The Decline of Worlds

1656_4266_1Simon Ludgate documents the experience of another big-ticket MMOG, Star Wars, the Old Republic. Like many others, this one is going from subscription to free-to-play. Ludgate characterizes this as failure. While it certainly is the failure of the revenue model, it may not mean failure of the IP. F2P products make plenty of money.

But before we conclude that to use subscriptions is to fail, consider venerable EVE. She has reached new population milestones in her old age, having never abandoned the old subscription model.

I think something cognitively different happens when we enter a world as opposed to a game. People will pay subscriptions for a world. They will not play subscriptions for a game. MMOGs interpreted WoW's success as a call to improve the game elements of virtual worlds. But they have overdone it. Today's MMOGs are all game, no world. Thus no one is willing to pay a subscription for them.

What makes a world different from a game? Well, in a world, there's downtime and exploration and life. Downtime is, moments when there's nothing to do. You just be. And it is nonetheless interesting. Exploration is, you go places simply to see things, to discover them. You don't get a reward, you just go look. It's a cave with artwork in the bottom, and nothing else. It's a desert to cross, in which there's an oasis with a palm and an interesting little bear who sings rhymes. And nothing else. Life is, when you go to a place and there are people just being there. They're not on a quest, they're not grinding a craft, they're not shopping. They are simply being.

Current MMOGs have lost elements like this, believing them to be boring. EVE has them in spades. So EVE can charge subscriptions - people like to quasi-live in EVE. Nobody wants to quasi-live in SWTOR, or, it is not possible to just live there. You can't live on a race track. Race tracks are for racing. You go around a few times and quit. Why subscribe to that?


Comments on The Decline of Worlds:

Letrange says:

Hammer meet nail.

Posted Dec 14, 2012 1:46:06 PM | link

RobG says:

This is an interesting idea that the success of an MMORPG depends on it's status as a genuine 'world' space. This would suggest that sandbox games should have the advantage in being able to sustain a subscription based models. However, the obvious counter argument to this is Second Life, which most commentators agree is in danger of losing it's life. Or perhaps you are arguing that a balance is required between gameplay and 'world'? Obviously Second Life has little of what you would call game play (though lots of horse play!)

I found Eve to be quite a complex game compared to most MMO's and perhaps it's that challenge and depth that is the success. I'm really looking forward to the eventual emergence of Dust 514 on console's with it's persistant world and links to Eve. Thought am not sure as to what level of persistence there will be.

Posted Dec 14, 2012 5:41:03 PM | link

Jenks says:

Whenever I argue with someone that subscriptions are not dead, subscriptions just need the right game, this is one of the arguments I use. - I'm just never this succinct. Here's a novel length post I made on RPS. (salty language warning)

Anyway, you are spot on. This is my first time here (linked from TAGN), but you've got a new subscriber.

Posted Dec 14, 2012 7:14:58 PM | link

Indy says:

My impression of his article is that EA's *implementation* of F2P for SWTOR is the failure. I've seen it characterized as 'punish the free-loaders until they give up and subscribe' -- having looked at the details I'd think that's a fair assessment. EA has certainly managed to change my mind about giving the game a chance, now I think I'll just stay away. (I hope they'll change their revenue philosophy towards 'enticing free players to spend some cash' but I doubt it'll happen.)

Posted Dec 14, 2012 7:32:07 PM | link

joker says:

So which "wisdom of the crowd" was this?

Posted Dec 15, 2012 3:23:39 PM | link

mbp says:

This is an important topic but I don't believe we have gotten to the bottom of it yet. As someone who grew up on 1980's cyber punk I still hanker after a true virtual world. Game like mmorpgs are a disappointing substitute and once the novelty wore off I think a lot of us realised we could get just as much fun for for a lot less effort not to mention less money in other types of video game. EVE even though it is more world like than most mmoprgs is still ultimately a disappointment because the so called "world" is a lot shallower than it appears at first to be. I had high hopes for Second Life but for reasons I don't fully understand (probably a combination of the limitations of technology and the limitations of human nature)SL never really worked.

To be honest when I really think about it I come to the conclusion that Facebook comes closer to what I expected from a virtual world than any mmorpg. People actually do live a part of their lives in the Facebook universe. It isn't as separate from the real world as I imagined virtual worlds would be but maybe it is just the first step.

Posted Dec 16, 2012 6:12:40 AM | link

Tim says:

I want to agree emphatically. More wilderness and less theme park in my WoW and WoW clones would keep me fascinated and more than willing to pay.

