Monday, 1 February 2016

Musings On A Wet Monday Morning

A little while ago Azuriel posted some thought-provoking observations on the inherent structural problems facing the MMORPG genre. These boil down to the slipperiness of definitions and the willingness of the audience to be satisfied.

That post, which I found myself mulling over yesterday, after the sad and arguably unnecessary demise of City of Steam, was prompted by another from SynCaine, that infamous pillar of the Axis of Blogging Evil.  The Evil One was bouncing off yet another post, this time from Wilhelm at TAGN, which itself derived from what was probably no more than a routine space-filler for a slow starting year at PCGamer.

So the circle turns. Often lambasted for negativity, SynCaine is more an agent provocateur, a satirist even. Like Keen, who professed rather bizarrely only yesterday that "there’s nothing out right now except for EverQuest that comes even close to satisfying a TRUE MMORPG experience", the register is often closer to disappointment than contempt.

Theirs are the voices of gamers who are not easily satisfied. As Azuriel explains, that makes them a bad fit for MMORPGs in the first place: "I’d wager that most people that stick with the MMO genre long-term generally find one game and settle in. And why wouldn’t you?"

Sometimes you just have to find a new home.

SynCaine, in common with many other long-time bloggers and commenters and countless millions of players who choose not to share their opinions with the world, has drifted away from the genre altogether. Keen, after many, many attempts to find a home elsewhere, has ended up back where he began, or as close as he can get.

It seems most long-time MMO fans don't do that. They settle in. They settle down. They never leave.

The frenzied years of WoW tourism left us with a different impression: MMO players as a vast swarm, filling the virtual skies, whirring and scrabbling as it descends on each new, bright hope, stripping it clean and wheeling away, leaving the bones to bleach and crumble.

It happened. It still happens. Look at Blade and Soul. Game developers even expect and plan for it. People do like a new shiny. But when the swarm moves on do those bones really lie still and forgotten?

Another road to take.

It seems not. Mostly those MMOs pick themselves up and go on. Remember the hype trains of the last half-decade and change? Allods, Aion, Rift, SW:ToR, ESO, just to name a handful. All still with us. MMOs are very hard to kill (although Trion seems always to be working on new ways to test the boundaries of extinction).

Those that drop seem often to have been culled rather than to have met a natural end. Rubies of Eventide sits in someone's wardrobe, a ball taken home. Tabula Rasa and Helgate:London lost their nerve. Star Wars Galaxies didn't fit the portfolio. City of Heroes was making good money, well-populated and popular, just not enough for corporate targets. City of Steam was scuppered by technology and poor decisions.

WildStar may be the next big beast to fall. It probably won't make it, so everyone says. Missed its market, misjudged its targets, mismanaged its way to the cliff's edge. Take your pick. It's not gone yet, though. Nor is Firefall, another of those MMOs you wonder just who plays and which underwent many of the same trials and still does.

I played it for a while. I might again. I never gave Red 5 any money, though, because I am the problem not the solution. I pay money every month to Daybreak Games, whose games I don't play all that often because I'm busy playing every MMO that catches my attention for free. That great long list of installed MMOs I have, growing week by week, earns no-one anything much. I'm not a rational consumer. Don't survey me.

It's no good looking back.

And yet someone must be paying, somewhere. As I was thinking about this yesterday I remembered a few MMOs I played long ago. With sunsets in mind I thought perhaps I ought to revisit a few before the chance was past. Perhaps the chance was already past. That's happened to me before.

Not this time. Anyone remember Eden Eternal? I doubt it. I mostly remember it because it let me play a giant cartoon mouse. Well, it's still there if I feel like doing that again. It's only five years old though, a mere stripling. What about Regnum? Once also known as Realms Online and now known as Champions of Regnum but still the same game. I had a short and happy frolic there and look, here it is. Next year it will have been running for a decade. It's even on Steam.

Ah yes, Steam. There, perhaps, is a partial explanation for this fountain of youth the genre seems to have found. Only partial, of course. The core reason for the insane longevity of even the most apparently unappealing MMOs is surely, as Azuriel says, that some people never leave. Even so, attrition must wear them all down over time. An infusion of new blood is necessary if the corpse is to keep on shambling.

