OK, I know that some of you would prefer that I write more about current events, history, economics, and books, and drop the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online games) writing. And those of you will be disappointed when I devote an awful lot of column inches, sometime very very soon, to Star Trek Online. But before I even do that, something just showed up today in the parts of the blogosphere that cover the MMO industry that I feel like I want to comment on, too, something I felt very strongly about even before people started linking to blogger Serial Ganker's three-part series on "WoW Tourism:"
And with no exceptions yet to this date? Over the last three years all of those companies' games have crashed and burned, and hard. None of them ever got anywhere near WoW's numbers, none of them even got to half a million, let alone the over 10 million subscribers that Blizzard has. Three of them, Paragon Studios' City of Heroes and Sony's Star Wars Galaxies and Everquest 2, managed to stop shrinking at a couple of hundred thousand players and stay relatively profitable. One of them, CCP's EVE Online, has stayed profitable while taking half a decade to grow to a couple of hundred thousand users. The ones who budgeted around the assumption that they would rapidly grow to over a million subscribers and never shrink have either already died or or are visibly dying on the vine. The vast majority of that nearly billion dollars has gone where all the money poured into dot-com Superbowl advertising went, where the woodbine twineth, never to be seen again.
One of the standard industry narratives is to blame the customers, calling them "WoW Tourists." What they mean is that people weren't being truthful when they told pollsters and market researchers that they were open to replacing WoW with another subscription MMO. All they really wanted was another MMO that was roughly as good as WoW to play for one or two months and then drop like a hot rock and return to WoW the next time Blizzard shipped an expansion, something to play a couple of times and never return to during their short stretches of being bored with WoW.
Serial Ganker caught the MMO industry bloggers' attention by writing a long and impassioned argument that WoW tourists don't exist. He offers no evidence for this but his own opinion, which can be summed up as: hardly anybody who left WoW has ever returned to WoW (all evidence to the contrary). What he says is happening instead is that a tiny subset of former WoW players and people who turned down WoW for one reason or another have been desperately thrashing around for an MMO to replace WoW, not just for them but in the public's consciousness as "the MMO that everybody plays." That small, relatively fixed-size group of players has been migrating steadily from MMO to MMO, from Asheron's Call to Anarchy Online to Dark Age of Camelot to Neocron to City of Heroes to Star Wars Galaxies to Warhammer Age of Reckoning to whatever and on and on and on. And according to Ganker, the reason some few of them returned to WoW, and the rest of them keep migrating, is not because they always intended to return to WoW, but because compared to WoW, all of those games suck.
This is so wrong-headed I barely know where to start.
First of all, the myth of Blizzard's "polished MMO," the myth that they didn't release WoW "until it was ready," is a myth protected by a gauzy haze of nostalgia, emotional identification with the brand, self-justification on the part of people who don't want to think about how much money they've given Blizzard over the last six years, and just generally rotten memory. Blizzard didn't wait until WoW was polished and perfect before they shipped it. They did what every MMO developer before and since (except for EVE and now STO) has done: blew completely past their development deadlines and budgets, got to the point where they were running out of revenue to cannibalize from Starcraft to funnel into it, and were in danger of their underlying technology going obsolete if they didn't ship it now, so they did. The first couple of months it was up, they desperately raced to patch it into even vaguely playable form. And the results were so ugly that for most of the last five years, people being dragged into WoW for the first time have been explicitly and enthusiastically told by old-timers to completely skip the overwhelming majority of the content that WoW released at launch, to get some higher level friend of theirs to guide them past it or to power-level them around or through it, to get to "the good part," which is to say, probably less than 1/6th of the content in WoW, which everybody then plays over and over again. If the vast majority of the content in WoW weren't not merely unpolished but actively crappy, Blizzard wouldn't have just invested a ton of money in Cataclysm, a near total rewrite of and/or replacement for a big chunk of WoW's original content at launch.
With the exception of NCsoft's Tabula Rasa (whose internal development team problems are now the stuff of industry legend), every single triple-A (big budget) MMO that has shipped since WoW has been in at least as good a shape as WoW was when it shipped. Several of them have been in better shape than WoW already was at the time that they shipped, all myths to the contrary. Blizzard has gone to industry conferences to try to talk other companies out of wanting to compete with them, by spreading the idea that before any MMO could even think of competing with WoW, the developers would have to make it as big as WoW already is and as polished as WoW already is, which would take spending as much on it as WoW already has, on the order of half a billion dollars. Don't believe it. There's a standard computer industry term for when an executive for the industry leader tries to convince both competitors and potentially lost customers that it's not safe for them to try alternatives to the brand leader: F.U.D., which stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Don't fall for Activision/Blizzard's FUD about how a successful MMO would need to be in development for 8 or more years and cost half a billion dollars before the first dollar of revenue came about.
