A Short Rant About the State of the MMORPG Market

This started as a response to a post over at Massively OP about the worst MMO trend of 2018.  However, a few paragraphs in I realized I wasn’t really on topic, focusing as I was on MMORPGs, since MMO pretty much means “online multiplayer” in today’s market, and I wasn’t keen to dump this much text into their comment section where about a dozen people might see it before it scrolls off the front page into oblivion.  Better to bring it over here where I can regret it again later.

So we’ll call this another end of 2018 post and I’ll run with what I had.

The most disappointing trend for me isn’t really a trend, but more the realization that MMORPGs are a trap for most studios, a tar ball that they find they’re stuck with once they have one. An MMORPG can bring in money, sometimes lots of money, but they have expensive infrastructures to maintain and they need a continuing stream of content to hold enough of an audience to keep them viable. They can eat up all the focus of a smaller studio, so they neglect or never start other projects because you have to keep feeding the monster or it will stop crapping out money.

But the population peaks, often very early these days, and then every content update pisses somebody off and they go away like it is a game of musical chairs and each patch is another point where the music stops. Or it would be like that if people wouldn’t also leave if you don’t patch often enough.  You can’t sit still or you will lose players and you can’t change anything or you will lose players.

Meanwhile MMORPGs have only gotten more expensive to make, which makes innovation a risk that few can afford. And then there is the target player base which complains about every game being a WoW clone and yet will also complain even more bitterly about anything that strays from the WoW formula.

And don’t even get me started on the false hope that is PvP.  It seems like a great idea, and a true money save, to just get the players to be the content.  In reality, anything beyond a tiny, consequence free instance of PvP in an MMORPG will be shunned or ignored.  Few developers who follow that path and go in on PvP are rewarded with any success and trying to move PvP out of its tiny corner is almost always a waste of development time.  Add in a capture the flag arena game… or a battle royale game these days… and move on.

The customers are no better, myself included.  The loud demographics that haunt any developer’s forums should serve as a warning, but if that is the only feedback you’re getting then where are you going to go?  There is always somebody agitating loudly for their favorite thing.  Some want PvP everywhere, others think your game will die if it doesn’t have player housing, another group hates walking and wants to fly everywhere, and somebody in the back seems to believe in time travel and that everything would be great if you could just teleport everybody back to 1999 or 2004 or 2007 or whenever they felt they were having the most fun playing your game.

And none of them has a fucking clue about the level of effort their one “simple” request entails.  But if you’re not doing exactly what they want or it is taking too long then you are “lazy” or “stupid” or both.

If players could keep their focus on actual game play issues it might not be so bad.  But they are on about how you charge money for this or that, with “greedy” or “cash grab” being favored terms.  They complain about how they just want to play the game and not worry about real world politics, a sentiment that is usually the opening salvo about how they’re bent out of shape that the CEO or some dev or some rumor indicates that the company has somehow transgressed the whiners personal stance on the topic of the day is; gamer gate, gender politics, overtime, unions, campaign donations, boarder walls, or whatever.  And then there are the truly loopy who see conspiracies, collusion, and corruption in the machinations of a studio that is really just trying to keep the lights on and the customers happy.

Add into the mix the players who see the genre as a zero sum game, so feel they need to constantly crap on every game that competes with their favorite.  The worry is that they might be right.

So we see studios going under, the weight of their MMORPGs around their necks pulling them down.  The revenues are no longer enough to keep them afloat, much less fund anything new, but they cannot let go because what else do they have?

Even Blizzard, long addicted to the huge income stream from WoW, once past a billion dollars per year, is in trouble now that the game is stumbling again. They don’t want to depend on WoW, but they haven’t made another game that has come anywhere close to the money WoW was bringing in at its peak.  And even their best, Overwatch, could only sustain its peak for a few months at a stretch and is now reported in serious decline.  Companies, like people, size themselves to match their income, and when it drops tough choices loom.

Someone in Blizzard at least recognized a bit of the problem, so we don’t see the company making any more MMORPGs.  But WoW was enough to distort the company and change investor expectations.  They can’t go back to selling stand alone games.  They have to keep WoW going or die, because there is no replacing it.

Game development is a bad business to start with. But at least with a stand alone game you can walk away to work on the next thing. An MMORPG never goes away, unless you have several and you have to make Sophie’s choice. Studios tied to MMORPGs die and other studios with less ambition buy the remains, put the games on life support, and try to milk the remains for some more cash. But only the unbalanced jump into the MMORPG market to create a new game and expecting happiness and success.

And so it goes.  Expect more studios to shut down operations, more games to be closed or put in maintenance mode by some third party game aggregator like Gamigo, and more loud complaining from players that if the studio had only listened to their completely uniformed opinion, then everything would have been fine.

Oh, and expect the usual level of optimism for every new MMORPG title announced because we also apparently never learn.

There, with that out of my system, let’s move on… or not.

11 thoughts on “A Short Rant About the State of the MMORPG Market

  1. Mailvaltar

    A rather bleak view of things…but I can’t really disagree.

    “Game development is a bad business to start with.”
    In my opinion the damage was done the moment it became a business in the first place.

    I’m no advocate for communism as it evidently doesn’t work, but in my experience as soon as a product or service stops to be about delivering a good product or a dependable service and starts to solely focus on making shareholders happy things start to go down the crapper.

