Do MMOs Get Too Much Hype, Too Soon?
Suppose you’re launching a new brand of, let’s say, soda. Your fantastic new elixir, Jason-Cola – love the name, BTW – is a refreshing alternative to those big-brand colas on the market.
You launch an extensive marketing campaign, hire a celebrity spokesman, get placement in all the grocery stores, and then, on the first day your product is available – the public hates it.
Not everyone, mind you… you’ve still got some fans, who like it just because it isn’t Coke or Pepsi. But it’s clear your soda has flaws. Maybe it’s not fizzy enough, maybe it’s too acidic – maybe it just doesn’t taste right.
The problem is, though, that thousands, or maybe millions, of people have tried your soda and it’s left, quite literally, a bad taste in their mouths. Good luck getting those people back; in fact, good luck launching anything ever again. Your brand, along with hundreds of cases of subpar soda, is very likely in the toilet.
By this point, you’ve probably seen through my clever analogy: Jason-Cola is an MMORPG. More specifically, it’s a modern, AAA MMO, which inundates prospective players with marketing hype for months – if not years – leading up to a game’s launch, sees a lot of opening action, and then shrinks rapidly, weighed down by a flood of negativity from jilted players who didn’t get exactly what they wanted and are going back to their own standbys, cursing your name and vowing never again to fall for your tricks.
Is this the fault of overaggressive and poorly timed marketing? Consider this: An MMO is at its worst – its absolute worst – when it launches. Technical issues, overcrowded servers, queues, bugs, poorly implemented gameplay… these are all things that haunt every new game, but can generally be overcome with a little time.
The problem is, this is the exact point when there will be the most people in a game. So what an MMO maker is doing is, in effect, exposing the most possible people to the worst possible version of his product. It seems like a bad idea, and it probably is.
We know why it’s done, of course. MMOs cost millions – in some cases, tens or hundreds of millions – to make, and investors want to see a return on that investment now.
I think there’s also some lingering mindset of the promotion of single-player games. When one of those launches, you want to draw as many people to it as soon as you can, because in two or three months, everyone will have moved on to the next game.
That’s not the case with MMOs. If you’re only thinking about the number of players you’ll have after three months, you’re doing it wrong. If all you’re concerned about is first-day, first-week, or first-month box sales, then you’re probably just setting yourself up for failure.
It makes for a great press release, though, doesn’t it? “Over one million players have tried our game!” That’s great, but how many are sticking around through the post-launch period? What would be better? One million players in your first month – many of whom will leave shortly thereafter – or steady grown leading to one million regular players after six months?
Sadly, most companies – and especially most executives – would take the first option, because they believe that having a million players in one month means they’ll have two million in three months, three million in six months, and so on. By and large, it doesn’t work that way – not with single-player video games and certainly not with MMOs.
This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be MMO hype or marketing. Just maybe… I don’t know… spread it out a little bit? Don’t blow your entire wad at launch, save a good chunk of it for down the line, so you can keep those servers packed long after your opening weekend, when you can show them a better, more refined and bug-free version of your game.
But does some of the blame lie with players, as well? Do we expect too much – or do we expect just the right amount?
Old vs. New
Going back to Jason-Cola, suppose you don’t like it, but a friend of yours does. Would he say, “Sure, it’s not as good as Coke, but Coke’s been around for a hundred years! They’ve had lots of time to perfect their formula, just give these new guys a chance!”
You don’t care. All you care is that you paid $1.29 for your bottle of J-C, and you can get a bottle of Coke or Pepsi for roughly the same amount, and it’s better. Free market principles would say that the better product will get more sales, and it doesn’t matter how long one of them’s been around. If you can’t make something that competes with today’s offerings, then don’t make it.
So should we hold up a new MMO to the standards of an old one, usually World of Warcraft? If the new game doesn’t (yet) have a group finder, tons of endgame content, robust PvP, or whatever, should we be patient and wait for it to come along?
Or do we just go back to our old, comfortable MMO, which has everything we want, even if it is a bit stale? A lot of people do, by the looks of it.
But do we owe it to the “new guy” – whether it’s an MMO or a soda – to give it time to grow, to work out its kinks, and to “catch up” to the bigger, more established brands? No new MMO could ever match the feature set or raw amount of content of one that’s been out for eight years. It simply isn’t possible for a new MMO to be as refined, as polished, or to have as many features as World of Warcraft. It will never happen, and we need to stop expecting it.
If you’re patient, you might counsel the devs to take longer to put the game out, but there has to be a limit to that – not only because of the aforementioned investors, but because if you try to put everything into an MMO, it’ll be in development forever. There’s always more you can add before launch, but there’s a question as to whether you should.
And if we don’t like it initially, will we ever consider giving it a try later?
After Star Trek Online went free-to-play, Executive Producer Dan Stahl said that he hoped players would come back and see all the improvements that had been made. I was one of those players, and I had to agree that the game was much improved over the version that had launched two years earlier.
STO was the classic example of a game that was heavily hyped and then, for many people, failed to live up to immediate expectations. For some, Star Wars: The Old Republic fits that bill now. Or TERA. Or The Secret World. Or Guild Wars 2.
Maybe it’s fair that these games are judged right out of the box, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s the developers’ fault, maybe it’s the unrealistic expectations of the consumers.
I’m just going to think about it for a spell, while enjoying the cool, clear taste of a sparkling Jason-Cola. In stores now!