Even when it seems you're all alone.

I'm new to Steam but I'm fast beginning to see its attractions, both to players and producers alike. My Library, which stood at no games at all for years, then one for twelve months, now has three. Thanks to SynCaine (him again) I downloaded Sunless Sea, which is not an MMO, even by the broadest definition. Its predecessor, Echo Bazaar (later known as Fallen London), which I played for a while and for which I made my Twitter account, something then required, arguably was. Is. It, of course, is also still running.

I played 19 minutes. By the time I got around to playing again my free weekend pass had expired. I'm not sure I'll play Sunless Sea again - it's a bit more of a "game" than interests me and a bit less of a story - but I'm sold on the ease of access.

One of the annoying things about trying new MMOs is all the form filling, the registering, the passwords and so forth. Steam circumvents much of that and if for no other reason I will likely end up using it as a portal for MMOs that use it. Like, perhaps, Knight Online, a game I have never before considered trying, a game that launched in the same year as WoW but which has only arrived on Steam in 2016, a dozen years later.

And your past glories mean nothing.

This isn't going anywhere in particular. I'm just talking out loud, working things through. We'll come back to this, over and again, I'm sure.

There are all these MMOs, you see. Some people start playing them and never stop so the games keep rolling along and as they go they pick up more players as others drop off. Meanwhile game companies look at them, see them there, keeping on going, and think "we'd like some of that" and make more. And people start playing those and some of them keep playing...

There are a lot of people in the world. The internet is endlessly accommodating. There is no clear reason why any of this would stop unless the critical mass of people interested in playing this type of game falls below a viable threshold and who knows what that threshold might be? It's clearly not very large if Istaria and Ryzom can survive and even prosper.

There's always a new dawn just over that hill.

The whole thing clearly isn't going to come to an end just because a lot of people lose interest, get bored or disenchanted and wander off. There are, after all, as noted, a lot of people in the world, more every day, and most of them haven't even had the chance yet to be bored by an MMO. They still have that life-experience ahead of them.

So, yes, some MMOs will go under. As the years wear on more ghosts will walk. Changes in fashion, taste, technology and definition may slow the flow of newcomers from production and consumption both but will the stream be dammed entire? I wouldn't bet on that.

I'm thinking the trick is to attach to the genre and not become overly infatuated with the individual games but that, of course, is impossible. It's always going to hurt when one you love falls. It's comforting to know there are so many but there's always that one, isn't there?  Not to love isn't a response.

The more I consider this the less I understand. It's magic, after all. One morning I'll wake and like fairy gold it will all be gone. Until then, we're rich. Let's enjoy it.



11 comments:

  1. PCwhatme?

    It is a nice list that basically ends at 2009, with the exception of a story telling game.

    Some genres like RTS have basically no entry since the late 90s.

    I bet a decent portion of the players out there never read a videogame magazine, especially a PC one. In fact even blogs and generalist game forums might be frequented by a generation of people that does not represent the player base.

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    1. I wonder if that's much different to how it ever was? Presumably the people who bought print gaming magazines were only a small proportion of the people who played the games they wrote about. You'd think that the ease of access and lack of cost associated with web publishing would mean more players would see this stuff not fewer but who knows?

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  2. That's a salutory thought - our blogs may have reached "peak reader" because newer generations of gamer haven't engaged with blogging in the way earlier one(s) did (I use the term generations in a looser sense).

    I remember Eden Eternal and actually really liked it for a while but when I inevitably tried to jump back in the account had been locked for "lack of financial activity" and to be honest I couldn't be bothered to jump through hoops - mainly having to ring a mainland USA number from the UK - to get my characters back.

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    1. Blimey - I certainly wouldn't make a transatlantic phone-call to get my mouse back. I imagine he must be long deleted if that's how it works.

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  3. Ahem, dictionary fail pre-coffee - "sobering thought" is perhaps more apt.

