Saturday, February 9, 2019

Second Time Around

In a post called "What Should Everquest 3 Even Look Like?", Wilhelm quotes John Smedley, ex-CEO of Sony Online Entertainment and Godfather of the EverQuest franchise, as saying the main lesson he learned from launching EQ2 was that he shouldn't make any more MMO sequels.

Smed didn't follow his own advice and neither has anyone else. Off the top of my head and in no particular order I can think of

Lineage II
Guild Wars 2
Asheron's Call 2
FFXIV (Twice!)
Planetside 2
EverQuest II 

Releasing a game under the same name with "2" or "II" appended (or XIV, if you're Square) isn't the only way to follow up a hit MMORPG. Ultima Online was going to have a sequel, Ultima Worlds Online: Origin. That never happened. Dark Age of Camelot is hoping for a spiritual sequel in Camelot Unchained. That may or may not ever happen. City of Heroes spawned City of Villains and Wizard 101 was followed by Pirate 101.

You don't even have to make a new game. Archey, in the comments to Wilhelm's post, suggested World of Warcraft already had its sequel in Cataclysm. Or you can just port your current game to another platform. It worked for H1Z1.

Sequels, then, seem fairly well-established. Success varies but by and large the effort seems worthwhile. FFXIV and GW2 have been unequivocal successes and most of the rest would seem to have washed their faces, at least.

What's missing from the above round-up is threequels. Quite a few companies have seen fit to take a second trip to the well but no-one so far has risked a third. Okay, that's not strictly true. NCSoft has had a third Lineage title in development for seven years and that's where it remains - in development.

The only MMORPG I can think of that actually has had three discrete versions of the same IP, all running as full MMORPGs simultaneously is... EverQuest. Long before Lineage Eternal, just after the peak of EQ's success, in the mid-2000s SOE had three MMORPGs set in Norrath : EQ, EQII and EverQuest Online Adventures, the PS2 Console version. Arguably they had four, with the Mac version but since that was effectively just a sliver of the main EQ game, frozen in time, we'll discount that for now.

By that count, if Daybreak did go for a new EverQuest game it would either be EverQuest 4 or EQ5. No wonder SoE went with EQNext. Whatever number or name they stuck on the back of it, I'm not wholly convinced it would be a great idea even to try. But then, if they don't try, where does that leave them?

As I've mentioned before, there's been an increasing murmur of speculation among GW2 players about the possibilites of a second sequel to Guild Wars. There hasn't been the least scintilla of a hint from any official source that such a thing is even in the earliest planning stages, let alone imminent. On the contrary, there have been past statements suggesting the developers are minded never to let it happen.

Even so, people talk. MMORPGs have very long lives and by design they don't need to be replaced. They can be refurbished and re-purposed to meet changing requirements without any need to scrap the whole thing and start over. But.

Yes, and it's a very big "but", indeed. Old game is old game. Old players are old players. Every time you make a radical change to attract new blood, first you have to convince anyone you have something genuinely fresh and then you have to calm your existing players who think you're going change the game they love. Hard circle to square.

It's a dilemma no-one has quite figured out yet. Blizzard has been steadily "re-starting" WoW with each expansion for years now but the evidence for that approach working is sketchy at best. If they'd just carried on building on top of the same systems instead of tearing them down and starting over every 18-24 months, would they have fewer subscribers now or more?

Perhaps it is a safer bet to launch a sequel after all. Maybe you will split the audience but you also might find a way to keep your hardcore while also attracting players who hadn't really wanted to buy what you were already selling.

When you've made the decision and your sequel, what then? Maybe you planned for obsolescence and your elder game goes to maintenance (FFXI, Guild Wars) or even sunsets. Maybe you run both in tandem, serving two sets of players, hoping they have synergies you can exploit (EQ/EQII, Lineage/LineageII).

And then what? What happens when your sequel is itself fading, long in the tooth and bleeding players, server count shrinking and press releases going unreported? Do you double down on what you've got, dig in for the long haul, husband your diminishing resources and declining revenues to keep the lights on as long as possible? Or do you risk throwing everything you have to the winds with another roll of the same dice?

