Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Built To Last Or Built To Fail?

A while back, Tipa posted one of her occasional overviews of the State of the Genre as revealed by Google Trends, in which it becomes immediately obvious that the mmorpgs people are asking Google for information about tend to be... how to put it politely... really old. 

More recently, James Crosby, aka MMOFolklorist, attempted to explain the "MMO Hype Vacuum", the sense he has that no-one really gets revved up by the prospect of a new mmorpg the way they used to.  In another post, he observes that TarislandTencent's upcoming riposte to World of Warcraft's departure from the Chinese market, potentially one of the biggest global mmorpg launches of recent years, left him hovering "somewhere between apathy and despair".

In the same post, James gives his thoughts on the imminent closedown of Sword of Legend Online, an mmorpg that only launched a couple of years ago. He also mentions Elyon, which launched around the same time and has already drifted off into the sunset. He concludes that, while they "both looked pretty, and they played at least as solidly as any other medium-profile entry into the genre", that simply wasn't enough, the implication being that mmorpg gamers these days demand more of their games than competence, professionalism, sound gameplay and good graphics.

The implication is that every game should be not just good but great. Otherwise they're doomed to fail. 

This morning I read a post by Mailvatar that mentions in passing a sentiment I've heard numerous times, namely a sense of disappointment in what were probably the two most commercially sucessful mmorpg launches of recent times, New World and Lost Ark. Both games very definitely enjoyed a great deal of hype in the run-up to launch, being received almost ecstatically at first, before enthusiasm bled out just as quickly.

Unlike SOLO and Elyon, New World and Lost Ark carry on but with a tiny fraction of their original audience. According to the Steam Charts, in this case an atypically accurate measure, New World has lost 98% of the players it had at peak; Lost Ark has done a little better, only losing 97%.

In terms of news coverage, New World far outranks Lost Ark, about which I struggle to remember when I last heard anything. By contrast, New World continues to feature regularly in multiple news feeds I follow, including some that aren't primarlily gaming-focused. 

Tipa's tally puts both in the same Tier 3 bucket alongside Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Star Citizen, suggesting those games might also have audiences of similar size. As we know, guessing the population of almost all mmorpgs is a mug's game, so I'm not going to draw any hasty conclusions.

My concern here isn't, for once, the prospective health of the individual games or the genre as a whole as evidenced by the number of people who log in to play each day. It's more of an existential question: if games as relatively well-made and well-received as New World, Lost Ark, Sword of Legends Online or Elyon either aren't good enough to attract an audience to begin with, or to hold the attention of more than a tiny fraction of the audience that they do manage to find, just what is going to be enough to satisfy the current mmorpg player?

Tarisland, when it appears, which would seem to be likely to be sooner rather than later, may indeed turn out to be a complete flop in the West. Certainly, if the quality of the translation evident in the trailers is anything to go by, Tencent don't seem particularly bothered about spending much time or effort on localization. 

Would such a commercial failure tell us more about the cynical way the game might have been conceived and developed or would it just be more evidence to support something we may already suspect about the expectations of the audience, namely that nothing is ever going to be good enough?

As Tipa says about WoW, FFXIV and Old School Runescape, the top three mmorpgs on Google Trends by a very large margin, "These three MMOs are far and away the most popular MMOs in the USA, according to Google Trends, and they have been that way for years. Sometimes one is on top, sometimes another one is, but it’s always one of these three."

Stepping past the always-intriguing question of why this part of the blogosphere barely nods towards any version of Runescape, it's hard to argue against the idea that the mmorpg market, at least in the west, is all but impenetrable to new entrants. New World and Lost Ark have done very well to make it to Tier 3 alongside all those decade old games (And that decade-old alpha.). The massive hype they enjoyed in the build up to launch didn't boost them to glory but I guess we have to acknowledge that still being here two years later is some kind of success in itself.

As for games like Sword of Legends Online and Elyon, widely accepted at launch as being not at all bad and pretty solid for new releases, what chance did they have? I remember there was a glut of new releases around then, including Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis, Crowfall, Bless Unleashed and more. Just how many players for these types of games are there meant to be, anyway, that half a dozen or more can hope to release in close proximity and still prosper?

This summer doesn't appear to have anything like that crush of new launches but there are a bunch of big titles there or thereabouts on the horizon, from big hitters like Blue Protocol, Throne and Liberty and the aforementioned Tarisland to plucky indies like Palia and Wayfinder. I'm looking forward to trying all of them but do I honestly expect to settle down and play even one for any meanigful amount of time?

In the post I linked earlier, Mailvatar talks very positively about Black Desert Online and Genshin Impact, two games I played and enjoyed when they came out and often think about playing again. They're both successful games by most metrics - they're still running, they get new content regularly, people still talk about them. 

When they were new, though, everyone was talking about them; everyone tried them. How many of those people are still, like Malvatar, playing and enjoying them? How many bloggers are writing about them?

More than play or write about Swords of Legend Online now, that's for sure. More than played or wrote about Elyon before it closed down. More than play or write about PSO2:NG (Although there are some very interesting developments there that deserve attention.)

