Knowing precisely when and how to announce a major new MMO game project is definitely an art form, and one that very few – if any – publishers and developers have truly mastered. A common mistake made industry-wide is to announce your upcoming game at the project inception simply to get the word out about what you’re up to, but without any substantial assets, or even tech demos to show to the public.
This can be somewhat disastrous for a number of reasons, which are only compounded if the project in question involves a licensed IP.
For starters, you will never be able to properly manage expectations, no matter how vocal you become about the exact scope of the project further into the development cycle. The longer gamers have to imagine the possibilities, the easier it is to dream up all the variables for what could be.
These variables will float through discussion and social channels in waves, and eventually “could be” somehow gets misinterpreted as actual fact. This greatly increases the likelihood that your project will never in a million years be able to live up to expectations and no matter how much you fight against it, you will ultimately run the risk of turning your most vocal supporters into an angry mob.
Torches and pitchforks in hand, that mob will then set every forum, sub-Reddit, Facebook page, and Twitter feed ablaze with resentment and bile, poking holes in any marketing or PR attempts to sway public opinion back to the positive.
The trick is to never announce or publicly discuss any aspect of your MMO project that you can’t sit down and show as fully functioning to gamers. ArenaNet largely adopted this approach while marketing Guild Wars 2 prior to its launch, and it instilled gamers with a sense of an actual product rather than providing a base catalyst for daydreaming the endless possibilities.
For example, ArenaNet didn’t simply announce that the game would feature structured PvP and then go dark on what the system actually entails for the next year. Instead, they showcased top competitive teams playing a current build of the system in the same breath as the announcement. In other words, ArenaNet clearly understood just how critical that notion of putting your money where your mouth is within the gaming industry.
Case Study #1: ArenaNet and Guild Wars 2
ArenaNet provides an interesting case study in terms of when it’s OK to announce an upcoming MMO before you really have anything to show publically outside of some concept art and a bulleted list of potential features. Having an existing player base in the original Guild Wars, ArenaNet needed to openly explain why Eye of the North would be the last expansion for the game, even though they had previously established a fairly aggressive release schedule for major campaigns.
So announcing the existence of Guild Wars 2 back in 2007 helped achieve two main goals. First, it informed an active player base that there was a good reason as to why no new full campaigns would be released. And, just as importantly, it afforded them the opportunity to inform gamers in no uncertain terms that the studio would justifiably be going dark for an extended period.
When that darkness was lifted, ArenaNet didn’t simply begin discussing features; they showed gamers exactly what those features were, and within two months presented them with a public demo to reinforce the existence and actual functionality of that feature set. While there was still a long development road ahead of them from that initial demo at Gamescom 2009, ArenaNet established the actuality of their project on their own terms rather than allowing too much speculation to color public opinion.
Case Study #2: Sony Online Entertainment
A second developer / publisher worth looking at here is SOE. Surely a number of important lessons were learned about the timing of announcing and beginning the marketing of major MMO properties thanks to The Agency. That game sat squarely on the top of my most anticipated games list for quite some time, but eventually the entire project began to unravel and never did see the light of day.
Mind you, we also watched The Agency go through a somewhat long and painful evolution to the point where the game began to lack identity. The whole thing finally unraveled sometime following the shift to being a mediocre FPS instead of the kick-ass James Bond experience many of us were expecting it to be.
Still, The Agency was also far ahead of its time – at least on paper. Back when the game was first announced it was crazy talk for a developer to be discussing social media and mobile device extensions to gameplay, whereas that’s becoming more of a staple these days. Just look at Neverwinter and its robust Gateway system.
Even before The Agency fell apart completely, confidence in SOE’s ability to deliver the game it showcased at industry events like E3 began to waver. PlanetSide 2 changed the game for SOE by shortening the cycle between the initial game announcement and its beta periods.
Then again, we’ve also been patiently waiting for any signs of life from EverQuest Next for most of the past year. Hopefully SOE Live next month will bring us good news in that department. Otherwise, as is typically the case once development of a triple-A MMO goes dark for an extended period, I won’t be too terribly surprised if we discover that EverQuest Next won’t be a reality for fans until 2016 or later.
Case Study #3: World of Darkness
If you hadn’t already guessed by the title of today’s Lifetap, the third and final title we’ll be looking at is World of Darkness. It represents exactly that type of scenario I cautioned against at the start of this article. The initial announcements got gamers very excited, though very limited information was provided beyond some basic ideas and concept art.
Mind you, in many ways the initial WoD announcement phase mirrored that of Guild Wars 2, only CCP lacked a preexisting franchise title to keep fans busy while the studio went dark.
But dark it went, and largely remained so for an extended period. While CCP would occasionally make an attempt to assure fans that development was moving forward, we were given little more than brief glimpses of a future that would never arrive. Given the eventual cancellation, there’s a good chance that an MMO based on the World of Darkness IP – if one ever does see the light of day – won’t become a reality until sometime closer to 2020 or beyond.
At this point, we’re more likely to see Troika reform to create the follow up to Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Considering that will probably never happen, all we can do at this point is dream about all that could have been when it comes to the WoD MMO.
Is Paid Early Access the Answer?
The Early Access program on Steam has had a rippling effect, and has begun filtering into the announcement / development / launch cycle of major MMO projects.
In some cases this has taken the form of paid alpha client access under the guise of founder’s programs and Kickstarter campaigns. Landmark, and the game with the never ending title, Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, are good examples here. SOE is also looking to test the Early Access waters further with H1Z1.
The concern here is that the needle has the potential to swing a bit too far in the opposite direction. While a level of exposure to an in-development MMO can be a good thing for managing expectations and keeping fans engaged, it can also expose a property to the fate of being written off by the gaming public long before completion once paid alpha access enters the picture. At best, you'll capture an audience early and begin generating revenue that can help projects avoid a fate similar to World of Darkness or The Agency, but at the expense of a potentially larger audience later on who are first exposed to a fully-featured triple-A offering rather than individual chunks in varying states of completion.
I would always default to wanting some form of consistent exposure to a title following its initial development announcement than face total darkness for an extended period. I'm sure there are plenty of marketing folks and industry analysts with lots of out-of-context charts and graphs proving conclusively that there is an optimal path to follow between that initial announcement and final product launch, but I would still argue that very few - if any - MMO developers and publishers have mastered it.