Updated Fri, Jan 02, 2009 by Shayalyn
The Downfall of a MMOG
A recent discussion thread on the Vanguard Forums asked which massively-multiplayer online game (MMOG) people were the most disappointed to see fail.
The thread had me thinking wistfully about the golden age of EverQuest, when EQ, along with Asheron's Call and Ultima Online, introduced the fantasy worlds of the massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) for the first time. EverQuest, I'm sure, seemed unstoppable. I doubt that many of us who played beginning with beta testing or launch ever dreamed that, even though Norrath might live on, our avatars might not. I know that I didn't anticipate graduating from the Plane of Time to the Plane of Disappointment!
What happened? Though games such as EQ, Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC), and Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) continued, why have so many of us left the worlds to which we dedicated so much of our recreational time? What causes the decline and even end of these games?
I think there are several answers, both from a technical perspective and from that of the "hobbyist" gamer-the one who plays online games as a hobby. In his GameDev.net article, "MMOG Considerations," ,Richard Fine wrote that "the costs and business details are what most frequently cause hobbyist MMO projects to fail." Games that aren't "continually revised and updated tend to lose player interest," he wrote, "so how will you go about developing new content for the game?"
Vision. The answer, of course, is usually through expansion packs; and yet many a gamer would agree that when expansions take the game farther away from its original goal or vision than the game designers intended, a compromised player base is the result. EverQuest, for example, took its subscribers through several expansions to the Plane of Time, where we fought the gods in 100-person raids. That expansion was followed by several that reduced our raid numbers substantially. We had huge guilds which then could only use a fraction of our raiding forces to master new content. Many were not happy.
Besides vision implemented consistently through expansion packs, players also want depth in our games. We want a game in which empires and kingdoms are in conflict, and the player character chooses a side, thereby pitting himself against an enemy. Serious gamers, as opposed to the casual sort, want races that are true to themselves: dark elves that are evil; half-elves who are rebellious, and Halflings who are peaceable, gentle folk who do not venture out of their home environs without very good reason. It is up to the game designers and writers to provide that good reason, because we want a fantasy world of epic proportions, where the deeds of a holy paladin as well as those of the treacherous rogue may very well change the course of destiny.
Technical Issues. In his article, Fine also points out that technical issues, such as server maintenance and connectivity have foundational importance to the MMOG. So when a game promises lore and immersion but instead delivers a flawed, buggy, laggy game that lacks not only depth, but a story-line, I feel disillusioned. I want more than a time sink, more than hack-and-slash campaigns that amount to no more than a glorified experience grind. A dungeon should actually be a dungeon: dark, scary, dangerous, and one in which we can nearly smell the reek of mold and decay.
This brings me to what I believe is one of the biggest causes of post-release game failure, which is not delivering what was promised. EverQuest 2, for example, did promise a "balance" among the priest classes before the game's launch, with the cleric, shaman, and druid having equal healing abilities. Those who rolled priests expected that, from the outset, the cleric would no longer be the goddess of healing. Instead, the shaman and druid would proudly stand as equals. Those of us who tried out different priest classes felt that they probably were balanced, at first. However, after a time it became clear that the cleric was still the preeminent healer. Thirteen updates later, the EverQuest 2 developers finally "balanced" the game, delivering what was received as a gigantic nerf to several classes who, it had been determined, were too powerful for their own good.
That type of decision just isn't good for morale among the player base. It delivers the message that someone in the corporate world cared more about the bottom line than the loyal gamers who would ultimately support the bottom line. They released the game too soon, they released it unfinished, and they, in effect, beta tested the game after release. Sadly, it isn't just EQ2 that fell prey to this type of after-the-fact development. Judging from the Vanguard forums, which are full of disappointed players from a string of MMORPGs, most of the major MMOG publishers have made similar mistakes from the gamer perspective.
It's also not enough to have passionate developers or game designers who believe in their product; the deep pockets behind a project, too, must be loyal to the original design and be supportive of those designers and producers who actually play the final product themselves. People who play these games are in the best position to know what will keep them playing. Today, of the 35 active MMOG's, only eight or so have more than 50,000 subscribers, and the vast majority (85%) of all MMOGs are in the fantasy genre, according to Bruce Sterling Woodcock of MMOG Chart . One would think that common sense, combined with the bottom line, would tell game producers that their best chance of success is through the fantasy game genre, and that they are going to have to produce something better than World of Warcraft, the West's current MMOG leader with over 2 million subscribers, or 22% of the western MMOG market. MMOG leaders of the east include Lineage, Lineage 2 and Ragnarok Online, with over five million subscribers worldwide and 45% of the MMOG market, according to Woodcock.
Until sometime around mid-2001, the MMOG world was pretty much dominated by Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call. Around then, Ultima Online began to lose subscribers and the exponential growth of EverQuest and Asheron's Call slowed dramatically. Since new MMOGs, such as Anarchy Online and Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) began beta testing about this time, it's a pretty sure guess that faithful UO, EQ, and even AC players were probably beta testing the newer MMOGs and considering changing games. Maybe finding the ultimate MMOG is a quest in itself, because it doesn't seem uncommon to meet dedicated gamers who have beta tested a variety of different MMOGs.
At any rate, Dark Age of Camelot was a huge success. As Bruce Woodcock noted, "If you extrapolate the previous trends of EQ and UO, you see that EQ should have had some 550,000 subscribers by June of 2002 and UO nearing 300,000. That's approximately 200,000 subscribers "missing" from those games... so where are they? In the 200,000 playing DAoC, I would wager. This is the first indication that the fantasy MMORPG market is becoming saturated. While the total customer base of MMORPGs did continue to grow, Dark Age of Camelot was not itself the cause of this; it simply diverted the growth that would have gone to other games."
Statistically, it's clear that the overall size of the MMOG market has continued to grow, while becoming more competitive at the same time. EverQuest, Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and Asheron's Call have had no substantial growth to speak of in the past few years. Some games, such as Majestic and Earth and Beyond, were shut down. Most recently, EverQuest 2 and World of Warcraft were released in 2004. WoW has grown to be the West's largest game, with subscribers totaling over 2 million. EverQuest 2, while boasting of a dedicated subscriber base, has had less success than anticipated, holding firm at about 250,000 subscribers, compared with the half a million remaining EverQuest subscribers.
MMOG Chart ( http://www.mmogchart.com ) reported that 28 MMOGs were slated for release in 2005 and 2006. These games will compete for monthly subscribers, and many of those subscribers will include people who read (and write for!) gaming sites like Vanguard: Ten Ton Hammer. While we're all looking forward to what Vanguard promises, we ought also to look back at what has led to the stagnation or even downfall of other MMOGs. Most of us can only devote ourselves to one MMORPG at a time. Which one will it be? My answer is: The one that can deliver what was promised in a streamlined, fun-to-play game with depth and lore and a logical, yet magical, story line that knocks my socks off!