Friday, February 12, 2010

Will we see another Triple-A Fantasy MMO?

The Infamous Brad wrote a very rational and intelligent response piece to several of my posts from last month about the WoW Tourist Myth. Of course, I disagree with him on several points, but he does a great job of defending the idea that WoW’s current success can be attributed to something other than it simply being the best game in the MMO market.

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.


Tobold said...

Well, Blizzard's next generation MMORPG could be Sci-Fi, and then the competition would have fall back on fantasy. :)

Carson 63000 said...

Yeah I was thinking just the other day that it finally seems to have struck home with investors that it might be a good idea NOT to try to play in the same space as WoW.

Most of the hyped releases seem to be sci-fi, space opera, cyberpunk, superhero, etc. I guess Final Fantasy XIV is on the horizon if you want a fantasy MMO, though.

Failing that, there will always be an endless stream of free to play games pushing the "just like WoW, but not as good.. but free!" line.

Stabs said...

WoW won't be dominant in 2020 but probably Blizzard will.

Much of WoW's success is down to people who were Blizzard fans but not mmo players starting mmos because it was made by Blizzard. The company's reputation is so strong that it's single player games from the 90s still sell well.

Also small nit: AoC isn't the last generic fantasy game to aim for WoW's crown, Mark Jacobs specifically said that Warhammer Online would be trying to take it.

sid67 said...

Point is, it raises an interesting question for Fantasy MMO fans -- what's next?

Cataclysm? Then whatever Blizzard's next big title is? And that's assuming it's not Sci-Fi as Tobold suggests (and I agree with him).

If you don't like the small indie games and you are tired of WoW, you might not have much in the way of an alternate choice.

About the nit: Not my quote, so feel free to nit-pick:) There is also Aion, if you want to include ports. That said, I think when you are talking about Triple A alternatives to WoW, AoC is going to be the only one left standing in a year or two. WAR is suffering a nasty demise and might not even last out much longer.

Stabs said...

I think "fantasy MMO fans" is probably a false assumption.

If Blizzard's as yet unrevealed MMO is sci fi or contemporary and SWTOR is reasonably good we may see less than 10% of MMO players playing fantasy MMOs in 2012.

They're Blizzard fans not fantasy fans, most of them.

J. Brad Hicks said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply (that Google blog search only just, this morning, called my attention to).

This is the part of the discussion where we find out that we agree on many points. I think you and Green are right that maintaining a complex system gets harder over time. That's why the operating system we're playing our MMOs on isn't still called Windows 3. But it is still called Windows, and it still comes from Microsoft, even though Microsoft has gone through some rocky years immediately after they got to the points where it became unmaintainable and had to be rewritten from scratch. People stuck with them through the Vista years, for example, because Microsoft Windows was what everybody else was using: network effects.

Cataclysm is almost certainly not the last time that Blizzard will rip the guts out of a big part of WoW and replace them. Sad to say, if you want to play a generic-D&D type MMO in 2020 and you want to be playing with lots of other people, that MMO will still be called World of Warcraft. It may not have a single map, model, mob, or line of code in common with today's WoW, but it will still be called WoW. Unless, as I already said, Blizzard decides to get out of the business, decides to stop investing in it; then, all bets are off.

One last point: I wonder if you really hate science fiction in MMOs, or if what it really is that you hate is the really rotten job of creating a science fiction GAME in MMO space that everybody, and I mean everybody, has done so far?

The thing that propelled generic D&D universes like Azeroth to the forefront of MMO space is that way the heck back in the 1970s, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson took all the complexity of fairy tales and high fantasy and boiled it down to very, very simple gameplay:

1) Check your current location for tricks, traps, and secret doors.
2) Open a door.
3) Kill everything on the other side by beating on it until it falls down.
4) Take their stuff.
5) Repeat ad infinitum.

And after every xth thing you kill, you go up in level and earn the right to kill different looking bags of hit points. And every yth thing you kill, on average, had in its loot a "magic item" that amounts to a different special effect for knocking hit points off off a bag of hit points.

This simplification really, really doesn't work for science fiction, or spy thrillers, or westerns, or cyberpunk, or film noir, or hardboiled detectives, or super heroes, or romantic comedy, or any other genre. We're still waiting for the Gygax and Arneson of those genres to design actual game play that tells those kinds of stories.

Until then we're stuck with reskinned Everquest clones -- as Phil Foglio pointed out back in 1982: