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Chance for Future Success

February 22, 2012

Dear Reader,

I have a bold proposal to make, but I believe it will come from an unpreviously predicted direction.  First, the proposal:

No MMO will ever be as successful as WoW.

Immediately, many of you will balk at such an absolute.  Hundreds of reasons have been cited by others, from unique gameplay (which it really didn’t have) to cutting edge graphics (which it didn’t really have), to a vast depth of lore (which it did and still does have, but so do many other games, like LotRO), but none of these are my claims.  Mine have more to do with our participation bandwidth and a sustainable engagement economy.

Both of these terms come again from McGonigal.  I know, I know; you thought we were done discussing her when my last semester ended.  However, it struck me while I was writing my recent Juggling epistle that there’s been a fundamental change in my own play habits, and after asking around, the play habits of a lot of people in my generation.

My logic (based upon McGonigal’s terms) goes like this.  We have a limited amount of effort we can share among our endeavors.  That’s our participation bandwidth, according to McG.  Once that limit is reached, something has to be dropped before a new project can be picked up.  When WoW appeared, there were relatively few successful games in the genre: Dark Age of Camelot, Ultima Online, and, of course, Everquest.  It was able to consolidate a lot of those players as their games were becoming stale and it provided much the same gameplay in a new, interesting, and enjoyable environment.

Now, though, new games release into a sea of MMOs, both big budget and small, both subscription and free to play.  Go check MMOhut if you don’t believe there’s a veritable industry just in making MMOs, and that’s not even all of them; MMORPG.com‘s list has others (but is less well kept up).  Every new MMO is struggling like a baby crocodile to survive without being killed by a predator, starved from lack of capability, or even devoured by its own parents or siblings.

We used to have a sustainable engagement economy in the MMO world.  We were able to play a single game for hours at a time without many distractions that provided a similar type of entertainment.  That’s no longer the case, and as a result, I truly believe no MMO will ever be as successful as WoW, not due to a lack of ingenuity, creativity, or design, and not due to anything particularly special about WoW, but simply because there’s too many obstacles out there to be able to pull so many people under a single umbrella.  In other words, the popularity of the genre has killed a hopeful future for the genre.

Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers, his book about success, that timing means a whole hell of a lot.  Most of the computer magnates of the day were all born at about the same time.  The same is true with rock icons and hockey players.  There’s patterns that we can’t usually perceive that drive success far beyond individual capability.  WoW came out at the exact right time into the exact right market and provided the exact right type of fun.  Then the window started to close.

I believe we will continue to be inundated with similar models of MMOs because that’s what’s been successful and it is, after all, a business.  When something new comes along, something like Star Wars’s “story based” gameplay (we’ll assume I agree for the sake of staying focused on this discussion), it won’t do as well as previous models did, so future games will not take into account its developments and will simply go their own way.  The more of these “half-successes” that exist, the more difficult it becomes to have another blockbuster simply due to the market being so flooded with choices.  Like being sunk into a pool of chocolate pudding, we’re drowning in something we love.

I haven’t a clue how to solve this problem, or if it is even solvable.  I think we’ll probably simply see more of the same for days on end until something truly new breaks through the mold and we’re given something that’s no longer an MMO at all, something new, something we couldn’t conceptualize at this point in the same way none of us could really conceptualize an MMO when we were playing Darkside of Xeen or Legacy: Realm of Terror (or even Syndicate, which were basically my three gateway computer video games. I just didn’t want to mention Syndicate again since I just had last time).  I can’t wait to see what that development is, and I look forward to the surprise we’ll have in store when it shows up.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and waiting)

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Triplesticks permalink
    February 22, 2012 12:26 pm

    Thought provoking post; I enjoyed reading it. Makes me wonder if the only company that can actually bust the block again is the same one that has a direct connection to the largest player base.

    Anything made by Blizzard in the future may already be light-years ahead in terms of publicity simply by virtue of it being a Blizzard product. Blizzard may not need to spend much advertising Product X since millions upon millions of people (even the haters) check to see what Blizzard is up to without having to be told to do so.

