A week ago, we all sounded off on the best way to save a small-to-mid-size MMO that was struggling, as prompted by a discussion of Temtem. I often demur on these topics mostly because I have this column to fill out every week, but this time I chimed in with a rather pessimistic answer. I’ve been kind of turning that over in my head over and over, and in contrast to my usual musings where I find that I have more ideas, in this case I’ve just increasingly gotten the feeling that if anything, my thoughts are more dire.
But I still want to expand on that point because I think it’s still valuable and speaks to a lot of games, as well as the recurring myth that one specific game’s relaunch and success is in any way a template or a likely occasion. There are a lot of games that seem to seek a spinoff or a revamp as a way to revitalize the game and lead to a resurgence. That’s wrong, but it’s not like there’s another way to do it that’s right. This may be an unsolvable problem.
Let’s start with prior assumptions. There are, in fact, mid-sized and small MMOs that launched to poor reception and ultimately managed to find an audience and be successful, such as EVE Online – counting the hits and ignoring the misses. But bringing up these cases tends to elide the fact that for every game in that position that managed to find an audience and success, there are a bunch of other games that did not manage to do that.
And we know that because a lot of the actual mid-to-lower-tier games that are around now are, well… failures. Not in an absolute sense, but Star Wars: The Old Republic is a failure insofar as it was clearly budgeted and planned to be a gigantic genre-defining success. You usually go down a tier or two when you don’t manage to be a success.
The thing about games that have turned themselves around – either because they’ve been able to make their operations more lean and survived a tumble or because they’ve been one of the rare post-launch success stories – is that they have money behind them. If they don’t do well at launch, the developer isn’t suddenly facing the prospect of not being able to pay the bills in a couple of months because the big company behind it will absorb the fall. For smaller developers without that support structure, a flopped launch doesn’t just lead to panic; it leads to a lack of options because developing something new takes time and money.
Remember, you also use money to buy time.
Temtem is not a game that I have personally played, but from the premise of “it’s a Pokemon clone but with online elements,” it’s not hard to see the basic shape. You hear buzz about how many people want a Pokemon MMO, and you think that’s an easy enough thing to make. But the problem is that a lot of people didn’t want a game like Pokemon but an MMO. They wanted the real deal, developed with Nintendo’s budget, brand recognition, and reach.
I understand the frustration that just adding more content is not going to fix the problem here because it really isn’t. You can add another dozen more creatures and areas and so forth, and that’s not going to draw people in. But the problem is fundamental here. You’re trying to figure out how to save your ailing game on a limited budget, yet all of the approaches that might revitalize the game require not having a limited budget.
You don’t have the money for a massive marketing push, you don’t have the money to make the game vastly bigger, and you don’t have the money to develop a second game unconnected to the first. And none of those is an assured victory path even if you have the cash for it. We can all think of mid-tier games that tried them, and most of those games are not around any longer.
What we don’t talk about – basically ever – is that MMOs thrive on word of mouth. Not that everyone who starts playing an MMO is convinced by a friend saying, “Hey, let’s play this game together,” but they do require a critical mass. The more insular a community becomes, the more it shrinks, and then you’re falling into a spiral wherein new people aren’t coming into the game but old people are periodically leaving.
Business models, promotions, advertising campaigns, and so forth… all of those things can help or hurt you, but what really gets people playing is the feeling that this game is populated and vibrant. Nobody wants to be the last person on a dead server in a game that requires several dozen people to work. No new content means people will drift away. But once your trajectory starts to plateau, without substantial further investment, your game faces an uncomfortable compounding of incentives.
For a lot of games, that’s when things start going downhill. New players aren’t inclined to start because no one wants to sign up and get invested in a game that’s dying, and communities start to fragment because… well, all it takes is someone getting bored and not logging in to start doing that. This isn’t the moment when MMOs die, but it’s the moment when they have to contend with a contraction.
And as I said above, there are ways to address it, or at least to try at it. But none of them is certain, and all of the approaches that might actually work require things that a struggling smaller game does not have. You don’t have a huge chunk of change with which to make a new game or get good advertising going. Things like making a spinoff title with a limited reach sound like a good approach because hey, a lot of the time who knows what’s going to suddenly catch on like wildfire, right?
That’s sort of true… but not really. No, you can’t predict what is going to suddenly become a runaway success. But the odds are good that it’s not going to be a title that gets dropped out with no promotion as a slight variant on a game that failed to win widespread attention before. More likely that’s going to flop, and then things are going to be even worse, in no small part because your existing players are likely to be miffed about it.
And the sad reality is that after working in this field for this long, I cannot think of a single game that launched as a mid-sized title, garnered little to no word of mouth, and pulled things together after the fact. That’s not to say that it definitely didn’t happen, but I can’t think of a time when it did. But I can think of so many smaller titles that aimed at being leaner and smaller operations that crashed hard upon the shoals.
The reality is that MMOs are hard. A lot of them don’t make it very long. And that sounds cynical and unpleasant, enough that it’s really easy to look for a way in which it isn’t true. But the evidence says otherwise.