Should an MMO have an ending? A real, honest storytelling ending, and/or a final, complete shutdown of the servers? I touched on the idea in Replayability and Keeplayability, as well as the open source MMO article, and the more I look at it, the more I think that yes, MMOs should have an ending. This is the culmination of a handful of thoughts, and I’ve actually been writing this article since December.
(Note, this is also something that has been written over time, so it’s a bit more meandering than I’d like. I’ve ranted a bit here and there, so this would have benefited from a bit of editing, but at the same time, I wanted to get this out of my system. It may have served better as a series of articles, and I may come back to revisit some of these more tightly. For the moment, it’s mostly a brain dump, so I’m hiding a good chunk of it behind that “More” tag. I won’t be offended in the slightest if that link is underutilized.)
This pair of articles really prodded me to finish this up.
It’s the intersection of these two, along with a handful of other thoughts, like Blizzard’s plans for another MMO, and my repeated theories for a cyclic game, that really make me think that these MMOs really should actually end. Not as a genre, certainly not, I’m just talking about any single game. Brian “Psychochild” Green has rightfully suggested moving on instead of pining for a lost love. Also, when I talk about my cyclic design, I’m talking about a game that, by design, “ends” repeatedly. What I’m talking about here can apply to that as well, and might be better summed up as “games have life spans, and even MMOs need to accept that”.
Raph Koster took a look at that in this article:
No product will be big and profitable forever. That’s fairly obvious to anyone with a modicum of intelligence (which neatly explains why economists who believe that perpetual growth is possible in a finite world are soworthless and actively detrimental; they lack even rudimentary mathematical intelligence). What’s not so obvious is the point where something is wearing out its welcome, and while technically profitable, is well past its expiration date. Leaving something afloat when it’s obviously taking on water, seeking to bail the water out instead of patching the holes or scuttling a ship beyond repair, is just throwing good money after bad. Yes, that’s a thinly veiled swipe at the futility of Keynesian spending to fix our horrendously, fundamentally broken economy.
In addition to that, not only are there real mathematical concerns (diminishing returns, natural product cycle, the nature of finite numbers), but there are sociological concerns. People get tired. Any company that keeps producing consumer goods in a continued effort to milk their cash cow treads a fine line between actively depositing good will in their brand name equity, and making withdrawals against their reputation by abusing customers’ good will.
Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar and Disney animation and CG pioneer, gave an insightful address at my alma mater a few months ago. His is the analogy of making deposits to your brand (creating and producing good, valuable commodities) and making withdrawals against the same (cheap sequels, stretching a joke, refusing to innovate, milking the cash cow to death). He used the Disney direct to DVD sequels as an example. Yes, they sell (mostly to princess-addled children with weak-willed parents), but they just aren’t good movies. His experience is that those movies make money by directly withdrawing against the good will built up in the Disney name.
In Mr. Catmull’s immortal words: “B work is bad for your soul”. These B work movies (lesser quality, by design to cut corners and maintain profitability) are bad for consumers, because they aren’t getting top notch entertainment, and the original movies and stories lose integrity when bent to commercial serialization. (Mulan 2, anyone? Little Mermaid 3? In Ursula’s words: “Pathetic”.) They are bad for the company, because they lose credibility. (This is actually a theme that runs parallel to the separate propensity to bash Disney as one gets older, because feel-good cartoons are “cool” to denigrate as lame kiddie fare. These trends feed each other, and intensify the good will decay.) They are bad for the people working on them, because of simple psychology: If you know, going into a project, that you aren’t expected to do good work, and that you’re expected to cut corners, what impetus do you have for excelling? (This could also be extended to the crippling effects of welfare, and why the bailouts and their inherent moral hazard are so terribly corrosive.)
Now, Mr. Catmull was speaking specifically about sequels (another example is Shrekitis), but this applies neatly to any IP that overstays its welcome, whether it’s via sequels or expansions. Yes, I’m looking at World of Warcraft. Even the most die hard of fans are finding that they don’t enjoy being strung along by the minimum of effort that it takes to create new grindy treadmills. Even Blizzard key players have moved on to their next big thing. Whether or not it’s stated outright, the people left on WoW have got to be thinking that they are somehow the second string. They are the B workers, but they have to maintain a good front. Wrath does a lot of things right for the reality of the market that Blizzard has had a huge hand in creating, and they are still gaining subscribers, but ultimately, the adoption curve of WoW just cannot sustain big numbers indefinitely.
