Why Your MMO Will Fail

Honestly, I am not even sure why anyone is trying to make MMO games anymore. There hasn’t been a new one that you could even consider moderately successful since the release of World of Warcraft in 2004. Since that time, there have been many MMOs released that have attempted to cash in on the World of Warcraft craze, and all of them have fallen short. Not one has even given WoW a run for it’s money. While I am not an avid fan of WoW, I can’t deny its success. I played for years, but I surely never want to enter that world again.

I understand that WoW wasn’t the first MMO; I played Everquest for many years, and I am well aware that Ultima: Online predated that. The MMO is nothing new to gaming, but it was Blizzard’s juggernaut that brought the genre into the mainstream. As WoW evolved, the game became less for hardcore gamers looking for a second career and better suited for casual players looking for a slower pace. The MMO audience has shifted, and the old school players have gone elsewhere, leaving only the WoW crowd.

In the eight years since the release of World of Warcraft, many companies have tried to release the “WoW killer.” None of them has taken a significant amount of users from WoW. None of them has enjoyed much success beyond their first 3 months, and that is being generous. I intend to break down the reasons why exactly no MMOs have been or will be successful by using the same old formula. A successful entry in the genre has to break the mold and stop falling into the traps that all MMO developers are falling into nowadays.

The WoW Clone – On paper, copying what works from the most successful MMO of all time is a good idea, but here are a couple of giant flaws in this logic. First of all, if World of Warcraft is not bleeding subscribers, why would players leave the game to start completely over with something new? It’s not like gamers will play both games, either, especially not if means paying two monthly fees. Beyond that, why would anyone want to play your game over WoW? Thanks to its years of positive momentum, WoW will be more polished have a larger player base than your new MMO. You aren’t going to steal its players, and you aren’t going to bring back the players that have left the game already. You will get the few players who enjoyed WoW but got pissed off about something in the game (a nerf, a bad guild break up, or something) and left but who still want to play a WoW like game. Odds are, those players will get pissed and leave your game too.

Sorry, your WoW clone is going to fail.

The Free-To-Play MMO – Let’s be honest, right now free-to-play genre is an MMO graveyard. It’s where games that weren’t good enough to start with go to die. No one wanted to pay a monthly fee to play your game? Make it free-to-play! That will bring everyone in, right?

Wrong. You see, there are two problems with this. First of all, your game wasn’t good in the first place; if people aren’t going to pay monthly for it, they most likely won’t stay after they play it for free. The second issue is that no one game that has gone from paid to free has actually done it well. They flood players with annoying messages about what they’re missing if they don’t pay, and they take away certain content unless players pay for it–they basically don’t let anyone play the game for free. Good work! So, not only do you have a bad game, but you have a bad game that I can’t even try out with getting annoyed by its limitations. Your game will fail.

Then there are the games that release free to play. Although the business model for a game designed to be free-to-play should be better than a game that goes F2P to die, it never is. Players are always limited or annoyed by these games’  constant begging for money. Guess what? People aren’t going to put up with that shit, even if it is free.

Sorry, your free-to-play MMO is going to fail.

The Big Publisher MMO Your MMO is backed by EA! You have Bioware or Mythic making the game! You can’t possibly fail! I am obviously talking about Star Wars: The Old Republic and Warhammer Online.

The Old Republic recently announced its plan to go free-to-play. Why? Because the subscriber-based business model failed for them. Let’s be honest: big ticket publishers know absolutely nothing about MMOs, and they simply want to cash in on the WoW craze. The main problem with big publisher MMOs is their rushed development cycle. MMOs take a lot of time to balance and make fun. Mechanics need to be perfected, and the game needs to be ready to take on the giant influx of players on release day. Big publishers don’t give a fuck. They are sinking a ton of money into the game and they want to get it out as soon as possible so they can get that fifty dollars per copy as quickly as possible. These games are never polished; they’re usually buggy and unbalanced, and players get pissed and leave.

