Death of a Genre

Downfall of a Game

One of the problems within the MMO community is that we seem to view each release as a zero sum game.  As such when something new comes out, it threatened to chip away at the player base of whatever game we happen to love and are currently playing.  When that game falters and begins to fail, with this point of view it becomes extremely hard not to take pleasure in that downfall.  The problem is this is an extremely toxic and dysfunctional outlook, and ultimately is what has lead to the current climate in MMOs.  For years companies have been chasing an illusive dream of trying to create another World of Warcraft.

This was an inherently flawed vision because really…  “mmo gamers” are a rather small niche in the market, and most folks who play World of Warcraft are not actually “mmo gamers”.  If you take a look at the size of the market before World of Warcraft, you saw a handful of games with sub-million subscriber numbers.  Before the launch of the first expansion World of Warcraft had boomed to be an over 6 million subscriber game.  This was not the conversion of all of these other MMO gamers, but instead the conversion of fans of the existing Warcraft franchise into the MMO genre.  The thing is…  these new gamers are there for a myriad of reasons, but none of them easily translate into a new franchise.

So as these new games launch they are essentially fighting over the same piece of pie over and over.  All you have to do is look at my immediate circle of friends.  A large chunk of them stuck with World of Warcraft, and it would likely take an apocalypse or the servers shutting down to pry them from it.  Another group has wandered away from the game each and every time something new and shiny showed up on the horizon.  Very few of these players stick around in any game for longer than three months, and more often they play their free month and then return to whatever the status quo was before the new launch.  I watched this pattern play out for both Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar, and the games industry is finally realizing that this is going to happen for every single new game that releases.

Indictment of the Trend

The cancelling of Titan has been a far more contentious issue in the blogosphere than I expected.  At this point my point of view is that this is Blizzard admitting that the MMO genre has no more room for new players.  While there will always be a core group of players in World of Warcraft just like there is still a core group of players in Everquest, Everquest II, and Dark Age of Camelot…  that core group continues to shrink as folks either “grow out” of World of Warcraft as they find it no longer suits their interests, or simply run out of the copious amounts of free time it requires as they get that job, family, whatever.  I think they have done some really simple calculus here and determined that there simply is not enough of a pool of players to make a brand new MMO from Blizzard successful.

With World of Warcraft they have a decade long buy in from a large number of gamers.  They have literal years of memories and hard to acquire items to keep them chained to the game.  With a brand new IP, they are starting from scratch in the same position as all of these games that have floundered have been in.  Blizzard brand name recognition just isn’t enough to guarantee success, so I feel like it was a pure business decision that it just did not make sense to further dilute their subscription player base by trying to launch a new MMO.  As much as I love the clean subscription model, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to launch a new game with it.  After watching what happened to Wildstar and to a somewhat lesser extent Elder Scrolls Online, the market does not want any more subscription games.  So by launching a new MMO they would be converting at least a portion of their subscriber base of easy month to month money to far more dicey and less predictable free to play money.

No Joy Watching Wildstar

I find it impossible to find joy in the unraveling of Wildstar that I see before me.  I am not playing the game, so I am in essence part of the problem.  For whatever reason it was an accumulation of all of the things my BC era self said they wanted in a video game.  The problem is we gamers are notoriously horrible at trying to decide what we want.  “We” said we wanted a hardcore game like Everquest and a return to forced grouping…  then when we got Vanguard no one actually wanted to play that.  We said we wanted a hard core PVP game like Dark Age of Camelot…  and then when we got Warhammer Online no one actually wanted to play that either.  So I find it no suprise that when we said we wanted a return to the golden says of World of Warcraft raiding…  no one actually wanted that either when we got Wildstar.  The truth is we have no clue at all what we want until we actually see it and experience it.

The problem is that the MMO design ethic has been so wrapped up in trying to target what the public is asking for, that it has stagnated into a mire of “wow like features”.  A week or so ago there were a series of posts taking point and counterpoint on whether or not WoW has ruined MMOs.  In a way I have to say yes, but not through anything that they did on purpose.  World of Warcraft has been this juggernaut that everyone else is forced to content with whether or not they actually wanted to.  It is a gold standard that every new game is judged by.  So you either have games that try and out feature it like Rift, or out lore it like Star Wars the Old Republic… but each and every new release is at least in someway a response to the success that World of Warcraft was.  Without that outlier of success we probably would see a much more healthy MMO ecosystem…  albeit a ridiculously smaller one.

Death of a Genre

So I cannot take joy in watching Wildstar, or Elder Scrolls Online or any other MMO falter right now, because I see it as all being part of the same shared ecosystem.  When one of these games fails, it is in essence taking a chunk of players out of the pool that will likely never return.  So many of my friends have simply just checked out of online gaming for one reason or another, but the core thread among them all is they are just tired of the volatility.  The choice is either return to World of Warcraft and make due with the status quo, or jump from game to game to game getting a months worth of enjoyment at a time before the ultimate crash.  None of this sounds like a healthy ecosystem, and all of this is what is driving triple A studios away from the notion of even trying to do an MMO.

