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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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25 comments

Waldgeist said...

I fully agree with the points you raised, but sadly there is a strong tendency in the press, to make any upcoming MMO the "next WoW Killer", no matter what the developers budgeted or aimed for.

We had the same happening to Age of Conan. Erling clearly stated in many interviews, that it was, while of course aiming for a high subscription number, not even remotely planned to aim for WoW success or level of subscription numbers. He said himself, that we would maybe cut a splinter out of WoWs shin.

The press completely ignored that and after launch, when the subscription numbers were dropping and we were still at 400k+ subs, they said "ha, now see, they failed epicly to become the next wow, we told you so.. serves your right Funcom for having such high ambitions". When we clearly stated we weren't aiming that high.

I hope that the press realizes what you just summarized above and stops trying to hype and kill at will, just based on THEIR own impression of how high the numbers have to go, for an MMO to be a success for a certain developer.

Landsman said...

I agree and disagree. I think the developers (or at least their marketing people) are usually the ones to blame for the lofty expectations.

I do agree though that both I am my friends usually do now try all the major MMO releases on the off chance one of them might interest us, so your point about the curiosity of the modern MMO audience is probably valid.

DeanW said...

The expectations have to change. I think that bitter, cynical, MMO burnouts dictate too much of the 'press' and they have lost sight of the joy people get form being part of a virtual world, especially for the first time. In our current consumption culture I think it is natural that many people try a game and might not stay if it doesn't fit their style. That should not mean they have to get branded a failure just because they only kept 30%, 50% or whatever of their launch numbers.

Tommy said...

Good points, and I think you are right that the more 'free to play' options that appear this will become less of a discussion as games will all claim 'millions of users' :p

Adamo said...

Hello,

sorry to take of your happy sunglasses -

- you had twice the chance to get aoc moving
- you had lots of feedback in your forums
- you decided to enhance the game with new maps instead of deep gameplay/system mmo content.

Do not wonder now pls. Do not. Maybe you are more lucky at Asia players this time.


all the best.

Dhiren said...

There are only few MMOs which are failed. Having subscribers around 100k-200k, game companies still do profit.

The problem is everyone new MMO is compared with WoW which is 5 years old. Players keep their expectation too high and if MMO fail to meet their expectation, they consider it fail.

One thing I learned from my experience is if you want to target mass playerbase or want to have high number of subscriber, make MMO easier. WoW is getting easier and easier months by months, some people dont like it so they leave WoW but on the other hand 3x times more number of casual gamers join WoW. WoW now has more number of casual gamers than hardcore MMO players.

On the other hand when companies try to make difficult MMO like Aion and FFXIV (eternal grinding, boring game play) they failed miserably and loose large number of subcribers after first couple of months.

Cantra said...

Thankyou for taking the time to discuss this subject. Irrespective of what way you and Funcom have decided to take AoC. The fact remains that Funcom now have a reputation for being economical with the truth, invoking a truth embargo on their forums and in some cases outright lies.

This reputation is going to be hard to shake. You pissed off a million people Craig.

Karl said...

I think there are two more things to consider in subscription numbers. The first is that players always compare a new MMO to their first love. Whatever that first MMO was is the measure they use for all future experiences.

Because of its huge success, WoW was the “first kiss” for many MMO gamers. When they decide to try another game, they’re comparing it to how they felt when they started playing WoW. And when it doesn’t measure up, they end up leaving (they probably kept their WoW subscription active anyway).

The problem is, that it’s a bad measuring stick. Because the player has changed since their first experience as well. My first MMO was Anarchy Online. I still remember how it felt when I stepped off the platform in Backyard 3 in West Athen. I remember the first time looking around and realizing that all those other characters moving round me, hunting reets, running from rollerats were real people too. Since then I’ve tried a lot of other games. But never once have I felt that same sense of wonder that I did back in 2001.

I think this “I don’t feel as excited as I did when I started XYZ” contributes to the high falloff rates.

