Massively Overthinking: What’s the best way a studio can save a struggling mid-size MMO?


Temtem’s Crema Games raised eyebrows earlier this week when it admitted that in spite of Temtem’s successful launch, the game is having trouble; the studio has been adding monsters and zones – i.e., content – but that isn’t bringing players back, meaning that doing the obvious task of Just Making More Content isn’t sustainable given how much it costs to build. That led the studio to attempt to develop a smaller spinoff on the side, which as MMO players know almost never goes well; for every Fortnite (whose last-ditch battle royale spinoff is magnitudes larger than the original game), there are dozens of Shadow Arenas, AOC Apocalypses, Kingdoms of Elyrias, and Final Stand Ragnaroks that go nowhere at all.

In Crema’s case, the second game, Temtem Showdown, didn’t perform well either. And there’s a point to be made here about the fact that Temtem wasn’t supposed to be a full-scale endless MMORPG but rather a “story campaign […] with online elements added around it,” which was a legitimate choice from the studio – but perhaps misaligned with an expectation that the game could pull in the incomes associated with MMORPGs without the MMO content.

It’s complicated, in other words, and that makes it perfect to discuss for this week’s Massively Overthinking. We needn’t focus on Temtem alone here; there are plenty of mid-size and larger indies in the MMO and MMO-adjacent space that are constantly faced with these tough choices of how to keep enough players around on a realistic budget. What’s the best way a studio can save a struggling mid-size MMO? If you were in this position, how would you spend the studio’s money to maximize players and profits?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): The best way to save a struggling MMO is pretty easy: don’t get there, and have a big marketing budget. I know that may seem snarky, but here’s the truth: We rarely see bad games in beta suddenly become popular just because they launched. They don’t. Especially if you launch a paid beta and hide behind that shield for a while. They ignore feedback, think they know better, and most of the time, they learn the hard way that they don’t.

Obviously some rare companies can and will do this, partially because they’re so rich that they seem to profit even on their losses, maybe not from the game but in their career somehow. A comeback just seems like icing on the cake for them. Some of the biggest games we cover actually have done this successfully, like FFXIV, Elder Scrolls Online, and I’d even dare to say Pokemon Go (at least from launch to Gen 3). The one thing they all have in common, though, is being based on big-budget IPs that, once the game is “fixed,” have the money and mass appeal to market their return. Everyone else, though? If they get a second chance, they seem to fail or at best become a lucky fluke (like Among Us, which basically just got “discovered” late).

The other part here is that many of the successes listened to their critics and recruited fans of their game/genre to build the game – real players rather than suits. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand that monetization is literally about keeping the game going, but there’s only so much space for slot machines disguised as games. I’d argue that the original EVE and more recently Orna both largely fixed their launch issues by simply making their game solid first and building onto that to appeal to their core. I know we were told Temtem’s budget made it seem like this wouldn’t work, but to me, that either means there was something about the game that wasn’t working or the budget vs. income gap is too wide to play the long game of appeasing current players who can grow the playerbase.

Andy McAdams: When we look at the games that have “come back from the brink,” it’s a pretty small pool of games, and even fewer that didn’t have titanic-sized budgets to get a do-over. Most MMOs will never have the option. From what I can glean about Temtem, its problem in particular is that players got to the end of the game and went, “Now what?” – to which Crema replied, “Huh, we hadn’t really thought about that.” But regardless of how you slice it, content is king. If you want to bring a game back from the brink, you need to have the content. The best marketing in the world won’t do anything beyond the initial campaign surge if you don’t have the game to back up the marketing, whether that’s explicitly developed single-use content, repeatable content (dungeons, dailies, weeklies) or emergent gameplay, like housing in FFXIV. But you have to have something there.

Even though we aren’t focusing on Temtem in specific, the idea that its content is supposedly too expensive and not worth the effort tells me that the team lacks an efficient process to develop and deliver new content of any kind, which means it gave very little effort to what the game looked like once folks were done with the main story. It’s less sexy and provocative than some other answers, but Crema needs to get its shit together internally so that it’s not so expensive to deliver new content. It needs to create the opportunity for gameplay loops across all three types of gameplay (single-use, repeatable, emergent). If it’s too expensive to create new content for your live-service, persistent world game, that’s a problem that no amount of money or marketing or other tricks is going to fix long-term.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): If a game isn’t compelling enough to survive past the initial curiosity surge, then no amount of similar content being added is going to keep players around. When was the last time an MMO went back to the drawing board to revamp the whole game after its initial release? Elder Scrolls Online? Perhaps the best thing to do would be to be willing to take a good hard look at why the gameplay loop didn’t catch players in the first place – and be willing to put sunk cost in the past in order to improve the experience. Of course, this all takes time and money, which is a luxury that most smaller studios don’t have.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think Temtem’s problem is, as I alluded to in the intro, just a mismatch of expectations. This game funded on Kickstarter over five years ago and has been playable in some form for backers since November 2018. It’s a pretty rare live-service title that can keep people interested in a story campaign with minimal online functionality for that long and still make easy money. The games that pull off live service profitability are mostly larger-scale MMORPGs, plus a bare handful of huge PvP esports titles and survival sandboxes that rely on player content, most of which benefited from some sort of founder effect in their genres. This game was not built to be one of those, by the studio’s own admission, so it makes sense that it’s not generating the incomes of one of those.

