By Blair Nishkian (Tagspeech)
The MMORPG maelstrom has been in full swing for over ten years, now. Honestly, the gaming world, and the world of entertainment in general, will never be the same again due to its impact. Not since the first major casinos have profiteers seen a better vehicle for transporting easy money into their pockets – without having to produce much of anything at all. The method by which players pay for these experiences began simply, and has become more and more complex over time. Microtransactions and MMORPGs now seem to go hand-in-hand, as even World of Warcraft is no longer above gouging players for premium items and services.
There’s an old economic adage I’m fond of: “Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.” Do you REALLY want that cosmetic item? Like, super bad? Would it just complete your character entirely? Well, it’s bundled in with twelve others and will run you about fifteen bucks. Take it or leave it. Most of the time, people will take it. Gouging for cosmetics and style in these games is popular, because nothing gets to players more than personal expression and their sense of identity. It’s the fashion industry paradigm writ small, in a digital realm, for articles of clothing and body parts that don’t necessarily exist.
Services are even better. Name changes, server transfers, account mergers, recustomizations, etc. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t have a subscription fee. But how do they stay afloat? A skeleton crew for a development team, utterly gutted from the development process (farewell, hard workers), and a premium item store so lovingly crafted and beautifully designed it no doubt nets them a tidy sum every month, equal to, or possibly even exceeding what they would make if every active player paid for a subscription. I certainly know I’ve taken the bait and bought some things in that particular store that I shouldn’t have. It’s just too easy to do.
But not every free-to-play, freemium, or whatever else model works. Many games, despite their most earnest efforts to find the right method of siphoning money out of player pockets, don’t do so great. They fall by the wayside. They sink, when they’re desperately trying to swim. Some of these developers have decided that, in order to get players to actually purchase enough from their premium shop to stay afloat, they can resort to a brilliant plan: let players pay a flat fee and unlock access to every bit of content that you would otherwise pay a fortune getting piecemeal.
Wait, hold on. A flat fee for all the content? Well, haven’t we just come full-circle, then? That’s called a box fee. We used to buy video games in boxes, you know in the days before the Internet sucked so many console gamers onto personal computers. You’d buy the box and own the game. It wasn’t complicated. So now that these producers are increasingly desperate for profits, they’re going completely back to the beginning, in the hopes that things will somehow change? Will they really, though? It didn’t work for the dead games of the past, and I highly doubt it will work now. The charred remains of so many flat-rate, subscription-based MMORPGs lie strewn across the annals of MMORPG history; Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa, any number of now defunct WoW clones, etc.
There’s just so much waffling and frantic scurrying about, one has to wonder if there isn’t a deeper problem here. Could it be that the problem isn’t your payment model? Could it be that your game just isn’t that great, and simply falls short of being good enough to compete in the savage jungle of the MMORPG genre? The list of online games continues to grow every month. It gets bigger and bigger, to the point that I wonder if it will ever end. Why are these games that no one asked for continually released? The simple fact of the matter is, and I’m sure the average player would agree with me, there are just far too many online games and not enough interested players with disposable income.
That’s the cold, hard truth of the situation. That’s the way the cards have fallen. The marketplace is bloated with titles; a total buyer’s market. I can’t know the exact financial details of many of these games, but I’d wager that more than a few of the bigger MMORPGs are being propped up by their publishers, while a vast number of small-budget, sideline games are either barely ekeing out a miserable existence, or well on their way into the boneyard. I’ve asked it before, and I’ll ask it again: When is it going to stop? Is this mad gold rush going to quit anytime soon? Never before have I felt like there’s just too many games asking, begging, pleading for money and support from players – from Kickstarter, to early access titles, to free-to-play games, to subscription-based MMORPGs with cash shops, to everything inbetween.
All I hear, everywhere I go, is “please, PLEASE, give us money! Please! For the love of god, we need your money!” And they’ll do anything to get it from you. The marketing machine, even for these humble indie kickstarter grassroots mom and pop fanfest love nuggets, they will happily stoke the fires of the press and any positive rumors they can to build a cult of mystique around their titles.
A lot of Kickstarter games have been HUGE disappointments to the fans that supported them. Shadowrun Returns, for example, was a massive letdown. Wasteland 2 has been generating serious controversy on Steam over accusations of false advertising: every major publication and reviewer has been comparing the game to the original Fallouts 1 & 2, while a great many agree the game could not be further from them. What did the developers do to quell those comparisons, so as not to invite the possibility of dissatisfied customers looking for a Fallout experience? Nothing much. Why rock the boat, when you can ride the coattails of a household franchise?
There are a finite number of gamers, each with a finite amount of disposable income. There just isn’t enough to go around, developers and publishers. High turnover and serious disillusionment seem to be the order of the day when it comes to working in the games industry as a developer. I do not envy them one bit.