Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Mask Slips

J3w3l posted some thoughts on the mortality of MMOs prompted by an AMA on Reddit given by Daybreak's new "Executive Creative Director", Jens "Spytle" Andersen. Until his recent promotion, Jens was Senior Creative Director for DCUO, by most accounts one of DBG's more successful properties.

Since the AMA takes place in the Planetside2 subreddit, most of the questions naturally focus on that game, so a lot of it may not be all that interesting or relevant to anyone who isn't currently playing PS2. If the headline quote pulled by MassivelyOP and echoed by Healing The Masses is to be believed, that means almost everyone.

While it's extremely unusual to hear a senior executive comment so freely and frankly on the poor health of an MMO under his authority, it was another of Jens' open, honest and revealing replies that really caught my attention. In answer to a question asking whether one response to the dearth of PS2 players might be to improve Membership benefits, Jens had this to say:

You know what is funny? No matter how many things we heap into membership on all of our games, it makes no difference in the appeal of membership to non members. This is something we saw on DCUO for sure. The amount of benefits to DCUO membership is staggering, but people don't take advantage of it. It's just not a really good strategy for us to keep trying to lead horses to water that do not want to drink. And the fact is, current members already get huge benefits from the monthly fee they already pay.

That really gets to the nub of the F2P versus Subscription issue in my opinion. There is a fundamental divide between those players who are willing to pay a regular, ongoing fee to access an online video game and those who aren't. Whether it's down to age or disposable income or available leisure time is unclear but somewhere along the line there is a clear split between the committed and the uncommitted that is not directly influenced by value alone.

Tobold was speculating yesterday about an old idea: the premium subscription. He found himself paying $10 a day to play League of Angels, a game I'd never heard of and which, from a quick glance at the website, appears to be the kind of competetive PvP affair I'd have expected Tobold to avoid like the plague. The experience led him to wonder whether there might be a market for "luxury niche MMORPGs with a $300 a month subscription fee".

Jens Andersen's insight suggests not, as does a much older experiment from the company formerly known as SOE. Way back in 2002, when EverQuest was the big dog of western MMOs, John "Smed" Smedly imagined a Velvet Rope experience might bring in even more cash. He was wrong.

The Legends server was launched with a flurry of hype that makes for hubristic reading more than a decade on. As far as I recall Smed's ambitious claims that Legends would provide "a tabletop RPG experience" in which players would "feel like they are part of a world that's changing at a much more rapid pace" came to nothing. If anyone on Legends ever did get a sword named after them that went on to become a drop on regular EQ servers then they kept pretty quiet about it, even if, as this thread suggests, it happened all the time on the Stormhammer server itself.

Although plenty of nostalgists in that thread confirm the $40 a month was money well spent, they also tell a tale of ever-declining numbers. There never was a second Legends server and by 2006 there weren't enough high-rollers left to keep the lights on any more. The experiment has not been repeated.

Here's the problem: an online game has to provide a minimum level of content and service to function at all. Getting that up and running and keeping it that way is the baseline without which you just don't have a game that anyone much is going to play, even for free. But simply by reaching that level of competence you have already satisfied the needs of most of your potential audience. If you're lucky you might sell them a few trinkets and toys before they wander off to the next game down the line.

Tobold (yes, him again) opined today that rather than being addicted to MMOs most of us are merely fascinated by them, and that it's a fascination that can easily be broken or redirected elsewhere. I don't wholly go along with the premise but it certainly applies to the wider mass market for online entertainment. When so much is available for free, and mostly at a relatively high level of quality, who would pay just to have access to one particular example among many and how much better than the competition would that example need to be?

As the world adjusts to the unending tsunami of free entertainment let loose by the transition to digital media and the growth of uninterrupted, immediate global online accessibility, "content providers" have to learn how to swim in these treacherous waters. Some are managing to keep their heads above the water; some are drowning. 

This, very clearly, is where current marketing strategies like those being developed by DBG and ArenaNet come into play. DBG, unlike SOE in the years before the sell-off, have finally noted the disproportionate importance of the comparatively small audience that has already chosen to play and to keep playing DBG's MMOs rather than someone else's. Instead of casting their net as far and wide as possible they are increasingly choosing to bait a hook with flavors many already playing find almost impossible to resist - nostalgia and character progression.

ANet, on the other hand, have sidestepped in the other direction. In a neat body-swerve they've opened the doors to let the F2P world inside, only to jink back, moving almost the entirety of the company's onward development focus to the commercial higher ground, locked behind the paywall of a Heart of Thorns purchase. You can play a GW2 for free; just not the GW2.

I logged into WildStar:Reloaded for the first time last night and spent an hour sorting out the perks and freebies from my single month of membership that came with the box. Then I spent a while browsing the cash shop on which the game's future in great part rests. I couldn't find anything to buy and I couldn't find much enthusiasm to play either. Whether Carbine will sink or swim is too early to tell but they must be eyeing FunCom's predicament with grim foreboding.

Sadly, while in this new, digital world nothing is ever truly gone, plenty falls out of reach. MMORPGs, with their infrastructure and population density requirements, are especially vulnerable. J3w3l, fearing for the future of Tera, wonders about the wisdom of putting "time and effort into and mmo that won’t last too long. Or that my friends won’t play much either". It's a conundrum alright.

