Here is a simple observation about the MMO landscape out there: most people only play one massive multiplayer game at a time. It is fairly straightforward to figure out why this is true. It’s about money. Unlike most other video games, MMO’s commonly require a monthly fee to play. So it is a financial commitment, but as long as you are just playing a single MMO you tend to get a return on your money in terms of fund and enjoyment you derive doing whatever it is you usually do in your favorite game. If you decide to play two MMO’s at a time, you are now paying two monthly fees, and you are forced to split your time among the two. This is not always practical since these games are often designed to be time sinks. Grinding, questing and raiding all requires certain time investment and so in most cases one of your subscriptions will be neglected. So it seems only logical to cancel the game subscription you are playing less and keep the one you are paying more. The company who made the less “addictive” of the two games loses a customer.
No other video game genre or type works this way. If you purchase a single player game, it is yours and you are free to play or neglect it. There is no financial drain you experience when you don’t play a game you purchased. If you buy two games and one is clearly better, you don’t necessarily feel bad about buying the other one. You can always go back to it later, and the publisher does not lose money because you are not playing it.
The other side of the equation coin is the so called network effect. Since MMO’s are inherently social games, most people want to play whatever their friends are playing. Because of this players tend to cluster around the titles that are already popular. Paradoxically, the only reliable way for an MMO to get more subscribers is by having a large subscriber base. It just so happens that the game with the largest number of active players is World of Warcraft. It has been the largest and most popular game on the market since inception, and no publisher has ever managed to match or exceed their subscriber count. New games come and go but Warcraft remains. Why is that?
Well, it’s because no one wants to pay two monthly fees at the same time. Some folks are willing to do this for a month or two in order to try out a new and exciting game but sooner or later they must make a decision and cancel one account. Which game do you keep though? The new one which most of your friends are playing, or the one only a few are? Let me rephrase that question: do you keep WoW and play with all your buddies, or do you keep the new MMO and play with Bob from work and his friend.
The big problem with the MMO market is that most people who are into this genre already have, or used to have a WoW account. If they are actively playing the game, the social pressure will usually prevent them from jumping ship. Those who have quit the game at some point, are probably not in the market for a new MMO. And if they were, they would just go back to WoW and play with their former guild mates and friends. Stealing customers from Blizzard is like trying to intercept a large number of satellites from a Jupiter sized object. You either need a lot of mass (eg. subscriber base) or a lot of thrust (ie. a kick ass game) – and you know you are not going to have the required mass at the launch date.
In fact, there are only two groups of people who can be easily snatched away:
- People who don’t like MMO’s in general
- People who don’t like World of Warcraft
The first group is going to be a tough sell for obvious reasons. The second group is your optimal target audience. They are the folks who have the disposable income to pay for your game, are not averse to the whole MMO idea, and have absolutely no interest in your main competitor. The only thing you need to do is to offer them a game they would like.
Sadly, every publisher out there is doing exactly the opposite. They build MMO games that are exactly like Warcraft. Why? Because that’s how they were always doing things – and it works for every single other game genre. I mean look at FPS games. The whole industry was spawned around the idea of making a better Doom type game with more features. And Doom was merely a better Wolfenstein 3D. Copying and improving upon a successful formula is almost a guaranteed return on investment in just about every field. And it tends to work even in over-saturated markets but… Most execs out there are sitting around scratching their heads trying to figure out what is Blizzard’s secret. They want a piece of that subscriber base, but since MMO development is exuberantly expensive they don’t want to take any risks. So they go for the safe thing: carbon copy ever feature and mechanic from Blizzard’s flagship product and release a “WoW with better graphics”, which is the worst thing you could possibly do.
That core demographic a fledgling MMO developer should pander to – the WoW haters – is not going to like this game? Why? Because it is just like WoW. Why would a WoW hater play a WoW clone? They won’t. So right off the bat you are competing with Blizzard on their own terms and you have neither the subscriber base nor innovation that you could dangle in front of their customers to entice them to join. No mass and no thrust.
The best way to compete with Blizzard seems to be not to compete with them at all. Build a game that is a deconstruction of WoW.
I once saw an interview with Jackie Chan in which he explained the inspiration he used to develop his off-beat martial arts style in his early movies. He mentioned that he watched a lot of Bruce Lee movies, observed his fighting style and then tried to do everything opposite. When Bruce would strike a pose theatrically wiping blood from the corner of his mouth, Jackie would fall over in pain, rubbing his ear or massaging his knee. When Bruce would use clean and precise blows, Jackie would botch a lot of his punches for comedic effect. Where Bruce fought cleanly, Jakie would fight dirty and so on. That’s exactly what you have to do when building a new MMO. Study your competitor and then do the opposite.
What does this mean? It means no more combat based on cool-down timers. It means changing the way players level up their characters. Perhaps get rid of the levels altogether and use a skill based system. It means changing the way group play works. Throwing away the standard tank, healer, damage dealer division of labor and replace it with something new and unusual. If you make a game that is interesting, addictive and at the same time nothing like WoW you can really make a dent in Blizzard’s subscriber base. How? It’s simple: via the network effect I mentioned before. Just how WoW siphons away subscribers from competing games, you could possibly steal theirs, but only if your user base is large enough.
Even if you won’t steal Blizzard’s customers you will be better off than your average WoW clone. Why? Because unlike most of other MMO games on the market your user base will be loyal one. Your subscribers won’t cancel after a month or two. They won’t feel guilty about neglecting “the other game” and they won’t feel the financial strain of paying two subscriptions.
Let me give you an example: EVE Online. It actually predates WoW, and while it does not have it’s subscription numbers it is still profitable, still growing and adding expansions. The same can’t be said for more recent games out there. Even those based on very strong licenses (Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings) couldn’t manage the competition and switched over to free play model. And you know that when an MMO stops charging for subscriptions they are desperate. EVE however never had this problem, largely due to the fact that it has almost no overlap with other games. There is just nothing else like it out there.
The next big thing in the MMO market is not going to be a WoW-clone. It can’t be. It will be something that is different, original and unexpected. At least that’s my prediction.