Prior Art and Three-Month Games

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.

: Zubon

See also September 1998, at which time Blizzard was the small, innovative company used as a contrast to the sclerotic corporate behemoths.

7 thoughts on “Prior Art and Three-Month Games”

  1. I remember an old interview with Richard Garriott when he worked at NCSoft, where I believe he said that the average time a player stayed subscribed to a game was somewhere around 3 months (either 2-3 months or 3-4 months, do not recall exactly).

    We also have many more MMOs or MMO-like/influenced games, so the likelyhood of being able to grab a significant part of the playerbase decreases – at least the somewhat hardcore/experienced portion of the playerbase. There may be new people who have not played MMOs before also, but how many of these would be players that would want to stay with a single game for a long time?

    Gte people interested, let them play for a few months and then maybe a year later or so there will be more/new content that will get them back for a month or two.

    I certainly do not think it is about repeating mistakes, it is about adapting to market conditions. And not everyone may like that.

  2. I still think that “long haul” games are a bit of an aberration anyway. They also have a nasty habit of being, well… designed around addiction rather than good, solid gaming.

    1. I think they can be designed around communities.

      The most striking example of this I’ve seen was Star Wars: Galaxies. I revisited it in 2009, having left in 2004. It was clear that one of the main things that kept people invested was player housing and player cities at least as much as attachment to characters.

      In fact the most invested people were Mayors, people running player cities, with a physical community visible to everyone who plays the game as part of the landscape.

  3. Well this is where passionate developers step in and make new dynamic content regularly. We’ve already seen how Rifts are fun events but get a little stale. If the devs can add some sort of special flare to these events regularly ( more then every 3 months), then the rule of 3 months is avoided by keeping fresh content.

  4. I think of MMOs as being more akin to soap-operas or superhero comic-book series than “games”. Those are genres where the life of the product is measured in years or even decades and the audience will consist of a mix of newcomers, dippers-in and lifetimers.

    Like soap operas and comic-book series, it’s entirely possible to follow one fervently for years, lose interest and forget all about it for just as long, then get drawn back in and start the cycle all over again. They are forms that combine the illusion of change with the preservation of an eternal sameness, and so are MMOs.

    From the producer’s point of view you run into the issue of whether the company wants to sell a product or run a service. Gaming has traditionally been a product-led business – build ’em, advertise ’em, sell ’em, move on to the next one. MMOs are very much more on the “service” side; even “free” cash-shop funded MMOs rely heavily on operatign a service to underpin those sales, and of course subscription games are almost wholly service businesses.

    It seems that the “service” model is spreading out of MMOs into general gaming, with all the Steams and DLCs and social gamings. Game companies are going to end up more like ISPs than the MOvie Studios they used to ressemble.

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