So why have the last three years been so brutal to the MMO industry? Two words: network effects. That two-word phrase was coined early in the history of the telephone, to explain why some technologies don't really become powerful until there are enough people who have them. After all, if there are only two telephones in the whole world, telephones are pretty useless. The more people in the world have telephones, the more useful it becomes, to you, to have a telephone. Now let's use that original coining of the phrase as a metaphor. Let's suppose someone were to conclude that the existing telephone network stinks, that a better one could be built. It's not hard to imagine. A new, built-from-scratch telephone network could have better audio quality, for example. It could have better addressing than increasingly random (and even random-length) strings of digits. It could have built-in directory lookup. It could have better privacy protection. It could be designed from the ground up to be lower power consumption or even more reliable. So, okay, suppose you invent such a phone system, but it's not interoperable with the existing telephone network -- how many people are going to buy it? Maybe there are thousands of people out there who hate the phone companies. (Insert the obligatory quote from "The President's Analyst" here yourself.) Even if they all quit, who's going to give up their existing phone to follow them to The New Phone System?
Why do 10 million people play WoW when 80% of it is crap and they're all bored with the remaining 20%? Because that's where all of their friends are. Network effects.
Where I do agree with him is that if there is ever going to be a Next Big MMO, one that gets above a million subscribers and keeps growing, it is not going to be by stealing away WoW's satisfied customers. Where I disagree with him is that it's not going to happen by making something that's vaguely similar only even better. That's been tried. It doesn't work. No, it's going to be by appealing to vast numbers of people who have computers capable of playing an MMO, and the discretionary income to pay a subscription fee, to whom WoW never had any appeal. Some of those will be people who weren't willing to play WoW even if all of their friends were already playing it. But there aren't enough people immune to peer pressure to fund a triple-A MMO. No, if there is subscriber money out there to fund a hundred-million-dollar MMO, it's going to have to come from people who don't even know very many people who play WoW, people who have so little contact with that world of Tolkien fans and Dungeons and Dragons fans and people who go to Renaissance Fairs and the Society for Creative Anachronism that they never even hung out with people who were interested in that. And the industry now knows that, they got the message; in all likelihood, Funcom's Age of Conan (like WoW, only R rated!) will go down in history as the last stupid attempt to build a generic fantasy MMO good enough to steal WoW's subscribers. No, really, even if there are developers out there crazy enough to take another jousting run at that windmill, there aren't the investors willing to fall for their pitch again, and there won't be unless Activision/Blizzard does something so awful or so dumb that millions of people boycott them at the same time. (Although it wouldn't have to be any much dumber than to simply stop investing in improving the product, is my guess. If Blizzard goes more than a year between expansions, and then hints that they're getting out of the WoW expansions business, then go and talk to the money guys about investing in a WoW-killer. But not before.)
But yeah, back to my main point: potential MMO subscribers who barely know anybody who would play WoW, do such people exist? Maybe. Which is why for the last three years or so, the industry has watched with bated breath every time a science fiction MMO has shipped.
Why science fiction? Because historically, the science fiction market is much, much bigger than the fantasy market. If you're looking for successful multi-media billion-dollar franchises in fantasy, you're stuck with ... well, what? D&D, as ubiquitous as it is, has never made that kind of money. Tolkien was a big deal for a genre fiction author for a decade or two, and then Jackson's movies made money, but who made money off of Tolkien's intellectual property in the mean time? The Adventures of Hercules and its spinoff Xena: Warrior Princess made money for a couple of years. And lately Harry Potter's been big. All of that combined, though, would rattle around loosely in the incidental merchandise revenues of any one of the big three science fiction franchises of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Stargate. Star Trek has been making big money for somebody every year since 1966; even during the lean years of 1970-1978, it was making steady money for Paramount Studios and almost single-handedly propping up the UHF TV market (which is why so many of us who grew up in those years know every frame of it by heart). Star Wars and its spinoffs has made big, big money for George Lucas and his media partners every year since 1977. And while Stargate has never been as big as those two, it's been profitable on movie screens or on TV every year for the last twelve, at times supporting two TV series simultaneously while the original was still in heavy syndication.
Nor would it necessarily have to be science fiction. Despite Sony's horrible track record, everybody's watching to see if they ever manage to release The Agency, their James Bond meets the A Team spies and mercs MMO, if only because the amount of money that's been made over the years in that genre; James Bond alone probably out-earned any two sci-fi franchises not counting Star Wars, and by dint of having started earlier may have even out-earned that, too, adjusted for inflation. Comic book superheroes haven't been a reliable money maker, but they have been a perennial one, and that's why there was money available to invest in two already-released big-budget superhero MMOs with a third one still in development. So far, at least the argument goes, the only reason that there aren't 20 million people or 50 million people all over the world subscribing to some science fiction, or spy, or superhero MMO (without even disturbing Blizzard's customer base, because the market for any of those genres is easily two to five times bigger than the market for Tolkienesque fantasy), is because nobody's figured out how to make a genuinely immersive and yet mass-entertaining game out of any of those genres.
(Although watch this space; I'm going to make the argument that Star Trek Online maybe actually finally has.)