Why do most MMOGs try to be everything to everybody? Can you name the last mainstream MMOG that did not have crafting, PvE, PvP, or auction houses? Why does every MMOG developer seem to feel they must include every option under the sun at release?
For MMOGs, launch is suppose to be a milestone, not a finish line. While it is a big step, it is still just one step in the life of the game. All MMOGs grow and improve after launch, and as gamers in this genre we generally accept and expect this. Yet for some reason developers insist on adding all of these features to the game by launch. More times than not, this causes the features to appear, excuse the expression. but…half-assed.
We, the community, rant about how poorly the features are implemented, and how the developers are morons and should have known better. Well, I believe they do know better. Developers in general are very bright, and they know the condition of the features they are forced to release. So why do they release games with features that aren’t fully realized yet?
Nobody else can be this game!
I don't think we can discuss this topic without first mentioning the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. Love it or hate it, World of Warcraft is the standard that all other MMOGs are held to. Gamers expect any MMOG that releases to be as polished and fully-featured as WoW. If you think about it, this is a bit unrealistic. WOW is not the same game it was when it was released. It has evolved and grown over the last 4 years. The quality you see today has taken almost a decade of development to achieve; development that has had more funding than any MMOG in the history of the genre. Why do we expect any other game to achieve this?
The answer is simple--money. Almost every MMOG that releases has the same box cost that WoW had, and charges the same monthly subscription fee. It's much like comparing McDonalds to an Outback Steakhouse. Both are good, and I can enjoy them both for what they are. You get what you pay for with both, and I can honestly say that I feel both are good deals for the money. However if McDonalds were to ever try and charge me the same price as Outback, my opinion of them would be quite different. It’s the same with MMOGs. For $15 a month, I have much higher expectations than I would at $10, or $5. If you charge me for a steak, I expect a steak, not a cheeseburger.
Dungeons & Dragons Online is a great example of this. When the game first launched they charged $50 for the box, and $15 a month to play. Players bought the game, tried it out, then quit and left to go back to WoW or to the next game that released. DDO was charging us for a steak, but giving us a cheeseburger. I had great hopes for the game, but found myself moving on like many others had. Many people claimed that the game was awful. The game wasn't awful, the price for it was. Now that DDO has moved on to a microtransaction model many players, including myself, who quit are flocking back to the game. Now instead of being called awful, it's innovative and a breath of fresh air. The gameplay hasn't changed much, but our expectations because of the cost have.
DDO finally got it right!
We as the players have to take some of the blame as well. Just read the forums for any MMOG that has not been released yet. Players will bitch about everything under the sun. "Is there going to be crafting? If not, I'm not playing." "What about PvP? It is a must have for me." The list goes on and on. Any time a developer says a feature will not be included at release, you would think he just killed someone's firstborn child. The forums explode with rage at the stupidity of the developer, and the fray usually ends with someone comparing the devs to Hitler. Believe it or not, our voices as players are too often heard. We always complain that the developers don't hear us, when the opposite is in fact usually the case.
Take Warhammer Online as an example. Early in the game’s development I asked Paul Barrnett if there would be crafting. I was told that the game was not called Crafthammer Online, it was Warhammer Online. The game was about war and fighting, and Mythic Entertainment, its developers, had no interest in crafting, if you wanted to craft you should find another game to play. I loved the answer. Here was a game that was only going to do a few things, but do them well.
Look what happened, though. Players complained enough so that a really craptastic crafting system was added late in development to appease them. How many man hours were wasted on a system that virtually no one liked? How much more could have been done to the game if crafting hadn’t been thrown in there? We will never know, but I assure you that no one is playing WAR today because of the crafting system.
So what should developers do then? How can developers draw us fickle gamers to their games and, more importantly, how do they keep us playing month after month? The answer: become more of a niche game. Yes, I said it. I know it's a bad word with most developers; niche implies small, and small usually means less money coming in. I don't agree with that. I would rather have a small loyal niche following that sticks with me for years than to be a shooting star that fizzles out immediately.
Learn from WARs mistake
Developers need to stop trying to be the WoW Slayer, (Facebook has already done that) instead they need to pick one feature and make it unique and innovative. They shouldn't try to be everything to everyone. They need to make their games so different from others that we gamers can not get the same type of gamplay anywhere else but from them. I'm sorry to say that, in general, gamers are not loyal. We chase the next shiny bauble placed in front of us like a kitten with a new toy. If developers want to keep us when the next shiny new box hits store shelves, they have to be different enough that we can't leave them, because no other game can give us what they have.
The more features that are added to a game the less innovation we’re likely to see. It's like brewing a really good beer; I can make a kick ass beer for 30 people or so, but if you give me the same funds and time but tell me I have to create a beer for 100 people, I'm going to have to water it down. Then tell me I have to make it for 500 people and I am forced to water it down even more. In the end, instead of having 30 people who love my beer and will swear by it, I have 500 people complaining about how bland it is, and how they can't wait to try someone else's beer. Nobody likes watered down beer.
In the end developers won't sell as many copies as Blizzard has sold of WoW, or have millions of subscribers, but they can be successful. If they focus their energies in only a couple of areas, and make those features better than their competition players will come and stay. If they can't commit to having the best crafting system ever designed, they should leave crafting out entirely. Sure they will lose some players, but it's better to lose some before the game launches than almost all afterward. Developers should start small, give players the absolute best gameplay in whatever areas they design, and charge accordingly. Not all MMOGs are created equal, but many companies believe they can charge equally. Until a developer can give me everything WoW does, they shouldn't think they can charge me what WoW does.
Companies should sell their 30 beers first--um, I mean games--and let those players sing their praises. The internet is a powerful tool, and those 30 people can spread the word about how great a game is better than any shiny box in a store with bullet points about how many features the game has. Of course they can also stick with the same old tired path and water down their beer, I mean game, and get 500 people telling everyone how the developer is Hitler.