The MMO Siren Song

The dirges of 38 Studios and the many employees of BioWare passed me by last week as I lay in bed with a virus that wished it was strep. Thankfully at this cowboy ranch we call Kill Ten Rats, Cyndre was able to get up a heartfelt post for our team. My favorite two posts on the subject were the reawakening of Broken Toys as Scott Jennings penned an ode to the MMO genre, and Spinks hammering out an always amazing link post. A few days before as the virus began its assault on my tonsils, I wrote a few languishing thoughts that set a desperate preview of what was to come.

I’ll repeat part of the much quoted Jennings’ post where he writes “…the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3, and the even more incredible display of massive hubris and utter incompetence on the part of Schilling and his management team, is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.” I thought a lot about his words as I lay there staring at the ceiling.

A Rift on 38 Studios and BioWare

Rift might be the last MMO success we’ve seen. It seemed to cost around $50 million to make over 5 years. Regardless of current health, which seems to be not-a-sinking-ship, Trion Worlds made money on the MMO. Enough that they were funded for two more MMO-type games: Defiance and End of Nations. I enjoyed Rift; it was a good MMO. It wasn’t amazing, and yes, eventually I unsubscribed. Still, I have no regrets about my purchase and months subscribed. Regardless, Trion Worlds is quietly succeeding as giants are dying.

I always appreciate Sanya Weathers’ editorials on developers, and in one of her latest columns she throws out a few “must haves” for starting a full-featured MMO. I find it most interesting that she makes sure to take aim at the “idea guy” as largely unnecessary. What I remember about Trion Worlds developer team is that they always promoted their MMO-industry vets. What I remember about 38 Studios dev team is a pitcher, the Drizzt creator, and some comic book guy. I’m not saying 38 Studios didn’t have plenty of MMO tech devs, but I am sure they paid heavily to get big-dog idea guys on the team.

The pattern you see here, says my umpeenth lozenge wrapper, is the MMO product as content. Rift was very much an MMO built around the current World of Warcraft conventions with some nice hydraulics and flashy paint job. They’ve continued to build many different game mechanisms that stretch away from quests-and-dungeons, but much of it still feels like World of Warcraft. In my opinion, Trion succeeded at repackaging the vanilla MMO with new content.

Star Wars the Old Republic (SWTOR), apparently did not succeed, at least for the bottom line. This disconnect between a profitable repackaging for a brand new IP and an MMO still making up red numbers from a mammoth IP amazes me. On white paper with Rift’s views in mind, SWTOR should have been printing money by now. BioWare took the conventional MMO ruleset, tweaked it a little, and repackaged it in the money-making Star Wars IP. How did they do this at a loss?

The Siren Song and ‘Q

I think that funding for MMOs is going to be a lot tighter going forward, yet, I do not believe this is going to be a large nail in the MMO genre’s coffin. People want to make MMOs. It is one of the few video game genres that emphasizes human nature. We cooperate, we communicate, and we share experiences in MMOs at degrees far greater than other genres.

They are also really freaking hard to make. In a lot of ways they remind me of BBQ. No not that chicken breast you are going to put on a gas-fired grill. I’m talking about real BBQ. The one that takes time, love, and pig. A McRib might be tasty to some, but it isn’t pork made magic.

MMOs, like BBQ, seem to be different than the mainstream genre of video games or carry-out. All the so-called “AAA” games that have tried to package MMOs off as content seem to have “failed” to carry on. It gets even scarier for MMOs that try and compete in the MMO arena as new experiences. Guild Wars 2 is about to the finish line after banking off of 7 years of a previous game, while Project Copernicus (38 Studios) collapsed a quarter mile to the finish line. How many haven’t even seen the light of media?

Jennings’ post was most clever because when that plane crashed in Iowa, the music didn’t die. It just took a pause to reflect. Perhaps that’s just what we need before a few very interesting MMO games launch. We’ll see if The Secret World might be the first to start turning things back around.

a beautiful psychedelic fever dream

19 thoughts on “The MMO Siren Song”

  1. WoW originally cost $63 million. Rift cost $50 million. I’m suspicious that perhaps the more a budget draws away from that range into higher numbers, the less return the devs start getting for their dollars.

    I am really curious to know how much GW2 cost to make.

    1. My best guess is around $100 million. ~5 years x ~250 employees x ~$100k / employee for some cow-patty math.

      1. If anyone has lots of free time and wants to work out just how well Guild Wars 1 sold and ArenaNet’s profits, the NCSoft financial reports (in English) are available on their website. You’ll also need a history of exchange rates for that time period, as money amounts are in the Korean Won. From my very rough tracking over the years, they made more than enough to cover costs, make GW2, and have a nice profit on top of that.

        Just a quick look at the reports from 2005 show some pretty impressive account activations for GW in the west, not to mention detailed game breakdowns for the Lineage series and even CoX, number of active accounts by month, servers, etc. Wish all games had that kind of info available and that NCSoft still released it. Interesting tidbit, NCSoft made money from selling EverQuest 1 somewhere in Asia for one quarter.

  2. Just a correction, Rift did not make money and they did not use that to fund more games. They raised a lot of money to start with and recently they were able to have a pension fund from Canada to pitch in as well. Rift is possibly opex positive but in no way they are able to recoup the capex.

    Trion was hoping to go public so the shareholders (that did not participate in the new round of funding) could offload their shares.

