The Great MMO Paradox: Why Success Keeps Trumping Quality

by Wolfshead on September 12, 2010

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.

Conclusion

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.

-Wolfshead

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