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My Take on "WoW Tourism"

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:"
  1. "Why WoW Tourists Don't Exist,"
  2. "Denying the Correlative," and
  3. "Why WoW Clones Really Fail."
The background to this argument is that the last couple of years, an awful lot of companies have lost hundreds of millions of dollars each trying to build the MMO that would do to Activision/Blizzard's World of Warcraft what it did to Sony's Everquest, namely, to for all practical purposes replace it, and then to grow the whole MMO industry. When these companies raised, between them, what must be closing in on a billion dollars, it seemed like an entirely plausible idea. There were lots of people still not playing WoW and complaining that it just wasn't their kind of game, plenty of people in WoW complaining about how done they were with it and wishing that something new would come along. And the industry was under the (entirely mistaken) impression that building a game like WoW is mostly a one-time expense, albeit a large one, after which you cut down to a maintenance budget and the millions' of people's $15 monthly payments just roll in with no more significant effort on your part.

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.)



( 61 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 26th, 2010 08:09 pm (UTC)

I'm gonna have to disagree with you about the lv 1-60 content in WoW, Brad. WoW became the success it did in large part because the game was conceptually very good from the start. Was it polished when shipped? Hell, no. But thousands of early adopters stayed with the server crashes, disappearing loot, pathing problems, etc. because the game was compelling, in lore/plotline, in game mechanics, in character design, etc. And those people bought in their friends, and so on, rinse and repeat, until it became the behemoth it is today. The new expansion, Cataclysm, is redoing a good portion (certainly not all) of the original game's content for one very good reason - the huge existing player base, many of whom have leveled 3, 4, or a dozen alt characters through those levels, probably aren't going to want to do it again with the two new races that are being introduced. I certainly don't. But if many of us hadn't found that original content compelling, we wouldn't have revisited it over and over with new characters over the past few years. And sure, Blizzard has the chance to take the stuff that didn't work as well and retool it, but really - the overall player experience from the very beginning was simply better and more addictive than any of the other MMOs that have come out. If an MMO doesn't grab players with a good interface, clear paths to advancement, good content and a likeable world from the very start, it's not going to retain anyone past the trial period. I think the fact that WoW did so means their early-game content was rather better than you imply.
Jan. 26th, 2010 08:27 pm (UTC)
I think you're biased and unkind to Blizzard. Yes, the product they shipped was a mess. But they very quickly started releasing patch after patch after patch for it, cleaning things up and bringing up the quality of the game. Should they have delayed its release longer and kept working on it? I would say yes. But it's very telling that WoW's success was out of the gate, and that WoW buried the rest of the industry not after it had been extensively patched, but almost immediately. Was WoW in a terrible state at launch? Sure, it was. And it remained so for quite awhile. But here's the trick: the MMO genre is a cesspool of shit. I am not aware of any kind of gaming where you can spend the kind of money that goes into your average MMO and ship a game that is as terrible as most MMOs at launch. Was WoW bad at launch? Sure. But it was even then better than the competition, especially the awfulness that was its main competitor- Everquest.

And that leads into an even bigger point, which is that Blizzard has been happy to experiment and learn as time's gone on. The late-vanilla content is generally higher quality than the launch stuff, the Burning Crusade content is better than that, and the current expansion is great. Blizzard's learning over time how to create high-quality content, and everybody's benefitting from that- the generally-okay-but-that's-about-it Warhammer Online certainly lifted quite a bit from WoW's playbook. Shame they released it as such a pile of mess. If they'd launched in the state they're in now, I think WAR might have been able to hold its subscriber base well enough to last through 2010, which I don't really see happening. That does lead me to:

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.

I'm curious as to why you think this is. While it's true that I like playing on servers with lots of people (I play Horde on Mal'Ganis and love it), I've been playing the WAR trial here and there lately, and while it's fun in small doses, there's quite a bit that's simply not very good. I'm not held to WoW by friends; I genuinely enjoy the game, and while I like the folks I play with right now, I would take a server transfer if I thought there was good reason to (as I have twice already). I don't move from WoW to WAR because WAR, even in its current state, doesn't hold a candle to WoW. It's not as polished, there's not as much to do, the crafting isn't very deep, the interface and animations are ugly, and they've been merging servers right and left for the last year.

If you want to compete with WoW, you have to compete with WoW, not with launch WoW, not with a particular patched version of WoW, but with the current, live-on-the-servers version of WoW, just as launch WoW, with all its problems, outcompeted the existing industry of the time. It's hardly FUD to say that.

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. 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.

I think you have a very good point here, and I'm trying to figure out what it is that could be the Nintendo Wii of MMOs. I don't think it's going to Star Trek; Star Trek is at least as geeky as the D&D/WFRP-descended games.
Jan. 26th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
LJ ate my comment, but you said most of it.

