Is One MMO Enough for a Studio?

CCP was on the cusp of becoming a respectable multi-MMO studio, but then it jettisoned World of Darkness and pledged undying loyalty to the EVE universe.

Syp, MMO studio report card: Where are our leaders?

Syp had a post a while back about MMO industry leadership that had a strongly implied and, to my mind, not well supported assumption about what such leadership amounts to.  Subscribers/customers wasn’t a factor.  Not to pick on Syp, but he does tend to see the negative in all things Blizzard, so he would have to either throw that out or say something nice about Blizz.  The latter may have stuck in his throat, thus leadership has nothing to do with audience size or the influence that goes with it.

Nor does it have anything to do with who is following whom, a simple definition of leadership.  That way lies madness… or Blizzard again.  Lots of people have been following Blizzard, adopting features haphazardly over time like EverQuest II, setting themselves up as alternatives with “WoW Plus” games like Rift at launch, or just copying chunks the game wholesale like Alganon.

No, not Azeroth!

Mentioning Azeroth acknowledges its leadership

Whether or not World of Warcraft being viewed as a leader… it is by outsiders if nobody else, and they seem to have all the money… has been good for MMOs over the last decade is an open sore of a topic.  Are the stifling aspects of Blizzard’s behemoth on the industry (go into any MMO beta and count the number of times somebody is essentially complaining in general chat that the game in question isn’t WoW) worth the players that WoW brought into the genre and who went on to play other titles?  So goes the debate.

No, the only aspects that seemed to count on his list was having multiple MMO titles in play and who was making new MMOs.

But are more MMOs better for a company or not?  And do more MMOs really mean leadership?

Perfect World Entertainment, which includes the perennially troubled Cryptic Studios and the “disappeared off the map for two years and not making a Torchlight MMO” Runic Games, has many MMO titles available.  However, aside from the output of Cryptic, their titles tend to be Asian imports that do not play well in the west.  And even the Cryptic titles are not all that strong.  Neverwinter has a following and some features of note, but I rarely hear much good about the rushed to market due to contractual requirements Star Trek Online and almost never hear anything at all about their “let’s remake City of Heroes” title, Champions Online.  Maybe PWE isn’t a good example, especially when they are pointing at their US operations as hurting their bottom line.

How about NCsoft?  Again, they have a range of MMO titles from their home studio in South Korea along with titles from ArenaNet and Carbine Studios.  Certainly GuildWars 2 is a strong candidate, though the financials indicate that the execs in Seoul will be forcing ANet to ship an expansion box to boost revenues.  And all focus at ANet is on GW2, with GuildWars left to run out its days unsupported.  WildStar though… I haven’t heard any good news there.  And when it comes down to it, NCsoft gets most of its revenue from South Korea, and largely from its 1998 title Lineage.  Meanwhile, it has closed a lot of MMOs, which could be bad news for Carbine if they don’t get their act together.  Is this the multi-MMO company model we want others to follow?

And then there is Funcom, which has shambled from disappointment to disappointment.  They launched LEGO Minifigures Online a little while back which, true to Funcom’s history, has failed to meet expectations.

Okay, maybe we should ignore all those foreigners and look at a US-centric company like Sony Online Entertainment.

I love SOE, but at times they seem to be the MMO studio embodiment of Murphy’s Law.  If they can do the wrong thing, they will, and in front of a live studio audience.  Granted, they do tend to fix things in the end and do the right thing, but sometimes getting there is painful to watch.  However, they are the US champion for a multi-MMO company, at least in terms of number of titles.  But has this made them better or just spread them too thin?

They have two flavors of EverQuest and a third on the way at some distant future date.  There is LandmarkMinecraft for people who don’t like pixels, and the engine on which the next EverQuest will someday ride… in progress.  They have PlanetSide, PlanetSide 2, and H1Z1 (Zombie PlanetSide) in development.  And then there is the Asian import flavor of the month, previously Wizardry Online and currently Dragon’s Prophet.

That list of titles feels like too much stuff, and all the more so when you consider that SOE also cranks out an expansion for both EverQuest titles every year.  While those expansions mean revenue, SOE could be operating with as few as 50K subscribed players on EverQuest II and probably less still for EverQuest.  That is a big investment in the past while we wait for EverQuest Next.

Then there is Trion, which does a respectable job with Rift, which remains their best received title.  But Defiance has been problematic.  ArcheAge, which had the potential to be a big hit, has been mishandled. And then there is Trove, which seems to Minecraft for people who want bigger pixels and brighter colors.  Multiple MMOs hasn’t been a stellar success for Trion.

And, finally, on the US front there is Turbine which, inexplicably in hindsight given the size of the company, has the rights for Dungeons & Dragons AND Lord of the Rings and which has manage to turn both huge franchises into awkward niche titles.  Other than that they have Asheron’s Call, the distant third of the “big three” break-out MMOs from the end of the 90s, and Asheron’s Call 2, revived from the dead because… I still don’t know why.  I think it speaks volumes about Turbine’s outlook in that they are betting on a MOBA to save their flagging fortunes.

Stack those up against companies with just a single MMO.

