The Great MMO Paradox: Why Success Keeps Trumping Quality

Think for just a moment, what would happen if we took the most classic sports and games of all time and asked two of today’s most successful gaming companies Blizzard and Zynga to remake them. What would be the end result?

Needless to say, the results would be disastrous. Take a sport like basketball. What would Blizzard and Zynga do? Both companies would probably lower the height of a basketball hoop so that everyone could play — after all they wouldn’t want to exclude short people, old people, unskilled people, disabled people — you name it. The effect would be to make basketball so easy to play that it would cease even being a sport and be more like a reality TV show.

The revered game of chess would be also unrecognizable if developed by modern game designers. They’d probably remove most of the pieces, reduce the size of the board, water down the need for strategy and make it closer to simplistic Tic Tac Toe — all in the name of broadening the demographic which means more subscribers which translates into more profits.

Well if you haven’t guessed it by now, this is exactly the sorry state of the video game industry in 2010: creating dumb games for dumb people equals big profits.

The Zyngafication of the MMO Industry

There’s an ongoing debate right now in the MMO blogosphere about the continual dumbing-down and simplification of MMOs. This diabolical trend exists for only one reason: to expand the current MMO demographic by inviting people on the fringes who previously lack the skill to compete and survive in older MMOs and get them to subscribe to newer more newbie friendly MMOs.

The success of Farmville is proof positive that there are now literally millions of housewives and others on the margins who previously weren’t interested in gaming, now paying and playing online games.

How Shareholders are Designing Our MMOs

Ralph Waldo Emerson said the following quote which has been the prime directive of our capitalist consumer culture: 

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

Sounds good doesn’t it? After all, consumers vote with their feet right? And it works for most products. But here’s the down side…

In the case of the video game industry, making a better game doesn’t necessarily mean you are making a great game. Ask anyone who’s played the same MMO for a few years. They will tell you that their MMO has become far too easy. Why? It’s due to the incredible pressure brought upon MMO companies by their shareholders to increase profits by making more popular games.

And it gets worse, consider the 60-70 million people that are playing Farmville and the millions of easy profits that Zynga is making and you can bet your epic weapons that investors will be demanding that video game companies dumb down their content to attract all of these people. Folks, if you care about the integrity of your MMO the future does not look good.

Even the most popular MMO today, the ubiquitous World of Warcraft is almost daily reinventing itself to become more accessible and inclusive to larger demographics. Rules, stats and formulas are in a constant state of flux. Nothing is permanent — except their stale, non-dynamic world — but that’s another subject. No wonder veteran players feel a sense of nostalgia for the good old days.

It is this lack of consistency that is contributing to the angst and frustration among the players. We are all feeling it. It’s not the desire to make a better game that is behind this push, rather it’s the desire to make an easier game for ulterior motives. The result being is that the devs continually tinker and endlessly optimize gameplay so they can lure in more subscribers.

Follow the Money

The truth of the matter is that gaming companies are in business to make profits. Sure, we’ve heard all of the trite slogans like “gamers making games for gamers”. But we need to be honest here: they are not in the business to make good games (we’ve seen great and innovative studios fail with great games). Rather, they are in the business to make games that people will pay for. When all is said and done, it’s all about money.

But as players we really don’t care about money, nor should we. Instead we care about the quality of the games we are playing. Right away we can see a philosophical divergence between the interests of the player and the developer.

Too often in our society, we let sales figures and numbers of hamburgers sold indicate and validate success. We’ve been seduced by the popular bandwagon hopping culture into thinking that success is more important than quality. Just because a game is successful doesn’t mean that game is great.

Which leads me to the flip side of this equation: just because a game is great doesn’t guarantee that the game will bring success to its creators. Looking at this from a purely Darwinian perspective, only the companies that survive will be able to make games. If being successful means the video game industry must create games that will attract more subscribers than a higher quality game where more skill is required from its participants then success will trump quality every time.

This is exactly why we are in the state we are in today.


