To continue the discussion of monetizing MMOs, I want to take a quick look at the potential of the genre. Quoting myself, from last time:
* MMOs have great potential, though it’s barely realized with current games. (Potential as an art form, and as a revenue stream.)
* Current business models in the MMO genre are a limitation on design, especially the predominant subscription model.
Potential is a tricky thing to define. By its nature, it’s amorphous. Still, we can look at what is currently offered in the MMO genre and extrapolate a bit, and we can definitely find areas where more can be done.
In general, the current “mainstream” of MMOs is found in the World of Warcraft, EverQuest 2, and EVE Online. Age of Conan made a bit of a splash, and Warhammer Online is poised to be another big voice in the market.
More experienced minds than mine have written about these at length. Saylah over on Mystic Worlds has many fine articles about each of these games. Wolfshead and Muckbeast have written great articles as well, albeit with more depth and less breadth. Here, I’m synthesizing what impressions I have from firsthand experience and research from the publishers/devs, what I’ve gleaned from these writers, as well as a smattering of other sources. I suppose that I’m being lazy by not linking hither and thither, but I’m trying to keep this relatively short and pointed.
Saylah made a great point about “revolutionary” games. Linky Not everyone wants them. I do still think that there’s a market for them, but she’s right in that there are many players who either want more of the same or incremental, “evolutionary” games. Really, the market needs both, as it’s the niche players who spend time and effort tinkering with new ideas, and those ideas lead the way for the next wave of games. Big publishers *coughBlizzardEAcough* are in the best position to polish something to a high gloss, and to tune the engine to a fine purr. They are loathe to try new things, as they might interrupt the revenue stream.
Even so, the MMO genre at the moment is driven mostly by the leveling grind. It’s a bit of a holdover from the single player RPG design, where time invested leads to progress. If a part of the game is too hard, build your character(s) to the point where they can progress, often through grinding. I’m using the term “grinding” here to mean doing the same thing, over and over, in order to collect experience (which grants levels and discrete numerical boosts to avatars), items, or funding. Sort of like going to work in Corporate America. It’s just about as fun as a mindless job, for some people. There are ways to make the “grind” more fun, like the quest system in WoW, or dynamic world content, but for the most part, it’s a fairly rote system of behavior.
That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not from a business standpoint. The leveling/loot treadmill taps the addiction center of a player’s brain, where repetitive actions are consistently rewarded. It’s almost Pavlovian. As such, “gaming” goes on at a lower brain function… almost like those slot machine zombies that shuffle around Vegas. There’s almost a Zen feeling to it; that of turning off your brain to do some mindless activity. Blizzard has certainly capitalized on that hamster wheel behavior, to the tune of what, millions of subscribers, each paying to the tune of $15/month to get their fix? It’s certainly proven lucrative for Blizzard. Most other MMOs do the same thing.
***Here’s where I could digress and rant a bit about the ethical/moral and long-term considerations involved with a business model based on addictive activities… but that could get long-winded. I’ll come back to that in another post. Suffice it to say, for the sake of this post, it’s a time-tested business model.***
Trouble is, the predominance of this model has a few bad side effects.
One, gamers expect to grind away for weeks or more before they can start to play “the real game”, sometimes called the “endgame”. Not only does this undermine the value of the content that is “leveled through”, but it sets up unrealistic expectations. Players who play with their characters in a leveling grind find the gameplay can substantially change once the endgame is entered. This mental shift can cause trouble for the player and anyone who depends on them, as the Big Bear Butt Blogger pointed out a few weeks ago. (Linky, Follow up 1, Follow up 2) Depending on the length of time required for the leveling phase of the game (and the focus of the devs), the dev/player relationship can be… strained. It also sets up an expectation that the “endgame” will be more grinding, just with a different metric. (See WoW’s raiding endgame, where character levels are no longer paramount, but gear levels step up to the same role.)
