Tao of the MMO Gamer

Plenty of people put forth their forwardlooking posts, and I am going to do it as well.  Whether it is from a Steam-driven library of games, an aging MMO population, an economic recession, or plenty of different business models coming in to the MMO world, I believe that the subscription model of today is nearly done being “the way.”  Walk with me a second…

The epic holiday Steam sale brought about mental food for this post.  Zubon noted a couple things on Steam, I bought Trackmania United Forever, Peggle Deluxe, and Civilization 4, and a close friend of mine blew nearly $200 on new games noting, as he punched in his AMEX number, that he would probably never get to some of them.  The thing we have in common is that we are all MMO gamers.  We play a genre of games that require dedication to the degree of it becoming a hobby, and we all bought a bunch of non-MMO games.

But, something is different from before.  I used to have to pick and choose what games I wanted to play based on what was installed, or even owned, at the time.  Now, elements like Steam and expanded hard drives give me a venerable library of games at my fingertips for any type of gaming mood.  I go through cycles of wanting to play different genres, but MMOs remain an everpresent base-level noise.  A lot of times I will follow what is new and shiny (Left 4 Dead), and other times I will learn to play late to the party (Civ 4).  Some games I just play now for events (Guild Wars), some I play constantly (Lord of the Rings Online), and some I play while I get a moment’s reprieve during a Dora episode (Peggle).  One thing is constant, though:  I am a PC Gamer.

Yet, the AAA MMOs that see the light post-WoW are still developed as if it was going to be the only game the player would play.  I am not sure PC gamers still want such a thing.  In fact, the complaint I hear most often on the base design of new MMOs is that are they subscription-based (read: built to be a hobby).  It didn’t work at all for Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, or Hellgate:London, which were three games that were stretched thin to be hobbies.  Age of Conan seems to be hanging by a string, and Warhammer Online, a hobby success, is likely mellowing out far from the 800,000 spike.  Plenty of commentaries said that 2008 was not a good year for MMOs.

I don’t agree.

I think that the Everquest/World of Warcraft zeitgeist has started digging its own grave, and that’s why people deem 2008 a failure.   The new market winners are going to be the niche MMOs that try things a different way.  And by “things,” I mean pricing models. 

Developers create the game based on the business model.  Not the opposite. Subscription MMOs are created to require committment.  So-called free-to-play (F2P) MMos are created to ensure that players want the “painless” microtransactions.  And, buy-the-box MMOs (e.g., Guild Wars) are created so that the new cool thing is in the upcoming release.  The theory is not rocket science; although the application may darn near be.

So, I see two lines converging.  I don’t have much of a vantage point to see them, but here is what I see.  I see “MMO Gamers” having expanded games libraries as content becomes easier to buy, and I see plenty of MMOs coming that are trying unique business models.  The games that are on my horizon are Darkfall Online (proud to be hardcore niche), The Agency (quick fun, ad-based business model, lots of good ideas), LEGO Universe (player-driven, could be an interesting business model especially if it ties in real Legos),  Star Wars: The Old Republic (what does mid-session mean?), and of course Guild Wars 2.  The convergence is going to be  a lot of great games that require little dedication to experience the whole game.  This is going to leave a lot less time for dedication-required MMOs, especially the vanilla ones like World of Warcraft.  The dedication-required MMOs that do well, I believe will be geared towards a niche audience.

So what do I think?  I don’t think 2008 was a fail-year for MMOs.  I think it was a wake up call.  AAA MMOs do not have to cling to the $15 flatline, and if they do… it really has to be worth it.

Is our whole dissembly appeared?

27 thoughts on “Tao of the MMO Gamer”

  1. They really have to be worth it in truth. $15 a month isn’t an unbearable burden, but the absolutist “you’re in for 30 days for $15 or you’re not playing at all” is self limiting. There are a few games I would dabble in for a couple of hours a month if there were some other pricing model, but not at the standard $15 a month rate.