I feel slightly uncomfortable about the fate of SOLO. The developers issued a very forthright statement outlining the reason the game failed, explaining almost wistfully "The MMO market is fiercely competitive, and despite our best efforts – including the release of the 2.0 update, making the game free to play, as well as further content patches along the way – we’ve found that the player numbers simply aren’t strong enough to sustain the game".

I liked the game quite a lot but I didn't manage to find time to play it even after it went free-to-play. I wanted to. I meant to. I just kept putting it off, thinking I'd get to it one day, when I had time. That day never came and now the game is going away. 

It's not a great loss. If I'd really wanted to play it,I'd have found the time. The thing that makes me uncomfortable isn't any sense of guilt over not supporting a decent mmorpg. It's the worry that no new mmorpg is ever going to be special enough to prise me away from the games I already know and love. Or, indeed, the ones I quite like and am used to.

Worse, I fear the same may be true for a lot more potential players than just myself. I wonder whether all these developers are fooling themselves, believing the audience they're hoping to attract even exists. With the exception of FFXIV, itself an aging game now, how many mmorpgs have successfully been able to poach players from existing titles in the last few years, let alone attract new players to the genre and keep them? ESO, maybe, but that game had a pre-existing single-player audience to draw on.

It would make me wonder why so many developers keep on making mmorpgs except I know why they do it: it's because mmorpgs take upwards of five years to develop and keep a lot of people in work. Provided you can keep raising the investment capital, making mmos is a sustainable business. Running mmorpgs as a live service for years after launch? That's a much bigger gamble.

Nosy Gamer, in his recent review of the Uprising expansion for EVE Online, rates it a success, since it at least stemmed the flow of players leaving the twenty year-old game, but concludes by saying "at the beginning of EVE Online's third decade of operation, staunching the bleeding is not enough. CCP needs to build on the success of Uprising and attempt to grow the game once again". Is this a reasonable - or even a rational - expectation?

Maybe. Although most indicators would seem to suggest the best an mmorpg can hope for is a long, slow decline, populations do ebb and flow. Lord of the Rings Online and Guild Wars 2 reported spurts of growth recently and Runescape in its various iterations seems to operate entirely by rules of its own, so it's not impossible to imagine player numbers going up in any established title - for a while.

To expect any of them to stay up or even to keep adding new players at a sufficient rate to replace attrition seems a big ask, all the same. And if they were able to manage it, what would it say for the prospects of all those new games coming down the assembly line? While it's not a zero sum game, neither is there an unlimited pool of mmorpg players out there, ready and willing to populate the starting, mid-level and end game zones of every half-decent mmo willing to accomodate them.

As the SOLO devs said, "The MMO market is fiercely competitive". Too competetive for most. What they didn't say but probably were thinking is that the MMO player is too fussy, too fickle and just plain too hard to please. Also spoiled for choice and pampered like some indigent, overgrown princeling, surrounded by barely-touched delicacies and still calling for more.

I wish now I'd played more Swords of Legend Online but, with the best will in the world, I can't play them all. No-one can. And if you're talking about playing them meaningfully, no-one can play more than a handful.  

These days, competition isn't even limited to other mmorpgs, either. Belghast, describing what he calls the "live service dystopia", suggests "a given player only has time to play one live service game at a time, and as a result, EVERY live service game is ultimately competing with every other one.". It used to be commonly believed that playing an mmorpg meant you'd not have time for other mmorpgs but now it looks like playing any online game means you won't have time for any other online game, not when those games all have Battle Passes and Seasons and DLC and Expansions that require your full attention, all year round.

None of which is going to stop people making new mmorpgs, if only for the reason that investors and players still seem more than happy to keep throwing money at them - until they actually launch. It's only when the time comes to play the damn things that everyone suddenly loses interest. 

Designing and developing mmorpgs may very well be a sustainable business model. Star Citizen, Ashes of Creation, Pantheon or Camelot Unchained would certainly seem to support that thesis. Maintaining, running, even playing mmorpgs, though? Is there a future in any of that? 

For anyone?


  1. I guess one of the reasons why new games have such a steep slope to climb is the fact I mentioned in my post too, namely that long-running online games, provided they're actively worked on and not just in maintenance mode, reach a point after a couple of years where they're just so content-rich and just, well, good, that it's downright impossible for any new game to match that right out of the gate.

    Combine that with humans being creatures of habit, established communities, sunk-cost-fallacy and all that jazz and it's no wonder that most people only try new games out for a bit, if even that, and then return to their "homes".

    And since, as you said, there's not an infinite amount of people wanting to play this type of games...well...I guess we're at a point where releasing a new game and getting everybody and their moms to play it and also stick with it would be like catching lightning in a bottle.

    1. The post kind of got away from midway through. I started out meaning to focus on the way player expectations seem to have soared way past anything most developers could ever hope to satisfy - I mean, if games like New World or Lost Ark aren't capable of holding on to more than the tiniest sliver of the audience they attract then what's the hope for anyone? - but then I got onto the "It's not about making the GAMES, it's about MAKING the games" and that kinda took over at the end. It should have been two separate posts or else i should have completely restructured.

