least there’s some uniqueness factor involved – AO, DDO, SWG…

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TomTurtle

I’m not super dialed into marketing, but I’ve surely noticed New World’s marketing influence as mentioned. Being able to get that first foot through the door can be incredibly difficult, something that heavy marketing can help with. There’s that sense of fear of missing out the more buzz surrounds something like this. I’ve felt that pull even though certain details about the game have been telling me to resist.

I’d like to see something positive come out of this for the MMO genre. Fortunately, I’m not terribly worried it’ll have the same dominating presence as World of Warcraft has had on the genre. If nothing else, I hope it’d serve as a rebuttal to the “MMO genre is dead/dying” crowd.