I apologise for the tabloid-esque title for this post, it was actually inspired by an interview with Alex St John at MMOGamer. No’ I’d never heard of him either, until I read the interview, but he seems to have pretty good credentials – he was one of the people responsible for the development of DirectX and is CEO of a hugely successful digital distribution gaming platform, oh yeah and apparently, although he doesn’t say this explicitly, he was involved in persuading Richard Garriot to take his Ultima series into the online sphere and we all know what happened then. So all in all then I believe he’s someone worth taking notice of, particularly when it comes to predicting the future of gaming. His specific quote in refernece to the world of MMOs was:
“We’re going to see a generation of MMOGs that are much lighter, are delivered online, are microcurrency and ad supported, and evolve more dynamically. I think the era of WOW like MMOGs will quickly be displaced by lighter, more versatile communities that don’t require vast server infrastructure”
Now, it certainly isn’t the first time this kind of idea has been bandied about, but its timing seems apt. Age of Conan, despite remarkable sales figures, hasn’t fared so well critically now that players have had time to get their hands on it and the recent announcements concerning WAR are less than reassuring. Does this mean the whole concept of the multi-million blockbuster is flawed in the post-WoW world or are these problems specific to the games mentioned above? Will the cuts to be made to WAR at launch actually be beneficial to the game or, as the complaints against Age of Conan demonstrate, does a game need huge scope as well as depth?
Alex St John, coming at it from something of a business perspective, believes that the benefit of ‘lighter’ MMOs, which I think by this he means browser based, or at least very low spec games, with no or optional subscription, is that developers can build a loyal community with less commercial risk, and that once that community is big enough more content can be added to build depth to the game. Certainly MMOs like Maplestory, Flyff and Cabal are experiencing popularity in the western markets if Xfire’s charts are anything close to representative, although how this is translating into profit is less clear.
Looking at the wide range of reasons players cite as problematic in Age of Conan there seems to be some sense in beginning an MMO with a small, niche community as multi-million dollar games need big audiences and the bigger your audience the more people you have to keep happy and this seems to stretch developers beyond their limits. For the sake of convenience let’s assum that Richard Bartle’s four player types are representative of your ‘blockbuster’ MMO audience and map out some of the most commonly expressed criticisms of AoC:
Achiever – like LotRO, there is a dearth of content at the upper levels, weapon stats that have little affect on gameplay, bugged raids.
Explorers – only one starter area that lasts the first 20 levels, high respawn rates giving players little time to ‘relax’ in a given area, instancing.
Socialisers – little variation in armour models, almost compulsory single player gameplay in early levels, very tough mobs, poor chat interface.
Killers – siege warfare not working, massive class imbalances, problems with the combo system, poor PvP system.
Okay, so it’s a little contrived, but it could be read as an argument against targeting the broadest audience. Just take a look at this poll from the AoC forums. No it’s not absolutely statistically sound, but it seems to sum up most of the problems. It’s aesthetically pleasing and has a good storyline but many of the mechanics don’t work and the customer support is pretty awful. Does this mean that WAR is doomed for failiure, a fate that might prove Alex St John’s prediction true, certainly it might scare off future developers and damage the industry? Or maybe Mythic’s decision to cut some content will actual benefit the launch of the game as Keen points out on K&G’s blog as long as the content they do provide is top-notch.
History has proven that there are always genral problems with new MMOs, usually the launch, which AoC certainly suffered, but as people are quick to point out there were issues with WoW’s launch too. But given that many first time MMO players came to WoW some time after the launch, the latest batch of MMOs may well be the first time they’ve experienced these kinds of problems which when compared to the content rich and stable experience of WoW might ultimately prove too offputting. Could it actually be that WoW has set the bar so high for the mass audience MMO that future titles will face a huge struggle to maintain large audiences and how will that affect Blizzards next MMO? Or do games like LotRO prove that an MMO can do well even if its audience is relatively small by WoW’s standards?