As Cloudy As You Think

Is it too late to start year-in-review talk? I’d think so, but then again, everything but Cataclysm is already out, so all the cards are pretty much on the table or about to fall. The year lacked impact MMO releases, but as Syp points out, this may be remembered as the year the major paradigm shift began, from subscription models to low-entry-barrier minipay games. It really began at least a year ago in the western market, with the conversion of DDO to minipay, and one can point to earlier examples.

Few would dispute this. But there’s an inevitable consequence that I haven’t seen much talk about. If the era of retail boxes and entry price points goes away, so too does the big-bugdet MMO in the vein of SWTOR, Tabula Rasa and APB. This may be a good thing, since innovation tends to come from smaller projects that give creative folks more room to stretch, rather than corporate affairs run by committees with dollar signs in their eyes. The big-ticket MMOs are all canned WoW clones, and this is why – investors want to see that there money is going into something proven to be profitable. Some investors aren’t averse to risk, but most are; so the indie project can probably scrape together the $2-3 million it needs, but in order to assemble $100 million in development capital you need to be able to point at existing successes and say “this is what we’re going to do.”

We think of subscription revenue as being where the real money is, which is true… in the long run. But those entry fees (or “cover charges,” as Winged Nazgul cleverly put it,) are where you want to make your development investment back. You don’t want to have to tell your investors “well, we’ll have the costs paid back in 13 months, and then all will be profit,” because to get those many millions you promised them returns at or shortly after release. Eliminating the cover charge also eliminates this method of settling the score. The megabudget titles will get rarer and rarer as the greatest existing success continues to wane.

So the average project budget for the hobby is likely going down, by a lot, over the next two or three years. This like most things has an upside and a downside. As fewer megabudget projects arise smaller affairs will rise to take their place – the gaming media has to cover something. Some will start to refocus on multiplayer games in general (as Beckett MOG has done,) while others will stay focused on virtual world-type products. And we should see an increase in innovation, from which the next overnight sensation could arise (just ask the Minecraft guy.) But we should also see a decrease in polish and in the development of heavily refined systems, possibly including scripted content.

We in the west are used to what we glibly call “polish.” We expect it, and go bananas when we don’t get it (witness the furor over FFXIV.) In the era of fewer WoWs and more Darkfalls, you can kiss it goodbye. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the old buggy days of EverQuest; now there are a ton of platforms and engines that small developers can use to build games, some of them open-source and therefore free. we needn’t sacrifice gameplay, but we’ll likely have to give up hand-crafted content.

At this point the word you’re looking for is “overdeveloped.” Lack of polish didn’t kill Warhammer, no matter what the navel-gazers among us may think. What killed Warhammer were fundamental flaws in the game from top to bottom. Every bit of scripted content in that game was a wasted development dollar. A real working virtual world and systems to interact with it could have been done with a fraction of the budget.

Does this mean I’m predicting the long-awaited return of the sandbox? Well, I’m not predicting anything – I’m speculating. But that could possibly happen.

6 responses to “As Cloudy As You Think

  1. A couple of thoughts: One, the Guild Wars model, as always, is an outlier. Oddly, it’s the way games have been sold the longest; no janky item shop, no leech subscription. Just buy and play. So what? Well, that’s one rock solid way to get that box sale rush for investors. You don’t get a drip feed of cash from addicts, but you get a nice lump sum of cash from day one sales, and if your game is solid, sales keep coming.

    That’s the key, I think: “If your game is solid”. GW still sells boxes. It’s still profitable. It’s a solid game that has aged well. When games have to actually be good games to keep moving units and be profitable, players benefit from that.

    • Oh, and the other thought, sorry for the double post, is that indeed, innovation tends to follow smaller, more agile markets. Between that and the natural chase for quality when price competition is minimized, I think we’re apt to see some interesting shifts in the MMO market.

  2. Big corporations embark on high-cost, high-visibility projects for a lot more reasons than just a direct profit on completion. Market share and share price are the most obvious, but there are many others. I’d be very surprised if even the failure of every one of the current $30 million plus MMO projects prevented a new wave of even more expensive projects.

    We might see a reluctance of venture capitalists to fund big-ticket MMO projects outside the big studios, but the corporations probably have more to lose by being seen to be scared of failure than they have from actually failing.

  3. “That’s the key, I think: “If your game is solid”. GW still sells boxes. It’s still profitable. It’s a solid game that has aged well. When games have to actually be good games to keep moving units and be profitable, players benefit from that.”

    I hate to say it, but this is where I see a lot of big budget MMOs falling down. I love MMOs as a genre, warts and all. But it’s hard to point to any high profile release since LoTRO that didn’t have some pretty fundamental flaws (and even launch LoTRO was far from perfect, for example the 30ish-40ish content gap that Evindim plugged). Allod’s and their insane item shop pricing, WAR and it’s numerous design flaws, AoC and the buggy incomplete launch, FFXIV and it’s insanely obtuse UI, STO and CO expecting us to to pay for a box, a full sub, and hit an item shop for games with half the content (to be generous) of similarly priced products. The failure of these games to set the world on fire really surprised no-one once the launch reviews started coming out, and should not have surprised any of the designers in charge of them.

  4. Is polish really that important when the amazing viral hit of the year was that game called Minecraft? A less polished game would be hard to imagine.

    • Actually, Minecraft has a fair amount of polish in the gameplay corner and under the hood, it’s just the low-def visuals that aren’t what some might think of as polished.