No-one knows the answer to any of these questions. The concept of online video games with no "use before" date is still fresh and untried. As Wilhelm regularly reminds us, people still play MUDs. Why? Who? For how much longer?

TorilMUD, EQ's direct ancestor and therefore WoW's, too, turns thirty in four years' time. EverQuest is twenty this year, EQII and WoW both fifteen. Are these things ever going to stop? Will they die faster if they spawn sequels or will the publicity extend their lives, too?

The calculations are going to work out differently in every case and there is, of course, the small matter of whether the sequel is any good. FFXIV:ARR and GW2 are strong sequels because they're strong games. Had they been launched with different titles they'd most likely have been successful too.

On the other hand, standing on the shoulders of strong, successful MMORPGs probably didn't do either of them any harm. To go back to Wilhelm's original question, if it ever happens, what EverQuest 3 should look like is a good game.

I'm not naive enough to believe that quality is its own reward. There's timing, luck and publicity to consider, for a start. I also understand that brand recognition matters. When you have a tainted brand like EverQuest, however, people knowing your name cuts both ways. Whether the next Norrath comes to us on PC, Console or Mobile, it is going to have to be good.

It doesn't have to be original. Originality gets you column inches and awards but it doesn't necessarily get you customers. It also doesn't have to be perfect. Was Fortnite? Was PUBG? Was WoW?

No, what EQ3 has to be is a game that people want to play; a lot of people. Those people could be the people playing EQ and EQ2 right now, in which case EQ3 could replace either or both, or they could be new people, in which case Daybreak might end up running three EverQuests again.

When - if - DBG announces a new EverQuest title, what it can't afford to be is something no-one wants. Something that alienates almost everyone. Something people laugh or sneer at or even plain ignore. Something no-one believes will ever happen. Not again.

It's a big risk. Would you take it if your livelihood depended on it?

For what it's worth, I think the opportunity waiting to be explored here is indeed a sequel. Not to the original, nor yet to EQ2. The Norrathian game that's crying out for the full-blown sequel treatment is EverQuest Online Adventures.

PC gaming is in its twilight years. The future is Mobile, Consoles and, one day, VR. The concept of MMOs, once alien, is becoming very familiar to console gamers. They seem to like it. And DBG already has a very successful console title with DCUO.

What's more, EQOA has an unblemished reputation and a nostalgia market of its own. Combined with the much-discussed trend towards less-punishing mechanics and more action-oriented gameplay, interest in a new, well-designed, console-based MMOLite under the EverQuest rubric could be considerable.

I'd buy a console to play that. Although, come to think of it, I'd have to buy a television, too...


  1. The MMORPG development space seems really fraught to me, with no clear 'right' answers.

    In my mind, an MMO could be the eternally living game. It could have technology updates to keep them relevant and systems changes to adapt to the times. Keep the benefit of your years of content updates while not falling to the wayside either.

    But I do recognise it's not this simple, either. Upgrade your tech too far and you potentially drop the revenue from your players with lower spec machines.

    Pull out any significant system changes and you might have a riot on your hands and mass player exodus ala SWG. Counterpoint to the SWG example though perhaps is that Warframe rolls out fairly significant overhauls (i.e., Movement 2.0, coming up to (or maybe it has since happened? Melee 3.0, etc) which makes me ask:

    Is it the fact such an overhaul was done fullstop, or that the overhaul was just... bad. In the pursuit of accessibility and attraction of a new player base they completely alienated the existing?

    I suspect it is an element of both. You're never going to get universal consensus that a major change to the way something works is 'good', but perhaps with the right set of motivations and willingness to listen it could be executed better than SWG at least.

    Even all those issues aside, the sheer amount of work required to port the existing content and systems to a newer engine is *huge* and is a problem that grows with the age and scope of the title.

    How does the business case for that stack up without a new box sale to support it?

    My guess is that this very hurdle is why WoW's technical updates to water and whatnot only comes with xpac releases and even then are generally relatively minor in scope.

