It’s tough to write posts like this, but here goes: Mana Obscura is going on extended hiatus. After two years of having a great time discussing opinions and sharing ideas about MMOs and online gaming, it’s time for me to take an extended break.
The past few months have seen a dramatic change. I’ve gone from a hobbyist blogger to becoming a staff writer at ZAM. I’ll still be writing there every week, so make sure you’re following me on Twitter to stay updated. I’ll also be attending Rezzed in Brighton, Gamescom in Cologne, and Eurogamer Expo in London. Let me know if you’re heading to any of these!
I won’t be shutting Mana Obscura down anytime soon, so all historic posts and archives will remain up. Keep me in your feed readers though, as there’s no telling when I’ll return. This isn’t a goodbye, more of a “back in a bit”.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for more great content to read, you’ll find many fine and stimulating writers in my blogroll.
All the best,
I’m going to start with a bit of a history lesson.
Back when I was a kid, we used to go to the games store and buy a cassette tape. We’d take it home, play it into the machine, and wait half an hour to play the game we just bought. Sometimes it’d work, sometimes it wouldn’t. Sometimes it would randomly crash, or the last few levels would be impossible. We also had no internet, which meant no patches. We had a tape, to enjoy or not, as we chose.
Today’s gaming industry is radically different. Gamers are spending incredible amounts of time in multi-player games of one form or another. We’re consuming downloadable content to extend the lifespan of games we’ve bought. We’re using networks to interact with each other, from console variants such as Xbox Live, through to publisher or developer related ones such as Steam and Battle.net.
Games are becoming increasingly reliant on this back-end network to deliver significant parts of the experience. While this transition from Gaming as a Product to Gaming as a Service has benefits for both sides, what risks does it pose? How do we critically appraise a game that’s heavily reliant on these service components? What is the importance of reputation? And what happens when this service-based industry reaches saturation point?
When I started playing MMOs, it seemed that the genre was split into two camps. Subscription based games were seen as champions of quality, coupled with legendary customer service. By contrast, free to play games were looked down upon with distain, being games for those who preferred to buy their way to victory instead of earn it the hard way. They also had a tinge of underhandedness, as if developers were looking for increasingly ingenious ways to crack open customer wallets.
Over the last five years, I’d argue that our perceptions have changed. Guild Wars 1 and 2 introduced the “buy the box” model, delivering a high quality game while still using the subscription free microtransaction model. We’ve also seen several MMOs transition from being subscription based to free-to-play and becoming successful as a result. Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online and EverQuest 2 are all positive examples of this change in model.
This year, a new trend emerged. After reading a number of blogs I’ve seen the same phrase repeated again and again. “It’s a great MMO, but I’ll wait until it goes free to play before I play it.” We now expect subscription based games to fail and eventually switch to a free-to-play-model.
It doesn’t matter what MMO I talk about, I’ve only ever played two thirds of the game. It doesn’t matter if it’s World of Warcraft, RIFT, Star Wars: The Old Republic or any of the countless other worlds I’ve kicked around in. Whatever the game, I’ve avoided PvP completely.
I’ve not always been like this: back in the vanilla days of WoW I’d play my hideously overpowered mage and have huge amounts of fun. Looking back, I think that my interest in PvP plummeted when all these special rules and exceptions came in. Resistance gear. Diminishing returns. Trinket rules. Yadda yadda. It went from being one game to three, all forced together like three unruly brothers.
Which is why the last few months have been incredibly strange. On the one hand there’s Guild Wars 2, where I’ve spent huge chunks of my beta time in World versus World (versus World versus World… etc). And then there’s Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes, a game that I’d describe as MMO PvP without all the MMO crap that goes along with it.
I’m incredibly excited by the future of MMO gaming. This year alone, the launch of TERA, Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World shows that developers aren’t afraid to experiment with new concepts in order to keep the genre alive and fresh. The free-to-play market is also bubbling away, with Firefall, Warhammer Online: Wrath of Ancients, and Tribes Ascended offering us new and unique experiences.
If anything, the free-to-play model has shown Western studios that it is possible to make a good quality MMO without the overhanging subscription free. Although we’ve seen many top-flight examples switch from subscription to free-to-play and do well, it’s likely that some of the next wave of MMOs will directly choose similar model, even if there’s a box fee attached to get started.
The trouble is, MMOs have a long lifespan. World of Warcraft has been running since 2004, but there some that started even earlier that are still in operation today. By coming up with alternative ways to generate income from MMOs, developers can keep their games running with much smaller player numbers. For new entrants looking to make a splash, the MMO marketplace is getting pretty congested.