This post continues the discussion I began in “Chillin’ at the OK Corral;” In that post I re-evaluated both Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic based on their pre-launch claims concerning the revolutionary transformation they were about to unleash upon a helpless planet earth. Since their release, the Massively Multiplayer Game environment has seen some interesting changes over the last year or so. What might these changes indicate about the fate of existing MMORPGs and ones still in development?
Long Live the King!
The most obvious lesson is that producing a full-featured MMO is a very, very expensive proposition. While the rewards can be substantial (World of Warcraft was, for a long period of time, a license for Activision to print money) these rewards are increasingly uncertain and a game can require a lengthy period to make back the original investment. That investment, furthermore, can now rival that of a Hollywood blockbuster. Chris Roberts (of Wing Commander and Freelancer) fame has raised 20 million and counting in funding via Kickstarter (together with an unspecified amount of venture capital) simply to fund startup work on Star Citizen/Squadron 42. As with Hollywood’s products, the MMO world is also repeatedly learning the lesson that no amount of money can ensure a quality game will result. Nor will a game based on a popular existing franchise ensure success. Electronic Arts and Bioware threw money at The Old Republic like a plastic surgeon throws silicon at the Kardashians; while the exact budget is unknown there is general agreement that it may be the most expensive game ever made. . .so far. The result was a good game, but not a great one.
Sometimes the results have been even worse and a case in point is the release of Final Fantasy XIV, an eagerly anticipated entry into the MMO market, based on a storied (in several senses) franchise. Its launch completely redefined the word “disaster.” You can find numerous accounts of the problems with the game online so I won’t replicate those here. Suffice to say that there has rarely been such a well-funded entry into the MMO market that has so sorely disappointed players. So bad was the game, in fact, that the publisher (Square Enix) took the extraordinary option of pulling the game, arguing that it was a blight on the entire FF franchise, and announcing that it would relaunch the title.
It is also clear that by now no MMORPG is a serious contender for de-throning WoW. Now it is true that the game has, finally, begun to shed players. From its 2010 high of 12 million the number of subscribers is currently hovering somewhere around 8 million. The gaming press has, in varying degrees, delighted itself by wondering if this is the beginning of the end. But to put things in perspective, 8 million subscribers is, according to MMOData.net, about 5 million more than its nearest rival, Aion. Blizzard’s MMO is by this point the gaming equivalent of the Honda CRV. It isn’t really the best in its class in any particular area but it is a solid all-rounder, a name brand, and even though it is somewhat overpriced most people will sensibly opt for its reliability and proven track record. After a while, people start buying it simply because so many other people are buying it. So any game that enters the arena with the intent of becoming “the next World of Warcraft” is on a fool’s errand.
Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution. . .well, until we launch
The absurd sums of money necessary to produce (but more importantly, maintain) a AAA MMO these days may explain one thing that I’ve noticed emerging with increasing clarity as recent games begin to age: the window for meaningful innovation is tiny, and it is confined almost entirely to the period prior to launch. This is the time when developers have a chance to put their best and brightest ideas into practice. After the game launches, nothing much that is new or innovative gets developed. The changes that follow the launch of a modern MMORPG are limited to a rather predictable range of “new” features that aren’t really new: the content teams go into overdrive trying to keep up with the needs of the small group of players playing 24/7 while drinking Red Bull and peeing into wastepaper baskets. (Moar dungeons! Moar raids! Moar cosmetic sets of armor and weapons!) One set of “new” features will simply be those necessary to replicate the established or “new” features in other games that players suddenly discover they desperately need in this latest “revolutionary” game. (Player matching! Achievements! Moar achievements!). But that is about it.
There are two major factors influencing this state of affairs. The first is that given the standard MMO popularity curve (massive anticipatory spike, huge popularity at launch, followed by a rapid drop-off in numbers, finally stabilizing (hopefully) at a level that reflects real player interest) developers (with publishers pacing nervously behind them) become extremely timid: their primary purpose becomes to retain existing players. Once players are locked into a particular game style they really hate anything that messes with it, unless it is in the direction of making a game more “balanced” (of course, one gamer’s “balance” is another player’s “nerf bat”); what this tends to produce in practice is a system that moves from a state of low entropy to high entropy as the differences between classes, races, specializations, secondary specializations and all the other elements that were originally developed to give the game dynamic variety start to even out. By the end, playing your healer class starts to look and feel very much like playing your damage class which itself closely resembles your tank. . .
