Keen has a post up asking whether Guild Wars 2 will surpass his “3-month” rule-of-thumb. He uses it as a metric for MMO success. How much of the launch population stays around after three months? If “most” have left, then Keen chalks it up to a bad-egg MMO. Rift, Warhammer Online, and the like seem to fall under his rule. The problem with his rule is whether it is even a valid measurement. Has any recent MMO passed 3 months under Keen’s rule-of-thumb?
The rule appears based on the mass egress of players at around 90 days. The first month, like a good drug, is free for subscription-based games. The second month begins the actual monthly tithe, which is darn near automatic in the minds of many players. It’s the moment where I would guess players on the fence decide to throw just a little more money at it since it’s just a fraction of the money already spent. It’s at the third month that I think issues, boredom, or grass-is-greener syndromes overcome the value of continuing to play. Players are implicitly asked the question of whether it is worth staying.
The problem, I feel, has been one of an obese launch followed by a much leaner steady cycle. MMOs are now born with baby fat that will definitely go away. Many bloggers seem to be unaware of this and simply compare launch population to current population in order to announce “fail”. Yet, it appears that producers can be just as imprudent, the most recent being Star Wars The Old Republic. A good amount of MMO purchasers appear to be tourists with little intention of planting roots because there is so much else out there.
I don’t think the 3-month rule is a good way to measure success. I feel it is a givein that a large portion of the launch population will begin to dissipate at around that time especially in a subscription-based game. In my opinion, it’s the developer’s reaction to this give-in that I feels pulls more weight.
My least favorite moment in an MMO’s life is during layoff time. There is no stronger, public objective evidence that business is leaner than anticipated. This is my rule-of-thumb on success. How long after launch was there a big layoff? Or, how long after launch do marketing gimmicks begin to appear (this usually is a strong indicator of coming layoffs anyway)?
This is why I really like Trion. Sure they produced a fun product, but on their business end they have stayed very smart. As far as I can tell they did not have a layoff after the launch of Rift. (They did have a small one beforehand, which did truthfully sound like a restructuring rather than book balancing.) Yet, Keen seems to call Rift a “three-monther” since only a fraction of the launch population has stayed. Heck, I left around 3-months, but I left as a happy customer with no intention of announcing “fail”. To me, this was just the natural course of things. Regardless, the sustaining population appears to have met or exceeded Trion’s expectations because they have not had layoffs. That is a really important factor.
Community and a sustained population are the lifeblood of MMOs. Launch population is a great way to help pay off years of development costs, but it is not the strongest indication of sustained success. Most people consider EVE Online a success, but it is a niche MMO with a sustained population (many of which have multiple subscriptions). EVE Online had a small launch, but it has grown. I feel that it is unlikely for an MMO to start small and grow in this way in comparison to having a large launch and downsizing. I definitely appreciate that this is a great way to make an MMO rather than shoot for the sun and burn out of money (see 38 Studios).
Another good indicator of success is the amount of content expansions. Expansions have a greater risk vs. reward than small updates. Lord of the Rings Online is about to come out with their fourth expansion, this one in to Rohan. While I think the third expansion (Rise of Isengard) may have been filler-like, the other three expansions have all introduced new mechanics (legendary items, skirmishes, and mounted combat), which introduce a huge risk and also a huge draw. Creating expansions of this magnitude requires much more in the way of developmental resources than small free content updates. It requires a sustained population as well as an expectation of returning player draw. Both indicate success.
Guild Wars 2 already appears to have exceeded internal expectations for launch, which further supports the idea that there will likely be baby-fat population on launch. I expect after the New Year when people have started to “beat” the game and after the big anticipated festivals is when the baby fat will start to melt off. This does not take in to account PvP or WvW, which are much harder to anticipate as far as a sustained population and support. This also does not take in to account late adopters buying accounts after launch. ArenaNet has said they will have a very aggressive post-launch support for the game, and they want it to be the industry best. If it is on tier with the MMOs I discussed above, I would consider it a sustained success.
The strongest indicator of Guild Wars 2 not being a 3-monther comes from commentator Fergor who discusses spending 50 hours in Queensdale alone. Queensdale is the level 1-15 human starting zone. He says those hours were spent on fun, not progression. At GameSpy, Leif Johnson was surprised to find that he was enjoying replaying beta content. This is unusual for “AAA” MMO launches. Most of the time I hear groans of “I’ve already played the starting zones all beta, can’t we just keep our characters”. For Guild Wars 2, I’ve been hearing a lot of “starting zone X was the most fun, I’m going to start with that race”.
Most MMOs have been so based on progression that having one built on fun gameplay so strongly is making many magic 8-balls extremely hazy. It gets even hazier since there is no subscription decision for players to make each month in Guild Wars 2. I am not worried about the Guild Wars 2 being a 3-monther in any form, but I am interested to see how it performs against my indicators of sustained success. In less than 10 days, we’ll being that process of that review.