    LOTRO’s lifetime subscription is the most uplifting model for me. I come and go as I please, I play when I want, I don’t worry about getting my money’s worth this month or wondering if I need to cancel today and resub two months down the line.

  2. Gotta echo Wilhelm on LoTRO’s lifetime subscription. I’m both a huge Tolkien nerd and a fan of Jackson’s adaptations. Despite that background, I don’t think I would’ve played quite as much had I been in the standard monthly subscription. If I go for two weeks without logging in, there’s no guilt about wasting money. I also don’t have to decide if I’m ready to really play again or just dabble before resubbing, which is what I do with EQ2 and WoW (and normally decide against).

  3. Isn’t the definition of a AAA MMO title mean it’s worth the $15? I’m guessing TR would still be online if it was $5 or so, same with Auto Assault. Atlantica Online would be terrible if they tried to pass it off as a $15 a month game.

    But players have shown they are willing to pay the $15 for the top tier MMOs, and I think that will continue. The difference is that the market has expanded to also support the smaller titles, which only benefits the players.

  4. I don’t necessarily think so. I would say it’s more about the developers behind the game and the quality and resources put into it. Obviously Dungeon Runners, from NCSoft, is not an AAA MMO, but is Guild Wars? I think so. NCSoft said we are going to super concentrate on AAA MMOs and Guild Wars 2 is still coming. Or SW:TOR? Pretty heavy rumors that it is going to follow a different busines model, and I could not believe BioWare making anything less than an AAA MMO.

  5. Personally I come from the other end of all this: AAA or not, if it’s good and I’m having fun, I want to play it. And that (saving huge financial catastrophes) is pretty much period right there.

    For me the “discerning” and choice aspects don’t happen at the high end of the sub value -the mythical $15 – but at the low end of the game value itself. For example, I have paid my $15 religiously for WoW, even through spells of not really playing much, because I liked the game. Same with Guild Wars… I started with Factions because of the advice from Ethic and crew here, and later on I picked up every single expansion. My wife did the same. Although I don’t play it anymore, it was money well spent for the value it gave me.

    On the other end of this, there are games which I have tried, did not like for several reasons, and no matter how sweet you want to make the deal it’s not gonna happen. Games like LOTRO or CoX that I wouldn’t play consistently even if they were offered to me for free. The way I see it, I’m still spending something – time, in this case – on something that offers little value to me.

    So I discern based on the game’s value and little else. Of course I wouldn’t play a $50/mo MMO, no matter how many A’s you append to it, but that’s an extreme example that has never happened and never will. I can’t recall a game with a sub more expensive than the $15 (I think iRacing has a weird thing going with really expensive subs, but that’s “something else”, it’s a seasonal sim thingamajig I haven’t really looked into).

    To me it’s quite simple: Offer me a good game, that sucks me in and makes me want to play it. Price it about the same as any other game out there, sub-based or not, and I’m in. Make a game that I don’t want to play, or I have tried and didn’t have fun with, and I won’t play it no matter what.

    Ravious’ point is well-taken. Pricing models do matter. But to me the game’s value (subjective) trumps whatever payment scheme people come up with.

  6. I have to agree with Julian 100%. If an MMO has to rely on its pricing model to differentiate itself and attract players, then its probably not that great. A good game will attract players – doesn’t matter what the pricing model is.

  7. Julian and Arnold, I think we agree. Game value is most important; however, I believe that many games post-WoW went about like this:

    Developer: I have a great MMO game idea.
    Exec: Awesome, how can we make it a subscription game?

    That is the problem. Games which should not have been made a $15 subscription, IMHO, were made as such. I really like that more and more big name devs and companies now seem to be exploring more options instead of forcing the game into that pricing model.

  8. Agreed. It’s nice to see more options, even if I personally might not be interested in the game behind those pricing options. I know someone somewhere might.

    Question, though, Rav: When you say “games which should not have been made a $15 subscription”, I wonder which ones you have in mind and why?

