The Real Cost Of Making An MMO
This is a stream-of-consciousness post, and does not necessarily reflect a philosophy or well formed opinion. It certainly isn’t designed to represent any kind of actual theory or practice as it exists in the real world.
I want to start with this thought from Pete at Dragonchasers:
“Are MMOs the kiss of death? Blizzard was a beloved game developer before World of Warcraft came around. Now there’s definitely a loud Blizzard-hating group of gamers out there. Is Bioware going through that same transition?”
I’d like to see this in survey form, because I think that Pete’s on to something, at least in part. I’d be willing to agree that since BioWare was acquired by EA, and Blizzard by Activision, both titans have experienced a serious down-hill slide, not in quality, but in customer satisfaction brought about by design decisions. World of Warcraft got progressively easier over time, which many people feel ruins the experience, and StarCraft failed to ignite hearts here in the West (and the one-SKU-per-race decision is still a head-scratcher). Similarly, BioWare has hit some rough patches with Dragon Age II and it’s shift from their bread-and-butter tactical mechanics to a console-born action game, controversies over not including same-sex relationships in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and of course the whole Mass Effect 3 ending thing. So I’d probably be more apt to “blame” EA and Activision for handing down edicts, but Pete’s comment about a company “going MMO” got me wondering about the relationship costs for a company when they move from making single or lesser multiplayer games to making an MMO.
The very first thing that I thought about was “what does an MMO mean for the players”? MMOs are time sucks, more so then any other genre out there, I’d say. Call of Duty or Battlefield 3 or Skyrim or Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning may inadvertently keep you playing until 2 AM, but at some point, you’ll finish their campaigns and be done. Maybe you can jump in and play some multiplayer, but those are one-off experiences and are not linked together by anything more than stats and upgrades. Contrast those examples to an MMO, which is multiplayer all the time, where people are around 24/7, and where you can be logged in at any hour and find things both as you left them, and possibly changing around you (in minor degrees, like mob spawns and world events). Because of this, and because an MMO technically has no end, players generally approach these games much differently then they do single or multiplayer games. They hopefully understand that an MMO is a long haul, and therefor the expectations must be adjusted. There will be weekly maintenance windows. There will be patches. Things that you have gotten used to will change. Content will be added. Content will be removed. Friends will come and friends will go. Although most modern MMOs aren’t “virtual worlds”, they do have a persistence of landscape and, to some degree, are dynamic in that the game you have at launch will never be the same game you have in 6 months. Many players count on this, and is the reason why they prefer MMOs to single or multiplayer games.
With the understanding that an MMO is a long-haul experience, players have a tendency to become emotionally attached to the game. IPs or developer involvement aside, players create and play a single avatar (alts notwithstanding). They take them through a “growth process” towards a level cap. They make friends and enemies, and they share experiences with other people that they recall years later and which will be the only light left once their memories of the specifics of the game have faded away. These games can change people, and so MMOs are “serious business” to their players.
So the second thing I wondered was “what does making an MMO mean for the developers”? The story as I understand it is that Richard Garriott had a hell of a time pitching an online version of Ultima to EA, and that they gave him the OK not because they believed in the idea, but because they wanted him to get out of their hair. Hooray for avoidance tactics, because we got Ultima Online, and then EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, Dark Age of Camelot, and eventually World of Warcraft. Blizzard was a beloved developer who got that way by making games for people. Parse that sentence for a second, because it’s more of a powerful idea then it seems. Blizzard’s design process was to keep things simple: Diablo is a CRPG without having to worry about conversations and number crunching. WoW was EverQuest without the hardcore-ness. It was pretty, and approachable, and combined with their reputation as a developer, it blew the doors off of what anyone believed was possible in this young genre.
And the race was on. Everyone wants to get in on the ongoing revenue stream, so it seems that every major developer has an MMO on the market these days. The more people who jump into the arena, the easier it becomes for others to jump in as well, right? It’s a cornerstone philosophy of manufacturing that once something is done often enough, or by enough people, then the processes involved in production, testing, marketing, and distribution get ironed out to the point where they can be achieved without much thought. We get templates for production, and when a product can be churned out on a template, the barrier to entry falls and the market is flooded. In the case of the MMO market, the template is WoW. There are painfully few MMOs which deviate from the WoW look and feel, preferring to differentiate themselves on their art style, their IP, or on incremental changes or additions to the formula.
So I don’t think we should be surprised when other beloved companies like BioWare throw their hat into the MMO ring. BioWare is one of the few companies that I think people believe to be able to “break the mold”. After all, it’s inarguable that BioWare pretty much single handedly kept the CRPG genre afloat while the industry was moving towards more and more FPS and RTS titles. They churned out top-shelf products like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic before they got into modern day CRPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. What else could they do but take their bread-and-butter – the CRPG – and translate their “expertise” into the “final frontier” of the MMORPG?