Blizzard.  Do I need to say more about the very, very rich company in Anaheim?  One MMO has been very good to them.

CCP.  They seem to get into trouble only when they wander away from EVE Online.  When they focus on their main product, which in the past meant stealing resources from World of Darkness, things tend to go well for them.

EA.  Okay, EA has three MMOs, but they bought two of them and have farmed them out for another company to run, leaving them with just the BioWare MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic.  It was never a WoW-killer, and it has its problems (roll stock footage about subscriber retention and selling hotbars), but it makes money.  Not as much as EA would like, but that may be as much because Disney gets a cut as anything.  That is the rub with a licensed IP, they come with more overhead.

Zenimax.  The Elder Scroll Online might be the weak point in the single MMO theory.  I don’t know how the game is doing, other than things are still being fixed and that the console versions of the title, a big part of the plan, have been pushed out into 2015.

And then there are the MMO-ish niche titles of the future, Star Citizen, Shroud of the Avatar and Camelot Unchained.  Those are being made by small companies that can only afford to invest in a single game.  And while those titles are playing the nostalgia card for all it is worth, they are also potentially mapping out new paths in the MMO world as smaller titles are able to do.

All of which is just so much talk, punctuated with some admittedly unfair characterizations both of various companies and of Syp.  I am not saying that companies should run one or multiple MMOs.  Clearly some companies do well, or well enough, running multiple games, while others seem best suited to focusing on a single title.  But I wouldn’t categorize any company as not being a real MMO player just because they only have one such title.

What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Is One MMO Enough for a Studio?

  1. Rohan

    To play devil’s advocate, if you change your criteria from “MMO” to “Persistent Online Game”, Blizzard has at least 3: WoW, D3, and Hearthstone. All three games are always online, and have additional content and patches being rolled out on a regular basis.

    From the point of view of the company and resource allocation, those three games have more similarity than differences. There’s a big difference from the player point of view, but I’m not so sure it’s different from the company’s side.


  2. Richard Watson (@RichardRWatson)

    One of the questions that needs to be asked to determine who is leading is: Who is creating features and functionality that then becomes “greens fees” for competitors?

    It’s not an easy question to answer. But that question should then be followed by: Who is successfully and profitably implementing those features?

    Answer those two questions and you’ll start to get at who’s strategically leading the industry.


  3. bhagpuss

    “Whether or not World of Warcraft being viewed as a leader… it is by outsiders if nobody else…”

    That’s the thing. From any perspective other than that of the people who either play or earn a living from MMOs there IS no genre or industry. There’s just WoW. It’s a situation I find almost impossible to analogize.

    Imagine if the WoW movie premiered next year, went to the top of the box office charts, was seen every week by something of the order of ten times the number of people that went to see whatever movie was in second place and then went on doing that for TEN YEARS!

    Where else in entertainment does that happen? Dark Side of the Moon was in the US top 200 albums for fourteen consecutive years but it wasn’t Number One for all (or pretty much any) of that time; the later Harry Potter books and the inexplicable Shades of Grey trilogy dominated publishing for weeks and months at a time but then they faded and left plenty of room for other titles to rise to the top.

    Whether it’s possible to consider WoW (or Blizzard) a leader for the genre is extremely questionable, I’d say. It’s more like geography, the mountain in whose perpetual shade every other would-be MMO-maker has to exist. And not much grows in perpetual shade.


  4. Jenks

    Not coincidentally, CCP and Blizzard run two of the very few non clones in the MMORPG space. Running multiple MMOs is probably a lot more attractive when creating them is a copy paste job.

    (As fun as it was to call WoW an EQ clone in 2004, we now know better. The difference between EQ and WoW was *many* magnitudes bigger than the difference between WoW and shitty MMORPG du jour 2005-2014.)


  5. SynCaine

    “Not to pick on Syp, but he does tend to see the negative in all things Blizzard”

    Nothing wrong with that…

    If WoW is seen as a leader within the industry (agree that from an uneducated outside view, it is viewed AS the industry), it has only lead others off a cliff. Every WoW-clone has failed, from just meh status (Rift) to being outstanding examples of failure (SW:TOR).

    Is anyone today making an MMO using WoW as the template? If we listed everyone MMO ever made, and tried to connect them in a ‘clone of this game’ style, which game would have the most successful offspring?

    Plus what about something like WAR? It failed, but the genre has PQs because of it. Has WoW contributed anything as significant as that? Maybe breadcrumb quests? If you did the above but instead of using an entire game, just did it by features, which game would rank highest?

    Certainly a lot of interesting, and heavily opinion-based, ideas to consider here.


  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    (I like how we all seem to head straight to the “WoW as industry leader” debate, leaving 90% of my post behind.)

    @Rohan – I suspect that WoW is a lot bigger resource hog from Blizzard’s point of view, with just scale and the number of players who can potentially interact at once weighing against it, while D3, Hearthstone, and SC2 are probably about on par (SC2 is always online as well) due to player interactions being limited to small groups.

    As an example, Blizz never had to consider creating a “no mounts” zone around a quest giver in D3, but there is Khadgar standing there in Stormwind and Orgrimmar dismounting passers by who stray too close.