    It is why the latest content has the best textures, but in the old world you can still find the original style lower res.

    So yes... I know it isn't easy, but without a doubt my ideal would be the eternal MMO that can still be updated and adapted, on the levels of content, technical and play systems.

    1. It's tricky. PC-based game development has none of the clarity enjoyed by Consoles. It's reliant on a vast number of variables, from graphics cards and CPUs to operating systems, any and all of which can change at any time for any given customer. That's problematic enough for a game that launches, sells, is played and then gets forgotten; for MMORPGs, which outlive generation after generation of both software and hardware, it's astonishing any of them still work at all.

      When you factor in the difficulty of keeping the games technically functional, the increasing unmarketability of their aging graphics, the tangle of confused and confusing legacy systems, the mountain of largely-irrelevant but still extant content, the bunker mentality of the veteran players and the extreme difficulty of attracting attention for games made over a decade ago, it must often seem more practical to scrap the whole thing and start over than to carry on. That, though, has plenty of problems of its own.

      I agree that, in a purely logical world, a strong, successful MMORPG should provide the foundation for indefinite growth. After a couple of decades it's also clear that, for a commercially viable audience, that's true. There's a huge difference between "viable" and "optimal", though, and even the best-maintained and managed MMORPG is only going to be able to nurse the same audience for so long. Eventually the playerbase is going to die off - literally!

      I think the real breaktrhrough will come if a major MMORPG ever manages to keep growing its audience over time. EverQuest managed it for nearly five years; WoW for about the same. Someone needs to kick on and show continual growth over a decade and more. No sign of anyone doing it yet.

      Another option would be to plan for fixed lifetimes for each MMORPG, with a clear transition to a planned sequel. Have continuity between them but also a clear break and restart. Crowfall is kind of playing around with that idea in a small way. I still feel that, if the original game was successful, a lot of players would want it to carry on, though, rather than move to the new one...

    2. "I think the real breaktrhrough will come if a major MMORPG ever manages to keep growing its audience over time. EverQuest managed it for nearly five years; WoW for about the same...."

      This raises the question in my mind, is the overall MMO playing community growing or shrinking?

      For the purposes of this discussion, I'd limit the scope of players to the 'traditional' MMORPG rather than the MMO-Lites / Live Service type games.

      My gut reaction would be to say 'shrinking', but this is a reaction rife with problems, limited perspective, confirmation bias from friend group, etc, so I don't actually know.

      For the moment assuming that it is shrinking, or at least that the growth is immaterial -- then I think it's going to take quite a shake up in technology in one way or another to really have another WoW moment of explosive audience growth.

      It's possible I suppose there might be an IP somewhere capable of repeating that success without an evolutionary change, but I'm skeptical.

      A finite life-span for an MMO is an interesting concept. But I wonder how much of that lifespan is going to have to be spent in production of its sequel while simultaneously needing to manage the content updates to its current content.

      Perhaps there exists some solution in the pipeline where future-proofed assets are created and downscaled appropriately for the current tech?

      But I think perhaps one of the larger issues (and you mentioned this too) is the reluctance in the MMO space to ever throw anything away.

      The name of the game is always adding more, more, more. WoW's Cataclysm expansion is one of the very few where I've seen such significant change to the old world.

      If there is one thing that the live-service model of gaming has taught me (well, reminded me -- because actually Asheron's Call did this pretty well too) -- is that I LIKE changes up to the existing known world. I like being able to tell the story of 'how things were'.

      Perhaps there is something in this for MMO developers to consider. I'm not suggesting for a moment that entirely new realms and landmasses never get added (I like these too), but there is something I heard in my marketing role some years ago that has stuck with me and perhaps could help here.

      I can't remember the verbatim quote, but paraphrasing a bit: We always feel like we need something 'new' to go out to market and talk. It's understandable, and new is powerful. But it's not all. Don't be afraid to get out there and talk about what you're doing well that you've always been doing well. Remind people from time to time of the benefits baked in to your propositions already.


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