This is the force behind grind. Doing something fun once is awesome, maybe life altering. Doing it again on an alt is mundane. Doing it again to grind reputation is mindless, and more often than not, just a barely veiled way to keep a player subscribed.
Even players have an attention span cycle, and it may just be imagination, but it seems to me that the genre as a whole is really suffering from a fair bit of malaise. We’ve seen major MMO releases met with a hearty “meh”, and other existing MMOs die completely (Tabula Rasa, Hellgate).
We see this sort of natural decay everywhere. Star Trek, Michael Jordan, Brett Farve, Detroit car makers, whatever. People just don’t know when to quit, and can’t give up the glory days. We are living a finite life, and experiences therein are transient by nature. We all would love to find something eternal to hold on to, but that is the province of philosophy and religion, not game marketing.
It’s OK to move on to new titles, new ideas, new experiences. In Rafiki’s words, yes, “learn from the past”, but do not lock yourself to it in a hapless effort to perpetuate a dream.
So if you’re still on board, the obvious question is “what now for the game?” since it’s obvious that there will still be people hooked to the game. Brian “Psychochild” Green rightly pointed out some problems with the open source model, though I’d not complain if a publisher chose to go that route.
To me, the proper route would be to turn the game into a simple small scale multiplayer game, whether that means allowing private servers, LAN connections or even just IP connections. Let players continue to play with friends or just play on their own machines, but go ahead and pull the server’s plug. Yes, it’s a radical move, but at least those who purchased the game, like a Tabula Rasa, could still play the thing. Of course I’m biased, since I’d happily buy and play an offline World of Warcraft, but people did actually buy these games at one point, fully expecting to play them. They rented the server space for a while with their subscription money, and they are well and truly “invested” in the game. Pulling the plug on the live server can be traumatic, but kicking someone when they are down by effectively killing the game in any venue would not only be a PR killer, but also a waste of what might be a game worth playing and the customer’s money.
To be fair, it’s probably nontrivial to set up that sort of infrastructure, but in my mind, it’s part of the implied bargain that comes from making people pay a subscription on top of selling them a boxed version of the game.
And yes, I do think that players should move on and find other things to do, rather than play a game past its “use by” date. At the same time, I recognize that not everyone will do so, and I recognize the basic commercial right to use things that you have purchased. (Which means that I come down very opposed to the typical EULA “licensing” garbage.) If someone wants to play Tabula Rasa forever, they should have the right and ability to do so, even though I think that it’s healthy for them and the company to move on.
So what of Guild Wars? It’s halfway there, since there’s no subscription fee. You just buy the thing and play whenever you feel like it. Someday, the cost of maintaining the servers will outweigh the income generated from sales, and someday, there will be bigger and better games, so yes, even GW should pull the plug someday. At that point, again, make the game into a multiplayer game, either LAN or IP matching. The implied “subscription bargain” isn’t in effect there, so it would almost definitely be a net cost to do. That said, it’s a fine investment in the brand name, and a deposit into the PR machine that keeps people willing to stick with the company.
The “multiplayerification” of an MMO can even be monetized, if necessary. I suspect that many devoted players would be willing to pony up a one-shot fee to take their characters and virtual assets to an offline game, and to pay for the dev costs incurred in making the game possible to play beyond the server’s shutdown. It’s something that would have to be balanced against the PR cost, certainly, but it’s possible. I don’t think it’s ideal, but it’s possible.
Of course, taking games offline means opening the game up to hacks like the TQ Defiler for Titan Quest, but at that point, the game is fractured into private servers and LAN parties anyway, so people should be playing with friends, and if they aren’t, there’s no reason for complaint anyway. It’s a nonissue, in other words.
Making the game into an offline multiplayer/solo game also means that you can sell the title as a boxed game even after the online MMO servers are long since disconnected. Of course it’s past its prime, but that’s another potential way to capture part of that demand curve that the sub model completely ignores.
