Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It Ain't Like It Used To Be; But It'll Do.

I wasn't planning on writing about MMO payment models today. I already did that and I didn't mean to do it then, either. But Wilhelm had a very thought-provoking piece on it yesterday and today Green Armadillo made some further observations and finally I had this thought:

It's not the Wild West anymore.

What's happening to MMOs is nothing more than the inevitable acquisition, assimilation and exploitation of a new resource. It's a process that happens as surely and inexorably in entertainment and the arts as it does in agriculture and industry.

First come the explorers, followed swiftly by the the pioneers. For a while, anything goes. Then the frontier moves on and what was wilderness becomes hinterland, then suburbs, farmland, stripmines. It happened to the novel, to jazz, to movies and rock&roll. The process gets faster every iteration.

Giving it away is easy when no-one's paying anyway
In the case of MMOs, it's just a facet of how the web itself is changing. When UO was new the wide world barely knew the web existed. Now your grannie's on Twitter. The nature of the Internet, with its bomb-proof, quasi-organic distributed resilience and the intransigent, politicized attitudes of its originators and operators has made monetizing it an unusually challenging task. But not impossible.

It's a slow process and guerrilla resistance persists, but the Internet is being reeled in. The whole concept of "free" was so attached to the Internet's brand that in the end it turned out it was easier to change the meaning of the label than to pry it off. "Free" means a lot of things online now but it rarely means you don't pay.

MMOs are in a strange position when it comes to the changing face of internet access. Unlike just about everything else, MMOs were something you always did have to pay for. In retrospect that looks like a bizarre historic accident, where producers fell into the role of service-providers by default and compounded their mistake by giving the service away for a pittance.

Without pollution we'd have no sunsets
If MMOs were invented today, does anyone really think they'd set out their stall by asking for a hefty payment up front before you could even see the product, then demand another $15 a month just to keep using the thing you'd payed for? How did that ever work?

Well, it worked for a while because, as Wilhelm says, there was an Implied Social Contract, and, crucially, because the producers and consumers all came from the same culture. That lasted as long as it took for the word to get out that there was serious money to be made. Until WoW, in other words. Which, of course, charges a subscription. Because it can.

That brought in people whose dream was making money, not making worlds. They all tried to ape it and most of them ended up looking like monkeys. What works for WoW hasn't worked for anyone else because no-one really knows why it works for WoW. It shouldn't. It just does.

So wild! So free! So pull him before someone else does!
So here we are, we old-timers, leaning on our fences looking out at the tarmac being laid across the prairie all around us and wondering where the wonder went. The incomers don't care how we broke the trail, they only care that the land is tamed and safe to settle, and how now that's done the business of making money can begin.

You can rant and rage and wave your shotgun all you like. You can go down fighting but it won't keep them off your land. Or you can trim your beard, hang up your gun, put your feet up on the porch-rail and relax. The hard work's done, now you get to live in this world you helped make happen. Or you can move on again, over the horizon, find somewhere new and start the whole thing over again.

You can't stop progress, as they used to say when I was a tiddler. And as Johnny Thunders would have it, you can't put your arms round a memory. Don't try.


  1. Too true. A few years back I struggled with this myself, but I've realized that I have to adapt if I want to keep playing modern MMORPGs, or else shut up and move on. Staying in the past and griping about the present is neither healthy for yourself or pleasant for everyone around you.

    And to be honest, lots of these new MMORPGs are great -games-. You just have to appreciate them for what they are instead of wishing they were something else, something idealized and unrealistic.

  2. Of course, you could also argue that it's not civilization coming to cultivate your land, but that the locusts have come to eat the crops you've sowed with your friends, and when one is gone, so will the other, and there's nothing left.

    Then again... the world's changing, music's changing, even drugs are changing, and Ziggy Pop is dead. We'll have to make the best of it and hope MMOs won't go the way of E.T. for Atari and point-and-click adventures.

  3. I'm with you, Pai. Silver lining, lemons/lemonade, half-full and like that.

    @Frosch I've been playing Broken Sword Director's Cut at work at lunchtime on my iPod Touch. Point&Click is here to stay!

  4. Come to think of it, that also was an unfortunate combination. I love point&click, but I don't think anybody will ever miss E.T. for the Atari...


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