    Germany’s public transport and postal services, for instance, are so fucking bad that it isn’t funny anymore, and that trend started the day they were privatized and increased manifold when they listed on the stock market.

    In my opinion, if we want to have great games (as well as great anything) again we as a species need to stop focusing absolutely everything we do solely on maximizing profits.

    So, not gonna happen.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Bhagpuss

    It wasn’t *that* short a rant…

    I have a vague memory of John Smedley saying in an interview long, long ago how he and his team hadn’t anticipate how the success of EverQuest would mean the company moving, at least in part, from production to service. That was excuseable then but I don’t think that MMORPG developers have had the get-out clause of “we never expected to be this successful” for a very long time.

    Post-WoW, anyone making an MMORPG ought to be planning on it being their main, if not only, source of income for the foreseeable future. Not that they should expect it to last forever but they should plan on owning and operating the game as a service for as long as demand holds up before startign to wind it down and replace it with a newer model.

    It is entirely possible. ArenaNet were upfront about thier intention to do it with GW2 and six years in it seems to be working. Players (myself included) may be itching for GW3 but so long as GW2 remains popular and successful ANet are under no obligation to provide it. Good business sense would suggest that they do some preparatory work in advance of the inevitable falling-off of interest in their aging game but there’s no need to chase that dragon.

    The current issues with WoW have more to do with the bad expansion they just released than with any innate problem with the base product. Also possibly with a self-destructive streak in Blizzard which doesn’t want to admit the truth – that they are reliant on that one product now.

    The most surprising thing about MMORPGs as a service is just how many of the games have been around for as long as they have. We talk about UO and EQ and WoW, with their anniversaries hitting 15 or 20 years but there are scores of MMORPGs out there that have been running for more than five years. I can’t be bothered to count them up but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more than a hundred. There are probably more than fifty that have been around for ten years. That’s some solid evidence that there’s money to be made by servicing a dedicated playerbase because it’s odds on most of those games don’t get much more than a trickle of new blood.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. zaphod6502

    I’ve all but stopped playing classical MMORPG’s. The only game I come back to now is World Of Warcraft and I mainly do that for nostalgia reasons when a new expansion is released as this was my first MMO back in 2004.
    Overall I think gamers tastes have changed and the market has moved on. Most of my friends still play online but they mainly play online action games, battle royale games, and multiplayer FPS where time investment is not crucial to enjoyment of the game.
    The other aspect I have noticed is that services like Discord have decentralised guilds and clans. When I first started playing MMO’s guilds had strong bonds and people tended to stick together. Now people jump to different gaming groups with different friends which is generally not conducive to a solid clan based experience in an MMORPG. A service like Discord has had a big effect on my original gaming clan and we’re basically a scattered group of players now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Isey

    Lump of coal in your MMORPG stocking! *Grin*

    Personally, I struggle right now with only playing one game. And they are all being built (MMORPG or not) to totally dominate your complete gaming time. Battlefield V, a FPS, has rewards that can only be unlocked during specific time periods. So, me going away on a business trip, or vacation, can not “earn” them.

    Today’s games are becoming like MMORPGS that way. Daily quests, required logins, etc. Which is the worst parts of the game.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Vimes

    Your article seems to hit the spot. (unfortunalety)

    The gaming industry and community has changed from MMORPGs with ideas and based on communities to “single-player-mode MMORPGS” (i didnt find a better term for it)

    Players dont have patience any longer and seem to prefer the one-vs the rest mode instead of group- or community based activities (instances, raids,…)

    That is the reason why MMORPGS decline – they rely heavily on social collaboration.
    First MOBAs (still a bit of team-based focus / now also dying) and now Battle Royales emerge as the new goto genre in the gaming industry.

    The gaming community depicts reality – we went from “we can do this together” in the mid/late 2000s to “every man for himself” now.

    The dying of MMORPG as a genre means that companies that focused on it as their core (like Blizzard) will die sooner or later unless they switch to another genre.

    Players like myself, who still prefer the old style of community gaming, only have the option to pick some private servers like Atlantiss Netherwing (WoW TBC) or Return of Reckoning (Warhammer Online) that try to resurrect the past.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. calthaer

    My first impression upon digesting this article + Bhagpuss’ is that some of these attributes may be due to generational shifts. The sense of entitlement and political outrage in particular are hallmarks of the post-Gen-X worldview, and the clans / guilds of old in the MMOG space were filled in the late 1990s and early 2000s with early career Gen Xers who had the disposable time and income to subscribe and play. Today’s 20- and 30-something with the same hail from a different world.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alunaria

    Aaah, finally I return to your blog, I missed it.

    I think it is a case of what you highlight as well as who the target audience seem to be, exactly. I know, I wouldn´t want to be in the shoes of a developer who had to cater to the teens today to grab their attention.

    Like

  8. calthaer

    Sure…but old in a good way. It is hard to say how much of the “golden age” was because of the state of technology (being able to play with thousands of other people in real-time was an exciting and new thing, and maybe allowed us to underatand the challenges and be less demanding of what was already a technological marvel) or because of the people (generational characteristics)…probably some of both.

    I miss those days, but got off the hamster wheel in the early 2000s – too much of a time investment and the content was mostly just grinding. I am hopeful that some day AI will be able to dynamically create more compelling content that can justify the monthly price tag.

    Like

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