The numbers game...part II

Following on from the post earlier in the week, there was an important aspect of the discussion that was worthy of it's own topic and that is how numbers influence what people consider to be 'success' and 'failure' in the MMO space.

It was good to read some of the comments both here on the blog and over on Massively, who picked it up and sparked a good discussion there, and see that quite a few did actually have the common sense approach of 'if a game can still be run, and I like it, I am happy', but you did also see the type of assumptions that I wanted to discuss here. The assumptions about what is considered a 'success' or a 'failure' in the genre often hinge purely on a seemingly instinctual reaction to the numbers, or trends the numbers reveal.

The problem is that it doesn't take into account the entire context of any given project. Whether any Title that displays a numbers trend similar to another, can be deemed a success or a failure depends entirely on the budget, ambition and infrastructure of the project.

Now, before the wannabe bridge dwellers get offended, I need to be clear. I am not making excuses for games like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online at all, those games definitely did aspire to and wanted to emulate some (if not all) of the success of World of Warcraft. Those games, ours included, did indeed want to maintain a higher subscription level than they achieved, and did not succeed at establishing the numbers they wanted. Likewise some games will aspire to that again, Bioware's The Old Republic clearly falls into that category...however...I think the market is changing and the assumption that the kind of development that those games saw, high initial sales, a significant drop, eventually stabilizing lower, automatically equals a failure, is a very dangerous assumption to make.

Why do I say that?

Three reasons...first let's look at the market for the genre itself...

#1 -an evolving space...

The genre has evolved significantly in the last decade. Thanks to titles like World of Warcraft far more people are aware of, and comfortable with, an MMO service. That means that more people have access to the genre, which in turn means that there is an even more diverse set of preferences out there. If you extend that line of thinking you can then argue that it is natural that some games will have a wider appeal than others, but there should be space in the genre for both niche and mainstream titles. Thus those niche titles in the future might quite naturally follow the trend of high initial sales or distribution and then settle down into a lower subscription or membership without it being a failure, as people check it out, and those that like it stay around, and those that don't find the game to their taste move along.

When I say 'niche' it is important to note that still could be a multi-million dollar project. If a project is budgeted and aimed at that business model it can work and be a success without having to be a huge runaway success.

You see developers can't always control the word-of-mouth hype before release, so you could even see games attract more interest at their launch than even they planned for. That isn't meaning to discuss the pros and cons of how games are marketed, I am talking here about a more fundamental element of the MMO space that is emerging.

This newly emerging dynamic is based on the fact that this larger group of potential MMOers, with all their different play-style preferences, have an innate curiosity about new games...

...we try everything these days...

That curiosity of the users in the market means that they generally check out all the new games as the appear in the hope that this game is their next real gaming love. Not all of them are going to stay, but far more people than ever before 'check out' each and every new title that appears, fully expecting to not want to subscribe to all of them, depending on what they find.

Even personally, I have bought probably seven or eight MMO title at retail over the last two years, and aside from professional curiosity, only two of them have tempted me to subscribe beyond the first included month. I think this is much more common these days, in particular when you consider the vast majority of dedicated MMO players only maintain one (maybe two) subscriptions.

So if you take that as a valid factor - is it then a failure if a title budgeted and aimed for say 100,000 or 200,000 subscribers, but sold four times that at launch due to that kind of curious interest, ends up where it first estimated it would?

Such a game would still demonstrate the same external signs 'High early volume, stabilizing lower' but, if it was budgeted correctly, would be highly successful for the developer. Likewise is it wrong for that to be the actual target? If we accept the above as having some truth to it, then a studio shouldn't be blamed for budgeting accordingly, knowing they are going to get that 'curious about the new thing' crowd, and try to keep a few more of them even knowing a lot of the initial traffic will die down. It could be a major challenge for them to do that without talking about numbers and being branded a 'failure' if we only go on the current assumptions.

#2 - The changing business models...

...some of this may actually end up being a completely moot discussion. If the genre continues to move to a hybrid free to play model, where user have free access to large portions of a game, and never stop being 'players' even if they don't pay as often. That means while subscription will still be an important element, the games will see a higher 'throughput' of users than if they were purely subscription based. That means numbers will be less important to the external view of success or failure...

#3 - Scope and ambition...

To me it should be ok for a developer to account for all this and actually aim for that kind of a trend. That is to say they expect to not appeal to everyone who tries their game at the start.

These games are expensive challenging enterprises to build and launch, and not everyone should have to be judged by the same standard as the industry leader. I really hope that in the future other smaller, or more, niche titles can survive and thrive without having to constantly talk about, and be compared to a cultural phenomenon like World of Warcraft, without being branded a failure for not repeating their success.

..of course if you aspire to do so, and tell the world you aspire to...well, then, all bets are off and that is what you will be judged by! Saying you will challenge Blizzards MMO behemoth might make for a good (and brave) marketing sound-bite, but it does mean you will not be able to avoid being judged by those standards.

In closing...

Personally I think it should be ok for a developer to be proud of their game, talk positively about it features, and get people excited without it having to be in the context of 'beating WoW'. There is plenty of space for other games, even those who display the same numbers trend of previous 'failures', to still be very good, and very successful games, both from a critical and business point of view.

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