Second is the effect that gaming friends have. Many MMO players have friends who they only know online. These long distance friendships tend to be very strong and have an effect on what games people are playing in two ways.

First is the herd of sheep that follow an alpha ram. This is where there is a group that has a clear leader and people tend to follow his/her lead. If that person wants to try a new game, they’ll probably go along and try too. If he/she doesn’t like it, they’ll cancel their subscriptions and return to their previous games as well. I’ve seen (and been a member of) several of these sorts of groups over the years.

The other factor that friends have is if someone does go to play another game, they can start to miss their friends from their old game. Even if the graphics, gameplay, etc. are superior in the new place, it isn’t as fun for them because the people they used to talk to and joke around with aren’t there with them. For me, that factor is why I’m not still playing Anarchy Online. Slowly over time my friends moved on to other games (or out of gaming all together) and now even though I could go back to Rubi-Ka for free, it just isn’t as fun.

As for what success is in a game, I'm part of the camp where if the company is solvent, I can find people to play with, and I'm having fun. Then it is successful enough for me as a player.

Lethality said...

Craig - if a game doesn't hit their target subscription numbers, then what does that say about their future content plans?

Are you saying that Warhammer has executed as planned since launch with the same level of content patches and expansions?

Because while games like AoC and Warhammer might be "profitable", they are no doubt operating at a level far below expectations. So players who invested subscription dollars and time are on a different roadmap than was already envisioned.

I think it's important that be acknowledged.

Craig Morrison said...

@lethality That is why right at the top of the post I clearly said I wasn't talking about AoC or Warhammer.

Nothing in the post relates to either of those games, as they were indeed aiming higher. Just as TOR will do, and I am sure others to come...

My point was what comes now, after that wave of titles, what happens to the next set of games and how are they affected by the fact that so many people try everything now, it might be perfectly normal to sell four or five times the number of initial copies compared to where you end up in subscribers and not be a failure by any reasonable terms...but you still might get judged as one..

Wrigley said...

Good points and a good discussion, found it through the link on Massively. Ignore the trolls there they just get wound up on certain games.

It will be very, very interesting to see if the 'sell loads, keep a few' model does become the norm because I am not sure how else people will start to judge MMOs if they all follow that same trend.

jacob said...

It doesn't really matter if you're a AAA or small niche developer. If you're in a battle to lose your subscriberbase as slow as possible from your release till the day you shut down you're just not a success.

To be a success you need to be able to make your subscriberbase grow, and you do that by iterative development where you constantly reinvest into your product.

CCP and Blizzard are prime examples of how it works whether you have big or small bucks.

Funcom sucks at it though.

Takun said...

An interesting post, but its rather hard to get your point across being in your current position, dare I say self-serving?

I feel your problem here is in describing these models - you tend to give one and imply another. The implied being high subs at release and continued growth of that number, and the model you predict for the future of high subs at release then a slow decline into some level ground.

Although I feel you have a point in 'people try everything' I don't feel that justifies having a game shrink largely after release. Maybe fail isn't the correct word or hits too close to home, but its definitely not a success, not by my standards anyway. Yes the game is still profitable (if it wasn't it wouldn't be a game anymore would it?) but as old games have to show just about any game can stay around and keep a 'profit' as long as the company doesn't flop or have major internal issues.

I would define success as the other model, what then (if not failure) do you call the other? I do not see failure as a 'bad thing' it just simply reflects the demand for the product.

"Not up to snuff" as they say.

Troy said...

Jacob I think you missed his point. Yours is clearly an opinion some hold, and what he was pointing out was that very opinion is what might cause games to branded a failure that aren't.

I had not thought about it in that way before, but it makes sense. Many of us try every game these games, and thanks to WoW there are far more MMO curious people, it stands to reason that for most games the Trend will be to start high then end up around a comfortable subscription level that is lower, or maybe even far lower.

CCP were very slow gainers, and even they rely on multiple accounts per players and an over-time skill mechanic that means many who would usually cancel stay around, which was very smart of them.