For veteran players, eager bloggers and jaded commentators it is the relationship between success and quality that is the source of much of the angst we are feeling these days towards our beloved MMOs. All around us, we can see that our favorite virtual worlds are requiring less skill and becoming more juvenile. We know it in our hearts, yet we feel powerless to stem this trend. So what can we do?

We need to be realistic and admit that those of us that care about MMOs and virtual worlds are not in control despite our passion and concern. Still we must continue to speak loudly and boldly. We must hold fast to our dreams despite the popular inertia of the sycophantic zombies who mindlessly grovel whenever a new expansion comes out. A dark age is coming upon us and we must persevere. Someday when the light reappears, they’ll need historians who once knew of the greatness of the golden age of MMOs.

The only answer to this problem is that we’re going to have to let this play out to the bitter end. Eventually the public will get sick of MMOs and childish nonsense that they’ve devolved into. All things will pass.

We can only hope, that like a phoenix arising from the ashes that the MMO industry will bottom out like a junkie, go into rehab and fade into obscurity like a D list celebrity. Only then after the public has had enough of this sickening spectacle will there be a vacuum created and the desire for a quality MMO experience that reaches for the stars will be reborn.

As gamers there is something we can do to hasten this rebirth, we need to stop being complacent and start demand more quality from the industry. Even Warren Spector who gave the keynote address at PAX Prime 2010 in Seattle seems to be saying this:

If you’re a game player, start expecting more from the games that people like me are offering you…we can’t just settle for Deus Ex 47, 48, 49…

For those of us that keep clinging to the dream of fantastic dynamic virtual worlds where one person can indeed make a difference and where great civilizations can rise and fall from the stirring song of one traveling bard inspiring a simple farm boy or farm girl to take up arms to fight intruders and turn the tide of battle — we shall keep the faith and wait for that day.


29 thoughts on “The Great MMO Paradox: Why Success Keeps Trumping Quality

  1. I’d like to speak about something very briefly. This blog is about my opinions first and foremost. As a courtesy, I allow my readers to comment here.

    Commenting here is not a right, it’s a privilege. Anyone that fails to abide by the rules will be banned. I don’t have the time to police my own blog from the various malcontents and trolls who roam the Internet looking for sport.

    If you are going to comment then please do so respectfully. If not then please head over to YouTube or the official WoW forums where idiocy and immaturity are encouraged.

    I don’t mind if you disagree with me but do so in a polite and cogent manner without resorting to making personal attacks.

    Thank you for your time.


  2. Good points, but you’re making some pretty tenuous correlations here. Yes, stakeholders will always desire profits, but it’s up to the leadership of the company to identify strategies to realize these profits. Also yes, unfortunately some companies will pick the low hanging fruit (in your example, make games dumber). But truly good companies will always identify market segments that make sense.

    A big no no in business strategy is to focus on market share. This often leads to poor performances and disengagement with core audiences. Amazing companies will always focus on profit margin; what does it take to really knock something out of the ballpark for the market segment that we target?

    By no means am I trying to argue with you. You’ve stated your stance very clearly, I just want to let you know of a different perspective. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?

  3. “If you’re a game player, start expecting more from the games that people like me are offering you…we can’t just settle for Deus Ex 47, 48, 49…”

    Game players have been expecting more from games for decades. Its just not going to happen, because games are not designed for game players. Spector have been out of touch with reality for a long time now. For example, most of us will just settle for Deus Ex 2. We never had one decent sequel (or even a decent game in the same genre).

  4. While there isn’t necessarily a correlation between success and quality, I think there isn’t a correlation for the opposite either. Take for instance the highly intellectual and respected writer Umberto Eco’s book The Name of the Rose, which in the beginning of the 80s became a mega sucess – in the novel as well as the movie.

    I really enjoy your rhetorics and it always easier to come across if you paint the world in black and white. But I think you’re making it a little too simple in this case. The world is full of shades. I’m a newer gamer than you are. I enjoy WoW as it is now. I look forward to explore the new virtual worlds that lie ahead of us, currently just existing as ideas in the heads of the new, upcoming game developers.

