MMOs and their Middle Age Problems…

I just recorded a podcast with Izlain from Me vs. Myself and I.  It should be up by the end of the week if you are simply dying to hear my voice.  I will put up a post about it when it is ready.

The topic of the podcast was Daybreak and looking back at what has gone on over the last year since Columbus Nova Prime became their new lords and masters.  As it turns out we are both, in our own way, SOE/Daybreak fan boys, having been heavily influenced by EverQuest and EverQuest II.

And it came up, as part of our discussion of what I call the “legacy Norrath team,” that both of us would really like to have EverQuest content with a new client.  The old client isn’t the worst thing in the world, and it has been improved over the years, but you can still feel every one of those seventeen years since the game was launched.  It clunks.  It chunks.  It does things in bizarre ways which betray that fact that it was created before some UI features became standardized in the genre.

I even wrote about this… whoa, nine years ago… as part of a list of five “insane” things I wanted.  Specifically, I wanted EverQuest content with the WoW client, my logic at the time being:

  • WoW = Easy to play, light system requirements, and stylized (thus longer enduring) graphics
  • EQ = Huge world, awesome lore, cranky old engine, dated graphics that will never catch up

As I put it, “I want to blend these two in perfect measure and make the ultimate super Norrathian experience!  I want Norrath to live forever… in a form I can actually stand to play!”

Because I have to admit that half the battle when I want to go back and play EverQuest is simply dealing with the client UI and its quirks.  A new client would improve the experience and make the game more accessible to a new generation of players.

Picture guaranteed to induce nostalgia in old school EQ players.

Picture guaranteed to induce nostalgia in old school EQ players.

Of course, as much as I want it, I know that a new client is never going to happen.  It is never going to happen because the legacy Norrath team hasn’t completely lost their minds.

To work on a new client the team would have to divert resources away from other things, including content for and improvements to the current game.  But EverQuest is in what I will now dub “MMO Middle Age,” wherein it is done attracting new players in any significant numbers, but it is still receiving content updates on a regular basis.  It is still worthwhile to make expansions for the game because enough people buy them.

The legacy Norrath team knows this.  They know where they stand.  They know the days of an expanding player base are over.  They mostly have a pool of current and former players that they can depend on for revenue, and they need to focus on that group.

And, to their credit, the legacy Norrath team has used the last year to great effect.  Despite an initial stumble, when they said they were done with expansions, a position they later and quite correctly reversed, the team has spent the whole year catering to their installed base.  There were expansions and updates and special rules servers for subscribers only… and let’s face it, if you’re a fan of the game and are playing, you’re subscribed… that included some special treat like the return of the Isle of Refuge, along with some of the best company/player communication in the history of the franchise.

The Broken Mirror? Try the broken gaming budget!

And when you can sell people $140 expansions, who needs a new client?

So after a year of being Daybreak, I think the legacy Norrath team can be counted as a success.  They had all the right moves and had fewer mistakes and stumbles than one would expect after years of watching SOE in action.  I think the worst quote from the team was Holly saying that they didn’t want casuals raiding on the EQ progression servers, something that got reversed on the Phinigel “true box” progression server.

And don’t worry, I don’t think I’ve spoiled the podcast as we talk about all the Daybreak games.

Anyway, this is a team at Daybreak working within the reality of their situation.  With a pair of games that are 16 and 11 years old at the moment, there really isn’t anything they could do that would sustain their current installed base and attract, say, 100,000 new players, much less 100,000 players willing to spend some money on the game.  Aesop had a story about that sort of thing, letting go of what you have to try and grab something you can’t be sure is even really there.

Youth, that era of sustained growth, is over.

But middle age is respectable.  World of Warcraft is also in middle age.  It is still a cash cow, it still gets new content, but it isn’t the bright new thing.  Granted, Blizzard has bought the game a bright yellow Camaro, coming this summer in the form of the Warcraft movie, in a pretense of youth in order to attract new players.

