Massively Overthinking: Are there any MMOs for which a spin-off mode would be welcome?

    
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Pantheon’s announcement that its developers are working on spinning out a monetized “247” extraction mode hasn’t engendered a whole lot of hope for the future of the Kickstarted game, though it’s hard topic to unravel. Players are concerned both because of Pantheon’s specifics and because so many other MMOs, from Ashes of Creation to Camelot Unchained, have already tried this with no success – and the examples we have that were successes were the exceptions that prove the rule, like Fortnite.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I want to talk about MMOs that exist in one phase or another that actually could handle a spin-off. Is it better for a launched MMO to try this, rather than an in-development title, or is development the right place for experimentation? Is the problem Kickstarter or crowdfunding obligations? Or does it just not work for indies that already might be stretched too thin? And what if it’s the last Hail Mary hope for the original game? Help me disentangle this: Are there any MMOs for which a secondary spin-off mode or game would be welcome?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Chronicles of Elyria did a mini-spin-off via a web game and had planned others, and we know where that got them. Not Kickstarted but equally problematic was Project Copernicus and its single-player partner Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. You see what’s going on, right? And I’ve had other non-MMO Kickstarters try the same and die. However, Hearthstone is a good WoW spin-off, I’ve heard good things about some of the non-MOBA League of Legends games, and while not a true MMO, various Monster Hunter spinoffs, especially Monster Hunter Stories, have helped me get a friend or two interested in the series.

So basically, I’d wager spin-offs are probably best for big companies or established companies. While not one of the big boys, Orna’s Northern Forge made spin-off Hero of Aethric that’s quite fun, but it also uses a lot of the same resources and mechanics plus is also based on their already released MMOARG – but Orna and its creator also had a game to point to, which is key. Kickstarters get in trouble, especially now, because they needed cash in the first place.. Maybe if they made a small game first and then asked for cash to make a full MMO, that would look better, but I’ve personally been too badly burned by MMO Kickstarters at this point to trust any of them. It may be best to leave spin-offs to big companies… or anyone who can bring back the Asheron’s Call franchise for me, thanks.

Andy McAdams: I’m stuck where I think a lot of folks are – what qualifies as a sequel or other vs. a spin-off? EverQuest had a few successful spinoffs, and WoW has Warcraft Rumble, Heroes of the Storm, and Hearthstone. While they might be earth-shattering successes, they are still successes, using key parts of the original game and remixing them into a new game.

If we are talking “spin-off” as “lets go win the battle royale!” space, that’s a stupid move no one can pull off. The entirety of the battle royale genre is an exception; I don’t think there’s actually a market there outside of Fortnite and PUBG. Team-based battlers like LoL are still an entrenched genre, but last other companies have been able to eke out a small portion of it.

But can anyone can pull off a battle royale spin-off? No, I don’t think anyone can. If we look at different genres of games, there’s more potential there and we’ve seen successes from other games. But yeah, a side-game like that from Pantheon for “testing” purposes is always going to fail hard and be a waste of resources.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I’m having trouble envisioning what an MMO spinoff is, exactly. Are we talking “Joey” or “Fuller House”? Would Guild Wars 2 be considered a spinoff or a sequel? Because a spinoff in the classic sitcom sense actually sounds kind of interesting: “If you liked Lord of the Rings Online, you’re going to love following Frodo and Bilbo’s zany adventures in the Undying Lands!” I don’t know. I think it’s very difficult to develop and maintain one MMO, let alone multiple simultaneously. I feel like it’s more pragmatic to maintain focus on one really good title instead of many OK ones as a general rule.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Setting aside the obvious sequels, I do think an established MMO can conceivably pull off a spun-out mode as a standalone title off, honestly. I’m thinking of the card games that so many MMOs have specifically. So many MMOs could pop out a minigame for phones and it wouldn’t detract from the main game. Or a server that’s a survival sandbox with a specialty ruleset.

But I’d prefer those modes to simply exist inside the MMOs as another flavor of content, like arenas or polymock or what have you. That’s sort of the point of MMOs, after all – to string together lots of varieties of content, no chunk of which is likely to compete with a game that specializes in that and only that one chunk. If I wanted to play the best extraction title on the market, I’d just… go do that. But people are in MMOs because they want to play a little bit of everything in a persistent world with persistent characters. I think most of the spinoffs just wind up trying to attract a different audience – and thus far, things like Shadow Arena haven’t succeeded even when done with full transparency and funding. Which means that crowdfunded, in-development titles have no chance.