The second factor influencing the lack of post-game innovation is that developing new dungeon and raid content, particularly if there is any associated story element, and particularly if this is taking place (as it inevitably is) in a graphically sophisticated environment, consumes massive amounts of developer resources in terms of both creative and testing processes. Even if the developers do have other ideas for features they would love to implement these inevitably take a back seat, then are moved to the trunk, then are finally dumped as you careen around a corner. Thus Pirates of the Burning Sea once had ambitious plans to develop an entire game infrastructure around player-run towns, a vision that could have given life to a rollicking and unruly Caribbean. That however fell victim to a seemingly endless round of ship balancing and tuning and trying, discarding, then resurrecting various ship designs and combat mechanics. In the early days of Guild Wars 2 development Arenanet planned to develop an innovative interface that would allow players to follow guildies on quests from mobile devices in real time. That, too, has now entered the “where are they now?” file. Star Wars: The Old Republic announced after launch that they were interested in developing things like heavy capital ships that guilds could crew. There has been no mention of that since, but we do have lots of new raids and new stuff in the online store and a few really, really annoying new pets to play with.
What makes this situation especially tragic is that given they only have the period while the game is in development to do something really innovative, developers do very little with that time. Developers of these big budget game are stricken with chronic Insecure Prom Queen Syndrome (IPQS) –“Will they like me? Will they like me? What if they don’t like me? Am I still pretty?” What developers don’t seem to realize is that in the pre-launch phase, as long as your marketing. . .er, sorry, “community-building” teams are doing a halfway competent job, there is no way that players won’t like you. You could announce that your upcoming, cutting edge MMO consists entirely of high-rez piles of dog shit armed with flame throwers and players will ratchet up their expectations to Second Coming proportions. But the problem when you have IPQS is that your overwhelming concern is not to make sure that you stand out from the crowd (that would be too much of a risk) but mostly to ensure that you look like everyone else. Because it is never the troubled but interesting tattooed Goth chick that gets to be Prom Queen.
No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Or a Free Game
Blizzard’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider that we have definitively seen the end of the subscription-only model for MMOs. Note: not the end of the subscription, as some have erroneously claimed, but only the end of subscription-only. Most MMORPGs currently in release include a free-to-play (F2P) option and those that are released in the immediate future will also have to do so. You still see some gamers and the occasional reviewer deride a game’s announcement of free-to-play and treat it as the first step on the game’s inevitable slide into Remainderville. For some gamers free-to-play is also mixed up with their phobic attitude toward casual gaming; F2P represents the threat of “them” (i.e. people who don’t subsist on Red Bull and peeing into buckets) invading the Temple of Hardcore and forcing us to make all our avatars into My Little Pony. For other players, F2P is haunted by some some badly implemented (or, let’s be honest, downright deceptive) early F2P models, the practice often derided as “pay to win.” Fewer people sniggered when WoW announced that it was implementing a F2P model , but that ultimately didn’t quiet the sceptics.
But F2P is a logical response to several convergent trends that are shaping the MMO market. The first is simply that there are a lot of choices out there. And people tend to like choice, or at least say they do. So while it may have been common in a bygone era to pledge allegiance to Everquest until the servers shut down or your credit card maxed out, whichever came first, that was a world where there were few options. Moreover, we now have a lot of really good options for MMOs. I go through phases where I play either TOR or GW2, for a spell; at the moment I’m playing War Thunder. In addition, a solid F2P option is simply good marketing sense in such a crowded marketplace. MMOs famously tend to take a long time to reveal themselves to you. They always look and feel great at the start because the world is new and promising and their inherent narrative (you are but a learner, striving to be a master) positions you as a naiif at the start of a legendary journey. The start of any journey is always sunshine and puppies. It takes substantially longer, however, for you to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a specific MMO, and how much each of those matter to you. That is why the subscription curve for an MMORPG looks the way that it does. F2P, thoughtfully implemented, can give you the full flavor of the world and a thorough sense of the gameplay. Done really well, F2P allows you to see how much more fully immersed in this world you could be if you parted with some real-world money, either in the form of a subscription plan or, increasingly, through micro-transactions at an in-game marketplace (paying for the privilege to unlock individual elements in the game that subscribers get as part of their package, buying specialty (usually cosmetic only) armor, etc.). Lord of the Rings Online was exemplary in both these areas. I think I managed to make it to level 30 or so on the F2P option while accessing pretty much everything the game had to offer. At the same time, the restrictions on what I couldn’t do were just sufficiently numerous and subtly annoying that I opted to subscribe.