My daughter asked me to "do donuts" in the car...

Me, as metaphor for WoW and the movie…

But I suspect any interest its bitchin’ new ride attracts will fade when faced with its own middle-age reality.  It is going to have to adapt to sustaining it installed base rather than attempting to attract a sea of new faces.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is also in middle age, after a short time in youth.  But it will hang in there.  It seems to have found its balance in middle age.

And then there is EVE Online, which enjoyed the longest period of youth… which is to say growth… of any MMO I can think of.  I think that long youth has skewed the expectations of many residents of New Eden.  Having enjoyed seemingly endless youth, it sometimes feels like the game has just stumbled for a moment or is maybe just having a bad hair day.  If only we could have another big headline grabbing battle or some shiny new feature like walking in stations, then youth, and growth, would return.

I think that is just us kidding ourselves however… though creating a new player experience that doesn’t confuse and confound probably 90% of players who try it out couldn’t hurt.  The game needs to focus on its installed base and keeping them happy… which is as difficult as anything in EVE Online, since the game has so many niches, each of which feels neglected when another gets attention.  I think we need to admit the game is now in middle age.

For these games the next stage… I’ll call that retirement I suppose… when they are still worth keeping online but not necessarily getting updates… as with Guild Wars… still looks to be a ways off.  Better to have the problems of middle age and catering to a shrinking base of loyal fans than to face that and the eventual shut down that follows.

I can attest, middle age isn’t so bad.  You have things.  You know things, like how escrow works.  You just can’t necessarily be all the things you once were.

What other MMOs are in middle age now?  They seem to grow up so fast these days.

16 thoughts on “MMOs and their Middle Age Problems…

  1. bhagpuss

    That’s a cracking piece. Analogies so often end up just confusing the issue but that one is spot on. I wonder if it could be expanded to match The Seven Ages of Man and then we’d have a scale to benchmark all MMOs against for ever more.

    I think the Legacy Team has done a stellar job too, although if you’re foolish enough to read the forums or even EQ2Wire’s comment threads you’d have to conclude that’s not a widely shared opinion. People, as has been conclusively proved over the years, will complain about anything.

    I do seriously believe that DBG (or SOE as it would have been) could have made more profit by re-doing the original EQ with a modern (non-voxel) engine instead of attempting the impossible with EQNext. Yes. three EQ MMOs sounds a lot, but they had four on the go at the same time once and I believe there would have been sufficient interest. It couldn’t conceivably have been a bigger waste of time, effort and money than the EQNext project has turned out.

    Maybe one day they, or whoever buys the franchise from Columbus Nova when it’s been fully prepped, will give that a try.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. SynCaine

    I think any studio accepting that they are in the middle age is the first mistake, at least if they also still believe in the title. If they accept that it’s time for it to fade away (while still making as much money as possible until closing day), no issue, but to how many games does that apply?

    EQ1 and EQ2 certainly are in that acceptance phase, and I think WoW is as well (even with said movie coming). I don’t get the sense CCP is there with EVE, and certainly SE isn’t with FFXIV. I suspect LotRO is, as is Aion and a bunch of others.

    This all goes back to what an MMO is, and how it should be run. If you let your game age in terms of tech and graphics, you are accepting that it will eventually fade and die. If you don’t, like CCP has, and continue to stay current and upgrade, fading away shouldn’t happen (assuming you continue to release decent content for that playerbase), or at least shouldn’t for far longer than we normally assume (whatever that timeframe may be).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – I am not sure that the studio believing their game is in middle age or not is relevant to the reality of the situation.

    In the case of CCP, they can believe what they want, but subs are down, play time is down, and concurrent users at peak hours are down. The age of growth… which I defined as youth… looks to be over. I do not believe there is anything that CCP could do return EVE to the path of steady growth. They are more like WoW now, where they have an installed base of past players they can pitch new things to, but they can’t let down the current subscribers lest revenues decline. New players still show up, but they aren’t doing more than replacing people who unsubscribe.

