The Death of an MMO
The death of an MMO, has a nice, but sad ring to it don’t you think? When I think about those two terms together, namely ‘MMO’ (massive multiplayer online) and ‘death’, I remember the many wasted Pounds I have spent on what seemed like a promising MMO game. That promising MMO then turned out to fall short of people’s (and my own) expectations and most of which required monthly payments to keep playing, obviously I wouldn’t be wasting any more of my precious money on these disappointing MMOs. I wouldn’t be the only one not to do this, leading to yet another ‘death of an MMO’. But, worry not, not all MMOs die a slow and painful death, some get revived and improved as a free-to-play and freemium incarnations, others actually manage to improve and slowly gain success. A select few MMOs start with a small player base and slowly expand while always adding content and improving their game. The purpose of this article is to just reminisce on the many MMOs that have come and gone, the ones that have made it and the ones that have utterly failed.
Just to clarify the various terminology used with MMO games. You have ‘pay-to-play’, this can mean you can register free and download it for free and then just pay monthly to play it or buy the game and pay monthly to play it. There is also ‘pay-once’ MMOs, this means you just have to pay initially to buy the game but afterwards you can play as much as you want. Then there is ‘free-to-play’ (F2P), this means you can play the game as much as you want for free but there will be certain content or bonuses available for purchase with real money. Lastly, there is ‘freemium’, this means you can play for free, but with certain restrictions and an optional monthly premium service is offered that then either removes restrictions and/or offers special bonuses. Though important to note that people often will refer to freemium games as F2P.
The achievement of Star Wars The Old Republic launch
My main motivation for writing this article is the recent death of the long running ‘Star Wars Galaxies’ (SWG), though obviously there is little room for two Star Wars MMO games now with the recent release of ‘Star Wars The Old Republic’ (SWTOR). However, some might be surprised to hear that SWTOR’s release is not the cause of SWG’ demise. SWG was in fact already dying for a long time, while the full official subscriber numbers ware not known; the game was released in 2003 and had sold 1 million boxed copies by 2005, yet subscriber numbers are confirmed to have never reached 1 million and are estimated to have been under 500 000. Clearly, the game was under performing as developers released two major updates to the game; each of which only alienated its existing customer base, leading to an ever decreasing number of active subscribers. This can be seen in the trend of server closures that followed the two major updates. SWG shut down on 15 December 2011. While many still debate how good or bad SWG is compared to SWTOR, the death of SWG doesn’t quite help those debating about how much better SWG might have ever been than SWTOR. Especially considering that SWTOR has more than 1.7 million active subscribers and has sold over 2 million copies already (SWTOR was released on 20th December 2011; these figures are from 1st of February 2012).
Probably one of the worst MMO launches to date though is without a doubt, APB (All Points Bulletin). The game was released on 29th of June 2010; it shut down only two weeks after launch. Without offering any proper reimbursement (a few lucky people managed to get a free game from EA). The game was then re-launched as a free-to-play title, while little was changed with the game. It was simply offered as a free-to-play game by another company that acquired the title from the defunct developers of APB, namely Realtime Worlds. But to the disappointment to those who had purchased and pre-ordered the original APB, no benefits or bonuses are given to us (yes, sadly I too made the mistake of pre-ordering APB). The new APB free-to-play game is called APB: Reloaded. While APB took a strange route to become a free-to-play title, most other MMOs have a somewhat different route to becoming free-to-play.
Yes... Indeed you do...
While there are some MMOs that launch as a F2P game, most of today’s F2P and freemium MMO games were actually launched as a traditional ‘buy the game and then subscribe’ format. Some MMOs become free-to-play due to a bad launch and weak follow-up to launch, causing many players to never subscribe past the included subscription time, or simply subscribe for a few months and then find a lack of content and thus cancel their subscription. All of which lead to the developers having to come up with new methods of gaining more players and this usually means developing their game into a F2P title. If they are smart they will usually offer their existing subscribers certain benefits to keep them subscribed or to keep them playing the game. There are also other MMOs that never truly met great success but also did not fail either, but simply find that after being out for a year or more they can’t maintain their game with the subscriber figures they have, thus requiring their game to be remade into a F2P game.