Blizzard, well, meh, they are just Blizzard are are in atotally different league to the rest of game development.No one should be compared to them.

Craig Morrison said...

@Takun @Jacob

This post honestly not about the project I work on at the moment. That is why I put the disclaimer at the top :) there is no doubt both AoC and Warhammer aspired to lofty goals and did't meet them. I have personally never denied that (after all if that hadn't been the case I most likely wouldn't have gotten the job ;) )

So what I was referring to was the future, and that with the shift in customer behaviour we have now seen. I think taking that trend in isolation as 'failure' is too subjective to be truly insightful. There might be perfectly good 100k, 200K or even 500k subscriber games in the future that might get tarnished because they started out higher due to the hundreds of thousand of MMOers out there who are now curious to try every game that appears.

That is really all I was getting at because it is an interesting discussion that has a potentially far reaching impact on future games in the genre, if good games start to get a bad word of mouth as failures because they don't match World of Warcraft's progression, that could have a snowball effect on their chances of survival in the long term.

Karl said...

I wonder if we really go back and look at marketing / press about a game pre-release how many make the claim of challenging WoW? I would think that any professional marketer worth their salary would know better than to predict that they would be the "WoW Killer".

The press may do that. Rabid fans may do that. But I'm willing to bet that we couldn't find many quotes from companies pre-release stating that they expect to take significant numbers of players away from Blizzard.

I know that many companies can get caught up in the buzz around a big launch and broadly publicize how many units they've sold in a certain period of time.

Part of me wonders what would happen if companies were honest in their expectations that only xx% of their initial sales would translate into long term subscriptions?

Then the practical part of me realizes that doing so would spook away some potential customers and thereby hurt the initial unit sales.

I guess as long as we have to deal with video game consumers who exhibit such fickle buying / playing habits, we'll continue to see this pattern.

CyberQat said...

While in general I agree that more niche games are needed, part of making that happen is reigning in development costs.

The sad thing was that Age of Conan COULD have competed favorably with WOW. It was the total mismanagement of their user population (in particular the not-small PVE RP community) that resulted in its massive bleed off of starting users.

Furiousbeard said...

"Personally I would much rather we could all just talk openly about numbers." - from Craig post #1

We all wish you could talk openly about numbers... but you can't since your hands are tied. I would be frustrated in your shoes if that were the case. That being said, there is nothing you can do about it since it is required to keep tight lipped about it.

The numbers debate will go on for a long time and people will always speculate... so I would let them speculate. The things that are ultimately in your control as a game director is the direction of your title, to worry about numbers is up to marketing and the accountants.

Yes, ultimately if you bring in more masses, you will be afforded more talent and staff for your title, but that title doesn't benefit from numbers without content to retain it.

You are venturing in to the "Mature Gamer" market with your titles at Funcom, and with that specific group you will see a lot longer meter stick you'll be measured by. The people that play your titles are going to be looking at things from every angle and you need to be prepared to answer their questions.

What you need to provide your paying customers is something they understand, a label and direction for the future. For example if you go in to a Starbucks, you know you are paying for expensive coffee and some sweets. Adults understand this and they of course want to have a customized $5 coffee with 20 modifications, and that's ok because it's Starbucks, that's what they do.

Now what you may be lacking is a clear label for your product. As a director you need to push the direction that is best in your heart and maybe you need to share that with the world so they know where things are going in the future.

"I'm Craig, I want an MMO that has the most fun and entertaining PVE raids online"

Make it happen and that is your brand. People can understand that simple statement and will buy it.

"I'm Craig and I want to create a FPS style pvp minigame system that is constantly hopping and popping, there will never be downtime!"

When people start to associate your product with your mantra, numbers will come.

"I'm Craig and I want to have the best damn RP server ever created" and make an attempt to search out the powerhouses in those areas.

Success begets Success my friend. The adults you intend to impress with your titles need to be able to understand what they're getting.

