I’m something of a collector of failed MMORPGs. Every since my addiction began with World of Warcraft it seemed I was forever doomed to roam the genre in search of that same feeling that World of Warcraft inspired in me. Let’s just say that in my travels I’ve seen nearly everything, from inventive PvP systems to epic grinds that required almost more time than I had invested in World of Warcraft just to reach the end game content. Over time I’ve started to notice the patterns of what causes some MMORPGs to carry on whilst others struggle to keep their users just months after release. The answer is quite simple but it seems some academics might have a different idea.
Take Ramin Shokrizade, a self proclaimed virtual economy expert who’s latest piece takes aim at Star Wars: The Old Republic’s decision to convert their MMORPG into a free to play model in order to try and get people back into the game. Whilst he does make some good points regarding how TOR felt like a massively single player game (as the campaign was arguably the best thing about it, even though it was a lot more fun to do with friends) the main point of his article, that the monetization strategy was the primary cause for failure, is ultimately only a side issue to the bigger issues at hand.
Shokrizade makes the point that the value players generated, judged by looking at auction house prices and the cost of purchasing credits from real money trading sites, decreased rapidly over the first month. He lays the blame for this specific decline at an instance reset exploit that allowed users to generate quite a lot of credits and whilst this might be a factor in the decline his analysis also fails to include the fact that in any new MMORPG in game currency attracts a high premium at the beginning, usually due to the fact that there isn’t that much of it in circulation. Indeed if you tracked the same statistic for other virtual worlds you would see identical declines as the currency generating capacity of the wider player base and the gold farmers increased significantly. This is not a new phenomena as I’ve seen it happen in nearly every MMO that I’ve played to date.
He also makes the mistake of saying that “As combat in SWTOR was balanced for PvE, PvP combat balance was never attainable”. Nearly all MMORPGs tend to focus on one of these two aspects in order to attract players to the game. SW:TOR focused heavily on the PvE aspect as that’s where BioWare’s strengths are and indeed by all accounts they succeeded at doing so. Whilst the PvP wasn’t as balanced in the beginning saying that because of the PvE focus PvP balance was unattainable is laughable as balance is an ongoing process that evolves with the game. Indeed when I left the PvP balance was far better due to the 50 only arenas, more people having better gear and vast improvements in game code to make the world PvP areas much more playable. The items were comparable to their PvE counterparts however they had PvP stats on them which meant for guilds who were tackling high end content on the hardest difficulties they were unfortunately useless as you couldn’t achieve the stats required.
However Shokrizade’s biggest blunder is when he lays blame at SW:TOR’s monetization scheme for its current troubles. He posits that the unlimited model, the one where you pay a monthly fee and get access to the entire game, encourages people to pay through all the content as fast as possible before dropping it for the next game. Now whilst I won’t discount the fact that there were many a hardcore friend of mine who took time off work to reach level 50 in the space of 4 days or so this was by far not the norm with many players taking at least a month to reach max level (I would know this, I was among them). Even then those who did reach max level would usually roll another character straight afterwards to level with the others who were still catching up mostly because the single player lines for each archetype are unique. He then goes on to peddle his ideal solution and then decries that the monetization scheme is the ultimate factor in deciding a MMORPGs success.
This is as far from the truth I’ve seen anyone get. Anyone who’s played MMORPGs knows that there’s one thing and one thing only that decides whether a game in this genre will be successful or not. That thing is the content.
Of all the failed MMORPGs I’ve played over the years the reason that they struggled can always be tracked back to problems with content. Age of Conan is probably the best example I can think of as it promised a large world, shaped by your actions, with content all the way up to a staggering level 80. This would have been all well and good except the fact that once you hit level 50 there wasn’t any content to speak of until level 80. Warhammer Online had the same issue as people quickly tired of the warzones and many servers locked themselves in a stalemate for the end game PvP, leaving them to turn away. Indeed the biggest problem that SW:TOR had was the fact that the end game content was just so gosh darn accessible, meaning that within the first month or two anyone could see the entire game if they were so inclined.
This was the exact reason why so many people decided to leave SW:TOR when they did. My guild mates and I managed to blast through all the end game raids in just under a week once we were all level 50 thanks to the normal level of difficulty which made the encounters quite easy by end game standards. After that point it’s hard to motivate people to redo content they’ve done before especially when the rewards are only incremental upgrades. Then the only thing left is to grind PvP or flash points in order to get better gear and only the hardcore will keep on doing that after a month or so.
So why does Shokrizade believe that monetization, above all else, is the key to MMORPG success? At the risk of stumbling into ad-hominem territory the reason seems pretty obvious: he’s a self proclaimed expert on virtual economies even though his only experience in economics comes from playing EVE Online (and I’m struggling to verify his claims of leading a 5000 strong corporation in there). It’s then prudent to take what he says with a grain of salt as he has a vested interest in saying things like this, even if they don’t gel so well with reality.
MMORPGs are hard things to create and maintain and it’s a testament to companies like Blizzard and BioWare who’ve managed to actually release one and not go bankrupt in the process. Whilst SW:TOR might be struggling to keep people going so are nearly all MMORPGs, even the mighty World of Warcraft is back to 2008 subscription numbers (is their monetization strategy the problem, Shokrizade?) and that shows just how hard it can be to get people coming back time and time again. The one secret though is the content and there is no doubt that Blizzard has mastered that art and for all it’s successes with the campaign missions BioWare unfortunately missed the mark and they’re paying the price for it now.