    Which isn’t to say that middle age means death. I would argue that EQ has been in middle age since 2003, and it has carried on and made money and added content for what will be 13 years next month. It just isn’t even going to get back to its peak population.

    In a way, a game with an installed base has its hands tied. This post started because one of the blog banter 72 posts included a suggestion that CCP get back to the walking in stations feature in order to attract new players. The problem is that there is no guarantee… or even any real indication… that such a feature would attract new players. Meanwhile focusing efforts on that would necessarily require that CCP not work on other features related to core game play. Throwing over your installed base to chase a hypothetical new audience is fraught with peril.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to declare on FFXIV either. A lot of what they reaped with A Realm Reborn was related to goodwill fostered by suspending subscriptions and such when the hosed the initial launch, pent up demand from FFXI fans who didn’t make the jump based on reviews from that initial release, and WoW conveniently having year long content gaps. They’ve done very well out of things in the end, but you’d have to find something beyond a gut response to convince me that the game is going to grow after Heavensward.

    Anyway, it is just an analogy, so pushing it or trying to force it doesn’t necessarily make it better. And middle age is a bit different for everybody.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. SynCaine

    I think if CCP went back and did walking in stations correctly (whatever that would be), subs would grow. Or if they nailed the new player experience revamp. Or if new feature X had as big an impact as say Incursions or wormhole space. EVE is the example of an MMO only aging if you let it because it grew for so long, in large part because for a long time, CCP was making major updates to keep the game on the cutting edge of MMOs to play. For a large number of reasons, that really hasn’t been the case in the last few years (moving away from major expansion/features played a large role, but isn’t the only factor).

    Contrast that to say WoW today. Why would a casual themepark MMO player load up WoW today when FFXIV exists? Back in the day WoW was the best themepark, but that’s just simply not the case anymore today, which is why people just chew up the newest expansion and leave again quickly. But there is no reason for that. If Blizzard wanted, they would have kept WoW up-to-date in terms of tech and graphics, produced content like they did back in the growth years, and would very likely still be the unstoppable juggernaut of the themepark space. But they LET WoW get into the state it is today. It’s a choice they made.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – You’re brushing the real problem under the rug with that. There might be some killer way to bring walking in stations into the game. But In 9+ years of playing the game I have yet to hear anybody from CCP or the player base articulate anything that sounded like it would be anything more than a gimmick, and frankly I got my gimmick quota filled by SOE over the years. It has been a serious topic since 2007. Walking in stations is so non-core to a spaceship game that nobody can tell me why CCP should bother. Yet people keep bringing it up on wishlists.

    Likewise, if CCP could nail the NPE… well, Christ, I’ve been complaining about the NPE since the first week of blogging here. Literally post #5. I love EVE and CCP… to the point of, you know, actually playing the game… but my confidence in them being able to bang out a great feature that would have appeal beyond their core audience is pretty low. “But what if…” is a nice dream, but in reality if they haven’t gotten there with the NPE in all this time, so I’m not holding my breath that they might suddenly figure things out.

    I do have hope for their star gate building to get to new space plans… but again, that really only appeals to the core again. But that’s okay, because I think that is where the game is at now. It is already either a known quantity or has a (bad) reputation for most of its potential audience. Anybody else wandering in and sticking with it just about replacement value for keeping the game going.

    As for WoW, we can go around in circles all day on that front. It still brings people back and makes a ton of money. I am sure Legion sales will be huge… once they get around to actually shipping it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Niko Lorenzio

    Sorry can’t agree with you.

