Tuesday, July 25, 2006

MMO Failures

Last month I discussed some games in development which might have a chance of taking a good share of the MMO market away from World of Warcraft. Today instead of focusing on future winners I would like to focus on past failures of the MMO genre. These games are still in existence and have over 5,000 subscribers but failed to make any sort of impact on the market. Some have been out for years and have yet to earn back their development cost. However, since the cost to maintain these games is only a small portion of the monthly fee they continue to exist in hopes they will become profitable by 2012. I hope that by going over these games I can highlight common reasons for their failure.

Auto Assault
The game was developed by NetDevil Studios and recently published by NCSoft. Its NetDevil’s 2nd attempt at a successful MMO game as their first, JumpGate, did not do well. Yet the news doesn't look good for Auto Assault since they just merged all their customers onto one server. The game itself is an annoying mix of RPG mechanics and Twisted Metal game play. Your skill levels in the game determine how often you hit even if your natural reflexes always keep your enemy in your firing range. Thus the game often becomes about driving in circles around an enemy until you finally hit them. This had to turn off any First Person Shooter fans who tried the game. As for the RPG elements of the game, they seem to suffer from a lackluster storyline and a trite equipment system.

Reasons for Failure:
Mixed and Matched the wrong game mechanics from several genres
A game studio tends to repeat its performance with games
RPG elements are harder to pull off without an epic storyline

The Sims Online
The online culmination of the Sims genre which was published by Electronic Arts and moderated by no one. The original creator, Will Wright, was pushed by EA to hurry up production which resulted in some lack of foresight on the basic design mechanics. The skill system was repetitive and money was directly tied to getting other characters to interact with you. No farming mobs here. Also just like in Second Life a booming virtual prostitution trade popped up around the realistic 3D models. Player ran mafias controlled the flow of virtual currency and real life currency through their special brand of "service". MMO players didn't recognize it as a game and Sims players knew the original ones were better. Plus everyone felt a bit dirty when a 3D model of a 12 year old propositioned you.

Reasons for Failure:
The game was not policed by Game Masters
Development seemed to stop upon release
The regular Sims games were much better then the online version

The Matrix Online
I believe originally publish by Ubisoft this game was quickly sold to Sony when its subscription numbers never got above 40k. The game was filled with bugs and seemed rushed to take advantage of the recent release of the movies. The game mechanics used a sci-fi spin to the standard classes of Dungeons and Dragons. Game issues such as a lot of combat abilities being useless weren't resolved quick enough to retain players.

Reasons for Failure:
The DnD class model cannot be directly applied to a sci-fi worlds
Debugging and Q/A cannot be cut short for event timing.

Asheron's Call 2
I am not as educated on this game as the others probably because news on it quickly died after Microsoft pulled the plug. I know the main reason it did not succeed was that the core game mechanics were not as good as the original. Players tried it out then quickly reverted back to Asheron's Call 1 or left for another game. Upgraded graphics are not more important then good game design, a fact which console gamers scream almost daily.

Reasons for Failure:
A direct sequel is a bad idea when its not as good as the original
An Graphics Upgrade does not excuse poor game design

I am only covering four games because frankly it gets depressing when you look at the long line of MMOs that have failed. You can see some common elements in all four failed games that I covered though. So what have we learned?

MMO games are not Static
A developer who thinks they are done or can rest after release needs to be smacked upside the head. These games are social in nature and complex in scope which makes them a real bitch to balance. In the first week of release a million issues can occur which were not caught in beta. Companies are too used to cutting down on development staff during beta. The Sims Online and the Matrix Online are both examples where there was not enough staff to fix all the issues that appeared after release.

Sequels need to be better then the Original
This is not the movie business. A MMO sequel cannot depend on the success of its previous incarnation. How good your game is will leak out in your Beta and if it's worse both your games will suffer. Customers who switch to the sequel become disassociated with the original. If the sequel sucks then they are more likely to check out another MMO then return to the first one. One of the few successful sequels I've seen in this genre has been City of Villains. The two major reasons for its success: it was better then the original and it allowed customers to pay one fee to access both games. For disasters in this area look at the Sims Online, Asheron's Call 2 and Everquest 2.

Fantasy is Still the King
Players still seem to become more easily attached to fantasy worlds. Perhaps its because science fiction and simulation based games are closer to the real world which voids some of the inherent escapism. Maybe its just that the fantasy genre is more adapted to games because of the history of Dungeons and Dragons. Whatever the reason if you are not making a fantasy based MMO you better have an epic story and an experienced game studio. A large number of the failed MMO games in existence today are non fantasy based.

The Matrix Online Review

The Sims Online Article

Poor Auto-Assault Numbers


Saylah of Illidan said...

*Cries a tear* That post hurt. Two of the games I wanted to work with all my heart were in that list. I was in The Sims Online BETA, along with a dozen or so friends. We'd swapped content, pictures and stories for years while playing. We were absolutely breatheless at the idea of being able to play together in a virtual community. I don't know how they got this one so wrong. Strong franchise, solid game and loyal fan-base. Not sure what they were thinking when they decide to change the game so much, have no economy but very expensive items and no custom content. Someone must have been smoking crack.

As for AC2, I dont think any game will ever top that one for me. Those feelings of nastalgia will always make this game first in my heart, and angry that Turbine screwed us over in the end and shut off the lights. Sure, they can pin some of it on Microsoft. But I don't buy it. The false promises and undelivered features toward the last 10 months or so of that game was all Turbine.

Relmstein said...

I truly believe that the most common reason for MMO failure is companies moving developers away after production is done but before release. Then when they find a million problems with the way the game interacts with its customers they do not have enough staff to fix the problems in a timely manner.

I had to stop at four games because there are a ton of promising games that flopped because of stupid corporate decisions. Games such as Horizons, SWG, and Planetside could have had serious impact on the MMO market instead of being mild curiousities. SWG in particular was right on the edge of greatness.

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hehe matrix online is very bad :(