Posted Dec 17, 2012 12:44:17 PM | link

Krista-Lee Malone says:

I was recently in on a debate about moving from a subscription service to F2P. Interestingly, nothing about the game itself was top on the list of considerations. The main focus of our discussion was how money is viewed. The winning argument ended up being that people don't want to pay for things they don't use, therefore a pay-per-service would attract more customers. Whether or not this game (its an educational mmorpg on the Asian market) constituted more of a world or more of a game wasn't discussed.

I think this question of how money viewed is an important question being ignored here. Of course world v game is also important (and was mistakenly ignored in the conversation I opened with) but how money is viewed will effect people's willingness to let it go.

Posted Dec 17, 2012 7:04:28 PM | link

Pockets says:

Actually, there are subscription-based racing games out there (iRacing) - the "downtime" you mention is gained from fiddling with suspension bias and such and the community provides the "world". Obviously, its incredibly niche, though.

While I'd agree with the point of a sense of "world" being an important aspect - I'd have to disagree entirely with how you've interpreted EVE's "world", though.

The majority of EVE downtime is waiting, moving house and shopping. There's almost nothing worthwhile to see or do in EVE in the way of exploration and the ratio of downtime-to-excitement is bad, but juuust enough to keep people playing. Its not for no reason that the community would typically describe it as a bad game - excessive downtime is the element they've spent the last ten years trying to improve.

The world comes through the player-driven environment; it's about knowing that Dave is online so you can get him to freighter your stuff around to your new home system, that you can't go through that system because there's a scout for Rote Kapelle there and they'd just hot-drop you, that some guys are moving in next door so you get in touch with your buddies to go have a fight.

An exploration driven environment would have a fantastic sense of place and would have that "world" aspect in abundance, I agree - I just think you're looking for it in the wrong place as player interaction is another way to the same end.

Posted Dec 19, 2012 7:04:40 AM | link

Lethality says:

Spot on, and something I've beeb preaching myself. As a matter of fact, even though it's a theme park, I believe this is one of the reasons for WoW's success - it feels like a world that you go to, not a game you log into.

Indeed, while most games have "log in" or "play" on their startup screen, WoW has "Enter World"

I wonder just how subtle of a difference that makes.

Posted Dec 19, 2012 1:40:42 PM | link

Curuniel says:

I'm curious what people think of Guild Wars 2 in light of this (although, to be fair, it doesn't charge a subscription, so it benefits from people often treating it like a game that happens to be played online rather than a virtual world). Guild Wars 2 is very much an MMORPG, and very game-focused. At the same time it places a lot of emphasis on exploration, and there are a number of neat little surprises to find in the environment, and hundreds of little mini-stories you might happen to witness. Most of these have game elements too though - things like the "cave with artwork in the bottom" would be marked points of interest which most people visit just for map completion.

A taste of a virtual world with character? Or an empty gesture given the heavy gamification of everything in it, especially in light of the audience they're courting.

Posted Dec 19, 2012 3:49:28 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

I played GW2 for some time. Is was heavy on game, light on world. The world felt heavily populated. The sheer density of gamed, gated, laddered, and grindable content was amazing. No matter where you were, your minimap glittered with icons representing things you could score points for. In addition, I found the overall world size very small. When I hit level 60 and realized there were perhaps 2-3 more zones left, the world felt very small.

I keep going back to an early experience that I want to see recreated. (Richard says that we do this all the time, project our earliest MMOG experiences onto later worlds, always finding the later ones worse.)

As a level 7 Cleric of Nife, I got it in my head that I wanted a certain mace called the Shining Star of Light. The quest was almost but not completely impossible for someone at that level. You had to go all the way to Rivervale to the Hobbits and then somewhere deep in Karana. I recall that it was difficult and dangerous and time-consuming to travel. There was a mountain range to cross and a dark forest that was truly dark. It took me hours. And the best part was, the quest had a random end. The turn-in guy would usually go nuts and attack you. So I had to do it five times before he gave me the mace. In retrospect I could have done it more easily with help, but I generally play these games solo. Doing it solo, it felt really good. The world felt like a real world. It did not feel like someone had designed the entire quest to be just tough enough for me to do it. Instead, the world was not gamified at all. There was no match between my level and the quest reward and the quest difficulty. It was ridiculously out of balance. But it felt like a world, not a game.

Two aspects come to me out of this memory. First, balancing worlds makes them seem unrealistic. (D&D 4e could have learned from that.) Second, there's much to be said for a world of tough solo content.

What if the capstone quest always had to be done solo? So that the people with the best gear were the ones who had done great things without help? Why does the industry think this model only works in single-player games? How about a massive multiplayer world without thousands of quests where you start out in armies and gradually get winnowed down to a single combat with a huge dragon?

