(I will buy a cookie at State of Play II for the first person who can decode the obscure reference point of my title...)
Does the condition of a massively-multiplayer persistent-world game at launch make any difference to its long-term economic success? Completely leaving aside aesthetic considerations, what is the wisest business strategy:
1) to push MMOG development on a tight schedule, capturing the core customer base, and patching as you go, knowing that designers might never actually judge a game to be complete or ready if left to their own devices, and that a MMOG is never truly "finished";
2) to polish a MMOG until it is very stable and substantially feature-complete, regardless of how long it takes to do so?
Excluded middles are welcome to weigh in--but how do you know when you're at the right balance between the two?
This is obviously not just an academic or idle question with the release of Everquest 2 and World of Warcraft imminent, the former within two weeks, and with the Jump to Lightspeed expansion of Star Wars: Galaxies having come out yesterday.
Most gamers tend to strongly (stridently) argue for the latter option, that it is always better to wait and polish and perfect (even though they may also eagerly anticipate the release of a particular game). Aesthetically, I would agree, and I suspect so would most developers. But in business terms, it's not so clear. Essentially, it boils down to this: do you lose a substantial enough potential base of customers by launching prematurely to justify the enormous continuing expense of development costs before revenue comes in through box sales and continuing subscriptions?
If you were guaranteed 100k customers at launch regardless of the condition of the game, and would lose only another 25k "borderline" subscribers due to bad conditions at launch, is it worth another 2 months of development costs to rope in most or all of the borderline subscribers? Especially if there's a similar product coming out from a competitor that might steal those subscribers away from you in the interim? Especially if you're not certain that two more months--or two more years--can actually "fix" a MMOG sufficiently that it is reasonably bug-free, stable, and rich in feature sets and content?
The problem for me in judging this is that most of the test cases you could use to establish a reasonable rule of thumb are profoundly debatable.
For example, would Star Wars: Galaxies have double or triple the number of subscribers it has today if it had waited another three months to launch? I once would have said yes, but I would now say no--because I now do not think the bugs, instability and design problems in SWG were dependent upon a rushed launch. I think instead they're predicated on an overly complex, fussy, baroque design and on live team management problems, including numbers of staff on the development team, problems that another two months or ten months would not have fixed. Plus it's clear that some of the people who tried SWG and didn't like it would never have liked it because of some fundamental design decisions it made about how to instantiate Star Wars in MMOG form.
Would Asheron's Call 2 have double the subscribers if it had another two or three months of development before launch? Again, it may be that the flaws of the game were far deeper than early bugs, and not correctable through extended development.
Is the success of City of Heroes due to a nearly flawless launch? Maybe, but you could just as easily argue that the game's success is due to genre, to satisfying a particular market niche (simplified combat-centric MMOG), or due to the luck of good timing (launching in an open window when there was little else available to MMOG players looking for the next new thing). Would CoH have failed or underperformed if it had been horribly buggy or unstable?
Judging from a wave of online discussions of Jump to Lightspeed, Everquest 2 and World of Warcraft, both Jump to Lightspeed and Everquest 2 are launching "prematurely", e.g., with a significant number of bugs and stability issues, not to mention unfinished features sets, hasty design decisions, and relatively untested game mechanics. At this point, I think it would be fair to say that this appears to be a company policy for Sony Online Entertainment, for which it receives much abuse. But it may be a sound business approach if it turns out to have little impact on the bottom line, if customers will pay regardless of the condition of the game, or if waiting longer to launch does not bring in compensatory revenue that justifies the delay.
Is there any way to know counterfactually what difference a launch date really makes, to answer the question "what might have been"? If you just had to think about the corporate bottom line, would SOE's approach make good sense?