But it isn’t simply the case that there are a lot of options and F2P aids people in finding the one true game to which they will cleave forever and a day. Gamers, like people in general, are not designed to be monogamous. Like most gamers I like to play a lot of different games. I also go through phases and play one game solidly for a while then drop it in favor of something else. Sometimes I like to play a couple of different games in an evening. Being freed from the tyranny of a subscription allows me to experience a greater gaming variety.
The Rise of the Grey Wizards
If the advent of F2P is driven in part by the fact that MMO fans now have many more options than they did in the past it is equally driven by the inescapable fact that many of us have less time. The gamer demographic in most (over)developed nations is, slowly but surely, aging along with the rest of the population. Now popular culture in the (over) developed world provides more than enough opportunities to extend your feckless years (to judge from behavior, “twenty-something” is clearly the new “teen”) but sooner or later responsibility catches up with all of us. We’re saddled with spouses, children, jobs, relocation, loss of jobs, loss of spouses, the hunt for new spouses . . .and gaming has to take a back seat.
Because of these kinds of factors, I’ve gradually shifted in the way I’ve been thinking about F2P games. By this point in their evolution no one is really fooled that these games are really “free.” They are free to play, but only for a limited time. They are free to play, but not to play well. And they are free to play, but play with a glacial progression that would cause a Buddhist Monk to slam the keyboard in frustration. So most players end up paying. The beauty of a well implemented F2P system of course is that paying how much, how often, and for what is generally up to you, the player, and the goals that you have for your involvement in the game. Of course, for some players, paying anything is too much. One thing that always cracks me up on gaming forums is where a poster makes a Freudian slip and bemoans the rise of “pay-to-play” games. You should be paying to play. Immersive, challenging, visually stunning experiences of the kind that hardcore gamers in particular crave just don’t drop from the aether. In some ways the naming of this trend in games is unfortunate, since it seems to participate in the generalized expectation that anything somehow related to the Internet should be free (books, music, newspapers) because somehow producing quality content supposedly doesn’t actually cost anything. It is probably more accurate to describe F2P as PAYG, Pay as You Go.
Of course, the specter that haunts this payment model is that it is really “pay to win,” i.e. that if one player has more money than another he or she can purchase a measurable competitive advantage and that this isn’t “fair.” Developers naturally swear on a stack of bibles that they would never, ever create a “pay to win system.” These developers are either severely deluded or lying through their teeth. ’ve played several F2P games of various kinds and in every case paying money, either through microtransactions or especially through a subscription provides a player with a measurable advantage. Sometimes these advantages are subtle, but still real. If I can level faster than another player, for example, or my battles are easier (because I’ve been able to level multiple characters faster, as with TOR’s legacy system) then I am making money faster, likely making more of it, and spending less of it on things like armor repairs and the like. In games like World of Tanks the difference is even more marked. Two players might be at the same level and playing on the same battlefield. But if one of those players has had money to burn while the other is playing for free, the moneyed player can do things like massively accelerate the training of his crew, which provides a distinct advantage in battle.