Takun said...

@Craig

I still feel you have the problem of being too close to the issue to be truly objective.

Your using the examples of AoC and Warhammer, and then extrapolating them out into 'this is the future of gaming' where subs are high at release then tapper off. This to me is the same as Ford saying "it is normal for car companies to fail and require bailouts" Or reading a paper by a murderer attempting to morally justify murder to get off of charges. Obvious these are extreme examples but they underline my point it is self-serving. If you where Craig the lawyer your point would carry more weight for me.

There are also other games which do not follow this model, so I wonder how you incorporate them into your view.

Surely many people who buy / join a game on release do not stick around for the ride but when a game has 1-2 million on release week and say 100k after that, you have to chop that up to actual game play, mechanics, software issues. Not simply 'hype' and 'opening week'. Even if a game like this still makes a profit is that not failure to you? Your consumer product had a high user base and after use the consumers decided against it.

I never meant anything negative, nor meant to attack you or your games (which you seemed to imply by your response). I only question your objectivity on the matter your attempting to argue for.

Craig Morrison said...

@Takun

Honestly not the case, I write here on this blog about interesting issues and topics I see that relate to the industry as a whole, not just the specific case of one of the titles I happen to work on for my company. (I write about that a lot in an official capacity)

Also remember I arrived on the Age of Conan team after it was already branded a 'failure' by the public, so I certainly don't take any personal offense to those labels, and as i have said before, and officially, a good majority of the complaints were perfectly valid, and the game did indeed fail to reach it's launch ambitions.

This subject is more about 'what comes next', as I see a dangerous situation coming where all those curious people mean that a new MMO cannot possibly do anything other than 'sell high, stabilise lower' (unless it is the once in a generation cultural cross-over like World of Warcraft, but that will be one game out of a hundred) and if they are then judged on that performance as failures, almost every game being released will heave a negative reception, and the only recourse for developers will be to effectively make everything a brand of free to play so they never, ever, have to discuss subscription levels.

You are right that there is a difference between the 'not liking the game' and there being a bad game, I am not defending the latter at all. That would be a valid reason why a game might fall in numbers, but what I am saying is that it might not be the only reason, and to presume so might be doing games in the future a disservice...

Blind said...

A very interesting topic. You probably face a hard time convincing people of your severity given the project that you inherited :p I can understand people and many only read the headlines then saying 'The Conan guy is saying that isn't failure? LOL'. That is shame because you make some interesting points.

Ibrahim said...

I think that the OP does raise an interesting point, but he does come off a bit like Tony Hayward. However, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I am not sure if the issue he raised will ever occur.

Let's consider a hypothetical: if a new game is released aimed towards a niche market, but ends up attracting tons of people and goes through a brief high-turnover rate, then what's the problem?

The bad word of mouth from all the people who quit? Well, as long as they quit for the right reasons, i.e. the niche wasn't for them, then that seems beneficial for the game!

Going back to the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, if all of the negative reviews are highlighting what your game considers valuable to its niche market - then it's basically free advertising. I'm not sure that MMO players are like sheep following the latest MMO reviewers.

I've played MMO's since the 90s and I can not think of one title I bought (or didn't buy) because of a review or even the overall reception that it received.

Andrew said...

I dont think AOC has been a failure far from it. I have had some great fun playing the game. It has for me raised the bar of what is capable of a MMO. I hope Funcom take note of what went wrong and dont do the same with the secret world. Infact i would avoid the press and let word of mouth do the talking.

Anonymous said...

well game can be profitable with low sub numbers ,if your budget is very very tight , but the problem is that content and update speed is so freakin slow that game is really dying then , aoc cant keep big enough development team at these numbers and be profitable same time. Sometimes it really feels that theres only sil ,famine and tarib working at aoc that slow the update and content speed really is.

Borderline said...

I wish you were wrong, but I dont believe so. We put such a weight in numbers, as a society, that it is very hard to escape that pressure.

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