The Fundamental Problem Plaguing MMOs

Imagine what would happen if your favorite restaurant changed out their staff every few years? It would be hard to believe that the quality of the food would still remain the same with new owners, new managers, new chefs, and new cooks. Successful restaurants rely on repeat business from loyal customers for revenue. In order to do this they need to serve tasty cuisine that has consistent quality.

The same is true of MMOs. MMOs are unique in the video game world in that they provide a continuous service. One can never “win” a MMO like they can a video game. Whether the monetization model is free to play or subscription based, MMOs rely on players continuing to spend money to keep playing. In return, MMO players have the reasonable expectation that the future content will be of the same level of quality and style as previous content which attracted them to the virtual world in the first place. When MMO companies fail to deliver on these expectations, players vote with their feet and stop playing and paying.

Why do MMO studios screw up and fail to deliver the play experience that players expect them to?

There are a myriad of reasons but one in particular rises above the rest. Like the restaurant that keeps changing their staff, over time MMO companies routinely change both their management and their staff and fail to deliver a consistent level of quality and vision. Essentially, this is a people problem. Bad managers hire bad developers. Bad developers make bad expansions.

From EverQuest to World of Warcraft, as the staff changes, inevitably so too will the MMORPG. Video games are a by-product of the people that make them. Art reflects the artist. Garbage in, garbage out.

The clearest example of this problem is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. Up until the Wrath of the Lich King expansion this monster MMORPG enjoyed greater success each year. But, it would not last forever. Blizzard decided to gut the WoW team after Wrath of the Lich King and sent the talented “A” team to Project Titan, an ambitious new MMO. Then the mediocre Blizzard “B” team filled with newer developers was put in charge of the WoW franchise and the results were a series of disastrous expansions that lost millions of subscribers and ultimately took us the beleaguered WoW of today.

Most, if not all MMORPGs are plagued by this problem. This problem is so endemic that almost every single thing that has gone wrong in MMOs is related to the lack of consistent vision and committed stewardship exhibited by both management and staff.

The Revolving Door Problem

It is the nature of developers to put their careers first and who can blame them? People want to get promoted and earn more money, so most will have no choice but seek out promotions in their current studio or move to different studios to achieve this. This creates two problems:

  1. When a developer gets a promotion, they may have a new set of responsibilities which creates a vacancy for their old position.
  2. When a developer leaves a studio, they take their experience and institutional knowledge with them. Then the studio has to find competent developers to replace the old ones.

Compare the credits of the venerable EverQuest over the years and you’ll see that with a few exceptions, the creative director, lead designers, artists, and other developers kept changing from launch and on through every expansion. Every expansion fundamentally changed EQ some for the better, but most for the worse.

Over the years, EQ kept changing its focus. It went from being a grouping game where classes experience the synergy of class interdependence to a large scale raiding game. Then as WoW became popular and it became harder for new players to start fresh in EQ and catch up to their raiding brethren, SOE started to emphasize soloing with the introduction of mercenaries. Now the original EverQuest is split into two MMORPGS: the live version that releases new expansion and a classic TLP (time locked progression) version where players experience the original EverQuest with subsequent expansions released every few months.

It is one thing for a MMORPG studio to be flexible and incrementally change the game as their players change and as certain trends influence the industry like the success of Blizzard’s WoW, but EQ was all over the place like a wayward ship, lost at sea. Even thematically, in the space of 5 years, the lore went from European themed high fantasy, to space aliens, and then to the pseudo African theme of Gates of Discord. It was a hot and directionless mess with little to no cohesion and consistency. Even the art style changed over the years. While I utterly despise today’s WoW, at least Blizzard took great pains to mandate a cohesive art style over the years. EverQuest failed on this.

A big part of the problem (Jeff Butler made this astute observation in a recent video interview) is that there were no key people there that had the strength of personality and passion to sell the original vision in the studio over a period of years. Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler left the studio before the release of Planes of Power and no existing employees distinguished themselves enough to take the mantle of leadership. As a result, the EQ franchise eventually faltered.

Most if not all of these problems can be laid at the door of SOE’s executive management and John Smedley in particular. For whatever reason, Smedley and SOE failed to create a studio culture that could attract and retain top talent. The result was a revolving door.

To make matters worse, Smedley was set in his ways and refused to learn the lessons of Blizzard’s WoW and made mistake after mistake and drove the EverQuest franchise into the ground. Eventually the franchise was sold to investment bankers and rapacious global “gaming” companies like Enad Global 7.

Having a bad CEO that never leaves is just as bad as having new CEOs that keep changing the focus of the company.

How to Fix This Problem Part 1: The Importance of Reading the Design Document

It may be unrealistic to expect that every video game studio can retain all of it’s top talent. However, some of this could have been avoided if the people in charge of EQ had actually read the design document. A design document is a bible that clearly lays out everything about your video game. This is for internal purposes and should be read and followed by every developer.

Every video game should have a design document that fully describes the vision of the game, the user experience, and every possible aspect of the game. But for MMORPGs, the design document is even more important due to the fact that players will be inhabiting a virtual world for months if not years. As as developer, you owe it to your players to have a consistent vision and design philosophy and stick to it.

EverQuest is a great example of a fantasy MMORPG that failed to adhere to the initial design document in future expansions. There is a picture of the EQ design document that shows is in a picture frame protected by glass. There is a phrase on the glass: break in case of emergency.

I submit that EQ had multiple emergencies. This glass should have been shattered many times.

While I don’t have direct evidence that most EQ devs have never read the design document, one can easily come to that conclusion given the many missteps that SOE made over the years. I don’t want to get into the weeds too much in this article but it was very obvious that certain classes fell in and out of favor in the first 7 years of EQ. Since the devs kept changing there was no consistent design philosophy for the classes over the years.