If you think about it right now…  there is nothing really on the horizon for gamers to latch onto.  There are a few boutique titles like Pathfinder or Camelot Unchained… that are super focused on a specific niche and that may or may not be at least partially vaporware, unlikely to actually launch with all of the features they are touting.  Then you have a constant spin of Korean titles as they have their own MMO renaissance that we went through several years ago.  However After the launch of ESO and Wildstar…  there is really no big western titles on the immediate horizon.  Everquest Next is the closest thing but realistically it is still several years from release.  The other games that are coming out are more akin to Destiny than they are to a traditional MMO.  So I can’t blame World of Warcraft for this current situation, because in truth it is our flighty nature that has salted the fields in our wake.   We are the reason why there is no fertile ground for a new MMO to take purchase.  It is because of all of this… that I can find no pleasure in watching yet another game fail.

Kickstarting Regrets

Patron Buffs

rift 2014-01-28 06-04-39-64 Last night I just was not feeling the raid thing.  Monday nights are traditionally the open flex night in House Stalwart, but that night has always been an optional evening since it is not really attached to any specific raid group.  As such I decided to mill around over in Rift and work on my rogue.  Earlier in the day I had complained about how slow the 56-60 game was.  To be truthful Storm Legion as a whole is much more sluggish and prodding than the old world content, and by the time you reach 56 it slows down again.  Thankfully @gamer_lady came to the rescue by reminding me that there are patron buffs.

I think I began the night around halfway into 58 and wound up ending the night 15% away from 60.  The buffs make a massive difference in the speed at which you level, especially with quest turn-ins.  I hit a sequence in Argent Domain with tons of quest turn-ins and saw my xp just skyrocket.  Tonight if I get back into Rift I will likely finish off the push to 60, and hopefully be able to open all the various lockboxes I have saved up for his ding.  Additionally I am pretty close to finishing off runecrafting, so here is hoping the greens I currently have in my bags are enough to carry me over that finish line.  I think runecrafting was the last of the trade skills that I had no maxed out, or at least I vaguely remember finishing off artificer the last time I played seriously.

Kickstarting Regrets

pantheon-cqa-epl-116 The theme that I keep seeing repeated out on kickstarter is that designers are using it as a way to work through their past regrets.  Each time a game fails to grab market share there are a myriad of reasons why it happens.  However in the case of recent kickstarter campaigns it feels like each designer has their own internal reason why they feel a project failed.  In the case of Camelot Unchained, it seems like Mark Jacobs feels that Warhammer online failed because it simply was not pvp enough.  So as a result Unchained is being designed to be this love letter to PVP in all its glory.  I am sure there is a niche that wants to do nothing but pvp, but in my experience the only aspect of Warhammer I really liked at all…. was the PVE content.  So I wish Jacobs luck on his journey because he is building a game I simply am not interested in.

Similarly in the past weeks Brad McQuaid started his kickstarter for Pantheon: The Fallen.  The pitch so far seems eerily familiar to the one I can remember hearing for Vanguard.  Hardcore game with mandatory group centric game play, and some really complex systems to add depth to the world.  It seems like McQuaid’s regret is that Vanguard was not hardcore enough, and definitely in the post Sigil games era it became much more casual and solo friendly.  The thing is… the Vanguard he proposed really failed to get serious market approval, and SOE watered it down to try and find a market for it.  I realize this might be “too soon” since SOE just announced they were cutting Vanguard from their lineup… and honestly that depresses me quite a bit…  but it is very obvious that McQuaid has a very different reason in his head for why that game didn’t meet expectations.

Wish Them Well

camelotunchained This is not to say that I don’t think both Pantheon and Camelot Unchained will not be modest successes.  In both cases they are feeding to a relatively underserved sub-demographic of gamers.  The problem is… that really is a niche within a niche within a niche and I feel has some pretty slim market potential.  As romantic as I feel the vision of Pantheon is, I know personally I simply cannot play that sort of a game.  I need a game where I can find a group quickly and one that I can also have meaningful solo game play and progression.  Gone are the days when I could sit for five hours in the plane of hate camping an epic mob with friends. 

My blocks of time are more in half hours and hours at a time these days, and at any given time I might need to be pulled away from the screen.  As a result I have to play games that do not penalize me for this.  So while I am nostalgic for the days of sitting outside Karnor’s Castle and forming groups…  I also remember the hours upon hours I sat around doing absolutely nothing because I did not have said group.  Granted this is me projecting a lot of my own thoughts on these games, and very little information is really available about them.  However the pitch just does not sound like something I can really participate in. 

Ultimately I hope all of these new MMOs succeed, and even though games like Wildstar are strictly in the “not for me” column…  we need more MMO success than failure if we hope to keep our favorite genre alive.  Additionally there needs to be a great adjustment for what exactly “success” means.  If 100,000 players keeps the game running and turns a minor profit… then man that sounds like success to me.  World of Warcraft skewed our reality, and just with my opinions of the community… it is time for a reset.  No game has been as successful as WoW has been, so it is clearly an outlier and not the mold by which all games need to measure up.  Until that sort of baseline adjustment happens… all new games will end up being judged as failures.