Making an MMO is a business decision because they’re unique beasts. Whether it’s a monthly subscription or cash-shop supported, MMOs generate ongoing revenue that’s difficult for investors to ignore, especially with the games industry in a kind of “cold war” with used game sales of single and multiplayer games. While I’m sure that the developers of MMOs are gamers, it’s the dollar signs that cause the publishers to stark kicking around the idea of getting a slice of the perpetual revenue pie. This is where everything comes to a head, because we’re now at the confluence of publishers, developers, and fans.
Both Blizzard and BioWare had rabid fans before they got into the MMO space. It was both right and wrong to assume that this loyalty would translate into anything that either company did, and because an MMO needs massive amounts of people, and massive amounts of emotionally invested, loyal people, I’m sure that some bean-counters figured that it would be a direct translation from the fans of the developer to continue to be fans of the developer once they moved into the MMO territory.
MMOs require and give totally different vibes than single player games. MMOs are massive undertakings from the developer’s perspective as well, taking millions of dollars, years of development, gigabytes if not terabytes of assets, and warehouses of hardware to maintain just so players can log in, check their auctions, and log out. We talk about the “hype train” that delivers hints of a new MMO, then confirmation, then asset leaking and developer interviews, and which culminates in a massive Internet pep-rally designed to get people on-board for the release of the game. This starts at least a year in advance, and in the case of companies like BioWare, Blizzard, or NCSoft, it becomes hard to avoid official marketing materials or interviews, and harder to avoid community buzz.
This is where we start to see the real cost of making an MMO: the psychology. Gamers are dedicated. We’re all hardcore. We’re like the girls in the pictures of The Beatles concerts. We laugh at how intense Twilight fans are, but we’re just as rabid about wanting our hobby to take us to some undefined Nirvana that we’re actually willing – at some point in our gaming lives – to put our eggs in someone’s basket because the song they sing to us is so tonally sweet that we can’t imagine life without it. Promises are made, and enthusiasm spreads. We’re caught up in the hype, and we totally forget that this company has no clue what the hell they’re doing!
Sure, they’re technically proficient, and we can be assured that the product won’t be an absolute cluster-fuck, but in the case of BioWare and Blizzard, people totally hung their expectations on WoW and Star Wars: The Old Republic based on those company’s single player products. People believed that neither company could do them wrong, and neither company did do anything wrong from a technical standpoint. Where things invariably went south was in the management of expectations. Hype is what hurts MMOs early, because hype is words and concept art; players are left – and expected – to fill in the blanks with their own desires. If players don’t project their own desires into the marketing material, then marketers have failed in their mission. Once the game is released and the hype gives way to something concrete, it’s the longer term emotional attachment to characters and community that needs to be managed. MMOs aren’t really about raids and dungeons and PvP and mechanics; they’re about managing the expectations and emotional states of the customers through the life-cycle of a long-tail product.
This is where BioWare and Blizzard are losing their footing. SWTOR is BioWare’s first big-release multiplayer game. Previously, their community support was asynchronous, through bug reports and the community management of the forums. Now they have to provide 24/7 support, have employees in the game to deal with transient customer service issues that could never occur, or which could blow up and involve thousands of entrenched players. Blizzard has a different problem, in that they seem to have faltered several times over the years to achieve the balance between what the shareholders want and what the players want. WoW has become more accessible to more players in an effort to ensnare those who have (astoundingly) never played WoW, a move which has often alienated long-term, established players who are emotionally distressed at seeing their hard-won achievements now being handed out like candy at Halloween. Blizzard has teeter-tottered between putting more hardcore back into the game, while also trying to maintain a level of accessibility that they believe is needed to appeal to an untapped demographic.
Talking about and tweaking the mechanics and adding new zones and features is usually what receives the attention in a patch or an expansion announcement, but the fallout of every single bullet point in those lists is the emotional punch that accompanies them. This is where MMOs rise and fall, and the management of emotion is the true job of both developer and publisher. No user base the size of an MMO crowd can be pleased 100%, 100% of the time; the task is to please as many people as possible with each round of releases so that everyone feels that their needs are being addressed at some point, while also managing the disappointment of those who were excluded in the latest round. I think this becomes naturally more difficult the longer the game is in operation because people have had that much more time to become attached to the game, their characters, and the community, to the point where even small changes have huge ramifications. BioWare doesn’t have this level of expertise; they’re good at making games, but when it comes to “living” amongst the community, they’re just as lost as you or I would be if asked to corral players in a certain direction. Blizzard has had longer to work on this, and while just as technically adept as BioWare, their customer relations record has been spotty.
So getting back to Pete’s original question, “Are MMOs the kiss of death?” I think that the product is, as always, neutral. I think that the baggage that accompanies the development, marketing, release, and maintenance of an MMO is a high-wire act that is, at best, a zero-sum game for operators. They have to always being their A-game, have to always be on the move, and can never be off the clock because their real job is to maneuver their players through an emotional experience that’s running every hour of every day for an until number of days. The emotional investment means that players will be overly sensitive to any perceived slight, and will internalize any changes in terms of how it affects them, not how it affects the overall game. This is, of course, an impossible task since giving everyone everything that will make them happy is impossible, but both BioWare and Blizzard are experiencing backlash from failing to appropriately calculate the emotional response of their decisions.