  9. Well I think Tabula Rasa and Auto Assault are the two easy ones. They couldn’t even form a niche to stay afloat. Yet, they had some great ideas. Would the ideas have worked if they weren’t shoehorned into a subscription model? I believe so. I also think that Warhammer Online will be a “success,” but not to any degree that people thought. I detailed my thoughts on it in Non-Content War post. I can’t speak for Age of Conan as much because I haven’t played it, but it seems like they added a bunch of non-necessary stuff to puff up their reason for a subscription game.

    But sadly it is about the bottom line; not building a legacy. So “success” means much different things. I heard a rumor (and for the life of me I can’t find it anywhere) that Age of Conan paid off the development costs with box sales alone.

  10. I think I agree. They are making too many “light, thin, non-hobby, casual, however you want to say it” games and expecting them to be subscription-based worthy. They are not.

    So, if people want to move from game to game and are interested in that type of fare, then yeah, hopefully they’ll come out with some F2P RMT based games.

    I just won’t be playing them much. I personally want AAA MMO titles that are built to be a hobby. I agree with Julian & Ravious above. I could subscribe to multiple games at once if I found them enjoyable. When I get an urge to play a particular MMO I could just sign up for a month and play, and it wouldnt bother me. The problem is I rarely have that urge. I generally play only one game at a time (Vanguard atm. It rocks, check it out *shameless plug* :) ). Yeah, I jump in when the new MMO comes out, but I end up returning to my original game not b/c of the sub price, but because I stopped enjoying that game. I wouldn’t even log in if it were free.

    I think you’re right, the problem seems to be that most of the MMOs that have come out recently are overpriced for what you get. I don’t think a sizeable group of people are preferring one model over the other though. Make an awesome game and people will play it, whichever price model you go with.

  11. I prefer the “lifetime subscription” of Guild Wars. That’s value (subjective) that I am willing to pay for.

    While we’re talking of “worthy of subscription”, how exactly is the WoW endgame treadmill of Daily chores “worthy” of subscription? You’re paying for very little in the way of content.

    The Field of Dreams mentality of “if it’s awesome, people will pay to play” is outmoded, especially when it comes to a $15 flatline. Money matters, especially in times of economic trouble. People, especially in MMOs, come from widely divergent circumstances. The monetization should match.

    The market will diversify. The only question is who will be doing it, and who will lose out from maintaining an “if you build it, they will come” mentality.

  12. To clarify, yes, people will play awesome games. The black market for private WoW servers illustrates that. The question isn’t one of getting people to want to play awesome games. It’s one of getting people to pay for them.

  13. “While we’re talking of “worthy of subscription”, how exactly is the WoW endgame treadmill of Daily chores “worthy” of subscription? You’re paying for very little in the way of content.”

    The way I see it, I think content is only one angle of it. It matters, of course, but is not the only one. And in some cases not even the most important.

    Anecdote: I finished high school many years ago, but I remained in a very strong friendship with a few (6-7) of my classmates. We all lived pretty much within 10 minutes of each other, always did stuff together, and this continued after we finished school and moved on.

    A ritual emerged almost organically. During our time in school, after we were done at noon, we walked a couple of blocks to a small restaurant/bar. Had a couple of coffees, maybe a little sandwich, chilled out after school for an hour or so. Once we graduated, for some reason this ritual persisted. Only that we moved it to tuesday nights. We’d go have dinner and hang out there, and when I say hang out I’m talking about 3-4 solid hours of after dinner table chat over coffee.

    This ritual kept going for many years. Religiously, every tuesday night. Sure, some nights some people couldn’t make it, some tuesdays we were many, some other tuesdays we were few, but a variable core of people was always there.

    Now, the place wasn’t the best. It was a modest establishment, in a corner. It wasn’t stylish. Wasn’t even charming in the way many small restaurants/bars/pubs can be. It was all function and no form. It looked old, poorly maintained, the food ranged from acceptable to sometimes dire and terrible, the only TV in there was an old 14″ they kept perched out of reach and seemingly miles away. The other regular group in there was a bunch of old cab drivers who paused their routes there just to get a bite and hang out like we did. Sometimes they were okay, most of the time they were annoying. Everything was slightly overpriced, the restrooms were nasty, and the waiters and staff could be so annoying that through the eyars we came to regard it as part of the charm of the place, and not only accepted it, but looked forward to it.

    So why did we go there, and most importantly, why did we keep meeting there, week after week, year after year? We lived in a huge city, it’s not that we didn’t have other options.

    We went there because it was our ritual, and because everybody else (that we cared about) was going there too. The “content” of the place was pretty bad, and we had been “enjoying” it for almost 10 years all in all. We could have changed, but never did. Other places, I’m sure, could have offered better “content”. Or at least, new “content”.

    But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t “our thing”. We had already invested years into this, and it was precisely this bad “content” that kept us coming, in a way. We had internalized it as part of our thing, our weekly ritual, and no one in our group would be ashamed to admit we were actually looking forward to those tuesday nights, and their overpriced below average food, annoying staff and patrons and drab environment.

    There’s more to the things we do, and the things we get fun from, than just “content”. There’s also the idea of sharing with others when you enjoy the company, and the purposeful overlooking of the “bad” in order to have that “good” which comes from the shared experience. Of course we could have met somewhere else, and of course we could have had fun. We would’ve been the same people, doing the same stuff, but “the thing” would have been lost. Even if it was bad, we cherished it because we had made it ours.

    That’s why if I could tell one thing to game developers, it would be to set their vision past good and bad, and aim for memorable. Something good can be treasured, something bad can be avoided, but something memorable and unique is something that players want to keep, and will keep coming back to it.

  14. Well, here is my take on this. For over 4 years, I played only one MMO: Star Wars Galaxies. I finally left that game, resently, because most of my friends left and because it’s just not fun anymore.

    After trying a few MMOs, Vanguard, Eve Online, etc, I’ve settled on City of Heroes. My daughter, who is now getting into the gaming age, also likes the game. I can’t afford two subs right now, so we can not play together.

    Also, there are several games coming out soon that I’m interested in. I know for a fact that when SW TOR comes out, I will be playing that minimum. It would be nice If I could also play Champions Online or DC Universe Online, or CoX too (depending on which is best). It would also be nice if I could play with my daughter. If they are all sub based, then I can’t do it. Not all of us have large amounts of disposable income. And I don’t like MMOs that are not AAA. So I think alternate busness models would be a good idea.

  15. I’m currently playing two AAA MMOs at the moment: WoW and WAR. I’m fortunate that I can afford to indulge both habits. If I had to make a choice it would be hard, as I enjoy them for different reasons (WoW for community, WAR for PvP). I played WoW for two years exclusively, I simply didn’t touch other games. Only now that have I started branching out into other games (Fall Out 3, WAR). WoW was “my world” because both for the richness of the content and the community I found.

    One thing about the subscription model: it encourages a more stable player base than F2P or other models. In paying $15 p/m players feel they need to get their $$$ worth. Average time spent in an MMO can be measured in months. If they are good, years.

    To state the obvious, MMOs by definition are about community: without people they are barren theme parks. I have low level alts in both WoW and WAR, and the early staging areas are noticibly barren. Small packs of overpowered twinks roam the PvE content, pwning mobs and grinding towards level cap (“My guild needs a healer/tank”). Grouping for instances/PQs/dungeons is impossible. So much IP lying unused.

    Which is why I’m not too sure F2P or RMT MMOs are that viable: yes they will get large numbers of players churning through them, but for short periods of time. Weather it is a F2P, RMT or subscription game without a community they wil not survive.

    Obviously game play, stability, class balance and an engaging world make all the difference.

    In short F2P/RMT MMOs will be the domain of PuGs. Lots of toons, but not much in the way of social networks and weak communities (“Hello JohnSmith123 meet JohnSmith890, JohnSmithe123, and JohnSmith3456).