    EVE hasn’t even reached its prime yet. There is not a single game in the world that comes close to providing the experience EVE does. It doesn’t even look or feel old. If you were the only smart, intelligent, good looking and funny person in the world nobody would care you are middle aged or not.
    EVE has stalled for no other reason than CCP’s betrayal of everything that makes it a great game. It happened with Incarna, we recovered hoping CCP learned the lesson but quickly realised that they have not and things have been going downhill from there.
    I will agree that no one big feature is going to attract new players or revive the game though. It will take a total attitude shift from CCP not just towards their game but more importantly towards their players.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Niko Lorenzio – The thing is, what do you suppose the odds are of CCP having a total attitude shift? What has to happen for that to come about? Because if you’re hanging your hat on that coming to pass, I’m going to guess that you don’t really disagree with me as strongly as you wish you could.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Niko Lorenzio

    I really don’t know what the odds are but I’m afraid they’re not good. I must admit that you are right about me not disagreeing as much as I wish I could.
    Hope dies last though. That’s why I’m running for CSM, It is my hope that the executives care about EVE enough to at least hear out the point I’m trying to get across. It is a very very looong shot but I believe that EVE is worth fighting for. Giving up and letting it whither is not an option for me.

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  9. SynCaine

    Do you think Incursions or wormhole space appealed to just the base, or did those features expand the base?

    I’d argue they expanded the base, just not in the “immediately gain 50k subs” way. Rather they expanded what EVE offered to keep people hooked, and over time (months) that resulted in more people finding something that kept them around.

    EVE is a different beast than any other game because a lot of people WANT to play it, but for whatever reason they can’t get into it. It’s why big news events draw people in, because the basic idea of the game sounds so cool, but its reality is often far too harsh. If CCP continues to do work similar to the big successful features they have had in the past, that harshness should reduce somewhat (it will never be a WoW-accessible game of course), and growth will return.

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  10. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – The thing is that Incursions (Nov. 2010) and Apocrypha (Mar. 2009) came during the growth phase of the game. The game was growing before those features. The game was growing after those features. Incursions were PvE raiding and gave mission runners a place to go, while wormhole space was clearly something new for the installed base who wanted a different sort of life in space beside low sec and null sec. Both were good features that kept people playing (though the latest charts show that incursion running is a pretty exclusive club) and probably got some people to resubscribe. But did anybody show up because of them? Who was on the fence about the game, and had never played, until one of those showed up?

    I agree, EVE is a different beast, which is both a blessing and a curse. Between the Tobold’s of the world and the Massively comment thread regulars who hate the game beyond reason and loudly repeat how people should avoid it, and how difficult it can be to learn and get into, and the absolute fact that at an objective level it really isn’t a very good “game,” the surprise shouldn’t be that it stopped growing. The surprise is that it grew as large as it did.

    A somewhat tangential item that sort of relates to my point:

    Back in 2006/2007 one of the big discussion points about EVE was how you never saw other players. This is, to my mind, the real driver behind walking in stations. In EQ or WoW or FFXIV or GW2, you log in and you SEE other people with your avatar. Even when you undock you might not see another ship unless you’re in a trade hub like Jita. Space is huge. Ships shrink to insignificance in mere kilometers. I love warping to a station in orbit of a planet because the planet barely changes size as you get close, but the station suddenly appears and grows huge, giving you a real sense of scale.

    Some viewed this lack of seeing other people as a big problem, one CCP HAD to solve to be successful. How can a social game like an MMO not allow you to “see” other people. Only, the players solved that themselves, through blogs and forums and on Twitter and over voice coms and what not. EVE is a very social game relative to its size; much more so than WoW or FFXIV I would bet. But in a very typical EVE way it is a very ad hoc and fragmented social network that you have to work at. It doesn’t just happen.

    So part of why I think EVE may never hit a real era of growth again is that a lot of the answers I hear to the “what does EVE need?” question sound remarkably like, “It needs to be more like WoW.” And at least I think that being like WoW isn’t the ticket to anywhere we want to go in New Eden.

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  11. Leoric Firesword

    Here’s my vision for walking in stations, though I no longer play as I don’t have the time.