But you know what? I’m OK with this. Because the whining about “paying to win” generally proceeds from two interrelated but equally false assumptions: that the playing field is level in the first place, and that games are inherently skill-based. There are some games where there is a decided element of skill. If you are challenged in the hand-eye coordination department then anything involving a controller or a full flight-sim rig is going to present something of a challenge. If you can’t think spatially then a whole host of games are going to present a challenge. But when it comes to MMORPGs in particular neither of these assumptions is true. Much of the “skill” in an MMORPG is simply a function of experience which is a function of time. The more you play, the more experience you gain, and the stronger your suite of abilities. But don’t you need to know how to use those skills? Yes, but here too this is a matter of experience. And this gives the lie to the first assertion concerning the level playing field. The playing field has never been level in videogames in general but in MMORPGs in particular, and the factor that confers an unfair advantage on some players is not skill or money, it is time. In the MMORPG world explicitly, but implicitly in many other games, time is money, experience, and skill. So a college kid who has 20 hours a week to devote to a game where I have only five is always going to be in a more winning position than me. If we’re playing a F2P game and neither of us spends a dime, he or she is going to level more rapidly, gain experience and skills more rapidly, and completely kick my arse. Now it is unfortunately the case (although fortunate for my spouse, my students, my friends) that I simply don’t have as much time to devote to gaming as a high school student, a college kid who is quite happy to flush a year of parental money down the crapper, or a twenty-something exploring his or her life options as a barista. Now that isn’t fair. What I do have (cue Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes) is more disposable income (well, OK, more than at least most of my students; some of them I guess could forego their annual trip to France and pour that money into gaming). So I am more than comfortable with whipping out my credit card and telling the kids to suck it.
Role-Playing: It isn’t just for Orcs and Morris Dancers
Quick, what is the largest MMORPG out there? If you answered World of Warcraft you would be wrong. It is in fact World of Tanks, the breakout hit for Byelorussian developer Wargaming.net. Now we can probably argue what “largest” means. When WoW reports its numbers it is usually talking in terms of subscribers, something that isn’t directly compatible with WoT’s free-to-play (ha ha) model. But WoT claims to have 40 million registered users. Even giving a substantial fall-off between those registering and those actually playing, that still adds up to a player base that easily dwarfs that for WoW. WoT also currently holds the Guinness world record for the number of concurrent players on a single server (take that EVE!). And for all the fact that WoT is on one level a simple death-match shooter, just with tanks rather than human avatars, it is also unmistakably a role-playing game. There is an elaborate level-based progression system. There are characteristics to which you allocate points. There are consumables and upgrades. The same model, naturally, is being employed in Wargaming’s World of Warplanes and occurs in an even more developed fashion in Wargaming’s competitor, Gaijin’s War Thunder. These games are massive. They are multiplayer. And they are very definitely built upon a role-playing gameplay structure.
This suggest two things. First, that we are going to have to be a little more precise when we talk about what have traditionally been regarded as MMORPGs. Probably the best-label for the “games formerly known as MMORPGs” now, in order to differentiate them from their upstart brethren, is PWGs (Persistent World Games). Even here, however, the designation may be a little slippery. Like any FPS game, the combat arena in WoT disappears once you leave it and everything is reset for the next bout of carnage. But your tank crews are persistent. They gain experience and specializations which continue to develop as you fight battle after battle. Indeed, War Thunder, which is well ahead of Wargaming’s efforts (as of this writing) to develop a game that combines air, sea, and land units, all operating according to the RPG model, is starting to look in many ways very similar to Aces High, the online aerial combat simulator that also, however, features player-operated vehicles and (to a limited extent) ships. War Thunder lacks only Aces High’s persistent (up to a point) world, while Aces High for its part was, ironically, set to introduce a career/RPG overlay with many similarities to that developed by Wargaming and Gaijin; the developers, HiTech Creations, got as far as building some demo assets before scrapping the entire project in favor of the usual graphic upgrades and new planes.
These new developments, however, suggest something very straightforward but also very important: people want to play a role. Engaging in frenetic fragfests is satisfying, but engaging in frenetic fragfests while developing a “character” (even in a very rudimentary form) is even more satisfying. Playing a role doesn’t have to be synonymous with being a Level 80 Necromancer who farts fire and spends the bulk of his or her gold on the kind of over-the-top bling that makes a rapper look like Nancy Drew by comparison. In a review of Pirates of the Burning Sea (Flying Lab Software, 2008-2013) I noted that the success of a game depended heavily on the interplay of four factors shaping the gameplay. The first two, imitation and innovation, concern player expectations based on their experience with other examples from the same genre. The second two define player involvement in the game: immersion and investment. Investment is the critical term for this discussion because it describes those factors that encourage a player to return to the game; it is, furthermore, a term that links a players feeling of being connected to, or involved in the game and their willingness to part with hard cash. Role-playing encouraged players to invest in a large number of games via a profitable subscription model for many years. Now it appears that it will remain just as important in encouraging players to invest under the new free-to-play regime.