Saturday, November 2, 2019

Around And Around

The reveal of Blizzard's plans for a sequel of sorts to Overwatch clarified some thoughts I've been having of late concerning the direction in which MMORPGs appear to be headed. Indeed, given that Overwatch isn't even an MMO as such, perhaps it's a vector that applies to gaming in general.

Once upon a time video games were standalone entities. They came in boxes that you went to a store to buy. You played them, you finished them (or gave up trying) then you put them on the shelf (or sold them) and moved on to the next.

If a company managed to come up with a hit, the usual way to double down on that success was to produce a sequel. There would usually be some thematic continuity but the new game would once again stand or fall on its own merits.

The lines began to blur when sequels started to allow the importing of saved data from their predecessors. I'm no video-gaming historian but even I have vague memories of being offered the option to transfer some aspect of my previous incarnation into a new game.

When games began to make their slow and tentative move online those hard demarcations began to blur still further. EverQuest only ran for a year as a pure core game before receiving its first "expansion". From then on I came to expect that any online game I played would grow like an unruly building, adding new rooms and wings to the original structure at regular intervals until its sprawl rivalled Gormenghast.

After a while, though, it seemed that game developers weren't satisfied with just expanding their virtual worlds and their profit margins along with them. They wanted to clone their successes just like their predecessors had done in the good old pre-internet days, something their offline competitors had never stopped doing.

Things didn't go entirely to plan. Some proposed sequels to MMORPGs were cancelled before they saw the shelves of any store and the ones that did make it struggled to match, far less eclipse their progenitors.

A few - a very few - managed to establish a separate identity and truck along profitably if unspectacularly. Lineage 2 and EverQuest II spring to mind. Even the "success" stories, though, were limited in what they were able to achieve. EverQuest is very likely still more profitable than EQII and Lineage is well ahead of its first sequel, albeit not the mobile version.

Whatever appetite developers might have had for creating entirely separate sequels seems to have dissipated in the face of these diminishing returns. That's perhaps surprising in that the last two attempts, ArenaNet with Guild Wars 2 and Square Enix with Final Fantasy XIV, have been relatively successful.

Even so, Square had to scrap and remake their follow-up to Final Fantasy XI before they could begin to recoup the cost of development, something almost no other developer would have done. Guild Wars 2, meanwhile, despite its initial success, has been drifting slowly downwards ever since. The linked NCSoft sales chart above has GW2 running barely ahead of Aion and well behind Blade and Soul. Not a strong predictor of long term success for anyone considering making a sequel to an MMORPG.

Significantly, both Square and ANet chose to mothball their first generation MMOs when they put their weight behind sequels. They recognized the potential split in their own customer base should active development continue on the older titles so they chose to close that door lest it slam in their faces, leaving the new baby locked out in the cold.

There has been talk of a World of Warcraft 2 for years but never the least hint that Blizzard considered it worth the time and effort of discussing, let alone developing. Even when they were working behind the scenes on a second MMORPG, Titan, it was something entirely separate to WoW.

That project, repurposed, became Overwatch, which now, ironically is getting a sequel. Of a sort. Those lines are blurring once again.

Blizzard have become experts at that. World of Warcraft, a game once derided for its cartoonish graphics, is now releasing promotional shots of its upcoming expansion that receive fulsome compliments. Hardly surprising since they've been upgrading and updating the game's graphics continually throughout its fifteen years.

Blizzard also, famously or infamously, re-writes the entire gameplay of WoW with every expansion. Rather than launch WoW 2 and split the audience they re-invent WoW every couple of years instead. How ironic, then, that they should find themsleves curating WoW Classic, thereby placing WoW Retail in the invidious position of being the sequel to a retroactively revived original. No wonder they resisted it for so long but in the end it's always the money that talks.

Meanwhile, with varying degrees of success, major players like ArenaNet and Zenimax/Bethesda find ways to reinvent their own MMORPGs so as to keep them relevant and fresh to both old and new players alike. Why go to the trouble of starting over when you can roll along with a never-ending sequence of micro-starts instead?

Or at least that seems to be the theory. It's a messy one at best. MMORPGs these days are a rat's nest of free updates, chargeable DLC, cash shop content and full expansions. Even the word "expansion" has morphed into meaninglessness, with some games using the term for every monthly update regardless of its gravitas or impact.

The picture becomes even less clear when you factor in those developers who choose neither to create a sequel nor to expand and update the games they already have, but to split titles like sickly amoebae, spawning imperfect copies of themselves. Funcom probably started the trend with Secret World Legends.

Gamigo, having picked up ArcheAge in Trion's fire sale, followed suit with ArcheAge Unchained. This is clever marketing. Why make a whole new game when you can just re-jig and remarket an old one and sell it to the same people all over again?  Where Blizzard would make these changes in the primary property, the new idea is to keep that running as-is and put your revamped version up for sale as-new.