    They are still alive because they are making some money, but when the investors will see the money they put in back or if ever they will have an upside remains to be seen.


      1. That’s misleading to the point of dishonesty, actually.
        * Trion Worlds was funded with $100 Million start up funding.
        * Rift is widely believed to have cost $50 Million to make.
        * Trion Worlds announced $100 Million revenues for 2011.
        * They have had two funding rounds this year; lead by blue-chip pension funds. ie, not ‘let’s throw a hail mary pass to this company and maybe bring some jobs to the state’ but ‘if I don’t invest in guaranteed risk-free stocks I get sued by the Government of Canada’.
        * They’re preparing for an IPO, in which all initial investors – including those in the two funding rounds this year, which is why they occured – will be able to cash out at great profit.

        There IS a real comparison to be made between the approx $100 million TW used to make Rift; and the approx $100 million 38 Studios failed even to get an alpha of their game functioning. It’s a comparison that makes TW look very good.

  3. Ravious, I’m starting to think for each blog post you write, you find a new metaphor to use. Not that it’s a bad thing, just something I’ve realized over the months.

  4. I have often felt (in regards to games, movies and other things) that there must be some kind of threshold beyond which more money does not help, and may hinder, a project. The more you spend on it, the more successful it needs to be to not be a total disaster. Plenty of people have commented on 38 Studios’ seemingly unrealistic profit expectations.

    I guess more money pays more staff to work on it, which is undeniably useful…

    1. No, being able to hire more staff is not necessarily useful.

      Brooks law states, “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.

      That’s put forward in The Mythical Man Month, which is kinda one of the foundational texts in software project management field. First published (so wiki tells me) in 1975!

  5. Having played in the beta for The Secret World, I’m pretty sure it will go the way of Hellgate: London, another MMO that tried to cash in on IRL locations for a quick buck.

    Having played in BWE1 and slavering at the mouth for BWE2, I hope GW2 takes the championship belt from WoW, and runs with it for another seven years, at least.

  6. Ravious, great post.

    One point of clarification is that the “idea guys” that you mentioned for 38 Strudios, didn’t cost the company anything.

    Curt Schilling infused million in, by recent accounts he stands to lost upwards of $50mil.

    Bob Salvatore and Todd MacFarlane were backend deals, so they basically worked for free on the IP stuff so far.

    1. Just think of the $1.5M as part of the marketing expenses. In all the preview material, 38 studios PR was pushing that the game would have a world with deep lore written by a famous fantasy author. It was supposed to be one of the things which would distinguish the game from its competitors – at least from a promotional point of view. Its a lot of money but considering the ~$4M/month burn rate; its not their worst decision.

  7. I can’t even understand what scenario new MMOs are intended to succeed in.

    You have a population of players that are comfortable in their current game, have sunk tons of time and money into it, and you think they’re going to pick up and leave for Generic MMO #86, why again? How are you making customer conquests here? More critically, how are you making them in the volumes needed to be self supporting? The fact that Rift succeeded seems like almost an anomaly to me.

    I honestly think projects like The Elder Scrolls Online are only getting the go ahead due to overwhelming greed, ignorance, and hubris. I can see no rational reason for their existence in this market.

    Unlike Sanya, I believe a new MMO needs ideas more than anything right now. That and to be modest in budget and scope. Without carving out a truly unique and innovative niche for itself, what hope is there it will ever have a stable audience?

    I could be wrong though. I don’t feel like I have a good sense of the consumers for these products anymore.

  8. The reason SWTOR failed was that it wasn’t an MMO, but it billed itself as one. I pre-ordered the game, my entire guild moved to go play it, and played for several months before I just could not justify continuing to spend/waste any more money on it than I had.

    It was a Bioware game with a co-op system where you could play through your personal game story alongside your friends. That part was great. The 1-50 story, exploring the planets, dinking about on your starship, that was all fun. But it wasn’t an MMO. It was a single-player, or at best co-op, RPG.

    Once you hit 50, the game evaporated. It was like they put no real thought or effort into the MMO side of things. The AH was atrocious, content at 50 was a re-hash of the exact instances you had to play leveling up, PvP was hands-down the worst of any MMO I’d ever played, game engine was grossly laggy and unresponsive, skill bloat was phenomenal.

    Unless you wanted to roll one of every character class to see the story play out, you were basically done as soon as you hit 50. If you wanted, you could grind the same handful of instances for a random shot at loot (which is a model even WoW has tried to do away with by now) but the improvements from that loot to your character were minimal – not least because you’d already completed all the content in the game.

    And personally, if it had been a one-time-purchase game, the single-player game it so clearly was, or something like Guild Wars with no monthly fee, I probably would have kept playing just to see all the storylines. But not for $15 a month, not a chance. And there’s no way to keep a cohesive guild going when everyone is rolling 8 million alts because they’re so bored. Nearly everyone in my guild is gone.

    The IP wasn’t enough, and closing down SWG right before they opened TOR to try and force the SW fans to play it showed how fundamentally they misunderstood their audience. SWG was a sandbox-style game. Nothing in TOR was even mildly satisfying to the type of people who’d stayed loyally playing SWG all these years.

    It’s not enough to make a game with a good IP. You have to bother to make it a QUALITY game for the audience you’re aimed at. SWTOR didn’t do that.

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