      Anyway, I'm sure it's a topic we'll all return to over and over. I'm beginning to think it's the only really important area of discussion for the genre - who exactly are these games being made *for*? I'm pretty sure we have all the mmorpgs we can handle and it's clear they aren't a license to print money the way people thought they were after WoW, so why do developers keep on churning them out? I'm starting to believe it's basically for *their* benefit, not ours, by which I mean it's a fun job that they can keep doing pretty much indefinitely because it really never seems to matter if the games succeed, just so there's always another to work on after the last one fails. And there always is.

      Does anyone really expect people are going to keep playing them for more than a hot minute? I'm kinda doubting it now.

  2. I agree that there is far more of a market for MAKING games then I would have dreamed about a decade ago. There are lots of people who really enjoy early access things like Crowfall or Star Citizen anyway. Maybe the higher interest rates will curb some of this?

    1. Yes, there's definitely the issue that by the time the games finally launch, everyone who was really interested feels like they've been playing them for ages anyway thanks to Early Access and paid alpha/beta. That just leaves the mildly curious who waited for launch to pop in, decide they weren't all that interested after all, and leave. Then there's no-one left but the absolute hardcore.

  3. "What they didn't say but probably were thinking is that the MMO player is too fussy, too fickle and just plain too hard to please. Also spoiled for choice and pampered like some indigent, overgrown princeling, surrounded by barely-touched delicacies and still calling for more."

    Switch out 'MMO player' for a generic 'gamer' and the indictment still holds.

    The best sellers overall (on PC, anyway) seem to be IP-driven rather than quality/mechanics driven. And the top engagement (twitch stats, etc.), with the exception of the venerable Minecraft, tends to reward games that match you up for a timed burst of competitive PvP, sell you some cosmetics and metaprogress, and get out of the way.

    Perhaps we are so used to 'virtual' now being part of the real world that virtual worlds offer less sense of escape or distinction and lose their raison d'être. There's no point in getting into a prescriptivist dudgeon about this, but I would personally prefer a different reality.

    1. That's a very interesting observation. There's been a lot of discussion over how the development of social media has made the original mmo proposition of being in permanent, open, real-time, global communication with strangers and friends alike into a totally normal, unremarkable, quotidian experience but I hadn't thought about the way the virtual world concept itself had leeched across into the everyday. And that's odd, since I keep harping on about how the metaverse is already here and we're all living in it.

      I definitely think that, over time, the "game" aspect of mmorpgs has almost completely overwritten all the other aspects. That probably has a lot to do with the way everything seems to be divided into small, finite sections with clear win conditions now, something that applies to almost every aspect of online gaming from dailies to pvp. The idea of just being somewhere and wandering about to see what would happen seems almost archaic but it was a prime motivator of the genre back in the early days.

  4. There was a time where "gamer" was a term that focused on a small piece of the social pie. I would posit the opposite is true now, where gaming is so mainstream that it's a freak occurrence to find someone who doesn't fall into that category. The niche has become mainstream.

    MMORPGs, by their very construct, are social tools with a gaming mask. They allowed a niche to interconnect. Ultima Online was just ICQ with a prettier interface, EQ not much farther.

    Their path to stardom was meant to pave the way for other games, and the trailblazer is now back into the niche market. I can "pick up and play" 99% of live service games today with very little ramp up time needed to play with friends. It's literally 200+hrs of content in FF14 to reach max level. MMORPGs as so content rich they dis-incentivize new players through that gap (WoW has made strides here). At least, in the constructs we are used to.

    Perhaps the genre has simply evolved past that older model. What is an MMORPG nowdays? A game with lots of simultaneous players, a semi-static world, stats that go up, and the ability to chat/group together. The PvE portion used to be the big split, but cosmetic cash stops flourish with PvP and e-peens. There's a quote somewhere in here for a wiser person...

    1. The question that's bugging me, now I've finally thought of it (And it's certainly taken me long enough, which is what happens when you're inside the silo, not looking out.) is just who the people spending the money (Not the individuals pledging on Kickstarter but those mysterious "investors" I keep reading about, who drop millions or tens of millions into projects not yet even in alpha.) think is going to play these games when they finally get made. As you say, the genre as a whole is clearly niche, with even the most successful examples no longer looking impressive compared to other types of game.

      It seems hard to believe they don't know the odds of any mmorpg making bank as well as the rest of us so I'm almost forced to assume that something's going on other than a genuine desire to get a good game out the door and then operate and update it for a few years. It seems a lot more likely there are financial reasons for all this "investment" that have nothing to do with making games people are going to play for years to come. I just wish someone would explain what those reasons might be. It certainly seems obvious that if the goal is to make money by designing and selling a video game, there are a lot more accessible genres than mmorpgs, ones which have much bigger potential audiences waiting and which take a lot less time to complete. It's all a bit of a puzzler, really!

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