    I honestly don’t think we live in the age of darkness. Rather in the age of infinite possibilities. But I suppose it’s partly a question of “is the glass half full or half empty”.

  5. The current paradigma of the MMO for everyone is that of one size fits all, and can only result in a seriously dumbed down game.
    The problem is it works, take a look at WoW and Farmville. People still play that. Some for years already.

    Just take a look at Gamespot or XFire, it seems all that is left today is “MMORPG” and “Multiplayer FPS”.

    I find it interesting that console games became more refined and cover more genres than in the very beginning. Now think about PC games. Rather the opposite.

    The games industry lost a lot of creativity that it had early on. It is time to recover it. The film industry usually does that, while you can bet Hollywood will be milking a success till part V-VI they still do not seem nearly as lazy and disenchanted as contemporary game designers.

    I hope for GW2. Last and best hope? If it does not work out and gets a wowified stew for the supposedly prototypical stupid MMO gamer, which I am quite afraid of, what is left? More DIKU-derivates? Time to read books, watch movies and give up on fantasy or SciFi in computer based RPGs. I am afraid everyone dreaming of the MMORPG genre becoming more than the mess it is at the moment might be already dead or have moved on before that happens.

  6. I was having a similar argument with one of my friends about beer the other day. A company like Coors or Budweiser (both are subsidiary corporations of large multinational conglomerates, btw) makes cheap beer that is affordable, tolerable and not particularly exciting in order to cater to the largest audience. These companies succeed and reap the benefit in billions of dollars of earnings each year. Compare this to your favorite smaller brewery (mine is Sierra Nevada). The quality is going to be better, and the price is going to be higher.

    I agree, Wolfshead. Until a private company whose leaders are more concerned with pursuing their passion in gaming than with lining the pockets comes around, we aren’t going to see any quality games.

    The biggest problem for non-publicly traded companies is funding. Video games are so top-heavy on the initial investment, that many programmers and game devs are simply unwilling to invest their livelihoods in an industry with one of the most dubious track records for success, in existence! After all, who wants to spend two to five years of his life on a project that goes belly up?

  7. It’s a shame that money is against making great games in the vast majority of cases. Appealing to the lowest common denominator is a great way to make money, but a bad way to make games that will people people who are enthusiastic and informed gamers.

    The popularization of the MMO genre doesn’t mean that fewer great games will be made, though, it just means that more crappy games and more games the appeal to the weakest and lowest will be made. The signal-to-noise ratio in the genre decreases significantly for this reason, so it appears as if companies are refusing to make good games.

    It has gone a similar direction in the RTS space. There are lots of very poorly made RTSes that fail to even pull off the basics of a playable base-building, micro-centric RTS. Then there are games like Company of Heroes and RUSE that wade through the muck to do something new and great, while still having a high production values. RTSes do not fall prey to the same lust for numbers that MMORPGs do, though.

    As an aside: Why don’t you speak with your feet and stop buying WoW expansions, Wolfshead?

  8. MMOs are particularly susceptible to “following the money” simply because they are expensive beasts. There’s still a lot of good game design going on in the indie space, it’s just at a lower budget and with smaller scope… and it’s almost never an MMO. Until MMOs can be developed cheaply and effectively by a small indie team with strong game design vision, and players can accept that they won’t look like WoW, but more like Love, we’re stuck with big-box design making the waves in the MMO space.

  9. I’m having trouble making sense of the metaphor. Basketball and chess are already about as easy as games can get. Elementary school kids have chess clubs. People in wheelchairs have professional basketball leagues (with a slightly modified set of rules.) Learning to play these games is easy; what’s hard is learning to play them skillfully.

    Yes, if you spend your whole life playing basketball and chess against elementary school students then you’re going to get frustrated about how easy it is, but that’s not the rules’ fault.

    If you like the idea of playing WoW, but you don’t think it’s challenging enough, there are lots of ways to create challenges for yourself. (E.g., PvP, speed runs, running instances undergeared/undermanned/underlevelled.)

