Overcoming current trends – The vocation of virtual worlds

Hundred of new mmopgs are being announced and NOT A SINGLE ONE HAS ONE GOOD IDEA.

People are predicting now that the market will saturate. It doesn’t make much sense after the exploit of WoW but “believing in WoW’ would be like believing to the latest new trend. Instead trends are there to be broken, and from my point of view it’s beacause of WoW that there are now signs that the market is saturating.

This is what Jeff Strain (Guild Wars Exec Producer) has seen in this genre:

What people didn’t realize was that if you’re hard core enough to pay a subscription for a game you’re not going to do it with 2 games or 3 games or 8 games. You’re really only going play one game a year. What we saw was it was kind of stifling people’s ability to give them the freedom to go try a bunch of different games like you would normally do. Also once you got into it you were kind of forced to make this choice: either this is going to be a lifestyle commitment for me or I’m going to devote all my gaming hours to playing this one game.

There is truth in these comments. I’ve often repeated that this genre comes from an history of niche appeal. Hardcore players dedicated to THIS genre more like a “vocation” than just a general gaming culture. It was a world on its own, a world with an high price of admittance and that built its own community above the single title exactly because we all had something in common.

Now those communities are becoming weaker because the confines are blurred and this genre isn’t anymore a matter of an handful of a selected players. It is getting exposed to the large public and drawing the attention and legitimation of the non-specialized media. It is harder for a player to recognize himself in a group now. There isn’t anymore a strong identity for the mmorpg players. We aren’t anymore “special”.

The result of all this is two folds. The first part is that the market is expanding. WoW didn’t exactly demonstrate that the market is expanding at an increased pace, but more like that the market doesn’t have a defined dimension. If you reinvent it, it can be much larger, or much smaller. It is malleable, it cannot be “observed” or predicted. It doesn’t need outsider analysts because it’s a brand new space. And, as a brand new space, it has no rules.

But how WoW was able to rack up a large number of subscribers (not players, subscribers) beside launching everywhere? From my point of view, WoW isn’t an exception to the rule, it confirms it. I believe that WoW really reinvented the market but without changing its rules. It is often seen as a not innovative game, it just took all the influences in the genre and worked to make them well-olied, simplified. Removing the great majority of the Bad Habits and leaving behind the overcomplication that was plaguing the genre. It didn’t invented anything but it addressed exactly what the genre, and the market, needed: the accessibility.

The significant element in WoW’s growth is that it cleared the genre of its “hardcore” status. From there the conflict between “casual players Vs hardcore” that the game wasn’t able to solve.

In fewer words: WoW resolved the past of this genre, but it doesn’t represent its future.

We’ll have to wait for future titles (or former companies to wake up, but it won’t happen till it’s too late) to move past that point, to overcome the current trend, with a new one. It is obviously a path of obsolescence because the genre is immature and it still has a long way to go. You cannot sit down in a point because that’s not what it is needed now. And I’m in the minority saying that these virtual worlds shouldn’t become static oasis punctuating the history and evolution of this genre, but that they should move along with it. Accompany it. Fulfilling their unique vocation and quality.

At the very origin of all these considerations there is the fact that you need to have *an idea* to bring something to this genre. Do you want just a slice of the pie or do you know the ingredients that are missing? My impression, back to where I started, is that hundred of new mmorpgs are being announced but none of them seem to bring anything valuable to this genre. They seem doomed to become just short-lived comets generating a couple of threads on a mmorpg forum as they are launched to be then forgotten while trying to survive in their small niche in the following months.

These “lesser” mmorpgs try to survive in the interstices between the bigger titles, with the vain hope to become big titles themselves. But where are the premises to achieve that status? Where are the ideas?

This brings back to what Jeff Strain said above. The mmorpg market is a particular one. It’s not the same of single player games and follows completely different rules. This market is much more competitive because it’s not just a matter of placing a product, but a matter of winning an audience in the longer term. To create bonds with the players. To create a virtual world that can walk and evolve on its own, as a “vituous world”. Buy “shares” of that world, becoming part of it. Sharing an identity.

A lot more than being seduced for a few hours of satisfying playtime.

Some people, like Raph or Jeff Strain up here, believe that the only way to break this trend and generate a new one is to introduce a new business model that could break the accessibility barrier of the subscription fee. Discarding the very foundation of the mmorpg model. This could lure more potential players in, possibly for free (like the hypotetical game that SOE is supposed to develop right now), and then get money from different sources like RMT or content-on-demand. In a second moment this becomes even a strategy involving the content of the games: the plurality of genres (past the fantasy cliche) and the “bite-sized” games.

This is exactly the “Blue Ocean strategy” or, in simpler words, “thinking out of the box”. Change the rules.

I’m bringing all this up because I’m not in that group. That’s not the faction I’m fighting for. It’s not what I’d like to see. This doesn’t mean that I see that approach as faulty (but I also don’t see it any less risky), but it implies a shift of interest to completely diffent products. It’s not just a way to “present” the same thing.

Instead I’m here for the mmorpgs in their original premise (like: “the immersion” as a founding value). Of course not in their original bad habits and flaws. But I see a future, advancement and innovation in THIS genre. Not in a new one. I like this precise thing that I see right now as both faulty and promising. But I’m not a developer trying to find a new space. I’m just “a player” who is passionate about this precise thing. Investing in this.

If the market is competitive it doesn’t mean that it must be played out. That’s exclusively the perspective of the businessman. A subscription model isn’t just a way to sell a product. It is a way to define it. Part of what it is. You can reinvent the market but you cannot give us “what we want”.

There are always two different fronts. One is about expanding the market to new and completely different products, the other is about advancing a specific genre. I am interested and strongly believe in the second.

Now the point is: all those hundreds of new mmorpgs that are being developed don’t fall in any of the two categories. They aren’t new products, nor they bring new ideas.

I really don’t know what to think.

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