The only point you missed is that EQ told the bulk of their customer base to fuck off with the Omens of War expansion. While EQ players didn't mean diddly to the overall WoW playerbase, it sure didn't help their case.
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Jan. 26th, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
Count me in as another who's enjoyed the leveling content in WoW, warts and all, and has no interest in the raiding content that I'm supposedly encouraged to skip to.

I've been a Star Trek fan for years longer than a Tolkien or D&D fan, yet STO is an unlikely purchase for me, if for no other reason than I'll have to reboot my computer every time I want to log in. Sony wanted me to do that too; the fact that Blizzard didn't influenced my decision to give them a try four years ago.
Jan. 26th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, there's an unofficial but so far remarkably successful effort to get STO running under Wine on both Linux and Mac. And even Blizzard is backing away from the Mac; you'll notice that they haven't done simultaneous releases on anything but WoW in years. So if you want to play a Mac MMO, you better like WoW; there may never be another one.
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Jan. 27th, 2010 12:26 am (UTC)
My current main is a level 41 low elf voodoo princess on Pemptus.
Jan. 26th, 2010 09:44 pm (UTC)
I just wanted to comment that I like it when you do commentary on MMO's like this. I mean, yes, I also like your political and slice of life stuff, but you put just as much thought into presenting your ideas and opinions into MMO bits, and I like that.

I'm also very interested in hearing what you think of Star Trek Online, because my wife is so looking forward to it. :)
Jan. 26th, 2010 10:07 pm (UTC)
You may be my primary source of information on MMO gaming. I know people locally heavily into it, but they never show up in public so I never get to learn much of anything from them :-).
Jan. 26th, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
I think it helped a lot that Blizzard were building on well regarded gamer IP in terms of getting initial subscribers.

It will be interesting to see if STO cannibalizes EVE at all. Scott Jennings' famous rant The Unbearable Darkness of Ultima Online would suggest that it will. Prior to STO, if you wanted to play pew pew in space ships there was EVE and... there was EVE. Now there's STO and as you previously noted 80% of EVE players don't venture out of high-sec. With more than one campaign to bring null-sec to the masses I'm wondering if those who prefer their PvP to be more consensual will leave.

Feb. 1st, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
I'm wondering if those who prefer their PvP to be more consensual will leave.

(Insert obligatory joke about what constitutes consent to PvP in EVE here. Disclaimer: I don't actually play EVE, but I've heard that joke.)
Jan. 26th, 2010 11:36 pm (UTC)
I'm going to wonder off into hypothesis land.

I'm amazed that you think science fiction is more popular than fantasy. I remember Ace Doubles with the blue and white spines-- those ancient days when it seemed easier to write mediocre science fiction than mediocre fantasy, and the readers were glad to have it.

Since then (the Tolkien boom was happening at about the same time), there's been epic fantasy and Harry Potter and Twilight and the rise of urban fantasy/paranormal romance. If you go outside print, there's been the Star Trek sequels, Star Wars, and, ok, Avatar, though there's no way to tell how long the love of Avatar will last.

Anime seems to be at least as much fantasy as science fiction.

From discussions at rasfw, I've concluded that the emotional dividing line isn't between science fiction and fantasy, it's between hard science fiction and the whole range of soft science fiction to fantasy.

I'm not sure who you're visualizing as the people who want an MMO, but not WoW. If it's the general public, I think they want a realistic setting with low-investment games and puzzles. Is a beer-and-pretzels MMO mostly designed for hanging out conceivable?

One of my friends had a nasty farming addiction on Facebook for a while. It's the nearest thing to a non-game game imaginable. You set up a farm. There are procedures for getting crops. You can buy stuff for your farm. Once you plant things, there's a schedule for harvesting, and you and other farmers can help each other harvest. IIRC, there isn't a developed economy for the crops.

The damned thing (and other versions with a little more drama) has hooked huge numbers of people.
Jan. 27th, 2010 12:35 am (UTC)
IMHO Sci-fi and fantacy are fundamentally different genres, and most very popular "sci-fi" is actually fantasy in disguise. I don't mean this because I have a preference for one or the other, well, okay, I guess I like fantasy a little better, but not pronouncedly so, but because good Sci-Fi is supposed to be a cerebral exercise in speculative psychology, sociology and technology, whereas fantasy is meant to play out cultural myths and invoke fantastic inexplicable wonderment in a slightly more arbitrary way. I don't think a lot of popular Sci-Fi really lives up to the potential of the genre.