    • I felt the same thing about the analogy, and actually this is exactly what Blizzard is trying to do with WoW. Anyone can play basketball, but they can’t play in the NBA. Anyone can play chess, but they can’t become a grandmaster Blizzard is trying to make it so anyone can play WoW, but they are completely unapologetic if you can’t beat heroic Lich King or Yogg +0 (which are harder than anything from the “good old days”).

      To some extent you are right. When they say that there is no sense in spending all of their design time working on raiding if only 1% of players ever get to experience it, that is – in way – admitting that they are after the market. But even without bringing in the sale perspective, it just makes sense. They had a huge art department making incredible scenery for Naxxramas and an audience of millions who never got to see it. What sense did that make?

  10. 1 mio player rating a MMO 7/10, and thus buying it, are better for the company than 500k player that would rate the MMO 9/10.

    It is called the lowest common denominator or “The Hollywood Curse”. Nobody leaves a movie if there is some silly love affair. But some wouldn’t want to watch that movie. Thus, every Hollywood movie has a love affair, and a fist fight, and young actors ..

    • It is called the lowest common denominator or “The Hollywood Curse”. Nobody leaves a movie if there is some silly love affair. But some wouldn’t want to watch that movie if there was none. Thus, every Hollywood movie has a love affair, and a fist fight, and young actors ..

  11. A very good read. I’m always surprised at how some wow gamers especially won’t tolerate any sort of critique of the game or even try and silence you by saying ‘it’s successful hence all is better’. i’m not sure is it ignorance or fanboyism?
    it’s a very black&white perspective – obviously from a developers point of view popularity equals quality, I wonder if we as gamers do ourselves and the market as a whole any service by assuming the same one-dimensional and uncritical view of games. some great games out there will never make it to a wider audience because they simply lack the financial backup. some really bad games are successful because they’re marketed the right way.
    so are you a self-thinking customer or not? well if we look at how PR and media work today, it’s not very inspiring.
    down the line it probably comes down to re-defining certain genres in the future, too.

  12. this is a bigger issue than just videogames… it’s an issue with our economy and how we measure success in the corporate world.

    i find what RO said in the first comment about market share very interesting… i’m about ready to graduate from business school and a very common way for us to compare companies in case studies and things is by market share… i always thought it was strange because someone could have 90% market share but only make 1 cent in profit on their product, while another company has 10% market share but makes 20 cents in profit on each product… the smaller market share company is actually making double the profit… but we would never know because we don’t look at the profit numbers and instead focus on market share.

    the real problem is that (from my experience) a lot of companies do in fact base their bonuses and incentives on things like market share… and when you’re giving incentives and basing your strategy around anything but PROFIT then you’re doing it wrong, just like RO said…

    bringing game companies back into it… it simply isn’t competitive enough yet that basing your strategy on market share will come back to bite you in the ass… when you have the 1 item that is far and away the best choice in a particular category, there is no reason not to focus solely on market share… profit and market share might as well be the same thing in this situation… it’s not until you get enough similar products that can all do the job well that you really need to start focusing on profit… if there is decent competition and you focus solely on market share, then you’re in trouble… but until there is sufficient competition it’s totally safe to focus on market share and neglect the rest of your business plan.

    until it becomes beneficial to shift the focus away from market share, then we’re going to continue down this road of dumbed down, casual MMOs.

    the real key to breaking this cycle is to find a way to make a quality MMO that isn’t so damn expensive and time consuming.

    we need a Galaxy Editor for MMOs.. (that’s the new Starcraft 2 editor fyi).

    • Market share is extremely important for MMOs because there are large economies of scale. Much of the cost of delivering a MMO is the cost of content/games system development and bug fixing. These costs (particularly development) are largely independent of the number of customers.

      For this reason, I don’t expect to see less of a focus on market share anytime soon.