    I do find it interesting that, with the cancellation of Titan, Blizzard has essentially declared that it needs just one game in any given genre, so they will have one MMO, one MOBA, one RTS, one ARPG, one CCG, and one FPS.

    Blizzard defines success with just six games.

    @Richard Watson – Blizz is a bit of a conundrum in that they rarely come up with brand new features, but tends to borrow/steal features others have tried out first. But once Blizz has added such a feature in WoW, other games in the genre feel the pressure to add it or at least explain why it is not appropriate for their title.


  7. Asmiroth

    Quality and content seems to be the main driver for me. A solid game, with continuous content (either dev or player generated) seems to be the main criteria for me. No one can ever dismiss Blizz’ polish for quality. ESO and WS are pretty evident of that failure.

    Making one good game is hard enough. Making 2, that will be supported for the foreseeable future is something else entirely. I guess it’s a bit like the Shayamalan effect, compared to say Nolan. One got lucky, one had talent.


  8. bhagpuss

    Okay, to pick up on a non-WoW part of your post, that Lineage statistic has always puzzled the hell out of me. What’s going on in Korea (which has state-of-the-art modern MMOs, graphically at least) that one of their leading players has as it’s main cash cow an MMO first seen in 1998?

    In the West that would be like SOE having Everquest as its biggest earner…oh, wait…

    I wish we could see the actual numbers.


  9. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – And the EQ parallel gets even spookier when you realize that Lineage II, which came out in 2003 (so same age difference as with EQ and EQII), improved a lot of things about the franchise, but never reached the same peak of success as the original and continues to live in the shadow of Lineage to this day.

    And, after all that time NCsoft announced a new game, one year before the EQN announcement, called Lineage Eternal, with no current ship date. It will probably ship one year before EQN, which gives NCsoft plenty of time to work on it.


  10. Jester

    Rohan has this right. The companies other than CCP on your list have multiple avenues for their business, and have both continuing income streams (from MMOs or MOBAs) and single shot income steams (from single player games).

    Any company management that relies on a single product for its survival and for the livelihoods of its employees is being irresponsible. Any single product, no matter how good, eventually fails.


  11. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Jester – I am not sure what you read, but Rohan’s remarks do not say that from what I can see. He was saying that Blizz has multiple MMO-like products, or products that were comparable to MMOs by some measure.

    As for responsibility, yes a company ought to avoid relying on a single product line if they can. On the flip side though, there is practically an endless list of companies that have fretted about that sort of thing to the point of neglecting their money maker in order to pursue any number of fruitless ventures. Read up on Northern Telecom for a pure horror show example.

    And there is the classic silicon valley story, a company has success with one product, but never transitions to another and eventually fades. Some companies only have one product in them and when that falls by the wayside, they are done. I’ve worked for a couple of those.

    Besides which, I said “one MMO” not “one product.” The intended point was to ask the question whether a company publishing multiple MMOs made for better MMOs, for whatever value of “better” you care to choose. CCP hasn’t done very well trying to be a multiple MMO company, has it? That has been too resource intensive for them. But Valkyrie doesn’t have to be an MMO. If they can do a decent VR space sim shooter, they could ride that wave until the next thing. After all, they started with a board game. There is no reason they have to just do MMOs.


  12. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Omali/Connor – You know, that post of yours was in the back of my brain when I started to write this, but it dropped out somewhere along the way. Still, I think I linked to you a decent number of times!


  13. gholamite

    I played both of those two MMOs now owned by EA that you referred to: Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online. I get very nostalgic thinking about DAoC especially. WoW pulled me away from it, but I’m always happy that it is still out there, like EQ.

    You are right about Blizzard putting out one game in many genres and those being good titles. I’d like to see them make something in one of my favorites: 4X.


  14. Thomas

    I don’t see why a company should strive to have multiple MMOs.It almost seems irrelevant to me as a question of value for the company. With every expansion Blizzard shows it’s one of the best in the business at making the MMO it wants to copy… and it’s not like WoW is losing the money race any time soon.

    You kind of weakened the post a little by trying to prove that point. Holding The Old Republic up a sign of success, whilst talking Lord of the Rings Online and DnD Online down, that seems a bit off.

    LOTRO is at least as successful as TOR whilst having an equivalent sized IP. What’s more Dungeons and Dragons Online is the first post-WoW MMO to actually change the genre in a substantial manner, as it popularised the free-to-play model. In someways MMOs now try to copy DnDO and LOTRO in the same way they’ve copied WoW.

    tl;dr I agree with your point, I just feel like Turbine are the Ur example of an exellent multi MMO company.


  15. Lonegun

    I for one am glad there is not a leader in the MMO industry. I think that most companies are no longer chasing after the success that Blizzard has had with WoW. The MMO industry is better off if every company innovates with their own games because it gives gamers choices. For example SOE offers a subscription which allows access to all of their MMOs including DC Universe Online, Everquest, Everquest II, Planetside 2 and upcoming Landmark, H1Z1, and Dragon’s Prophet.


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