There are plenty of examples of MMOs that simply had a bad to awful launch, such as Star Trek Online and Age of Conan. These, as a result, had poor subscriber figures from launch already and were forced to become F2P eventually, with Star Trek Online just recently having been launched as a freemium game. Then there are others like Champions Online, City of Heroes/Villains, Lord of the Rings Online and Pirates of the Burning Sea that simply failed to reach ‘critical mass’ so to speak. These titles might have had a decent launch but due to various factors about the game, its content and its gameplay, simply could not keep high enough subscriber figures and as a result eventually had to turn F2P.
High flying, yet empty skies.
Getting back to the topic of shut down MMOs, ever since World of Warcraft came along and showed everyone how prosperous a good MMO can be (World of Warcraft peaked at 14 million active subscribers!), too many developers and publishers suddenly thought they could do the same without fully understanding how World of Warcaft pulled it off. Due to these misconceptions about MMOs being a guaranteed cash cow, too many developers and publishers released poor quality and rushed MMOs, that either lacked proper quality content to begin with, or lacked post-launch support to keep the existing players subscribed. Furthermore, too many MMO developers failed to learn from previous MMO launches, meaning that they would simply repeat the same mistakes at launch as every MMO that came before and after. Worse yet, some developers repeated this mistake multiple times! Such as Cryptic, they made three MMO titles, namely City of Heroes, Champions Online and Star Trek Online. All of these titles suffered from extremely poor launches, with frequent server disconnects due to lack of sufficient servers and/or programming for the high number of players an MMO has at launch. Considering how many launch issues so many different MMOs have had, there is no excuse for a new MMO to not have learnt from all previous MMO launches and make preparations for this. It was only now, finally, that BioWare came along with SWTOR and managed to pull off a near perfect launch after having carefully prepared for each and every launch issue that previous big MMO launches have had. This is how every single MMO developer should have done it, but for some reason they did not. Worse yet, is in the case of games like Star Trek Online, they had massive issues with servers during the closed and open beta tests, yet they did not fix nor delay their game before launch. They just foolishly launched the game as if it was ready to go, well hey, it does not work that way and indeed, they had to turn Star Trek Online into a F2P game now.
Cryptic and many other MMO developers can consider themselves lucky to manage to survive enough to then launch their game as a F2P game, and see it become more successful again in its F2P format. Many MMOs had such poor launches and poor post-launch support, or simply poor marketing, that they simply had to shut down entirely without the chance of becoming F2P. Examples include, Tabula Rasa, which suffered a very weak marketing campaign. Matrix Online which was pretty good, but suffered from repetitive content. Though not all MMOs that had some of the issues listed above became F2P or got shut down, some keep trying to hang on by a very thin thread, in the hopes of somehow improving the game enough to build up a solid player base. One of the best examples of this is ‘Vanguard: Saga of Heroes’, Vanguard refuses to die; the game probably had one of the worst launches in MMO history, being empty from day 1 (I have never seen such a ghost world on launch day of an MMO before). Yet, the game still is full on pay-to-play and surprisingly is still hanging in there (though with only two total servers now, one for EU, one for US) and the last game update being back in August 2011.
Memories like these are what make the loss of an MMO feel so dearly
It does not all have to be such doom and gloom in the MMO scene, while many of these MMOs that have now become free-to-play have also become a far superior game than it ever was at launch, thus having a lot of potential to actually still meet some form of success. There are still a select few MMO launches that show the gaming world how it has to be done. Like I mentioned earlier, SWTOR has met great success so far through being well prepared and by carefully avoiding the many mistakes of all previous MMO launches. Other MMOs like ‘EVE Online’ did not launch with massive success, but instead took the long, slow, road to the success it has now. EVE developers, CCP Games, did so by persistently adding more content and updates since launch on a regular basis. The game launched in 2003 and the next big content update is already on its way again, these updates have included some pretty massive changes to the game including entirely new graphics engines, entirely new ship classes and an ever expanding of social, economical and gameplay features within the game. Because of all of this, CCP had in January 2011 more than 360 000 subscribers.