  13. @Logan

    Glad to see someone formally trained chiming in. What you’re identifying is the market leader phenomenon. If you are the market leader (that is, you have the largest market share) then your biggest challenge is grow the market, followed closely by reducing your operating expenses.

    Now a pretty well documented life cycle of companies is that the larger they grow, the more they tend to want to grab. So you’ll see companies deviating from their core competencies. Car companies operating financial institutions is a good example. What happens eventually is that niche players will always pop up and completely take over a channel that’s being neglected.

    Back to video games. As the market leaders in MMOs cast a wider and wider net, they will lose the ability to completely cater for everyone. See where I’m going?

    So, the task for new entrants is? To properly evaluate which market segment is getting disillusioned by the market leader and take it away. The challenge is identifying this segment, evaluating its attractiveness, and position yourself well to target them.

    Me? I’ve been trying to break into the VG industry this year, hoping to bring some of my education and training to bear. So far? I’ve been shot down for having no direct experience. What about LOVE?! :) alright enough rant.

  14. Great post!

    To follow up on Tesh’s point, one thing gamers can do in the meantime is support indie developers. Obviously they’re not the AAA extravaganzas we might want, but there are lots of smaller games out there with great gameplay, immersion, and artistic integrity. Support the EVEs and Fallen Earths of the world rather than the WoW clones, and hopefully we’ll see more of the former.

  15. I’m all for supporting quality and the specific types of games/entertainment/food/stuff you enjoy over mainstream “one size fits all” lowest common denominator drivel.

    I do wonder though how many people are willing to put their money where their mouths are and pay a premium for that quality. Or will take the easier, cheaper, more convenient way out because it involves less effort and investment.

    Would you pay $45-60 for an MMO monthly subscription that catered to your niche preferences, or would you maintain that that it had to be $15 or cheaper and run off to one of the big name companies that make a profit by attracting anybody and everybody?

    • Great point Jeromai. The problem is the “one size fits all” mentality that tries to be all things to all people. It’s this kind of inflexibility on the part of companies like Blizzard which is contributing to this problem. Even Macdonald’s has menu options beyond offering their patrons a Big Mac.

      I’d gladly pay $10 a month extra to play on a server with adults only. I’d gladly pay more for playing on a hardcore server where the mobs are tougher and experience is harder to get.

        • I’d pay to play on official niche servers. To me, it’s no different than paying extra to eat at an expensive restaurant with a dress code. If you want to be surrounded with good food, good ambience and good people you have to pay! :)

    • I have repeated said that I am willing to pay some hundred euro/month for a really good MMO. Because, let’s face it: My one neighbor spends thousands of euro on his oldtimer cars, the other endless amounts of money on his model railway. The third puts all he earns on extra expensive vacations.

      So, yes, we need product differentiation in this ‘market’. Somehow the industry acknowledged that players became older (we are all casual now *sigh*), but I still pay the same amount I payed as student.

      Dear MMO industry: My disposable income has significantly risen in the last decade. Would you please allow me to spend the money (and not in an item shop!!).

  16. @RO

    exactly!… you just put it much more eloquently than i ever could

    however i do still think that the key to being able to break into those new and disillusioned segments is finding a way to create quality games quicker and easier… there are definitely segments out there that are waiting to be addressed… but without a huge pile of money no studio will ever be able to polish and refine their niche game enough to make it successful…

    while there are definitely segments to be tapped, the cost of tapping them is just astronomically high… blizzard has set the bar so high that it’s just not cost effective to even attempt to fill an existing niche.

    until it becomes cheaper to access those niches, i just don’t see anything changing in the MMO landscape.

  17. Needless to say, the results would be disastrous. Take a sport like basketball. What would Blizzard and Zynga do?

    Actually, the “WOWification” of popular sports has already occured.

    What do football, hockey, soccer and basketball have in common with WoW and Farmville? They all require very little skill or effort on the part of the majority of their paying customers.

    Yes, it takes a lot of work and talent to become a world star or an Olympic champion, but such luminaries are not the ones who pay for the game out of their pockets. On the contrary, they get paid a very nice sum for their performance (and in this regard, they have more in common with Blizzard’s employees rather than players).