Most folks would agree that Star Trek is sci-fi, but I would argue that the Origonal series, and some of the Next Generation were Sci-fi, but the remaining series's were more or less pure fantacy. The development of the truly speculative elements, or even of the exploration of an enlightened humanity's interactions with embodiment's of left-behind conflicts in the real world human condition seemed to fade from the series in favor of more action oriented fantastical adventures that didn't really need, and didn't often have to have any sort of speculative nature on the shape of the future to them.
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Jan. 27th, 2010 12:11 am (UTC)
I left WoW pretty early on. I was in from the open beta, and stopped subscribing well before any of the expansions, I felt I had experienced pretty much everything, or at least the best of what it had to offer and couldn't justify continually incurring the subscription fee. I have to disagree with you about WoW not being released until it was ready. One thing that I've noticed while shopping around for the next worthwhile MMO is that none of them show the level of craft that WoW does.

From art, I've written about how important, for instance, a walk/run cycle that looks good from the rear of the character is, to fundamental number crunching in the game systems WoW was head and shoulders above any competitor on day one, and I still havn't seen a game that seems to take such pride in what it is. Granted, in those early months there was near constant tweeking on player powers and it took some time for the PVP system to come online, but these were minor nuisances compared to the post-launch development most MMOs experience. Most importantly it has the smoothest curve of reward/effort I've ever experienced in an MMO. Wow's developers took the time to truly understand the operand conditioning that the genre relies on.

I'm playing STO, and liking it a lot (probably because it represents a lot of what EVE Online fails miserably at) But there are certain things that get my goat to no end. My ships bridge, for instance, is not a wonderfully imagined place, it is a textured box with some chairs scattered about it. No pride was taken in building it, it is a star-trek themed box and I don't know why the feature is even there if that's all they care to treat me to. It feels vaguely like an insult, as if I should be content with it merely because I'm a Star Trek fan-boy. Such shortcuts are entirely absent from WoW.
Feb. 1st, 2010 02:31 am (UTC)
My ships bridge, for instance, is not a wonderfully imagined place, it is a textured box with some chairs scattered about it. No pride was taken in building it, it is a star-trek themed box and I don't know why the feature is even there if that's all they care to treat me to.

Because, as I understand it, it's not actually all they care to treat you to, just all they could have ready in time, given that (as I thought I remembered but had to google to confirm) they didn't add ship interiors to the development process until fans literally demanded it. They promise improvement; whether that Jack Emmert Vision gets in the way, we'll see.
Jan. 27th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
Actually I think you've missed the breakout game: The Facebook-based Farmville. (Also Farm Town). 74.5 million active users in January 2010.
Jan. 27th, 2010 01:49 am (UTC)
If you're going to mention Farmville you have to mention Mafia Wars.
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Jan. 27th, 2010 02:29 am (UTC)
I quite enjoy your essays on MMOs and am looking forward to your comments on Star Trek Online. Just to offset your kick-off about people who'd rather you were writing about something else. :)
Jan. 27th, 2010 06:03 am (UTC)
1) In my line of work, FUD stands for Full Upper Denture.
2) I'm surprised anyone remembers The President's Analyst. I only heard of it because my boyfriend at the time was an extra in it.
Jan. 27th, 2010 06:46 am (UTC)
"But yeah, back to my main point: potential MMO subscribers who barely know anybody who would play WoW, do such people exist? Maybe."

What do you base your 'maybe' on? Have people ran phone surveys of the general population? I would guess that there are very few people today outside of the MMORPG world that could be attracted by a new MMORPG.

Jan. 27th, 2010 07:38 am (UTC)
I'm one of those rare people who want to play a fantasy MMO but doesn't want to play WoW. My wife plays Final Fantasy XI and the only reason I'm not playing it now with her is that Sony got really persnickety about payment between the time she got on nearly 3 years ago and the time when I decided to join her. It seems our credit card was good enough then, but isn't good enough now. Mind you, it's not just me, it's everyone with a Bank of America credit card. It seems that B of A doesn't subscribe to the authentication system Sony requires now. If the situation continues, then when our cards expire, she won't be able to play, either! One potential and one existing customer lost. It also means that we can't play FF XIV when it comes out as well. GRR!
Jan. 27th, 2010 08:12 am (UTC)
Yeah, I'm still waiting for a scifi (or agent) mmo which would appeal to the large masses.

I do play EVE (have played for six years or so) and it has its brilliant things, but also a lot of stuff which does not have mass appeal. The largest thing in my opinion: it's a sandbox rather than a game. There are a lot of things you can do, but no "endgame" as such - people come back to hi-sec areas to do stuff there after 0.0 politics and titan fights. It's because there are *different* things to do.

I like it for the player-driven environment. Most of the stuff I do (and I role-play) is driven because some other players did something and we want to react - or we want other people to do something and we want to act.

Also, the development system is brilliant. You learn stuff all the time, no need to "collect experience", or at least very little of it. Money is more important but even that's easy to come by.

The previews of STO seem too NPC and game driven to me. I might take a look at it anyway, though.
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