Hopefully more MMO developers will learn the lessons from previous MMOs, so that we get more quality MMO games and no more APB 2 weeks of uptime before being shut down... MMOs are very different and far more difficult to develop than a normal game, a lot more money will usually be required (around 200 million was used for development budget alone of SWTOR) and a solid launch plan has to be in place. The Cryptic attitude of just putting it out there really does not work, yet they persist on doing it time and time again. Furthermore, long-term content plans must also be in place, as World of Warcraft, SWTOR and EVE Online all show us; it is constant and frequent addition of new content and features that keep existing subscribers subscribed and bring in new players to the game. It is also important not to rush an MMO’s development, the game must be well polished with near to no bugs in it, well balanced and well designed. As Star Wars Galaxies shows us, the foundation of the game is everything and if they do launch with a poor foundation, developers can only attempt to improve it as changing it will only kill the game faster.
Posted 20-12-2012, 13:51
Well I just don't like the fact Cryptic keeps making the same mistakes repeatedly. I wonder if the company has ANY learning ability at all! I am not alone on this, each beta of their new game (and I've been in pretty much all their MMO betas) has the same issues and they make the same mistake on the forums by not listening to feedback and deleting any negative constructive feedback. On top of this, they keep repeating other mistakes in both game design and server issues at launch and still refuse to listen to feedback. Secret World could still succeed though, not every MMO launches with massive success but some build success over time. EVE Online is perhaps the best example of this.
While STO now is indeed a lot more fun and I totally agree, their F2P model is really great, it still has some of the same identical issues it had at launch and they even removed features that the community loved in general.
Posted 19-12-2012, 17:50
You harp on Cryptic a lot, yet STO took two full years to go F2P and without that man restrictions. Hell, I played STO more than any other MMO. I turned on SWTOR 3-5 times and most of time played was in one 9 hour play through. Launch or no, SWTOR take very little risks with gameplay and it looks very WoWan. Or, to remember the pirate days of our youth, very Lineage. You use lighsabers to kill space boars. While in the STO you mostly blow up space ships. And this uses an extremely fun control model (ground parts do suck, tho). But! Before we harp about the lack of new stuff, Secret World creators admit that the game wasn't mainstream enough to succeed. I think it lacks a decent combat scheme, but meh.
Posted 18-12-2012, 21:37
I'm not impressed by their Free model, just like the game itself, it has too many restrictions. Which also I felt like was an issue in the game. In-game currency got used up too fast and too easily with some pretty silly stuff. Like a speeder is dirt-cheap, yet the training to use a speeder was a ton of money. Which doesn't make sense as in real life, training to drive a car, boat, plane, anything... is actually extremely cheap. While the car, boat, plane itself is very expensive. There was also a lack of customisation to a degree and then only added a larger variety of lightsaber colour crystal much later into launch. I still regret that they stuck to the classic server system though. As it made it impossible to play with friends.
Posted 17-12-2012, 23:25
MMO Players do expect too much since WoW has been on the market for so long and has had so much added to it. New MMOs often have trouble keeping players interested for long since they often lack content at launch.
But i think the biggest mistake Bioware made while developing SWTOR was not taking enough risks to change up the genre. Granted, their style of story telling added a lot to the game and made me feel like i was actually progressing towards something other than the level cap. But everything else was "been here, done that."
It was sad to see that they had to go free to play in less that a year. But what is worse is how they're handling it
Posted 17-12-2012, 19:33
Money isn't everything though. Often big money can lead to big rushed developments, look at Call of Duty as an example of this, massive budgets but rushed 2-year developments and we end up with the unpolished crap that is Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops II. A big part of it is just understanding the issues and being aware of what has come to pass in the past, BioWare clearly carefully studied each and significant past MMO launch and tried their best to come up with solutions for it. Though in the end I think SWTOR would have benefited greatly from a different server system, in the long run the separate servers really messed up their game's activity. A lot of people also complained a lot about end-game content, but to be fair I think MMO players are expecting too much nowadays. Blizzard didn't add proper new content till months into release, they mostly focused on fixing and improving at first. Once that was done, then they just kept the content coming steadily.
Posted 17-12-2012, 15:24
I think one of the factors that also helped Bioware successfully launch SWOTR was the massive amount of support they received from EA, especially financially. Knowing that it was a known license, EA was able to pump massive amounts of money into it, which helps with the polish and especially the marketing. SWOTR also limited the amount of players at launch to help with stability.
Aside from WoW and SWOTR most people are only really familiar with maybe Guild Wars 2, which also received a huge marketing push and budget (financially and time wise). Obviously good developers can work around this, but when building a game as expansive and risky as an MMO a good financial backer helps with a lot of the growing pains.