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.
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.
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?
“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).
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”.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.)