21 Oct 2011

The Declining MMO Market

There’s been a couple of great articles recently about the situation at CCP, publishers of EVE Online. The theory is that the company hasn’t been doing as well as it hoped following the White Wolf Publishing acquisition and has been losing both staff and subscribers ever since. I’d suggest reading Tobold’s summary of the situation if you’d like to know more there.

The question it creates is where this leaves MMO gaming as a whole. The general feeling is that we should be set for a decline in the popularity of the genre. Studios may end up closing doors and games may end up being taken offline. It’s a bit of a grim scenario.

There’s a question that I have to ask though – how much of this is to do with players getting tired of a particular game? If the universe you’ve been playing in hasn’t changed much in the past few years then wouldn’t you get bored and move on? Likewise, has the developer looked at chasing new customers to replace the ones that have left?

Ultimately there’s a known truth – players will only try your game for so long before they get bored or tired of it and move on. You need to have alternatives out there that players can easily switch to when that happens, otherwise they’re likely to become someone else’s customers.

You can see Blizzard do this with Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo and Titan – a range of game styles for people to switch between. It’s also been the strategy of Perfect World, NCSoft and others. This is where CCP has been stuck. As EVE becomes less popular they have no alternatives to offer. World of Darkness was supposed to be that, but it’s been kicked into the long grass.

I do agree with Tobold to an extent. The MMO market is due for a shake-up. But while I think that some games may change fundamentally, I don’t think that we’ll see any switch off completely. There’s always a way to to keep an old game running.

Finding the Money

One of the continuing questions is working out how players will pay for games in the future. If recent years are anything to go by, there’s probably only enough room in the market for two or three subscription based MMOs. If you’re anything like me you don’t like playing for something you’re not using, yet you only have enough time to keep maybe two games on the go.

The alternative is having micro transaction based games, either free to play or with a one-off payment to enter the game (such as Guild Wars). I’m expecting future games that launch with a subscription model to have a back-pocket strategy on how they’ll switch to an alternative if subscriptions don’t work for them.

This means you become less dependent on having a huge amount of players to pay subscriptions to pay the bills. You don’t need to be big to be successful.

The Emerging Platforms

When launching an MMO, only part of the battle is earning revenue from it. The flipside is keeping costs down. Running servers, performing maintenance, taking payments, providing web pages and community features – all these cost money. The traditional approach was that these would all be built from scratch every time an MMO would emerge. This has to change.

Firms like Perfect World and NCSoft already have a stable of games either currently running or in development. I’m expecting that future development will become even more integrated, with developers using a common platform on which to build their games.

Think about it – a publisher like NCSoft could provide a common server architecture and some prebuilt engines. Then there’s the unified account access and registration system, or a unified backend payment processor. They could even provide a common web services architecture and web and mobile development team, or a unified online store.

This means that as one game expands and another contracts you can adjust the amount of servers dedicated to each. Virtualisation techniques mean that you might even not have to take down realms or shards. You could even work out new ways of getting players together.

All this allows the creative development team to focus on producing the game, while infrastructure and plumbing is all managed by the common platform. In theory this makes MMOs cheaper and quicker to produce.

It’s no surprise that Trion have spotted this, as they’re already working on their ‘Red Door’ platform.

The Changing Game

As platforms emerge that house a great many virtual worlds, I’m hoping that we’ll eventually see an explosion in the number of MMOs developed – particularly if these platforms are priced so that the indy and hobbyist developer can also have a go.

Why? Because ideas for games are cheap – I’ve already thrashed out one or two of them myself. The art lies in the execution of those ideas, how they evolve into designs and styles and what experiences they deliver to the gamer. But with the cost of development being sky-high at the moment few are willing to take the risk. The price needs to come down to a level where risks can be taken.

The industry needs to change the way it plays the game. I think the days of the MMO genre being awash with triple-A games is numbered. But I also think that there’s a whole avalanche of new and innovative ideas just waiting for the right time to emerge.

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