    Imagine opening your door to a multi level station, with a big open area (kind of like a food court at the mall) and elevators going up and down. Walk ways and paths going to and fro with people (possible NPCs).

    You can literally walk down to your hanger and take selfies by your ships (I wanted this so bad). You can see the battle scars, you can talk to the hanger manager for repairing your ship. Heck maybe even get into your pod and loaded into your ship from here.

    For modules you’d go to a separate part of the station, with known NPC vendors there selling NPC items. There would also be NPC’s representing the global market (player sold items) where you could buy the player sold items.

    There’d be news monitors showing something like the most wanted people or current game events like what they put out on youtube.

    There’d even be a bar where you could hear local gossip, maybe get some pirate missions against the empires.

    There’d be an agent hub with actual agents that you could visit if you so chose.

    You could interact with your PI, see a SOV map, and basically do all the neat stuff that Dotlan shows a player about the map, but in game.

    And if that isn’t good enough, what about the possibility of being able to actually fight/kill players and collect some of the bounty against them, of course they’d have to be logged in and in the same station as you. But why not?

    You could even expand that to new missions that could involve some of that corporate espionage we always read about, or assassinating NPCs.

    That is my vision for walking in stations. Yes I know it’s grand and probably has a lot of flaws, and yes I know it will never come to pass.

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  12. Knug

    Eve the game has never been better. However, Incarna was a great idea, conceptualized poorly, promoted heavily, and implemented badly. The time to bring it in has passed.

    While I agree that Eve has passed out of its “Youth” i.e. increasing sub numbers, and it is in middle age, I also agree that Eve is stronger, better, deeper, and better looking than ever. Whatever it is not now, it will never be – but it will continue to evolve and stay current.

    And personally, the biggest problem with NPE – new player experience – is existing players. when I joined up, I was on my own for a week or so before I was able to meet and form a loose association with a number of newish players. We eventually formed a corp together. We did not fall under the wing of experienced payers, nor were we sucked up into a major alliance and become nothing more than f1 missile spammers in Drakes.

    We experienced hisec issues together, we lived through war decs. Eventually, we moved apart, as is often the case in Eve because each player will find a niche for themselves. In Eve, there are so many niches, and they are varied, In time I had a new corp, several alliance moves, 6 years have passed. Several of those players have left the game, but several from my 1st week in Eve are still around. I even ran into one in a losec area I don’t normally fly in – I instinctively bolted as my ship was well outclassed and then we laughed like kids in local afterwards.

    Eve may be middle aged, but it has aged much better than anything else out there.

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  13. anon

    Wilhelm, who was the blogger that said instead of seeing an “MMO Market” it is better to see each one as a self-reiforcing cultural trend? I think framing it that way it is far easier to accept that at some point there is absolutely nothing the developer can do to bring a game back to sustainable growth phase. The game’s moment have passed and all the pull from other self-reiforcing trens going on cannot be countered by anything the game can do. In fact, at that stage trying anything wildly different is far more risky than beneficial. It may have taken longer for Eve, but I do agree it has reached that stage aswell.

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  14. Shintar

    I like the analogy, but I don’t think SWTOR has found its balance. If it’s in middle age, it’s having a midlife crisis, considering that Knights of the Fallen Empire was the opposite of what you describe as the sensible approach here: a major attempt to appeal to new and lapsed players at the cost of giving loyal veterans the cold shoulder. We just don’t know yet whether it has done the game any good and it’s doubtful whether we ever will, considering that the rising tide of The Force Awakens lifted all the little Star Wars boats, regardless of anything Bioware did or could have done (sorry for the mixed metaphors).

    I’m also surprised how many people in the comments seem to be terrified of the idea of ageing. :P

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  15. Fucknuckle

    Mmos are middled aged aren’t they? Player numbers are down across the board as player ages increase. Young people won’t play eve, and because of that eve is slowly dying.

    Like

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