So I don’t blame Crema (or most of these other companies) for making a second game on the side, even though I know it’s a bad look especially for Kickstarted games. Players of the core MMO absolutely hate it and perceive it as abandonment, even if a lucky break meant more content and life out of the game they loved. But I would think Crema would’ve been building a second game period, not a spinoff that would leech players from the first game but a sequel or a new game with new investment altogether. Barring the acquisition of a functioning time machine to go back and actually build a sustainable midgame/endgame prior to launch, that’s probably where I’d focus: Stop trying to squeeze more out of Temtem, unless adding more MMO functionality and player control is in the cards. I do think content is often the answer for a lot of MMORPGs, but this isn’t one.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): It’s said you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and that’s absolutely true of MMOs that stumbled out of the gate because “gamers” love nothing more than to absolutely shred a title that didn’t meet expectations. So that’s the first part of my answer to this question: Communicate that things are going to change if a title is struggling. That goes for any title large, mid-sized, or small, really.

The next step that I would take would be to start working on feedback. Obviously this would take a lot of work and would require immense amounts of separation of wheat from chaff in terms of player sentiment, but I also think that effort would be well spent, and noting that as part of the aforementioned communication would help in getting quality player insight. At least a little bit.

Lastly, once things are moving in a positive direction, lots and lots and lots of money on ads. So many ads. Ads that would point out what’s different and maybe even make fun of the state of the original title.

Ultimately, though, this feels like a two-way street: MMORPG players should at least try to have a little patience with a newly-released title and give the studio time to adapt and adjust. That really is the secret sauce of our genre and it should be allowed to simmer together into something tasty. That feels like asking a lot nowadays, I contend, but it really should be foremost.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I feel like this is kind of two questions at the same time because it’s asking both how to keep players around and how to get those players in the first place because your smaller title is struggling. And the sad reality is that if your game launches and is struggling, it’s kind of already too late… especially if your game released into early access two years ago. The problem is that from a development standpoint, you can point to all the information you want about the game having technically launched on its full launch date, but from a player perspective your game launched on the first date it was playable, and that’s the tea. Early access is a trap like that.

The real problem here is that if you’re adding more stuff to the core game but players are either not coming back or not sticking around, you’re already out of luck. There is not another pivot that’s going to save the game because the game is just not pulling in the money to justify the content that it needs to keep players around. Smaller spinoffs are an attempt at raising visibility, but they generally fail simply because it’s unlikely that loads of people knew about the game but were holding off on playing because of something like price tag or gameplay structure. And if you’re struggling, you by definition don’t have a big marketing budget to get the word out.

All of this probably sounds more than a little pessimistic, which it kind of is; I’ve seen far more mid-to-smaller MMOs try pivots that failed than I have seen ones that actually succeeded, and I cannot think of a situation where the successful pivot didn’t come from a studio that wasn’t already flush with cash and reputation. As much as it’d be fun to say that there was just this One Weird Trick to save your struggling smaller MMO, evidence has shown that by the time you’re in “struggling smaller MMO” territory without a whole lot of cash to spend on an attempted revival, you’re not going to make it.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I mean, if you aren’t pulling in operations-level money and don’t have the resources to develop new content, your choices are pretty limited. You can lay off people to get the budget down and then have your remaining devs do what they can, you can cut your losses and start a new project, you can turn the game into an open source project, you can get a new benefactor or sell your game to another studio, or you can try to do a Hail Mary push for new content/advertising while burning through what little money you have left. There’s no one assured path here, and most of those options will end in failure even so. It’s a risky business, and if a game isn’t taking off with an audience and doesn’t have the marketing muscle, you probably aren’t going to make it long-term.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I suppose if I knew the best answer to this one, I’d be working for studios and rolling in the dough. So instead I’ll tell you what I’d do as an amateur. I’d start by having some members of the team start the game fresh without using any special tools that might give an edge that a normal player wouldn’t have. That includes talking to coworkers who designed certain parts or know additional bits.

Also we’d need to find where the falling off point was for most of the players who left and didn’t return. Was it around a certain level or after doing some bits of content? And let’s look at our level of communication with the players. Do we only follow through with content and updates that we hear about from the 10 biggest voices in our playerbase, or do we make sure we can get feedback from the quieter ones?

I think that’s a bit of what I’d start with.

Tyler Edwards (blog): In my experience, MMOs have mostly only turned around from bad launches when they have a huge company funding them, massive brand recognition, or both — Final Fantasy XIV, ESO, New World. To be honest, I really don’t know what you do as a smaller team. I’ve seen so many games make all the right choices to turn things around and still die anyway because everyone had already given up on them.

I think the only example I can think of where a non-juggernaut game managed to rise from the ashes is No Man’s Sky, but I haven’t followed the game closely enough to say what it did right or how others could emulate it.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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