The bar has been set so high; I truly believe that if World of Warcraft was released right now, in this current market, in its original form, it would crash and burn. WoW was both unstable and unbalanced when it was released, but there was no WoW to go back to. Sure, players could go back to Everquest, but since most players were Warcraft 2 and Diablo 2 players, WoW actually didn’t take a large sum of its user base from Sony’s MMO. Therefore, those players didn’t have an MMO to go back to, and so they stayed and stuck it out. Nowadays, no one is going to stick out a rocky launch; they are going to wait for their free month to expire and then either go back to WoW or not play an MMO.

Sorry, but your big publisher backed MMO will fail.

The Franchise MMO – Your game is based on a TV show, a famous movie, or famous table top game! Surely you will succeed, given the large fan base of players that will flock to your game because it’s based on their favorite fictional property!

How did that work out for Star Trek: Online, The Old Republic, Warhammer, or Age of Conan? These games always fall short of fan expectations; taking on a property loved by a large collection of dedicated fans is always setting yourself up for failure. Those fans will accept no less than perfection. Most of the fans also are not MMO players. You can not turn someone who has no interest in MMOs into an MMO player by just adding Star Wars to the title.

I’m sorry, your franchise MMO will fail–and it will most likely fall harder than an original idea would have.

The Innovative MMO – Well, you aren’t going to make any of those games! You are going to make one of the following games: Tabula Rasa, Fallen Earth, APB, Rift, or Aion.

All of those games started as new ideas that were supposedly going to change the MMO world. They weren’t trying to be WoW; they were going to be something brand new! The problem with these is pretty simple, actually: they were just bad. They were not well made games, and no one wanted to actually play them. Many of them are now free to play(see above), and they get to enjoy a whole second round of failure.

Sorry, your innovative MMO will fail.

Credit where credit is due – I have to give a little credit here. Eve Online has held strong and has done a great job in light of the rest of the MMO world collapsing around them. Eve is very different, though; it found a perfect mix of addicting play style, real world conversion, and massive combat. Eve may not have WoW numbers, but it is holding strong and should continue to hold its niche.

The game changer?  – By now, you must be yelling at the screen saying “GUILD WARS 2 WILL CHANGE IT ALL!” I’ve heard that before. Warhammer: Online was suppose to change it all. Vanguard was suppose to change it all. Age of Conan was suppose to change it all. Guess what? None of them did.

I am not going to get up on my soapbox here and tell you that Guild Wars 2 is going to fail miserably like everything else on my list. I don’t have the balls to do that, because Guild Wars 2 actually looks like it may have gotten things right. The game is a one-time copy purchase and will be funded by microtransactions. To start, developer NCsoft isn’t expecting people to pay monthly subscriptions, and they’ve got time to figure out how to make money without making the game come off like one of those Greenpeace people who try to stop me on the street. Guild Wars 2 isn’t being rushed out by a big publisher, and it’s being built by the team behind Warcraft 3 (the last great game by Blizzard, according to some).

I played some of the Guild Wars 2 beta. NCsoft obviously took elements from other games, including the large, open-group quests that made Warhammer: Online so fun and the immersive single player quests that made the start of Age of Conan and The Old Republic so compelling. Do I think Guild Wars 2 will change the game like it is expected to? Most likely not, but it could be the most successful MMO since WoW. It will be interesting to watch the game’s progress. Despite its August 28 launch date, I am going to wait until late November before I consider playing the game so it has time to prove itself and work out any initial kinks.

How to make a successful MMO – I am not a game developer, a publisher, or even a community manager, but I can’t sit here and talk shit about all these games without telling you how I think an MMO can actually be successful.

First and foremost, the monthly subscription model is dead. No one wants to pay a monthly fee for games. From Starcraft to Battlefield to Call of Duty to League of Legends to Borderlands, people will find other games they can pay for just once and then play forever without investing another dime. So, if you can’t charge your users a monthly fee, how do you find success? You go free-to-play.