    No, the ones who pay the bills for all those shiny stadiums and last-second touchdowns are the fans and spectators. The ones who buy tickets to games or gobble up advertisements while watching it on TV with a beer in their hand.

  18. With the high level comparisons here, I can’t help but thing of politics.

    Take a fresh politician – they say the right things, have the right motives, and want to enact change. When I was in University (some years ago) I was a a youth leader for a major political party (in Canada).

    The parties back then gave youth real power and decision making. At policy conventions we made up around 30% of the decision making votes. So much power, in fact, that we ended up playing policy politics with the big guys – they would come to us, say they want to push for tax incentive A, but they needed our support to make that happen because the vote would be a close one. Because of that we learned early (and often) to bargain and help shape policy. Sure, that tax incentive A policy makes sense, but we can’t support that initiative while the federal student loan policy continues to hamper enrollment due to this area of that decision making. So change that, and we’ll work with you on this. The end result, once a bunch of changes started going through that the big dogs started disliking, is they took away our 30% and left us with a token 5%.

    Back then, there were several political parties in Canada, all with youth reps and youth influence. I would sit in a pub with the young Conservative, and the young NDP leaders (being a young Liberal myself) and while they were ‘the enemy’ we would wax poetically over pints how all of us needed to continue our political careers, get into positions where we could enact real, positive change in the political system, and make those changes. We were all looking forward to shaping the situation into something better – even being on all opposites sides of the political spectrum and ‘enemies’ in the sphere nonetheless.

    Fast forward 5 years, and that same group of interested, engaged, intelligent political wannabes sitting around a different pub talking how and why we aren’t involved anymore. Turns out, in order to get the power to enact change in the political sphere, you have to play the current game. By the time your morals, energy, and views were siphoned through the current system you would have abandoned the core of what you are to GET the power to make change. And by the time you get into that position, the party politics ensures that to keep the power in your own group you have to pander to their systems and initiatives, and the idealism you once carried as a banner has been shaped into typical political mode and you are a former shade of your idealistic viewpoints.

    Basically, in a nutshell, the system itself excludes the possibility for the change the system so direly needs.

    Apology for the tangent – the connection to the gaming sphere may not be so obvious. In order for the indie gaming company to get the funds to create any sort of game that we continually dream of they have to pander to the VC’s and publishers to such an extent that the initial vision of change would, in the end, end up being Blizzified and Zynga’d to the extent that we get the same old, same old. The current system itself makes that the only realistic outcome. Until the rules are changed, the game(s) will remain the same.

  19. until it becomes beneficial to shift the focus away from market share, then we’re going to continue down this road of dumbed down, casual MMOs.

    I think there’s a difference with MMOs in that numbers breed numbers. It’s a social thing so people will play a game they dislike rather than a game they like if their friends are playing the former. Market share in MMOs acts like a gravity field.

    If so then apart from indie games or a big company going down the route of trying to build a stable of niche games for the cumulative profit i think another possible outcome is a big company aiming to make a scaleable game i.e

    – the default graphics look good and run on a toaster but there are a lot of graphical options you can switch on if you have a high-end machine

    – the default difficulty scale is set low but there are options you can select on a character by character basis or a server basis that cranked it up to the level you liked

  20. I Disagree with all of your points and must laugh at any link between WoW and Farmville made seriously. a player at home clicking on bland cows ready to be milked is rather different to a tank in Ice Crown Citadel taking down the Lich King in a 25 man raid.

    Of course games are being simplified, and so they should be. the better for the demographics to play it, i’m not sure who this post is aimed at? is it elitists upset that there mum may roll a character on WoW any day to get to level 10?

  21. @Wolfshead You mention the “..desire for a quality MMO experience…”.
    Is there an MMO that you actively play that gives you this experience?
    So often we hear rumblings of the perfect game without the notion of what is wanted – perhaps this is an evolution towards finding it?

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