Crosspost from my article at Whatculture.com.
In the beginning there was a wish. During the days of Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana, many of us imagined a world where the characters we fought and bled with would be populated with other like-minded RPG fans. Where we could explore the fictional worlds with our friends; riding airships, exploring ancient cities, and avoiding marauders and other high-level dangers.
Then, one day, it happened. One day we woke up and we were given Asheron’s Call, EverQuest, and Ultima Online. The dream of immersing ourselves into a living, breathing world; full of cultures, factions, and other people had become a reality. The world was good, and the people rejoiced. Games like World of Warcraft (WoW) capitalized on this growing genre of gamers by using its existing brand recognition and innovative quest system to amalgamate users from these divided worlds. In the early to mid 2000’s there wasn’t a gamer alive who didn’t know what World of Warcraft was.
Eventually, this WoW bubble burst. Since it had become the face of MMORPGs the genre began to fade with it. The game became a polarized version of itself. The ease of starting the game was meant to appeal to casual gamers, but the end-game gear was primarily reserved for those who could invest eight hours a day into raiding dungeons or PvPing. Attempts were made to curb this separation, but by this point the first generation of WoW players had moved on, and their brethren were soon to follow.
Since the fires of WoW have now tempered themselves, people really haven’t heard much in the vein of MMORPGs on a blockbuster scale. One reason is because it is very difficult for an upstart title to overtake a game’s brand loyalty and consumer base. How many other first-person shooters can you name that have a truly competitive nature with Call of Duty or Halo? Many of these games fall into a roadside ditch, never to be thought of again. Others try to replicate the design, but through a lens that doesn’t really understand why the major title was famous in the first place. Allow me to show you an example of the latter.
There are many MMO games that you can play for free through Steam. For any of you aren’t familiar, Steam is an online games market that (brilliantly) allows you to download games directly to your computer. One of the many featured games in the Massive Multiplayer section is a game that looks very promising, entitled Marvel Heroes. It’s even labeled as “Free to Play!” Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Prepare to not be surprised.
Marvel Heroes is free-to-play in the same aspect that heroin and crack dealers give people their first taste for free. The developers want to give the prospective player a sample of what they could be feeling if they spent more money. If you think of a hero from the Marvel universe there are probably three that spring to mind pretty quickly. Chances are they involve either Wolverine, Spider-Man, or Iron Man (thanks to his film popularity). If you want to play as Spider-Man or Wolverine then you’ll have to plunk down an additional 15-20 dollars (USD) just because you have a preference in superheroes. In fact, you can spend over 200 dollars unlocking the characters for this game.
Before you cry “burn her she’s a witch!” or “Marvel Heroes turned me into a newt!” you must realize that there is a reason that games are designed this way, from a business level. There wasn’t a gaming company alive that didn’t lust for the money that Blizzard was making during the height of its World of Warcraft days. The company had more income than some small countries did. Between the initial cost of buying the game, the monthly subscription, and the expansion packs, Blizzard was literally (figuratively) using a rake to collect their money. Marvel Heroes is operating on three assumptions about MMO gamers based on WoW’s successes.
One, that MMO gamers will pay whatever amounts of money to play in an open-world with other people. Two, that brand recognition can sell a title even if there are others like it in the field. Three, that all people cared about was having the best gear.
For anyone who considers themselves an informed consumer, you will agree that these three points couldn’t be further from the truth. People are willing to pay money to play a good product. Not even The Lord of the Rings can use it’s brand reputation to appeal to a “nerd” audience if the game isn’t good enough. Gear is obviously something that people want in games like these, but the real life currency exchange was debunked with the failure of Diablo III’s auction house business design. It’s like combining single George and relationship George. You are mashing two worlds that do not belong together.
If you were to take a look at most of these games you would realize that they are missing the key element to any game’s success, and that is the fun-factor. It doesn’t matter what the brand is; it doesn’t matter what world the game is set in; it doesn’t matter if it’s free to play, and it certainly doesn’t matter how easily one can purchase or ascertain the best gear. If the game isn’t fun and presented in a way that encourages people to enjoy it, people won’t play it.
A better metaphor might be that of a digital prostitute. The gaming pimps (publishers/developers) show you a game that looks to have everything you’d want. You can get a look for free, but any real action that you have a preference for requires you to spend a ridiculous amount of money that will still leave you wanting. There is no relationship building between the professional and the client, and even if it seems like there is — for the briefest moment — it is only there to continue slipping money from your wallet.
It looks as if the MMO market is being revitalized a bit with some upcoming titles such as The Division, and several other major releases for the next-gen gaming consoles. However, many of these studios have remained quiet on whether or not they will be bringing these games to the PC platform at any point. Has the PC gaming market being sucked dry of all of its MMO potential? Did World of Warcraft cause an overdose of a once flourishing market, only to be replaced with cheap knockoffs once the initial effects have worn off? Per usual, only time will tell. Until that time, be wary of the succubus (or incubus) tempting you with promises of adventure and fame.