    We now talk about WoW/MMO tourists hitting games like AoC and WAR and deserting them not long after.. well F2P/RMT MMOs will be even worse as players lack the incentive to stay (no box/subscription investment to keep them in longer, no communities to keep them engaged).

    Publishers/developers may get an income stream from them in RMT, but really mostly they will be an unsatisfactry and empty experience for gamers. “Oh look, another F2P WoW clone…. (yawn)”.

  16. I think you are close to something, Michael, but your stance on F2P/RMT having lesser community is not wholly true. I would guess that communities in subscription games stay together longer, but that’s not saying much since, IMHO, we have not had a fantastic F2P/RMT game as of yet (unless you count Guild Wars, and there are super strong communities in there). Most F2P/RMT games have come from Asia, and Asian players do not play or communalize like American/European players. It’s a totally different mindset on how to play the game.

  17. I agree on the change of Zeitgeist. I am no longer looking forward to the next MMO.

    I am looking not only for the next generation of MMOs, I am waiting for a totally new mutation, a leap ahead in evolution.

    Till then, I will play single player games.

    I guess you are right, more specialized MMOs with alternate payment options could be the future.

    The problem of all these AAA MMOs based on subscriptions and time intensive gameplay: People can only play one. So a huge playerbase is already bound to their AAA MMO of choice. In the western world this is WoW, but EVE has also a very addict playerbase.

    I guess we will see many smaller MMOs, the stone old game NAVY FIELD is still going very strong and they seem to make good money with their “not so optional” premium-items-but-free-to-play-strategy.

  18. Julian’s story describes what made WoW very enjoyable for me, and if you don’t want to read his response it boils down to one thing: community. It’s very easy to compare Julian’s experience with his friends at their local diner to a Guild in an MMO, where you keep coming back time after time not because of the awesome place, but because of the awesome people. And it’s not the people that run around IF begging for gold (they’d be Julian’s cabbies and the diner’s staff), but because of the people in your Guild, the ones with whom you’ve formed rock solid relationships, such that logging in on a Friday & Saturday night isn’t like sitting down in front of the TV, but is more like spending an evening with good friends.

    What an MMO needs to be able to do is hold you long enough that you can meet up with these people, but it also needs to give you the tools to stay hooked up. Before I quit WoW there were times I’d be logged out for weeks at a time, and when I finally logged in I’d have Guildies practically YELLING my name, welcoming me back. That’s what keeps you coming back, keeps you logging in night after night, week after week.

    Wizard 101 is a fun game and I’m really enjoying it, when I log in, but as Saylah mentioned on her Blog the two of us had a devil of a time hooking up in game. As in-game friends we can send each other private tells and we can see when the other is online (just like WoW) but we were not able to add each other as friends in-game without virtually standing in front of each other. We had to be able to click each other’s avatar in order to become in-game friends, and it was weeks before that happened.

    There’s no Guilds in W101 so even though I’ve made several adult friends in the game and we can chat with each other when we’re on, there’s no Guild Banter going on in the background a la WoW.

    That’s what W101 really needs, and it’s what other MMOs need if they want to not just attract players, but keep them coming back for more, and more, and more.

  19. I fully agree that W101 really needs better social tools. The thing that really turned me off was the lack of partying. Partying (and guilding) does impart some sort of player to player inclusivity that just can’t be found with /tell’s.

  20. I had one of the W101 devs ear for a bit and I was asked for feedback during the beta. I commented on the grouping dynamic and how I wished you could form a group if you wanted. One of my problems was that any random person could jump into a fight and possibly leave one of your group members out of the battle. His response was:

    “We didn’t include grouping. One of the goals was to really make this a cooperative game and we felt that letting folks join and help battles really fostered this. With the teleport to friend function we see a lot of folks make friends in the game and then teleport and quest together. Of course, you have called out the downside which is sometimes another person can jump in and leave a member out.”

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