Posted Dec 20, 2012 2:12:23 PM | link

Myriam Davidovici-Nora says:

Hello,

I've just discovered this page this morning while looking for some informations on RMT business models. I would be glad to share a personal feeling about th game ST Old Republic. In my point of view, the failure of the game lies more in the design of its world. When you compare it to WoW, it is in complete opposition : a sad and dark world, almost unpopulated, players do not need to cooperate and the atmosphere is highly individualistic (when you meet at last someone and say hello, the other player does not even stop or reply). The game missed something in its MMO gameplay I think. So I stopped my subscription after 5 months. In my point of view, The change to a F2P model will not change it into a success. I think Edward has found it right : it is the world and its animations that makes a successful MMO. Now there is an open question about whether or not F2P is adapted even to "good MMO" (in the sense that F2P may be more profitable). The exemples of Chinese MMO would rather make me say yes but I think we have to deepen our understanding of the right conditions to realize it.

Posted Dec 21, 2012 4:36:33 AM | link

Brett Richards says:

I agree wholeheartedly, and I think you've made a very insightful observation (as has Lethality for that matter in pointing out the 'Enter World' terminology).

I'm curious to know when 'subscription' first became the accepted term instead of something like 'access charge'? I think it is quite revealing, because the former term to me has all the connotations of signing up for a regular, one-way delivery of content as a consumer, thus the value is understandably evaluated on what I am given to consume. I'd never describe access to an interactive experience as a subscription (eg. forums, blogging platforms), nor do I use the phrase for services that enable me in some way (eg. electricity, internet). Subscriptions seem to be more about delivery of periodic content for consumption - such as magazines, news feeds and entertainment channels.

Am I seeing too much in this? For myself at least, this language certainly evokes paying for digestible chunks of game experience. It doesn't at all imply ongoing access to an interactive, malleable and unpredictable world.

Posted Dec 21, 2012 4:45:59 PM | link

joker says:

The game industry will learn soon enough that it doesn't have to "waste" millions on "design and art" for building complex graphic worlds when people like Adam Lanza show us nifty ways to augment the real world and make user generated content even more seductive as a ROI, or maybe a return on non- investment to be more accurate. To think the "game biz" won't follow the economic lessons of old TV media is just silly. Reality TV killed the video star. And lets face it, digi-geeksters killed the music biz, and the music corps were the ones paying for all those Mtv Videos, until they weren't and we all got Snookied.

Posted Dec 23, 2012 2:44:40 PM | link

Amarilla says:

"You" will never have a world but only games. A virtual world is same utopian as the multiculturalism is. No matter how you name it or paint it, free or for money , there's not such a thing like "virtual".Everything is real. Ppls can never ignore (even if they forget for a lil while) that is just a game. Also they never socialise for real on the so-called social net. No matter how deep or for how long one is immersed , the virtual is just "not for real". It's a movie. At it's best is a football game where you never go to a beer with the guys ; bcoz u never meet them.

Posted Dec 24, 2012 10:39:48 AM | link

Beatnik59 says:

Any game which is only combat will have boring combat...no matter how "fast" or "twitchy" or "action-packed" developers make it. The failure of developers to create a compelling game is the failure of developers to understand drama.

Combat is, or at least should be, a time of high dramatic tension. And while it's good to have times of high dramatic tension, the only way it can be [em]perceived[/em] as a time of high dramatic tension is if there are times of low dramatic tension.

The problem with today's "action-packed mmo" is that they achieve the action-packedness by removing all the times of low dramatic tension (the "worldy" stuff Castronova talks about). As a result, they play like films that are all action from beginning to end; they feel like pointless series of explosions.

Fiction, done well, advance the story in the "slow scenes," the time when dramatic tension is low. The problem is that game developers are trained to [em]hate[/em] slow; they see times when players aren't mashing buttons as "timesinks" and "bad design." But it's actually [em]good[/em] design, in terms of dramatic design.

Posted Jan 12, 2013 6:19:13 PM | link

Erin Hoffman says:

This clash appears to be happening at the moment over the governance of the new SimCity. There have been a few uproars over the requirement of the game to be connected to the internet (almost certainly copy protection related but allegedly because of its inter-city connected gameplay), and over items in the EULA about reporting bugs. All of these are MMO standards, but the community isn't taking to it well (and I would bet might even take less well to the notion that SimCity has become an MMO).

There is no subscription, but there are all manner of other MMO-related community management issues that appear to be arising. One wonders whether the final, actual SimCity-playing community will find it sufficiently a world to continue playing it.

Posted Jan 23, 2013 8:25:29 PM | link