    • February 22, 2012 1:44 pm

      I agree that Blizzard has a huge advantage in the market, but I wonder if that will be enough to sell another similar game to WoW. If Titan isn’t genre-redefining (or -creating), then I’m not sure there’ll be such a mass congregation around it. By then, WoW will be that many years (4?) older, have lost that many more players from the simple repetition of the game (which is not Blizz’s fault, but a simple design fact with games; as Koster says, “Games are destined to become boring.”), and have lost that many more customers just as life takes them away but they aren’t replaced at the full rate because there are so many other options out there.

      There was a generation of people introduced to MMOs through WoW, and it holds a special place in their hearts as a result. Since then, Maple Story was a real gateway, LotRO, DDO, AoC… there’s been so many half-successes that WoW’s lost that special place even as it continues to dominate the market. I’m just not sure how long Blizz can hold out, or if D3 will be the bridge they clearly hope it will be to keep their customer base. I don’t think Blizz is doing anything wrong, I just think time is eroding, as it does to all things.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Mike permalink
    February 22, 2012 12:46 pm

    We’ve seen this in the past w/ FPS titles. There will always be the major players but in the end there can be only two to three players. And the winner is…

    Activision/Blizzard. Nuff’ Said. They will innovate with Titan, whatever the hell it actually is.

    • February 22, 2012 1:46 pm

      Yeah, I considered talking about Half-life and its descendants but simply decided not to get into a genre I’m simply not that familiar with. I agree, though; most people played Half-life who play FPS, but fewer and fewer games can make that comment as the market gets bigger and bigger. Halo, maybe, Call of Duty – but which one? Should a series even count?

      I hope they do innovate with Titan. I hope the creative team on that started with the premise “What can we do that’s new?” instead of “How can we take what we have and improve upon it?” though I fear from a business perspective that the second may be the more likely. Only time will tell.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. February 22, 2012 4:26 pm

    Seems like a safe enough argument. Will there ever be a bigger Operating System than Windows? Nope. Even though it is literally true there are better OSs out there, Windows has too much self-sustaining gravity to be legitimately challenged by someone else.

    Another apt analogy would be Apple with iPods, iPads, and the like. There were MP3 players and tablets before Apple came along, but they came at exactly the right time and place to not just destroy the competition, but also radically expand the market… under its own umbrella. Even if an Android device came out that outclasses Apple’s offering in every single way, there will still be too many people familiar with Apple products for them to leave.

    These companies are on the ground floor of a market expansion. Blizzard didn’t take away EQ and DAoC players, they injected 8+ million new players into the market. Look at this graph. Minus WoW, the MMO market only expanded by 4 million players in the last 8 years. Even if WoW continues losing subs forever, there won’t be a singular game to replace it.

    Anyway, good post. I agree. 🙂

    • February 22, 2012 5:45 pm

      Those are both really good analogies for the problem I’m dealing with (and, in fact, the late Steve Jobs and Bill gates are profiled as “right place, right time” success stories in Outliers). I also was not familiar with the graph you posted, which is really fascinating. It’s incredible to see how much a wave WoW’s made by jumping in the pool at just the right moment. Thanks for sharing that!

    • Krel permalink
      February 22, 2012 11:26 pm

      iOS is actually a great example of the “revolutionary, not evolutionary” concept… and its target is Windows. 🙂

      And on that note, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next truly revolutionary MMO is mobile-based, or at least has a huge mobile component.

    • February 23, 2012 4:24 pm

      I’m definitely seeing the possibilities of a widely-available cross-platform MMO, though we’ve got a ways to go with our phones before the processors will be able to handle anything too great. With the success of games like Angry Birds, I wouldn’t be surprised if the mobile market did find a way to take a bite out of the MMO industry.

  4. February 22, 2012 5:07 pm

    I think WoW’s record can be beaten.

    In particular, I think the first console MMO that gets the “console” part right has a solid chance to beat WoW’s record.

    It will be difficult, and will be a technological and design challenge. But I think it could be done.

    • February 22, 2012 5:43 pm

      Yeah, I hadn’t considered how a new platform for the genre might affect the outcome; I didn’t limit in my piece to just computer, though, so it’s a very valid point.

      That said, I’m nto 100% convinced it would happen even there. There’s a heck of a lot of consoles out there, but unless it was accessible on every console, I’m just not sure there’s enough hardware to beat WoW. It certainly does stand the best chance, though.

      Great thought, and thanks!

