I very often see long mournful faces gathered around a mournful CEO as yet another MMO was closed for cash-flow problems. Equally so, I often see angry players complain that whatever game they’re playing is advancing in areas that they have no interest or appreciation for, such as a bunch of those F2P Korean grindfests that people play because, well, they’re free.These sort of things embody what’s wrong with the MMO game market – not design, balance, subscription model, sharding approach, or what-have-you. What’s missing is focus on what a game’s all about – having fun, or, more precisely, caring about having fun.

Here’s a thought: I’ve never heard of an MMO closed because it wasn’t fun. As long as people show up for a F2P grindfest and buy powerups at the cash shop, that game will keep on going no matter how miserable the experience.

I’ve seen many closed that were fun, but not meeting cash flow requirements. City of Heroes and Tabula Rosa are just two among many; games that people adored, but weren’t given the chance to get traction, or find its feet after changing to F2P, or whatever other transitions it just weathered1.

Let’s be clear – there’s a line between "a gigantic money pit" and "not as profitable as WoW."  On the side of the former, well, yeah, you’ve got to close out a game that’s bleeding cash, especially if you’ve done all you can to keep it going.

But that’s not always what happens. Often a game is doing badly, but adjusting expectations downward, adjusting the schedule – horrors, adjusting the workforce! – often these things can take a bleeding property into moderate profitability. 

"Moderate profitability" is of course opposite of what the CEO was pitching to the money men last year – he was probably pitching "dirty stinking rich" – so the money men – the CFO especially – are questioning whether it’s valid to keep the game open.

But the one thing they almost never ask is whether the people that play it think it’s worth saving.  Or if they have fun when they play it.  And that’s a shame.

The Flip Side

In a moment of serendipity, Lonomonkey at Screaming Monkeys is having similar thoughts, but he’s focusing on the responsibility of players to reward those those games worth saving. In his case, he’s looking at The Secret World, which is indeed in dire straits because of what I think are premature expectations of success.  Lono figures people aren’t coming to it because they’re hung up on sword-and-board fantasy settings, which TSW is assuredly not.

I mentioned premature expectations; a lot of people, including people at Funcom, had pie in the sky expectations that this game would take off right away.  I looked at it, and it looks fun. But it will take time to get traction because it’s not easy to gauge a game without a common frame of reference, and this one doesn’t have one2.

Quite honestly, this game is going to need a few months, maybe a quarter, to get enough traction to even keep the servers paid for.  Funcom did a disservice to everyone by giving false expectations there.  They should have seen this learning curve on the gaming world’s part coming a mile away. Hell, they have the poster child for this sort of thing in the form of Anarchy Online.  It also faced indirect competition against EQ, and it took going F2P and a couple of years before the system was really self-sustaining. 

But it was worth it.

For the regular denizens of Rubi-ka, it was well worth it. AO’s Rogue-like personal instances, it’s shifting warfront, its wide open spaces, etc. The designers had a game they believed in, they convinced the suits to hang in there, and they’ve kept that thing running for more than a decade as a result.  The players came as the bugs were ironed out, the servers were stabilized, and things were fleshed out.

Imagine if WoW had gotten the short shrift that some of these other games are getting.  WoW 1.0.0 was a mess, about as stable as a cab driver stuck behind two old men in a 1977 Buick Skylark. But people loved the game, the lore, the spirit. They had fun playing it, when it stayed up, and the developers wanted people to have fun playing it, so WoW got a chance. Oh, I realize that Blizzard had deeper pockets than anyone else at the time, but in today’s environment, such an unstable game, even from Blizz, would be in jeopardy3.

First things First

Even in my most cynical moments, I believe people like Greg Street when he says that they’re trying to find ways to play the game that are "more fun."  They know that fun games bring in people, and those people bring money. But they prioritize the fun first, not the monies.

Contrast with such cynical properties as Zynga4. They don’t care about fun or innovation. They care about clicks, and keeping people busy.  This is not a guess. The CEO has said this on many occasions.  Such companies don’t deserve to be called "game companies" in my opinion. They aren’t interested in making games. They are interested in prying money out of your wallet, and the game is the tool they use to pry with.

A Challenger Appears

Lono got rebuked by Tobold over the post I referenced earlier, claiming that TSW’s problems were that it was a bad game, not that it wasn’t receiving the support of the people that loved it. Or more to the point, it wasn’t receiving support because it was a bad game.  To Tobold, the innvation of the story, environment, and genre were insignificant compared to the technical shortcomings. Need I point out that this is another Funcom property, and we’re all pretty well aware that Funcom may not get the technical aspects right on the first try, but that they do eventually clean it up.

Now, nobody needs to tell this to Tobold. He’s been around the industry long enough to know this. But he chooses to interpret things differently5.  Maybe he’s one of those people that still holds a grudge over the AO launch fiasco. I don’t know. But what is apparent is that he’s chosen to judge this game on the technical aspect rather than the part that matters in good game design – the core concept behind it. 

The rest of that technical stuff is a solvable puzzle.  Software has bugs. Balance issue happen. That sort of thing. This is all just the technical frosting on the core design cake.

The core design – that’s for life. Get that wrong, and it’s all over. Get it right, and a passionate playerbase will sustain you for years.

"Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes down to the bone." – some guy


  1. Well, to be fair, it’s been over a year since CoH went F2P, but it doesn’t seem like it! []
  2. BoingBoing’s obsession aside, the majority of the gaming world is not in love with Lovecraftian horror fantasy.  Though they might learn to like it given time. C wut I did thar? []
  3. I’m looking at STWOR here. Big studio. Bit distro. Big release. Unfortunate issues. Outlook uncertain. []
  4. No link. I’m not an enabler. []
  5. There are many reasons he’s no longer in my blogroll. This deliberate obtusnes of his is one of them. []
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