Wait, didn’t I just spend four whole paragraphs talking shit about free-to-play games? I did…kind of. I talked shit about the MMOs that are free to play. There are plenty of successful free-to-play games in other genres on which companies are actually making money, including League of Legends, Team Fortress 2 and Tribes: Ascend. All of these games are completely free to play, and they are all great games. Unlike most free-to-play MMOs, these games do not limit the player who doesn’t pay one iota. I can fire up any of these games and compete with everyone else based on skill alone. I have access to every map in the game, I can join any game type, and I can play as if I had paid for the game.

How do they make money, then? Well, they’re actually good. These are well-made games that are really fun to play; they are games that make me want to play. Once you have a high quality game that people want to play, you can then monetize it. How, though? Aesthetics. That’s right. Gamers want to look cool, different, or funny. In all of the games above, you can buy skins or non-combat items to enhance your character’s look.

Also, all three of the games also sell weapons and champions that can otherwise be unlocked through play time. The more you play, the more you unlock. How cool is that? I play a game that I already enjoy playing and you give things for free that I would otherwise have to buy? Look, you can turn around and buy every item on the day it is released, or you can wait for it to unlock or you have enough points to unlock it. You can get the item either way; it just depends on whether you want to pay or not.

Sure, I just told you how to make a successful, free-to-play first-person shooter or MOBA game. That still doesn’t fix the MMO problem, but we can take what we learned from those games and apply them to MMOs with just a few tweaks. This is the formula for making a successful MMO; if you steal it, well, make a good game and name the end boss after me.

  • Make a good game. Seriously. This is the most important part. I don’t care how much you charge or how free the game is. Make it good. Make it fun to play. Make it creative. No one is going to play a game that isn’t fun. I don’t care what other parts of this list you utilize; if you do not follow this rule, you will fail.
  • No monthly fees. Just because WoW does it doesn’t make it right. No one wants to pay monthly subscriptions. Make it easy for people to play your game and keep monthly fees out of the way.
  • Do not limit content. Okay, good, you have released a quality game. You have a player base now, but you aren’t making any money from all the free-to-play players. There is the temptation to release premium zones that only paying players can access. Don’t do it. Seriously, just don’t; it will do more to drive people away from your game than it will do to convince people to pay. The more people who play the game, the more potential customers you have. Pushing people away will reduce that number.
  • Reward people for playing. For the sake of ease, I am going to say that all gear and upgrades can be purchased with something called “D Bag Tokens.” As a player completes a quest, a dungeon, or a raid, award them “D Bags Tokens.” Tokens can be spent on upgrades. If people enjoy your game, they will continue playing; the rewards are just icing on the cake to make the player feel like he or she is progressing and have a reason to do things.
  • Allow players to purchase. This is where things get tricky. You do not want to force players into buying items with real money to reach the end game content–look how well that works for Diablo 3. You do want players to spend money, though. You really need to figure out a good conversion rate between dollars and hours played. If a player spends $25 in the store to buy gear, how much time did they save? Honestly, this is a tough balance. You need to make the game worth playing, but at the same time, worth spending money on, but you also don’t want to force players to spend money just so they don’t suck. I gave you the outline; it’s your job as an MMO maker to find this perfect number. If you think you will screw it up and force everyone into spending money, and you probably will, skip this step completely
  • Allow Players to purchase…hats. As I said before, people want their in-game avatars to look different, cool, or funny. This is where TF2 makes all of its money: hats. A cool concept would be to allow players a gear slot and a social slot. Terraria does something similar. Players have a wearable item that provides stat boosts, and then they have gear that changes their appearance. Sell the social items. Give stuff away for free, like League of Legends does all the time, but this is where your money will be made. You can also do it with non-combat pets, mounts, and anything that doesn’t directly effect the in-game combat effectiveness of a player. League of Legends and TF2 are making a killing doing this, and if done right, you can too.
  • Continue to release content, for free – We don’t want people getting bored with your game! Regularly release new items, new dungeons, new raids, and new quests, but don’t charge for any of it. Again, both League of Legends and TF2 are constantly doing this. Every 2 weeks, LoL releases a new champion and new skins. Every couple months, TF2 does releases a large bundle consisting of a new game type, new items, and new maps. All of this is for free. You need to do the same. Make it balanced, though; give players new things that they get for free, the day of release, new items they can earn by playing the game, and new items they have to pay for.