Two, this “time=progress” metric is a dangerous one. There are many quotes fluttering around out there to the effect that “persistence pays”, but out here in the real world, things don’t always work that way. We’re not quite a meritocracy yet, but neither is dogged persistence rewarded. Persistence is only a virtue if you’re not consistently stupid. On the one hand, yes, “it’s just a game”, but catering to the idea that persistence is the only true vehicle to progress tends to undermine the value of education and skill. True progress, as individuals and as societies, requires a bit of each. Leaning too hard on persistence fosters complacency and stagnation.
Three, the subscription business model is built around the leveling treadmill. They depend on each other. It’s a sort of vicious feedback. Game design has to be bent to making the most attractive grind. Instead of committing to truly innovative concepts that would lead to more vital “virtual worlds”, the subscription model thrives on keeping things as static as possible, whilst giving the illusion of living. Yes, games can innovate within bounds, but those bounds can be extremely tight when the core design has to support continued subscription.
That’s where the “evolutionary” design lives; in small, incremental changes. Again, in and of itself, that’s nothing terrible, as there’s a market for “the same old, same old” game design. Leaning too hard on it, though, as above, leads to stagnation and complacency. Designers take players for granted. Shareholders take revenue for granted. (A subject for another rant, actually.) Everyone gets a bit too comfortable, and at some point, another company changes the rules more dramatically, and the business is put in danger. That’s the nature of a market economy; innovation and creative destruction dance in an ever-changing landscape.
To sum up then, the subscription model works. It taps the addiction center of the human beastie, like alcohol, tobacco and gambling. Thing is, it dictates too strongly to design, and as a result, MMOs just don’t live up to the potential of “virtual worlds”.
Where are the dynamic player-driven economies? Puzzle Pirates has taken steps to make such a thing interesting, but its business model is largely microtransactions these days, and its gameplay is heavily player skill based.
Where is the dynamic content? Radically changing the world could upset the treadmill, and as anyone prowling through the WoW forums can readily see, changes aren’t usually welcomed with open arms. Still, there are players who want an ever-changing world, one where, most importantly, they can make a difference. People want to leave a mark on the world, and treadmills just don’t offer that opportunity.
Where are the skill based games? To me, the point of an MMO (playing with other players) is testing my skills against those other players. If I’m just going to spend the majority of my time playing against the environment, I may as well play an offline single player game. Level grinding produces imbalances between characters in-game, giving the edge to those who spend more time in the game world. Yes, sometimes those players develop to be the most skilled, but another player with less time and equal or better skill will always be behind if time is the coin of the realm. Again, Puzzle Pirates has nailed this down, as skill in the game’s suite of puzzles is key to progress, rather than sheer persistence. Persistence can pay off, but skill is a huge multiplier. Guild Wars made some strides there, with the insta-max level character generation for PvP play. (And again, it’s not a subscription-based game.) Even WoW has dabbled in this, with the Arena. (At least, I think that’s how the Arena works…)
Where are the agriculture games? Where are the heavily role playing games? Where are the historical fiction and/or steampunk games? With a palette as wide as the RPG genre, literally bounded only by the imagination of its players and devs, why don’t we have a wider variety of games? Where are our “Citizen Kane”s? Where is our “Grapes of Wrath”? Where is our “Calvin and Hobbes”, our “I, Jedi”, our “Brief History of the Universe”? Games have such deep potential for telling stories… why are we content with the same old? Some people will always be happy with that, but why aren’t we exploring more?
Where are the “world games”? Second Life is just a glorified sandbox (a world, little game). WoW is a glorified treadmill with two gears (a game, little world). Where are the games that try to blend the two, finding the best of each, and paring away the unnecessary parts? Certainly SL and WoW aren’t so polarized so as to be useless, but neither is really the epitome of why MMOs exist in the first place.
…which is another tricky thing to nail down. Certainly, to some people, SL or WoW are the epitome of an MMO. Of course, they both can’t be exclusively right, so there has to exist a spectrum of MMOs that can apply to the spectrum of players. There are players out there who want dynamic content. There are players who want to play a skill-heavy game. There are players who hate grinding. There are players who aren’t willing to pay for subscriptions, for whatever reason.
Bottom line, creating new games with new experiences can bring in some of those gamers who are not satisfied or interested in existing games. Are existing designs successful? Sure. Are they the One True Path to gaming success? Absolutely not.