Will Oversaturation Hurt the MMO Market?

So I’m chatting with my old buddy Kohath the other day, and he asks how things are going at 38 Studios. I tell him it’s great fun and we’re all really positive about what we’re doing. Kohath, glass half empty sort that he is, tells me that he worries about the future of MMOs. Specifically:

“You guys have an uphill battle differentiating yourselves from all the other MMOs that no one cares about.”

At first I laughed his comment off, because I usually spend more time considering all the good games that we will one day have to compete against. But after thinking about it, I wonder if he’s right: Could the prevalence of crappy MMOs turn people away from the genre so that they never end up seeing the good ones?

Personally, I’m starving for a new MMO right now. As great a game as I think WoW is, it doesn’t have enough variety in its race/class combos to really appeal to my style of play. While I dabble in some other games, none of them have the overall feeling of cohesion and smoothness that WoW does. So I’m kind of stuck in the middle, waiting for games like AoC and WAR to hit the shelves so I can give them a shot.

In the meantime, I end up downloading some of those free-to-play MMOs that are springing up all over the place. I mean, it seems like I can’t follow a couple links from a message board these days without bumping into some developer I’ve never heard of that somehow has half a dozen different MMOs under their banner. So I try one or two, and almost invariably they end up being the same kind of click-to-move (I HATE click to move!) grindfests where everyone is literally standing around in a field of dozens of the exact same mob killing them over and over again.

And it makes me wonder if Kohath is right. What if the potential players of the next great MMO get drawn in by the glow of free gameplay, only to find a game that, well, sucks. And then another just like it, which is also free, but features martial arts instead of wizards in pointy hats, yet sucks for exactly the same reasons. How long before these people assume that MMOs in general must all play the same way, and therefore all suck?

Look, I can’t complain about losing market share to a great game–fair is fair. But losing market share because of crappy games would piss me off.

This is the challenge facing build-it-yourself concepts like Metaplace. How many mediocre games will someone play before they decide that the whole thing must be mediocre and move along? Sure, you can argue there are a jillion crappy MySpace pages and MySpace does just fine, but MMOs aren’t web pages; they thrive on emotional investment on the part of the players. How long before someone stops being willing to take chances on one set of products and applies their reluctance to a whole genre?

Ultimately I still see the glass as half full, despite Kohath’s concern. My world view requires me to believe that a great game is going to be a success regardless of the amount of noise in the marketplace. But a look at the history of the once invincible Atari is a cautionary tale about what can happen when greed marginalizes quality. And with all the money to be made in the MMO space these days, there’s no shortage of greed.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

16 thoughts on “Will Oversaturation Hurt the MMO Market?”

  1. I might be a glass half full sort of guy, but I don’t necessarily see crappy MMOs turning people off the whole genre. After all, have all the crappy single player PC and console games of the last twenty years turn people off playing games?

    Sure some people might have dumped the whole kaboodle, but the number of players has risen overall in that time.

    It’s just like anything else, movies, games, music; the 80/20 rule applies. 80% crap, 20% good stuff. And yet people keep buying (the crap too.)

  2. I don’t see it killing the market. Yes, some potential players will be turned off for a bit, but likely those players will still come back around later. I give consumers a little edge in knowing that paying for a game is more likely going to give you a better experience than a free to play one will. Yes, some won’t connect such a simple concept, but then those people may not be cut out to be gamers in life.

    And on the MySpace analogy, it’s been my experience that MySpace can garner just as much emotional involvement as an MMO. People need relationships, whether through a game, through a ring of bands they love, or fellowships in other areas. If someone decides to turn away from MMOs altogether for whatever reason, that doesnt mean they truly will stay away forever. All it’ll take is someone they want to hang out with saying something like “Come play XYZ42 awesome game from 38 Studios with me. I’ll give you a buddy key” or overhearing a co-worker’s exhuberant tales of what they were doing last night in Copernicus.

  3. “Sure, you can argue there are a jillion crappy MySpace pages and MySpace does just fine, but MMOs aren’t web pages”

    I beg to differ. Webpages in the sense of a “normal person” are just places where the person can express himself. So basically all these MySpace, Flickr, Facebook etc pages are just a tiny fragment of a person. And MMOs are per definition just a virtual place – or world. So I could imaging a platform like Metaplace, where a user can build his “own” world representing one of “his spaces” in the web, being seen as just another representation of a person online. So, yes, it’s just a web page. Or something that can be regarded similarly.

  4. “Could the dearth of crappy MMOs turn people away from the genre so that they never end up seeing the good ones?”

    Well, leaving aside the misuse of the word “dearth”, which means “lack of”, and responding to what you thought you were saying…

    you mean like the vast number of crappy fantasy novels killed off that genre? Or the floods of crappy movies closed down all the cinemas? Or the endless stream of crappy tv shows put all the networks out of business?

    Firstly, one player’s “crappy MMO” is another player’s Virtual Paradise. So long as enough players like a game to push it past break-even, that’s reason enough for it to exist and go on existing.

