The central point of his argument is that life has been brutal in the MMO industry because Blizzard is benefiting from network effects. The theory being that the usefulness of certain products increases as more people have that product. The classic example being the telephone which has little use if you are the only one with a phone and grows in value exponentially as more people purchase telephones.
There is certainly some truth in that opinion. After all, we DO tend to play the games that our friends play. We’ve also seen the explosion of growth that Warcraft experienced largely because it hit a critical mass of sorts that propelled it to a level of success never seen before or since.
We’ve seen this same network effect occur elsewhere on the internet with Ebay and more recently Facebook. And I suspect that in 2020, we’ll still see people using both Ebay and Facebook.
But in 2020, will we still be playing Warcraft?
Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green has a nice read up about how MMOs change over time. In it, one of the points he makes is that “an aging system becomes a bigger hassle to maintain.” After all, you can only slap so many Band-Aids on something before you would just be better off taking your lessons learned and starting from scratch.
What Brian is alluding to is that games age over time. Expansions provide an opportunity for developers to overhaul, but they still have to build upon the same foundation. I’m not saying it’s not possible to keep a game fresh and compelling, just increasingly more difficult over time.
Any which way I slice it, I can’t just can’t envision any scenario in which World of Warcraft maintains it’s current level of popularity 16 years after it’s release. For no other reason than I have to believe they will be overwhelmed by the innovations of some other game.
MMOs are Blu-ray, not Telephones
Video media is another product that benefits from network effects. Betamax fell by the wayside to VHS as more and more people owned VHS videocassette players and video rental stores started only stocking VHS.
Of course, nowadays you can’t find VHS videocassettes at the video store either. They were replaced by DVDs as technological innovations forced consumers to upgrade. And today, we are in the process of making the same evolutionary leap to replace DVD with Blu-ray.
You see, what The Infamous Brad ignored is that products – particularly technology products – are subject to what’s called the Product Life Cycle. There is an adoption stage, a growth stage, a maturity stage, and finally a decline stage. Warcraft isn’t going to last forever.
I believe, that at some future point, it’s going to decline for no other reason than the technical limitations and costs associated with backward product compatibility.
And even if you believe that it can manage the technological hurdle, eventually they are going to reach a saturation point where they can’t maintain the growth needed to replace customers who quit playing.
That’s distinctly NOT like the telephone which is a product that has become a necessity in order to communicate with other people.
People don’t get a phone and then one day stop using phones. Plenty of people play MMOs and then one day quit playing MMOS.
Will we see another Triple-A Fantasy MMO?
One really interesting question that The Infamous Brad raises is whether or not we’ll see another Fantasy based MMO fueled by a big budget:
"Funcom's Age of Conan (like WoW, only R rated!) will go down in history as the last stupid attempt to build a generic fantasy MMO good enough to steal WoW's subscribers. No, really, even if there are developers out there crazy enough to take another jousting run at that windmill, there aren't the investors willing to fall for their pitch again, and there won't be unless Activision/Blizzard does something so awful or so dumb that millions of people boycott them at the same time […] Which is why for the last three years or so, the industry has watched with bated breath every time a science fiction MMO has shipped."This is something that never really occurred to me, but he’s absolutely 100% right. After all the failure, why would anyone bet on a Fantasy MMO again? Ignore for a moment that YOU might disagree with whether or not another MMO could be successful and ask yourself WHO would want to invest $100 million to compete against WoW. Particularly in this economy.
Which is an absolutely depressing thought. Especially considering that I hate Sci-Fi in MMOs.