The Success Anomaly

So the big news of the weekend for MMOs was that Star Wars: The Old Republic has an official release date, and will launch over the Christmas holidays this year. 

The game will most likely sell extremely well out of the gate, almost certainly the most successful first month sales of any MMO ever, and probably by a wide margin...it will then possibly even retain over a million subscription customers (something it should be remembered no game other than World of Warcraft has managed)...truly massive numbers...unless the game somehow collapses it is going to post seriously impressive numbers...yet...you can already read many comments across the net which indicate that there is a sizable number of people who are referring to that as a potential 'failure'. 

Suddenly being the second most successful MMO of all time, would not be enough for some folk to a call a game a success. For some it seems to boil down to a simple formula, where they believe the only success factor is ongoing and consistent growth, and any significant drop after your launch month is banded about as a sign of failure

Put simply we have an issue at the moment with the perception of what constitutes a successful game...jump past the break as I take a deeper look at the challenge of defining success in the current market...

So what is the root of this disconnect? To me it seems to stem from the fact that many fans of the genre base their opinions on assumptions that are quite simply well out of date.

We're not in Azeroth anymore...

The cornerstone that drives a lot of the definitions that fans fall back on is of course World of Warcraft...and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It is natural that people will compare other games to the indutsry leader. What they often fail to acknowledge however is that even World of Warcraft launched in a very different gaming environment. 

2004 was a very different time...

The world has changed since the launch of World of Warcraft...for example do you remember the internet before You Tube? Blizzard's Behemoth launched some four months before You Tube was founded, that's a lot of change. Sometimes it is hard to remember exactly how much things have changed since then.

Five or more years ago these games did not have as wide a market available to them. You can now sell through over a million copies or more right out of the gate. (and I fully expect TOR and GW2 to do even more than that). That was only a pipe dream when many of us started making these games. I recall the early estimates for first month sales on Age of Conan back in 2005 were as low as 50,000 units yet the game ended up shipping over a million copies in the end, and other games have been in the same ballpark.Games like Rift and Aion are probably holding quite healthy subscription numbers over two hundred thousand users. Prior to the launch of World of Warcraft no game in the west had come close to reaching a million subscribers (the last reported numbers for a game like Everquest were 430,000 players).

So games launching now benefit from the fact that there are many millions of more players that know what an MMO is an might want to try a new one.

Games that launched five or more years ago simply didn't have the profile to attract that kind of a starting audience, and neither did they have to deal with an ever more crowded market with dozens of competing games. This growth was much easier to achieve since your starting numbers were not as large, and most of the games grew organically as word of mouth spread. 

Now, it is much more likely that a high profile game in the genre will start out strongly as more people try the game, but not everyone will find it to their tastes.

There are tens of millions of users now that play online, that simply were not there as an addressable audience five years ago. The success of games like World of Warcraft did change the game, and significantly so, they didn't just move the proverbial goalposts, they changed the rules of the game itself.

Different tastes...

With a growing user base for MMOs as a genre, and with more varied games appearing, it is only natural that there will also be a wider set of preferences out there.

This means that a title that gets mass market attention, and a game like The Old Republic definitely falls into that category, it won't necessarily appeal to everyone's tastes. That doesn't mean it won't appeal to more than enough players to be firmly considered a success. 

The Variety Show...

The next twelve months or so present an intriguing time for the genre, with some big games on the horizon. Between The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2, and our own The Secret World on the way, and titles like Carbine's Wildstar, Trion's next two MMO projects, End of Nations and Defiance, and some interesting imports like Tera and ArcheAge on the way via Korea, the market is going to get ever more crowded

Then throw in the host of titles following the Freemium path, with DC UniverseStar Trek OnlineCity of Heroes, and Fallen Earth all switching business models to try and attract more players, and mix in all the F2P eastern imports, and you have a virtual stockpile of game vying for your attention even before you consider all the major titles still trucking along nicely years after they launched.

...and that is without even mentioning a little game called Diablo or something that might just steal some time form the MMO playing public...

The veterans view...

