What Classifies A MMO As Successful?

A few months ago at a Media and Telecom Conference in New York Take-Two Interactive’s Chairman Strauss Zelnick commented on how they are pursuing online gaming and MMOs they just aren’t doing it in the US because MMOs don’t work here. To put some context on this Take-Two is known for games like Grand Theft Auto, BioShock, and Red Dead Redemption, so they aren’t exactly slouches when it comes to video games. I’ve had some time to really mull over my thoughts and feelings on this topic, so here is a consolidation of the most important points.

This is his exact quote:

We’re actively investing in online and MMOs, we’re just not doing it in the U.S. MMOs don’t work here. A couple of our competitors have found out that through very, very expensive lessons… at any given time 10 to 20 are successful in China and generating revenue.

There are a few weird things going on with this statement. The first and obvious question, why is he only thinking about the US and Chinese markets? I don’t know about everyone else but I sure know a lot of European and Canadian people who play MMOs, not to mention all the South Koreans who are also part of the larger Asian market. Maybe he just overlooked the rest of the MMO gaming world and happened to mention just the US and China. I really hope he didn’t intend to lump all the Asian countries in with China, and I REALLY hope he wasn’t intending to lump the rest of the world in with the US.

To support his claim Zelnick followed up by saying “How many MMOs have been successful in the U.S.? Two. World of Warcraft and EverQuest.” Now there is no arguing Everquest and World of Warcraft definitely are examples of successful games, but they certainly aren’t the only two. Eve Online is not only a successful subscription MMO but it also has been consistently growing throughout it’s lifespan (something WoW actually can’t claim). Another very successful subscription game is Ultima Online, and these are just two examples off the top of my head.

Additionally if you consider the fact he picked two sub based games it seems like for him the definition of success is having a sustaining and profitable subscription model. That’s a perfectly fine way to model success. It makes it even stranger he wouldn’t include Eve Online if that is his measure of success. It boggles my mind to consider how anyone can consider Eve Online to be anything but a success.

However, if that’s how he wants to define success then his choice of using China as an example of where MMOs are more often successful is really strange because the dominant model for MMOs in China is free to play. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges, especially when there are certainly more than two successful US MMOs if we include free to play and buy to play games.

Which brings us to the whole debate about how to judge the success of MMOs. With games like Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic transitioned to free to play models does that automatically make them failures? Reportedly SWTOR has been doing better now after the addition of f2p than it was before, so it could be viewed as a success. However, the fact they had to change their model definitely can be argued as a failure. The same thing goes for Rift. Ever since they transitioned over the game has been booming, but I can see the argument for having to change at all being a failure. I am still not sure I would class either as a failure overall though.

If you start looking at free to play or buy to play games it can get even harder to tell what a success is since you can’t go off sub numbers. Guild Wars 2┬áhas said a few times their gem store sales more than cover their costs and they have the most aggressive content schedule in MMOs currently. It’s really hard to see how GW2 isn’t a success. We are almost a year after the launch and they are doing so well they are focusing on giving content away instead of focusing on paid expansions.

In an interview with Massively Scott Hartsman (former Trion GM and CCO) talked about how the current business model for AAA MMOs is fundamentally broken and part of the reason is the development costs has risen exponentially over the last few years. While it might sound like a good thing companies are putting more money into MMOs, it puts greater strain on companies because it narrows the margin of error. We have gone from a model where a company could make mistakes and still have some room to cover.

In addition to the rise in costs player expectations have also drastically risen. It used to be a company could make a few mistakes but they could then learn from them and fix the mistakes and gamers would stick with them. Now it seems like as soon as a MMO has an issue a certain segment of players is out, and will go play something else. It’s not necessarily a bad thing gamers want more for their money, but it is another factor putting increased strain on game developers.

There is also something to be said for developers just not really being in touch with the MMO market as a whole. One example of devs being out of touch with the MMO community is SWTOR devs never expected people to play in one sitting for more than 3-4 hours at a time. I remember having a conversation with Cory Butler, Bioware Live Producer, at Pax East 2012 about that and being absolutely astonished. Even super casual players will have play times longer than that from time to time, and not being aware of something like that when you are making a MMO is a huge oversight.

It doesn’t end there either. Just in my general observations of MMOs in the last few years the standard life cyle is, a new MMO launches and tons of people buy it and start playing. Then a month or so later some percentage of players stop playing. Then the publisher sort of panics because for some reason they assumed it would just be clear sailing with no bumps in the road. Whereas, at least to me, it seems like they should plan for the drop off and have the ultimate goal to slowly grow the MMO over years. Instead it often feels like publishers just look at MMOs as quick money (after they launch) and if it doesn’t blow everything else out of the water they decide to abandon ship.

Personally I think the real measure of success should be if a game grows over time and if it is making enough to sustain itself. I get the argument about if a game lives up to expectations or not, but with publishers being so out of touch it seems a silly measure to go by. That goes double for living up to consumer’s expectations as well.