Most of you are probably reading gaming blogs for news and drama, but if you are interested in issues of game design and business, you should go read the archives of Biting the Hand, dating back to 1997. I read the entire thing, along with the Tweety and Lum archives, before starting blogging. I should probably re-read it.
One reason Jessica Mulligan stopped writing Biting the Hand is that she was repeating herself. She was tired of pointing out the same lessons repeatedly as developers made the same mistakes. You could run your own blog for a couple of years just updating her columns with recent examples. Skimming, it is interesting to see how much times have changed and how much they have stayed the same.
To take an example, the February 1998 column, “Online Gaming: Why Won’t They Come?” has a pair of tables that I always think of when a new game launches. For those of you not pursuing links, it explains the subscription pattens of online games. Well-managed games rise for three or four months, dip when the buzz of initial release dies down, then get a word-of-mouth bump before settling into a long-term, stable population. Poorly managed games never come back from that initial dip, losing at least half their peak within the first year. So I always think of games as about to meet their fate around the four-month point. This column was the first thing on my mind when, 13 years later, I saw Keen’s recent post on three-month games. Wait, failed online games have always been 3-monthers. The issue of the moment is “theme park vs. sandbox” instead of “customer service,” but as Keen expands his inquiry in the comments, he increasingly is getting back to 1998. (And, as far as I can tell, is calling for someone to develop EQ or pre-NGE SWG.)
Of course, you can wonder whether developers are repeating old mistakes or embracing them as a new model. My college buddies switched gaming obsessions every 3 or 4 months. If you are expecting most of your players to do that, why bother to build a game with a year of content? Embrace churn, invest in advertising instead, and plan to invite those players back in a year when you have another few months of content. Whiners will leave no matter what you do, fanboys will subscribe on almost pure hope, so triage suggests focusing on the squishy middle.
See also September 1998, at which time Blizzard was the small, innovative company used as a contrast to the sclerotic corporate behemoths.