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  4. I couldn't have said it any better myself :)
    Personally I am glad that I managed to interrupt my ride into MMO gloom and apathy halfway through my blogging; there was a time when I associated with the bloggers you named above and would've counted myself among the ever sarcastic and grumpy that can't seem to find a place in newer games. But then I made a conscious decision around the time GW2 launched. Twas the decision to keep an open mind and open eyes and accept that you can't repeat first times...but that it's still worth having second and third ones. If I wander Middle-Earth, Tyria and Eorzea with the heart of a poet, they all still sing to me. If they do not, maybe it is me who has failed them.

    That also explains my blogging going ever quieter over the last two or so years. Today I am content. Contentment does not make for the same fiery debates, the same fervor, I dare say I was a better writer when I was angry and disappointed. ;) But that's fine, because I feel so much better when I'm happy and can explore and appreciate MMOs for what they are today. I loved my time in FFXI and WoW but I also love wandering Eorzea today, playing an entirely different tune. There is a time for all things. I think that if we cannot come to terms with something like fading MMO eras, there is a much deeper underlying struggle there, an existential one even about the nature of time.

    May I ask for your steam handle btw? It appears not to be bhagpuss.

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    1. I think its Bhag The Puss but I honestly don't know for sure. I'll check next time I log into Steam. I'm generally quite obsessively private about these things but that would seem to be a bit counter-productive where Steam's concerned.

      I've always been slightly puzzled by the very widely held feeling that it's easier to write about things you don't like than things you do. Personally, I much prefer to write and talk about things I like. I do think that readers prefer to read critical pieces than paeans of praise though, especially if the criticism is presented with wit or even just sarcasm.

      Glad you're enjoying your gaming anyway. Life's too short not to enjoy the things you choose to spend your free time doing!

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    2. Well, half the fun of steam is viewing your friend activity stream for me - I have discovered so many great games that way I otherwise wouldn't have. There's also viewing your friends play now and other nifty features such as the wish list. I regularly get games from someone because they have spares and see that I got something listed. So yeah, the friend feature is worth it imo :)

      And your profile name is not bhag the puss =P or at least I can't find ya. Anyway, if you ever get to it and would like to add me, I am Syl there (you will know my avatar altho it says I am in the USA).

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    3. It's bhagthepuss - no spaces! I was just on playing Otherland until I hit a bug that stopped me. So I played Blade and Soul instead! I'll have a look at the friends thing and see if I can work out how to add you when I have more time - too late now.

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  5. I get fed up of signing up to things and coming up with new passwords too, but I keep getting drawn towards trying out new ones. I believe that sticking to one MMO could be more worthwhile as you can invest all of your time to get to the much later parts of the game, but I get drawn into trying new ones, just in case they're a better investment for me. If you're not careful I think MMO hopping can become an addiction in and of itself – and I love the fresh new character feeling. There's also that fear that I might invest all my time on one just for it to close down and lose everything. Some have surprised me and continued to run regardless of my fears. Sometimes I wonder if it's possible to run out of new people to join up. There are so many MMO's vying for attention and requiring a minimum number to create a complete experience that I wonder how all of them are able to attract enough people. When an MMO is new the earlier areas may be brimming with life, but later on down the line they feel desolate and empty – that saddens me for some reason.

    I've taken a break from MMO's for now. I guess I finally hit that fatigue and was ready to do something different. I don't think it means that there could never be another MMO success, but many of them don't seem to want to risk pushing the boundaries of design in this genre a lot of games a very similar. I still think a lot more could be done with this genre, even with the main ones. I'm still paying out on a couple, the ones where I've gotten the furthest and want to continue supporting them. A while back there were rumours that one of them would be closing down, but thankfully it hasn't happened yet.

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    1. It depends a bit on the MMO but by and large you're right - you need to spend quite a lot of time to get much farther than the beginning and much deeper than the surface. Over the years I've generally tended to have one or, at most, two MMOs at a time that I'm playing "seriously" and a whole lot that I'm really just visiting for atmosphere and light amusement.

      The focus usually changes more often than it has of late - it's been a long time since I played any MMO as long and as solidly as I've played GW2. At the moment I can't see anything on the horizon that looks likely to change that but who knows? I'm always open to suggestion.

      As for where all the players come from...beats me! The newer, smaller MMOs that are being made right now mostly look to need a lot fewer customers to remain financially stable, so I am fairly confident the genre is going to keep ticking along for the foreseeable future. Let's hope so anyway.

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