As Telwyn from GamingSF observes, this is a problem almost unique to online entertainment. Stick to the offline world or better yet the printed word and your sense of security increases a hundredfold. Wilhelm just received his fresh Kickstarted copy of Tunnels and Trolls. Now he can "read through it and imagine all the great campaigns one could run without ever actually playing" just like I could do with my favorite forgotten system, Swordbearer, whose three Denis Loubet illustrated volumes sit on a shelf behind me as I write.

In the end though, unlike those free to play hordes who can't be led to the subscription waters they have no interest in drinking, we come to online entertainment willingly, because the range of choice is vast, the ease of access unparalleled. If the price is impermanence then it's a price we will just have to go on paying. As the Legends experiment proved, we only rent our time in these worlds. Open your wallet wide as you will, more money won't buy security of tenure.


  1. Swordbearer! Good heavenly days, I haven't thought of that in a long time - I had to look it up to see if it was the one I remembered. I picked up a copy of the FGU version after reading a glowing review of it in Dragon back in the day. It had a really interesting magic system, that actually had a sort of functional technical magic jargon. I never played it either -- it sat on the shelf next to my copies of Bushido! and Chivalry and Sorcery. But it was very cool to look at.

    1. I found the original boxed version of Swordbearer entirely by chance in a comic shop. I liked the illustrations and it looked intriguing so I bought it and read through the books. The magic system was the thing that really impressed me, that and the very wide and unusual selection of playable races.

      I ended up writing a short campaign and GMing it with our regular tabletop group, which at that time was going through a period of rotating GMs and systems. I think we played Swordbearer for about 6 or 8 sessions - a couple of months. It went down quite well -- a lot better than some other rulesets we tried - but we never went back to it and I never had the chance to experience it as a player.

      I would, of course, have played a Bunrab, given the chance.

  2. There is something to be learned from other industries which suffer from saturated markets where customers have choice and are thus not locked into what you may be offering. At one time EQ was pretty much an exclusive. You couldn't go elsewhere. Now there is so much choice that it numbs my brain trying to think about it.

    Anyway, in saturated markets, companies play up brand loyalty, nostalgia, and things that make them different or special or otherwise sets them apart, even if they are only tiny. They also pay a lot of attention to the cost to acquire a new customer via various paths to find what works and what pays off. And they cater to the installed base, because keeping a customer is often a lot cheaper than acquiring a new one.

    DGC seems to be steering in the right direction on those for the legacy Norrathian franchise... mostly. They still make some of the same old mistakes and piss people off now and again. And they appear to have retained the part of the community team that prefers not to deal with customers.

    But that is the wave of the future, customer retention and playing to the installed base, unless you have something that really differentiates you.

    1. The willingness of companies to continue entering what is indeed a saturated market is getting ever harder to understand. Particularly when it comes to spending money to "Westernize" MMOs that have already failed in their territories of origin in the hope they'll do better in NA/EU. In November we're getting Asta, of which I was previously unaware but which was, according to MOP, known as "The Asian World of Warcraft" when it failed in South Korea and closed after just two years. Early next year we're getting Black Desert, of which I definitely have heard and in which I'm passingly interested, which is getting a complete revamp that includes "localizing approximate 2.5 million words into English, German, and French" and "content and gameplay sytems ... adjusted to accommodate Western players". Not to mention that Devilian thing Trion want to foist on us.

      Did SOE just make bad calls with their Asian imports, one gone, one about to go, or does everyone just believe their own hype and convince themselves they'll be the ones to succeed where all the others failed? Or, more likely, do they all make money for a while and then get dropped without compunction as soon as the excitement wanes, to be succeeded by the next shovelware MMO or Great New Hope?

  3. ahhh, that alliteration was much better.

    I'm not sure about the the subscription conversion quote though. I get it might be hard to do but I think they are underselling the possibilities yet also neglecting those not subbing may till be spending money. There are different sorts of benefits people look out for in a subscription and this changes - and other ways of encouraging subscription.

    as for the premium service - I'd definitely pay more for a non crippled and cash shop infected archeage.

  4. Note that SWTOR takes a fairly strong-armed approach to 'encouraging' the F2P hordes to take out a subscription. I'm not sure how effective it is in boosting their conversion rate, but they sure aren't universally loved for doing so.
    Anyway, I'd argue that we have the 'premium service' for those who want more in quite a lot of games now - the cash shop. If Tobold really wants to lay down $300 a month, then GW2 would let him do a lot of virtual playing dress-up for that money.

  5. I wonder wether a combination of Premium and Nostalgia would work for established sub games like WoW.

    One could argue that the success of Legacy Servers for EverQuest, when a free option exists for both those (the acknowledged Project 1999 server) and the current game, shows that people are willing to pay more for Nostalgia servers. However, RuneScape eventually opening up their Legacy server(s) to non-subscribers would suggest that critical mass can be tricky to reach.

    Also, I think one issue Freemium games have is that they are often weary of selling content and game alterations.

    With Vanguard's shop for example I initially was more than willing to pay Unlocks for my favorite races, but they did away with those so I had nothing appealing to spend money on.

    Similarly, with its content-thickness on the one hand and fast levelling on the other, a game like Eldevin would greatly benefit from having the option to stop a character's XP-gain for a while, but the Shop only offers way to increase XP gains, meaning after a couple bags I was done with the Shop despite wanting to spend more.

    That's the flipside, Freemium works when those who want to spend more are offered attractive ways to do so, making up for those who won't spend a dime.


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