I understand why folks might want to experiment with this in development, and for standard publisher-backed MMOs, we’d never know anyway. Kickstarters should really never go down this path. Those games rely too much on honesty and back-and-forth with backers, and as Eliot opined last week, they can’t afford to trade away their existing loyalists for a shot at something new.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Bad idea. They don’t need to experiment because there’s already data on the efficacy of battle royale in MMOs. Black Desert Online literally tried this with Shadow Arena, and it failed. There’s no way in heck this is going to help Visionary Realms fund the game. It’d probably be better off doing a horde mode with cosmetics.

I get that indie studios these days are the places for experimentation, but they shouldn’t go all willy-nilly with these extra modes, especially if they’re going to be used for testing. What kind of testing are they even trying that would be relevant!? I have no buy-in on Pantheon, and adding this type of mode just makes me even less interested. There’s got to be a better place to spend resources than this!

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): This is always a lie, it will always be a lie, and even if the studio genuinely believes otherwise, it’s lying. Just straight-up lying. In my opinion, there’s nothing to untangle here. It’s just lying.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): You know what MMO would make a really good spinoff? World of Warcraft. Oh I know they have a digital card game and another mobile game on the way, but I’m thinking it would make a really great RTS on PC. Oh! And what if you also had that, but in space?

Dumb trolling aside, I do think it’s worth noting that a lot of our major MMOs are themselves spinoffs of non-MMO games: World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, Elder Scrolls Online, Star Wars the Old Republic, even the elder statesman of the genre, Ultima Online. The difference here is, of course, that all of those come from big, established franchises with money to burn, not an indie Kickstarted company that hasn’t delivered its original product.

I don’t envy the devs who have to make these kind of decisions. Developing an MMO takes an incredible amount of time and money. Most are in development for several years before we hear about them, and go through a lot of major changes during that time. Just look a Overwatch, which started its life as an MMO and morphed into a shooter, or New World, which shifted away from its survival roots toward more of a sandbox MMORPG. Kickstarter games don’t have the benefit of that period of secrecy; they have to deliver the original pitch or backers will riot. Since they can’t really pivot, some devs hope to make two games, the one that they originally pitched, and one that they hope will make enough money to fund the development of the original game. This kind of gambit rarely works, but I understand the impulse.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think there’s room for spin-offs and experimentation for launched and stable games. SOE certainly did a lot of this with its card games that were integrated into MMOs, for example, or creating numerous EverQuest spin-offs. If a new game can be testbedded inside an MMO to see how it shakes out and then, if necessary and popular, separated into its own product, that’s another way to go.

But there’s a lot of danger in spreading a team too thin or placing too much hope and emphasis on the newer product at the expense of the older one. This is something I never want to see, as it’s disheartening and makes you think that the devs are getting ready to jump ship with the entire product line. That’s happened far too often for my liking.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’ll probably be the dissenting opinion here, but I’m not opposed to spin-offs. I think more of something I enjoy is a good thing. I understand others’ concern too, though. I understand how players can see a studio perhaps losing focus and resources that could be improving the main game are instead being used on something that the player may not like or that may never even see the light of day.

Back in 2019 or so ArenaNet had a bunch of restructuring and issues. Guild Wars 2 seemed to be taking a long time between updates, and we learned the studio had some kind of spin-off that just got shuttered – and we never even saw it. That wasn’t great. Certainly no one liked how any of that played out. We can’t know for sure that GW2 was slowing down because of the spin-off, but it felt that way.

On the other hand, Ashes of Apocalypse is one I actually really enjoyed. I was apparently alone in that, but it was cool. Players rioted, though, and the studio took it offline. Of course, I hadn’t backed Ashes, so I didn’t have any skin in the game either for the MMO.

Whether it was a released game or not some, people were upset in both cases, so I don’t think it matters who can get away with it. Certainly for indies, we already think of them as running a bit leaner than the AAA studios. And it’s that and the idea that the game we’ve been waiting on is going to be slowed down because of the spin-off that is a problem.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I think this really only works if it’s done from a position of strength. The pre-battle royale version of Fortnite may not have set the world on fire, but at least Epic was a well-established company with significant resources to put behind the switch. Even then it’s a bit of a crapshoot, as the Black Desert BR proved.

If you’re a small indie dev working on a crowdfunded game, this seems like nothing but an efficient way to torch any remaining goodwill you may have among players. All they’re going to see is all the time and effort being put towards something that isn’t the game they already paid for.

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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