  5. kaleedity permalink*
    February 23, 2012 7:14 am

    The only thing a new game will have to do is convert more of the non-gaming population to gamers. Wow’s biggest success is that it pulled everyone and more in on some level. The next game will do something like the kinect or wii does, that allows greater strata of the population to participate while retaining us mooks already stuck into this genre of entertainment.

    • kaleedity permalink*
      February 23, 2012 7:18 am

      Doubleposting seems easier on my phone. I do agree that nothing new will happen with current entertainment technologies, or at least nothing on the same level as wow. As soon as phones start overtaking television, I would expect something.

    • February 23, 2012 4:26 pm

      I think at this point that’s easier said than done. I’m not sure how much non-gaming community still exists. Even people vehemently anti-game find games that they enjoy; they just refer to them as “paintball” or “fantasy baseball” or the like. That said, I agree that removing more and more technology from the hands of the players does help assimilate a greater market, and I wonder where the next step in the kinect-type revolution will go. Gaming rooms in houses?

  6. February 23, 2012 2:34 pm

    Stubborn,

    I haven’t been posting for a long while as I took a very significant break from it. I agree in terms of the numbers of players and the fact they have enough money they can throw more into development even if the outcome is unfavorable. MMO’s as we know are in fact a business. The investors generally arent huge risk takers and will usually throw money only at designs which have proved profitable in past mmo’s. So, to be as successful as WoW in the profit department, they would only take the risk if it were in fact like WoW. That being said, there will always be niche gaming communities. They go off, find a new mmo that they really identify with and stick with it even if it’s player base isnt spectacular. Older titles still gain revenue for companies as do new titles but less successful int erms of profit.

    Let’s take LotRo, they really didnt have anything dynamic that I could see. A few gimics yes, but nothing ground breaking. What they did have was their FtP which allowed folks to try it out and invest as they wished accordingly. It still has a loyal following. This brings it into the niche gaming. A small amount of dedicated players that enjoys what the game offers. Another one that is still followed by a small pop but very deddicated is DAoC. They still have folks playing that even though their graphic engine is pretty out of date. But because they had a dynamic world PvP system and a pretty solid storyline with a world that could be solo or grouped, they still generate success.

    Age of Conan is the same. This one I currently play and it has proved interesting again. I came back to it after a couple years of break for many reasons. The combat system in it as well as the world itself is still a huge thing for me. A lot of folk say its dieing and yet there are still many loyal followers. Will it ever be a hgue success? No. But they still release new content.

    I think the bottom line is, while there won’t be the huge success, there will always be new titles for players to enjoy. Anyways, good chattin with ya and seeing an old friendly face! By the way, started a different blog for AoC, Hyborian Rage, check it out !

    Mhorgrim

    • February 23, 2012 4:35 pm

      Good to see you, Mhorg! I don’t disagree with your main point, that there’ll always be room for niche gaming, but I don’t know that LotRO or AoC are really fair examples. Both were subscription titles when they first released, and due to a lower-than-hoped success, they switched to the then up-and-coming F2P market (well, at least AoC did; LotRO sort of got rolled over into it when DDO’s F2P transfer was so successful). I’m not convinced that F2P is good for the industry, at that. It makes it a lot easier to produce a ton of crap games that further flood the pool at a much less investment risk; take many of the games by gpotato or whoever makes Vindictus. It’s not that the games are bad, just that they’re nothing, really; they add nothing but another title to an already obese market.

      I wonder if our definitions of success are more our disagreement. I didn’t mean to imply that anything that didn’t do as well was “less successful” than WoW. LotRO was very successful, and has, as you point out, continued to generate income after going F2P. I think my success was … I don’t know. I’m having a hard time putting my finger on it. Financial, of course, was part of it, but I was feeling more like a huge wave of interest that stayed high long after. Something like Half-life was for FPS (or even Wolfenstein 3d), or Neverwinter Nights for RPGs. I haven’t felt nor feel like I’ve seen that sort of wave since WoW, finances aside, and I doubt it’s even possible any more. There’s too many dunes and barriers to let a wave get that big, and all the F2P success has only generated more of them.

      I agree and hope there are many new titles. I hope that there’s some new innovation in there, as well, though I agree that it feels less likely due to the cost of investment (and I wonder how Star Wars’s price tag and success will affect future endeavors).

      Good hearing from you!

  7. February 23, 2012 2:37 pm

    and ooops I mistyped my blog address

    hyboreanrage.blogspot.com

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