How to Fix This Problem Part 2: The Importance of Enforcing Studio Culture

Back in 2004, the concept of culture barely existing in most video game studios. Studio culture was more of an organic and emergent thing in those days. The soul stealing and dehumanizing ethos of corporate America were workers were treated like numbers was still the dominant workplace philosophy. Middle and upper management — most of them friends of the CEO — would get all the rewards on the backs of the developers who actually did all the work. Former SOE and EQ dev Jeff Butler talks about this kind of corporate, bureaucratic, and managerial paralysis in that same aforementioned video interview with Sean Lord.

However, along the way, some MMO studios like Blizzard subverted their own culture and introduced values their cultural bloodstream that were foreign to the best interest of players which is making great MMOs for their players. Politics and social engineering become the order of the day as diversity, inclusion, representation, and LGBTQ pandering rapidly consumed all of the oxygen in the studio as older developers were alienated and marginalized in favor of newer woke hires.

So we are in 2022. Every MMO studio should have a robust employee retention program that seeks to retain existing employees. At the very least, this can be done with generous yearly salary increases and bonuses. Every studio should strive to create, nurture, and maintain a studio culture that keeps both players and developers happy in that order. Developers should want to show up for work everyday. Developers should want to please the MMO subscribers that pay their salaries.

Every organization that is formed with a mission statement, product/service vision needs to ensure that those values survive and thrive. Studios should have enthusiastic evangelists and cultural gatekeepers whos sole responsibility is to protect their culture from being subverted from without and within. Every employee must be expected to be on board with the furtherance of studio culture.

Most woke studios have hired diversity, inclusion, and equity human resources officers to police their studio culture. This is a good example of cultural and ideological gatekeeping. While I strongly oppose neo-Marxist studio culture and the horrible video games that this ideology produces, at least leftist studios understand the importance of gatekeepers and are protective of their culture.

How to Fix This Problem Part 3: Stop Promoting People to the Level of their Incompetence

The PETER Principle is well-known cautionary problem that has plagued corporate America for decades. Here’s a good explanation:

The Peter Principle is an observation that the tendency in most organizational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level of respective incompetence. In other words, a front-office secretary who is quite good at her job may thus be promoted to executive assistant to the CEO for which she is not trained or prepared for—meaning that she would be more productive for the company (and likely herself) if she had not been promoted.

Too often, MMO studios have promoted great designers and artists to supervisory and managerial positions. While it was good for the financial situation of the developers, the MMO suffered because these talented developers weren’t doing what they really loved. EverQuest’s Brad McQuaid was a good example of this as he was promoted to a high position in management and his supervisory duties took him away from the thing he loved: making great MMORPGs. The result was that Brad took his eye off the ball and become distracted by things that were well above his natural abilities and affinities. EverQuest suffered because of it, all thanks to the PETER principle.

Endless promotions to fill vacancies, creates a revolving door feeling in MMO studios. This contributes to the lack of philosophical design stability that a MMO needs in order to stay on course for their players.

Studios should do all they can to retain their employees because it costs money to recruit and train new employees.

Instead, we have MMO studios like SOE, Daybreak Games and Enad Global 7 who routinely layoff their employees. This creates a sense of instability and insecurity amount existing developers. They see the writing on the wall and wonder if they are next. Meanwhile, management staff keep their cushy jobs and get bonuses for doing nothing.

How to Fix This Problem Part 4: Keep Appealing to Your Original Target Audience

There is nothing more important than exhibiting loyalty to your existing players. Consumed by greed and hubris, MMO companies and their shareholders, seem to forget this. Instead of playing the long game, they want instant results and put relentless pressure on MMO studios to find ways to expand their player base via appealing to wider demographics. This is often done by dumbing down the gameplay to appeal to new players which leaves your target audience feeling betrayed.

Trying to be all things to all people is a foolish pursuit that will end in ruin. There is never a good reason to alienate your target demographic. You simply cannot be welcoming to all people and expect to run a profitable company. Yet we have big entertainment companies like Activision-Blizzard who continue to believe and peddle this specious nonsense.

CEOs must somehow find the fortitude to put their gamers first and put investors in their place and stick to their mission statemen and vision.

How to Fix This Problem Part 5: Avoid the Temptation to Follow Fads

It bears repeating that most problems that afflict MMORPGs are based on vision, design, and execution inconsistency. We see this happening to other industries who have radically changed their mission statement and vision over the years due to the intrusion of wokeness and demographic chasing. It was just reported that Netflix lost 200,000 subscribers and 40% of it’s share value. Other large corporations like Disney and the NFL who have dug deep into the nasty rabbit hole of wokeness have suffered shocking drops in viewership and revenues.

Stop caring about what the people who don’t play your game think. Avoid the temptation to follow social media fads and bandwagons.

The Buck Stops with the CEO

A fish rots from the head on down. This is true of corporations where CEOs set the tone for better or for worse for the entire company and it’s products and services. The attitude of the CEO trickles down and washes over everyone and everything at the typical American corporation.

There is a crisis of leadership at most MMO studios. Today’s typical California CEO is an inept coward and a spineless weakling who is afraid of his own shadow, the performative rage of the esoteric Twitter mob, and his over-opinionated leftist wife who probably wears the pants in his Orange County luxury mansion. Instead of demonstrating unswerving loyalty to his target audience, the average spineless CEO embraces the latest societal fads that further alienate his core audience.

Conclusion

MMOs are perhaps the most difficult of all video games to create. However, if successful, they can reward the studio with massive profits. There are many ways to fail but few ways to succeed. It is my hope that new MMO companies that are springing up like Amazon Games, Intrepid Realms and others, will have the humility and wisdom to avoid the potential pitfalls that I’ve outlined.

― Wolfshead


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