    Secondly, it’s a big world with a LOT of people in it, of whom a truly tiny number even know what MMOs are, much less play any of them. There’s plenty of room for orders of magnitude more MMOs than we have now, good, bad or indifferent. I don’t expect to see every movie made or read every book, even in a genre i like and a language I understand, let alone globally. Why should I expect to see, or know about, much less play, every MMO? Let interested parties make them as they will and let interested parties play them as they will and let the cream rise to the top.

  5. “Well, leaving aside the misuse of the word “dearth”, which means “lack of”, and responding to what you thought you were saying…”

    No dearth of attitude there! ;)

    I agree with your point that what makes a game “good” is subjective and each player has his/her own definition of that. However my take on the original post was that it focussed on low “quality” games, i.e., games that don’t execute well, aren’t well thought out, and as a result impart a negative image on the MMO genre. It’s also reasonable to assume that, going forward, most who are new to MMOs will start by sampling free-to-plays since they are obviously less of a money committment for the player. If the free-to-play games are of low quality, it also stands to reason that many players who may otherwise get hooked on MMOs instead turn away.

    You’re right in that it’s nothing to lose sleep over, but it’s nevertheless a valid concern for someone with an economic interest in the growth of the MMO industry.

    One last point, both the movie industry and networks are seriously hurting. Yes, they still make money, but there is no denying that they are shrinking industries. This is due mostly to the explosion of available alternatives in entertainment, but the fact that they’ve make cookie-cutter, formulaic shows and movies certainly hasn’t helped their cause.

  6. Short answer: “No.”

    Here’s how I see it: There are a lot of classic MMOG fans out there, and they don’t want crappy games. In fact, they really want more of what they like, only slightly different (enough that it feels new). More races and different classes, for example. WoW has actually increased the number of players in that vein, and people will eventually move on to something else, since Blizzard clearly has little interest in revitalizing WoW (might not be for a few years though). They’ll go back to WoW occasionally, but there’s room for new markets.

    The key is going to be not expecting to much. If your product is profitable at 100-200k subscribers and you have a good game (that’s obviously vital), you’ll be fine. But you know this, Grim. I don’t know why I’m telling you. If you plan for 200k subs, make a kick-ass game, and give the players more of the same with a different flavor, some new ideas, and plenty of polish, you should be golden.

    I know tons of players who are tired of WoW at the moment and are just playing it because it’s the best option out there. I’m in that category. If I was having fun in anything else, I’d be playing both. If I had to pick, and they were equally fun, I’d go with the new and more interesting experience than running more of the same in WoW.

  7. I’m on the fence on this one. I recently blogged about how I felt the segment was going stale, and I still believe that to a degree. That being said, I’m playing freaking Star Wars Galaxies and enjoying it right now. There is something that keeps drawing me to this genre.

    I am very concerned that innovation and surprise is being designed out of games. I understand the whole concept of ROI and risk management for someone who invests in a game. 38Studios is very lucky to have someone at the top that can generate investment on more than just balance sheet issues. For a lot of companies that just isn’t the case. All you have to is look at Vanguard to see how a perceived superstar in the business couldn’t produce. Investors rightly are concerned about this, but if they have been around MMOs they probably also know the concept of risk/reward. If they DO take a greater risk (as Blizzard did) up front they may reap a better reward. Lack of risk in the design almost guarantees a lack of reward in the market today as it stands.

    I don’t think the crap is going to hurt the good stuff. People routinely sift through tons of crap to get to the goods. Just look at message boards. You guys will be fine if you deliver, no matter the state of the rest of the segment.

  8. I didn’t mean it as a negative exactly. There are a lot of MMOs now and there are a lot more announced. What differentiates one from another? The Conan one has Conan, but Conan goes back to the 80s.

    A lot of the rest of them are “exactly like WoW” except … Which is fine if you’re chasing cast-off customers from Blizzard and you think you’ll be able to capture them before the next WoW expansion. There will always be a next WoW expansion.

    I’m not sure how MMOs are supposed to attract customers these days. I don’t think screenshots of dragons are going to do it any more. I read tons of gaming news, but I don’t look at screenshots because they’re all the same. Lens flare, mobs, sunsets, jungle, water, car crash, etc. I’ll watch the videos, but that’s tough for an MMO because it’s either guys swinging swords or casting spells, and it looks the same as the last MMO video you saw. Or it’s a teaser that doesn’t contain in-game footage and has a hammy voiceover (Blizzard, WoLK teaser).

    So the comment was more about the need to differentiate than it was about the bad MMOs.

    The guys at 38 studios have an uphill battle. They’re not Blizzard or Valve or id or Rockstar. They’re not EA or Activision or even SOE. They have to convince people they’re for real. It’s not going to happen by itself — not unless the game gets Bioshock-like review scores anyway.

  9. “Well, leaving aside the misuse of the word “dearth”…”

    Yeah, that’s what happens when I halfassedly edit posts right before falling asleep. I probably screwed it up worse while trying to fix it.