It's genius, really. Especially when, like Gamigo, you can convince people to pay either a box price or
a subscription for a re-tooled version of something they used to be able to get for free. It also saves you the trouble of going back later to come up with a "Classic" version to feed that particular niche. All development goes on permanent hiatus in the original so there it sits, waiting to be re-promoted as "Classic" at some future date, should market indicators suggest doing so might turn a profit.

Overwatch 2 looks very interesting. I've never played the competetive PvP version but I've read a fair amount about it and, like many, I've thought it would have made for a fun MMO. The proposed sequel isn't that but it adds all the narrative and PvE content the original eschewed.

That will bring in a whole new audience from Blizzard's PvE-centric playerbase but the real brilliance of the scheme is the way the two games handshake. Overwatch 2 plans on "carrying forward all of the original game’s heroes, maps, and modes—as well as existing Overwatch players’ accomplishments and loot collections". Meanwhile, the new game will enjoy "character progression ... only for the PvE side" while "PvP players will have a level playing field without any of these potentially match-breaking abilities."

Is that a sequel, an expansion or something strange and new altogether? I guess we'll just have to wait and see but if it works count on seeing other developers tagging along behind. It's certainly a step up from all those Battle Royale spin-offs, at least.

Everwake is optimistic about the idea of so-called "Live Services", saying "A low monthly fee that acts as a content discovery vehicle is something that works for me." He's still a little wary of the implications, though, and so should we all be.

As we should already have known and as we've been most rudely reminded by the recent Blizzard brouhaha, big companies are not our friends. None of the changes and developments they make are designed to make things easier or more convenient for us - they are wholly and solely intended to increase revenue.

If game companies can successfully lock you into their ecosystem and then repackage and re-sell you the same game over and over and over again, don't think they won't. After all, it's only the same system all the other media empires have been perfecting for years.


  1. You perfectly phrased what I was thinking, they are trying to sell the same game with a virtual '2' sticker slapped next to the logo. And I'm not sure their audience is buying it. I watched the panel and the lack of enthusiasm was painful and awkward for the presenters.

    Also still not gonna buy Overwatch myself, because I don't think a few story missions will make this a PVE game. Let others test it and then we'll see :)

    1. Yes, I'm not going to rush to grab Overwatch 2 either - not that I imagine we'll have the chance for a couple more years at least. I'm not all that struck on the compulsory co-op nature of the PvE. I've done some of that in DCUO and while it works well there it's not exactly relaxing.

  2. "The linked NCSoft sales chart above has GW2 running barely ahead of Aion and well behind Blade and Soul. Not a strong predictor of long term success for anyone considering making a sequel to an MMORPG."

    You keep repeating that as if GW2 is equal to some obscure and obsolete games, but Aion and Blade and Soul (and both Lineages) are primarily based in Korea, whatever money western versions bring are merely a bonus. GW2 is the only big earner for NCSoft West.

    1. They're all part of the same company's portfolio so I'm not sure what difference the territories in which the money is being made makes to the bottom line, but then I don't claim to be an economist. Also I think Aion and Blade and Soul are very far from being obscure, but that may be a matter of perception.

  3. I just thought they were basically advertising an expansion as an entirely new game, though I'm not sure why. Maybe because Overwatch players are used to getting free updates (of sorts) and Blizz was worried that they wouldn't want to pay up if the new stuff was just advertised as DLC? Maybe they thought that promoting it as entirely new game would make it more attractive to newcomers to jump in for the first time? Who knows.

    1. And sort of a reply for @Zypek above too:

      Blizz was in a bit of a precarious situation with monetising any sort of sequel or 'game' content on Overwatch. They made promises pretty early on that they would never sell map packs or expansions that would split the player base.

      But particularly with the ire against Loot Boxes rising to the point of their very existence being under threat they needed to start planning for another revenue stream.

      At first I was *very* cold on this idea. It reeked of what Ubisoft did with making a Division 2 instead of expanding the first (even if it was in fact a paid for expansion).

      But as I uncovered the details I became actually somewhat impressed.

      Even if you only own Overwatch 1 -- you will get all the PvP maps and heroes that release for OW2. Free of charge. Just as an update.

      OW1 and OW2 players will be able to seamlessly play together in PvP, create parties, etc.

      If you're buying OW2 you're doing it for the PvE half of the equation where you can play those co-op modes and level heroes. If that doesn't interest you, you can say 'Thanks but no thanks' and carry on playing unpenalised.

      For those that do buy it though, they can also incidentally still continue to queue with their friends and rest of the player base at large that has no interest.

      So all considered, I view this model a win/win. Blizz gets to monetise something (in a less scungy way to boot) while still keeping their promises to the playerbase.

  4. "Significantly, both Square and ANet chose to mothball their first generation MMOs when they put their weight behind sequels."

    Final Fantasy 11 is still growing strong, or were you referring to something else?


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