MMO Budgets Need A Rethink

The MMO market is a mess right now. Wildstar is the most obvious example, but problems making money abound. It’s to the point that even Blizzard doesn’t seem to be working on a new entry (though knowing Blizzard, Titan could have been cancelled simply because it wasn’t working out).

Fundamentally, this is a budget problem. A game can be very profitable with a small playerbase, if the budget is appropriate. We’re in an indie game golden age right now entirely because digital distribution brought the cost of distribution down so much that it suddenly became viable to sell 50,000 units at $10 and turn a profit, with a small budget for development. It’s great.

MMOs? Forget about it. Wildstar’s budget is rumored to be north of $100 million. ESO’s budget was huge. FFXIV’s budget was huge, then they did it again. With the kind of money being thrown around here, you need a game to have massive numbers to ever break even. The idea was to get a million subs and be good, but the market really doesn’t make that easy these days.

Bottom line – if people are going to keep making MMOs, budgets have to come down.

MMOs Lack Focus

The big reason why MMO budgets are so huge, aside from necessary infrastructure and support, is that they lack any particular focus on what kind of game they are. They try to be too many things. The most recent one I put significant time into is Wildstar, so let’s use it as an example:

  1. It’s a solo questing adventure game – This is the level 1-50 experience. For the most part, you run around doing quests, talking to NPCs, exploring, and getting upgrades. You gain levels, spend skill points, and progress. Although you can do this with other people, doing so trivializes the outdoor content to the point that it requires absolutely no skill whatsoever. It’s designed to be done alone. You’ll visit areas once or twice per character, and then never go back. Functionally, it’s a single player RPG.
  2. It’s a group dungeon game – You get this while levelling if you do dungeons, but primarily at the start of the endgame. You need to form groups to do things. You’ll mostly be repeating a set of dungeons over and over again for loot, and the necessary attunement stuff to raid. Functionally, it’s multiplayer Diablo.
  3. It’s a raid game – Wildstar banked heavily on raiding for the endgame, given the general lack of other stuff. This requires very large groups, and if you want to do progression raiding typically requires guilds, schedules, leadership, and organization.
  4. It’s a PvP arena game – PvP for progression is mostly walled off into its own instances, with its own gear, and it’s own progression. On the right server open world PvP does exist, but it doesn’t get you a whole lot. Functionally, it’s like a lot of other PvP games, especially if you’re playing competitively for ranking and such.

See the problem here? That’s multiple genres of game, in one game. It’s trying to be all things to all people, which leads to all sorts of problems:

  1. Single player RPGs require massive amounts of content, story, and world space. That content is very expensive to create. Many MMOs (like Wildstar) then insist on making it twice as expensive by putting in faction splits and thus having to duplicate the content. Most players will do it once, then might make a couple of alts to do it again. Then they’re done. It is impossible to create content fast enough to keep players busy on this type of content alone, thus it’s really hard to keep subs long term like this. The multiplayer aspect is frankly more of a liability than an asset for this type of game, as you don’t need those people and they just get in the way. If you really do want to play with a friend, you better hope they’re the same level as you, or that the game fixed the problems created by levels by adding a mentoring system band-aid. Finally, true single player RPGs tend to do these things better.
  2. The good news for a dungeon game is that you need a lot less content. The bad news is that it requires extensive testing and polish if it’s going to work, and it requires a good progression game to keep people interested. This can work, but it has a steep learning curve for someone who just spent the entire game playing solo. Still, it’s something that is actually doable on a sane budget.
  3. Raids… well, Wildstar banked on raids and it kind of blew up in their face. They all but admitted that when they gave up on 40 person raiding entirely last week. The guild roster boss is a huge problem for raids, and as the MMO market has aged, more and more players are finding they can’t fit their lives around a raid schedule anymore. Plus, WoW is really dominant when it comes to the raid game, and trying to compete there is really tough.
  4. The good thing about PvP is that it can fill in gaps when people don’t have other things to do, and it’s relatively cheap. The bad thing about PvP is that lots of players won’t touch it at all, you have to create another server to shield those players from it, and it tends to require its own progression chain so that raiders and PvPers don’t use gear from one to become dominant in the other. Still, having players fight each other is cheap content, and cheap content is great.

What we have here is three or four games mashed together, with the massive budget to match. That worked in the past, but the relative lack of success so many new entries have seen in the past several years suggests that there’s a cap on the player base for this type of “all things to all people” game today, and that cap isn’t high enough to make a $100 million investment viable.

What I Want? More Focus

What I want to see is a MMO that knows what it wants to do, and focuses on that. If the point of the game is dungeons, don’t spend half your budget on open world solo content that will take me a month to get through before actually grouping with someone makes sense. Don’t put a level system in that is entirely redundant when everyone hits the level cap, but makes it impossible to group with my friends before they get there without it being a waste of time. Don’t realizes that problem exists and then put a mentoring band-aid on it, thus adding even more complexity and cost to fix a problem that’s even more easily fixed by not having a 50 level grind.

This is exactly what happened when I tried to invite friends into Wildstar. I was 20 levels above them and thus we really couldn’t play together unless they caught up, or I made an alt and started over (and thus forced the person I was already playing with to do the same). That isn’t realistic with how little free time I have, and none of them stuck with the game.  Blizzard seems to be going this way, with their automatic boost to level 90 and the shorter level cap boosts compared to their early expansions. It gets people back to the real game faster.

If the point of the game is open world exploration and more sandbox-y activies, don’t spend a ton of money on an entirely unrelated raid game.

Decide what you’re going to do, and do that really well. That will let you build a game with a budget that might actually turn a profit, and that’s the only way we’ll keep seeing new entries in the genre.

Because right now, with so many big budget games not really succeeding, who wants to bankroll one these days?

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