  10. Side question, what differentiates a MMO at launch from an MMO in present form? Most get better with time, but suffer for a long time with the rep they earn at launch (but the games hang around forever).

    Will the public adapt and not try a game for 3-6-12 months from launch time? Or will more games launch with higher quality levels?

    Where I think the problem comes in is the number of games with a high box cost and a $15 dollar subscriptions. After a while, that gets to be a pretty big drain to switch from provider to provider if you like to play a variety of titles. With few titles on the market, its not too much to ask. With a lot of them out there, buying boxes can be a lot to ask … unless you’re absolutely certain people will love it and insist their friends will buy it.

  11. I hear the free to play horn tuted way too much when in reality I’ve never run into anyone that as actually played one for more then a week or two. Just recently I had a friend play reppealz or something like that where it was click to move and qutie similar to a lot of the other 3d free games. He unfortunately made the mistake of trying to enchant a very good weapon without buying the proper microtransaction and it broke. That was pretty much the end of his experience with the game.

    I think at the moment the expensive box MMO is saving the market since players pretty much know what they are getting into when they buy the game. Its an upfront and stable cost and not something that can rise or drop based on a random number generator. Free to play MMOs pretty much survive on teens not having access to credit cards and they nickle and dime charge them using game cards. Its really the old arcade model all over again. Eventually a decent and casual MMO like WoW will come along that only charges a 5$ subscription and has game cards everywhere. It will kill off the microtransaction market.

  12. I’m not sure how MMOs are supposed to attract customers these days. I don’t think screenshots of dragons are going to do it any more.

    Definitely not.

    Word of mouth is probably the most important thing that can differentiate a great MMO from the rest of the pile. This means a good amount of advertising on 38’s part, but also a good amount of communicating with the fan base. Hopefully, like Blizzard, they will be proud of the game they are making and have little or nothing to hide from consumers. Blizzard being so open, and having such an extensive Beta with no NDA was a MASSIVE step towards their success. They knew they had a good game, and they flaunted it.

    Luckily, 38 Studios is already generating a lot of positive buzz, at least in the MMO community. Hiring well known people, and I don’t just mean the more famous people like Salvatore and McFarlane (although that is great as well), but people like Moorgard and Rashere as well. We, the community, know and like these people and it says a lot to us when we see them all gathering around this upcoming game. The anticipation is already building. Unfortunately, you have to convince people who have never heard of any of these guys as well, and that is where the game will have to stand on its own merits.

    Basically, it comes down to doing what they are already aiming to do: make a good game. If the game is good, you will not have to differentiate from everything else out there because people will take notice.

  13. The problem is that the “free” games don’t necessarily “suck” to other people. Quite a few old-school M59 and UO players didn’t understand what people thought was so awesome about EQ, but that didn’t stop EQ from doing really well. Now, however, there are a lot of those “free” games, so you can’t point to just one game and say, “See, it’s really popular,” particularly if you want to compare it to WoW.

    The other issue here is cultural: most of the free games are Asian (generally Korean) in origin, so they don’t really appeal to people in the Western market. They have a lot of assumptions, such as the “buy the proper microtransaction item before getting your favorite weapon enchanted” as we saw above, that we don’t share. This isn’t a fault of the business model, necessarily. Keep in mind that many of these games have been hugely popular in their home markets; similarly, EQ never did well in any other market. (WoW is, once again, the aberration here based on many, many reasons.)

    In summary, there’s no danger here unless you expect to go topple WoW and take its place. You won’t be able to claim the top spot. As Cameron Sorden says above, plan for 100-200k subscribers and you’ll still make a mint. Focus on giving a particular community exactly what they want and execute well, and you’ll still make a wildly profitable game. Heck, you can do really well with even a fraction of that if you are smart about it. But, most people (or their investors) want them to aim for the starts and so many of them fail to reach the mark, unfortunately. Lots of games are good, even if you don’t particularly like them. For most of those games, there are people out there that do like them enough to keep some of them in business.

    My thoughts.

  14. Could the prevalence of crappy MMOs turn people away from the genre so that they never end up seeing the good ones?

    MMOGs are services. Good services that are surrounded by bad services stand out more, not less. Services tend to be differentiated not by their function but by the people that provide them.

  15. MMOGs are services.Good services that are surrounded by bad services stand out more, not less.

    Nice generalization, but not always true. If someone tries Thai food for the first time and happens to have a very bad experience, that person might avoid Thai food for years on the assumption that all Thai food sucks. (Thai food rules, of course, but I’m speaking hypothetically.)

    It can absolutely be the case that someone trying out a poorly made game of a particular type (in this case, MMOs) would judge the whole genre by it. Which is more likely: that a person who doesn’t know MMOs will keep trying different games over and over again until he or she finds one that is appealing, or that the person will give up on the genre after playing a handful of games he or she doesn’t think are fun?

    It’s all speculation, of course, but one outcome seems more plausible to me than the other.

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