The other notable factor playing heavily into comments amongst the MMO communities is that veteran players, many of whom have been playing these games for over a decade now, and yearning for the next advance in technology at a time when the industry itself is still refining the experience offered by the first generation of games. 

The 'formula' for an MMO is still pretty much the same, in terms of structure, as it was a decade ago...and that frustration at a perceived lack of 'progress' is what fuels a deal of the complaints.

The idea of an MMO brings with it so many dreams and potential in terms of interactivity and community based gaming that many of those veteran users would rather that developers were more experimental rather than concentrating on making more efficient and more polished version of these online worlds. 

You could argue that while those veterans yearn for more complex communal experience, developers have been refining how we can succeed at pleasing the individual in a multi-player world. It wouldn't be an unfair accusation either. These games are expensive, in particular with the requirements of today's production standards, which makes it less likely the bigger budget games will take risky game-play choices. 

Not about excuses...

Now one clarification here, this is not about any situation where a game clearly fails to live up to their early expectations,or get over-hyped. There you can very easily understand that gamers will have a negative impression, that isn't where I am going with this. So let's park those games, this isn't intended as any kind of apologists lament at being misunderstood. I talked about this last year, and the further along we go, the more I am convinced that we need to keep asking the question so that we can try and find a way to change people's perceptions about what constitutes success.

This also isn't just about huge one hundred million dollar games like The Old Republic...it filters down to other studios and titles as well. The same lack of acknowledgement that things have changed significantly over the last five years means that many titles have been tarnished with the same 

This is about hearing people consider games like Aion, or Rift, as 'failures', simply because they didn't grow after their launch. It is exactly the same forces at play, the same perceptions that are doing an injustice to good, solid games that many people enjoy spending time playing. 

Setting expectations...

So all of these factors clearly show that times have indeed changed. Of course there is little you can do to change a perception on the internet outside of talking about it. That is really where we can do better as an industry. Just as I talked about wishing we could have a ratings system of some kind before, I feel that this is an area that we can influence more in our communication.

Can we market our games without the need to claim we will be the be all and end all to all people? I think we can. Can we set the expectation that yes, the first month might be the highest user number we ever reach, without being seen as a 'negative' message to the marketing folk? I think it might not be as scary as the marketing folks might tell you.

Can customers handle an open approach to ambition, or are we too far down a partisan road of instant judgement that even admitting you would be satisfied with a certain level of success would be seen as a lack of confidence, that would then be reported as such, and would then potentially affect your sales, a genuine fear for a business that many will tell you should simply be avoided.

Could we be more open about our numbers, so that we then could start to educate our customers on what constitutes a success, and what they should, and should not, worry about? Part of the issue there is that we have a fairly fundamental fear about how customers will react to trends. Would they understand seasonal fluctuations? Would they tolerate short term dips, or would any such instance be amplified, because players could see it, and react to it? More valid concerns for any business.

The problem, as always, is that people don't like being held to estimates and projections, even if we have to do them, we don't necessarily have to share them. Neither can people use budgets to help gauge, as they do with movies, since the costs of these games is rarely revealed outside of financial reporting.

Personally I think a more open approach could work, much in the same way a movie can influence expectations by it's budget, its cast, scope or even it's release date. We need to find ways in which we can talk more about levels of ambitions without harming a games marketing... 

Wrapping up...

 I also think that those advances the veterans yearn for will come, and the genre will become more dynamic and community focused again, but maybe not in the near future (and almost certainly not with the upcoming generation of games), and maybe not in the way we think it will...but in the mean time, we are in these changing times, and games will be successful despite not reaching World of Warcraft numbers. We should embrace and applaud the successful games, because in the big picture, they will all contribute to the growth of the genre. If theses games become too risky to make, then you won't be able to blame the investors and publishers from being afraid of the investment. 

I hope we continue to see the potential, through successful games, so that we continue to get the opportunities to push the boundaries...but that is another subject entirely, so lets wrap this one up.

So what do you think?

As always, ending with a question for you all - do you think that The Old Republic will be a success, a huge hit? A modest earner? A genre defining moment? What are your expectations for the largest MMO launch since World of Warcraft started to change our worlds?

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