Now, it’s true that some of these games will not work without a critical mass of players to fuel their game design. WAR would function differently in this sort of zombie state than WoW, for example. A game like Age of Conan, however, considering the highly solo experience of the early Destiny Quest line, might just benefit from stepping out of the MMO ring and aiming at a different target audience that is more in line with its game design. Muckbeast has an article up that spawned that particular thought, over thisaway:
This bit about defining your core audience and core design competency is simple business 101 stuff. It’s baffling to me that these guys get millions of shareholder money, but don’t understand the basics. (Insert mini rant about the supreme idiocy of many of the moneymakers and policymakers in big business, from banking to housing, gaming to politicking.)
I don’t expect this to be a popular article, since I’m probably slaughtering a few sacred cows and stepping on a few toes. To be blunt, I don’t particularly care. The MMO genre is stagnant, and needs to change in a handful of fundamental ways. High profile games have failed or far undersold expectations. The way forward might just require a forest fire or two to clear the underbrush.
Lum the Mad gets part of it, by pointing out that Darkfall, cesspool of villainy and scum though it may be (by design), needs to succeed, for the sake of the industry.
I go farther by claiming that the industry needs to actively tighten its belt and cut the fat, and the apron strings.
The subscription model is past its fresh date, and is actively stifling the industry. Some pubishers will cling to it, whether because of dev delusion, money monkey peer pressure, or by legitimately serving an audience that still finds it to be the pinnacle of value. But the industry needs to move into new market spaces, and new audiences. Otherwise, we won’t escape the Blizzardification of the genre. Some may embrace that, as some may embrace socialism, but it’s not healthy in the long run, as it promotes complacency and stifles creativity.
The DIKU model is overused and underwhelming. It has all but choked off the promise of the MMO genre, turning the vast potential of massive multiplayer design into yet another addictive, vapid dungeon crawl complete with ego stroking and a false sense of accomplishment. Is it profitable? Of course it is, but so are cigarettes, alcohol and porn. It’s scraping the bottom of the barrel, and perpetuating the sense that games are worthless and dangerous.
I do think that games have the potential to be more than they are. They have the potential to do good, and to facilitate education, socialization and even moral growth. Not because the game itself is a preachy pulpit pushing Pharisee, but because it allows people to excel for reasons other than mindless devotion to chasing epic loot and defiling corpses.
The world is more interconnected than ever, thanks to the internet, and games have always been part of human nature. They serve as ways to abstract concepts that might not be dealt with otherwise, contributing to personal and even societal development. The oral history and storytelling tradition that many cultures have used to maintain cultural identity and education is alive and well in games, where the potential is even greater thanks to the interactivity. Yet somehow, MMOs, perhaps the game genre with the greatest potential, have devolved into a stagnant, brainless pool of DIKU WoW wannabes. Devs are trying to build a better mousetrap to steal Blizzard’s cheese, when they should be building flying Deloreans.
[/end escalated rant]
The industry is stuck in a rut, and while some are content to wallow in it, there are others who are not being served, who are sitting on the sidelines with money to give to the devs who finally understand how to reach them. Letting (or making) an MMO (or a dozen) die may be painful for a lot of people, but it may well be the best thing for the long term health of the industry as a whole. We’ve tipped past the point of making deposits to the goodwill account, and are rapidly burning the equity we have left by shoveling out more of the same subscription DIKU offal.
The game industry as a whole does this all the time by burning up its best and brightest young talent, and by swinging with the Orwellian ESRB “mature” mindset, but the MMO genre in particular is relatively young, even within the young industry, and it could use some real maturation, or it may well find itself in its own “lost decade”, where progress and innovation fall prey to the heady aphrodesiac of early success without really understanding its market or the larger realities of the economy and psychology.
[/end Doom and Gloom]
Of course there’s hope for the industry and for the MMO genre. Small projects like Love show that it’s technically possible to innovate, and Free Realms, Puzzle Pirates and the like show new niches for content and business models. The “AAA” titles don’t seem to get it, since they must gamble big to justify spending enough money to hit that AAA rank. They are victims of their own ambition.
No, the true innovations and fun in the MMO genre will come from small, modestly scoped games with different business models and perhaps radically different game designs, content to make fun games and earn their money from serving customers well, rather than trying to be the next McDonald’s of MMO gaming. RPGs are built around content to be consumed, and the MMO genre should be built around its strengths; allowing (not forcing) people to play with other people in unique environments.