Saturday, December 1, 2012

Massively Meh

Just thought I would weigh in on the big update (patch 1.2) for Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) and explain my feelings on resubscribing and what it means in terms of Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Games (shortened to MMOs here) in general. I am going to skip all the basics so if the last sentence made very little sense to you Google the terms 'SWTOR' for specific game info or 'MMO' for the broader concepts.


I won't resubscribe. The industry is shifting towards a desire for innovation over a polished product.

The Long Version
Although I don't consider myself a die hard MMO fan (that honor belongs to the people who have literally died while playing MMOs) I have certainly played my share and when new ones come along I tend to dedicate a big chunk of my gaming time (at least for a while) to them. With this in mind, I have experienced MMO launches from Dark Age of Camelot, WoW, Rift, SWTOR and many more in between. My overall feelings on SWTOR is that it is a highly polished MMO that didn't really break any new ground. Sure its fully voice acted, is using an awesome license, and has some pretty cool cinematic single-player story telling but in the end it uses the familiar mechanical tropes of press a button to use a skill, loot grinding, and the trinity (tank, healer, dps) party composition. PvP (where I spent most of my time with SWTOR) offers a bit less 'stun locking' in favor of more strategic battles but ultimately lacks innovation in the same ways the PvE experience does with gear still being a major factor to success over skill. So when it came down to it, I forked out my money and subscribed for a couple months only to quit after burning through the majority of the content (including a few efforts at raiding with an awful guild) with the overwhelming feeling that it is more of the same.

Recently, SWTOR unleashed one of the largest overhaul patches in MMO history with patch 1.2. To boot, they even offered a free week to play for those whose subscriptions lapsed (hey that's me!) presumably to entice those players back.

So where do I stand?
Just to get it out of the way, most of the major features implemented in patch 1.2 should have been in place at launch. I have a hard time figuring out why such basic things such as UI customization and damage logs took three months to implement. You can't help but get the feeling that the game was rushed out for a Christmas release and everyone essentially paid to be a beta tester. I recognize that this is pretty standard practice with MMO launches but I still feel screwed as a consumer. Even still, now that the basic features are added in the overarching problems that led me to quit in the first place are still there (namely the base mechanics and overall loot grind). I can see that had I quit primarily due to a lack of new content to play I would probably resubscribe for a month to burn through the new raids and gear up a bit more. It strikes me that at best patch 1.2 will bring back people for another month but little more.

Long Term Viability of MMOs
I think that my sentiments above raise a question of the long term viability of MMOs in their current state. As it stands, WoW is currently bleeding subscribers (by some estimates at hundreds of thousands a month) and no other MMO appears poised to crack the 10 million subscriber mark again. I don't think that this implies that MMOs are suddenly going to be unprofitable. If patch 1.2 has failed at bringing people back long term, it hasn't done so by alienating its base that never dropped their subscription in the first place. While many gamers are leaving MMOs, a strong base of players are attracted to MMOs for other reasons. Some people play MMOs simply for the social aspects cultivating genuine friendships. Others are obsessively compelled to get the absolutely best gear possible and are willing to grind week in and out in what amounts to little more then a loot lottery. Finally, some players don't have as much time to play and as such rarely run out of content. I am sure that these three groups don't comprise all of the reasons why people continue to resubscribe month after month but certainly do provide some plausible reasoning as to why Ultima Online (an MMO released over 15 years ago) still maintains a profitable subscriber base. Yes, MMOs, even in their current form, will be viable for well into the foreseeable future.

Although MMOs will be viable, I do question whether  they will ever be as profitable as they were in their heyday about two years back. At this point in time, WoW was gaining subscribers steadily and reached somewhere between 12 and 13 million subscriptions. WoW was (and at current numbers still is) basically a permit to print money. I sincerely doubt that, adjusted for population growth, an MMO in the current form will ever hit these kind of numbers again. The current trend seems to be a fairly large spike in numbers at launch followed by a sudden then gradual tapering off of the player base until either evening out to a sustainably profitable number or the MMO dies. This trend isn't hard to understand. Initially, a lot of hype drives sales of a new product hitting high numbers quickly. Then, as the game fails to meet hype driven expectations a good chunk of people do not subscribe beyond the first month. In the following months, players who stuck past the first month gradually burn out on the content and leave (I fit here with SWTOR) and eventually the game is left with a subscriber base playing for one of the reasons listed in the above paragraph.

What do we want?
While a solid MMO release might sustain enough subscribers to maintain some profitability, the type of super-profits seen by WoW through continued growth (rather then decay) just isn't a reality for new MMOs. So what made WoW so successful? WoW' success is certainly not attributable to one factor. Surprisingly, however, innovation was undoubtedly NOT a major a factor in its success. WoW's innovation was primarily limited to a streamlining of already existing tropes found in Everquest. While some features were new to the game, WoW really didn't reinvent the wheel. What WoW did do was provide a highly polished experience coupled with an immensely popular license backed by a industry known and respected developer; exactly what SWTOR did! I think that the lack of subscriber growth in the first few moths of SWTOR (a trend that I am dubious will be bucked) is a result of two factors. First, WoW has done a pretty good job over the years of continuously polishing the product and, to this day, is the gold standard for all the features that can be implemented in an MMO. As such, new MMOs are not providing a major leap forward through polish that was perceived when WoW was released. The second factor, and perhaps more crucially, is a change in the MMO paradigm of what people expect out of their games; namely innovation. As people have essentially been playing the same game for over a decade, it is understandable that they are getting bored and want something new. Other longstanding gaming genres have managed to garner increased sales by continually overhauling key mechanics. Genres, such as sports games, have withstood this stagnation through continued innovation. Madden games have seen the switch from sprites to polygons, the implementation of dual analog controls from directional input, and Internet matching from strict local play. Each of these changes has dramatically impacted the way that people play Madden despite the fact that the real world NFL has seen no fundamental rule changes (the type of change that would make the NFL look like Rugby). Innovation has kept the series fresh and continues to drive year on year sales. To bolster this point, years in which the Madden franchise offer little more then a roster update and minor graphical improvements are generally panned by critics. In short, gamers want innovation to keep things fresh and MMOs are starting to see this demand impact subscriber numbers.

How do we get it?
Unfortunately, the problem I have laid out is one that is hardly unknown to developers who are highly motivated to innovate. Successful innovation, as it turns out, is not something that comes easily. And while the Madden franchise worked my point above, to counter, the series has largely evolved not through purposeful innovative thinking but as a result of outside factors. As discrete graphics processing evolved, the desire for better looking players drove the shift to polygons from sprites. As new consoles hit the market with more ergonomic controls, new games had to adopt those controls. Finally, the rise of high speed Internet essentially guaranteed online matchmaking superseding local play. For MMOs, no major shifts in the way those games are accessed and played have forced innovation. Modern graphics have stuck with polygons and until a different way of approaching realism is found (and no it is not the garbage 3D we have now!) it is unreasonable to expect MMOs to evolve. The same goes for faster Internet (I don't think that current Internet speeds are a bottleneck innovation). Perhaps the best current source of innovation thus lies in controls. True, the keyboard and mouse have been ubiquitous to MMOs since their inception, but I feel the best shot to moving to the next generation of MMOs is a control scheme that is more engaging and doesn't rely on pressing a button to watch an animation. That said, innovation does not come easily and it will take a creative designer and a publisher willing to take a risk to break the mold.