If you follow those steps you will have a successful MMO while all others are failing. Someone please make this game; I kind of want to play it now.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/c3sparling Chris Sparling

    while most of what you said is actually common sense. what is the harm in charging a monthly fee. you obviously have no clue how much it costs to run that many servers and have that much bandwidth go in and out. as for other games trying to clone wow. well that is true ive seen to many games try and emulate blizzards sucess. tho that is slowly changing. second quarter for unsubs on wow is in the millions. tho why not make a game if all your doing is qqing. you seem to know how to do it better then every company out there.

  • http://www.dpaddbags.com/ Phegan

    First of all, I explicitly stated that I am not a game developer or a publisher, so I would hope that I don’t know better than the others out there. 

    Second of all, I know WoW lost 1.1 million subscribers last month, and I am going to have an article soon addressing that fact.

    Finally, the fact that WoW lost 1.1 million subscribers last month solidifies my point that the business model for subscription based games is dying off. Please, tell me one other successful game that there is a monthly fee for? As I stated in the article, people can always go play games for free, like League of Legends or Call of Duty(after initial purchase). While there is nothing explicitly wrong with a subscription based model, it’s not a successful business model for games, now-a-days.

    I understand how much it takes to run a server. My point is, if no one is paying your monthly fee, you still aren’t going to afford to keep them running. So you need to find a successful model that is going to bring in players and income. League of Legends has a larger concurrent player base that almost every MMO, shy of WoW, and they do not charge a monthly subscription. They have a well made game that is supported by microtransactions, exactly what I am suggesting MMO makers do, but do it right. 

    While I did explicitly say not to charge a monthly subscription, the reason for that isn’t because I want these companies to just give games away for free and not make money. It’s the oppose, I want these games to actually make money, and WoW is the only making money with the subscription model. 

  • FFPhreak

    Good article, but what are you comparing these “failing” games to? Lord of the Rings Online (which I believe has released 2 expansions since they have went f2p) and City of Heroes (which still continually adds to their content) are two titles that are doing quite well now that the went free to play compared to the business they were bringing in with subs. If you are comparing the f2p games to WoW’s almighty income, then yes, they are indeed failing. Unfortunately so is every other MMO that has ever been in existence to that comparison. 

  • Carcanis

    Many games have grown to incredible sizes once they went f2p and to make money all the developers did was put in those few premium items that you have to buy with real money but dont change the basic gameplay.

  • http://www.dpaddbags.com/ Phegan

    Do you have examples? I would like to make note of them.

  • http://www.dpaddbags.com/ Phegan

    I do understand that people are playing these games, and fail is a very relative term, and perhaps it’s a bit of hyperbole on my part. Although, I am sure the expectations of many of these games have not been met. Obviously, no other MMO can hold a candle WoW, but also, relative to the rest of the video game industry, other free to play games like League of Legends and Team Fortress 2 do have much larger player bases. 

    I knew there would be exceptions to the article, like LotR Online and CoH, but as a whole the majority of MMOs will boom and bust within 2 months of release. 

    Although, according to MMOdata.net LotR online has taken a giant drop in subscribers in the last year: http://users.telenet.be/mmodata/Charts/Subs-2.png down to about 250,000 player. 

    I can’t seem to find numbers of City of Heroes. 

  • Sideras

    I love how everyone is doubting GW2 now because every other MMO release between WoW and GW2 has been shit. There is a difference this time, and the difference is that GW2 is actually good. I do love how you mention WAR, Aion and Rift (wtf) under innovative MMO’s? Since when are those innovative? Rift didn’t have a single fucking thing that was innovative. Sure their rift might come of as that but that was WARs invention and that is all WAR ever did that was innovative. The only other feature it had that was promising was a really bad version of DAoCs RvR.

    So let’s get back to GW2 shall we, why will it succed? Oh let’s see.
    – WvW is essentially DAoC RvR (oh you know, the single best and only good PvP in an MMO ever) made better.

    – Dynamic events and Renown Tasks, gone are the days of grindy quests and boring set in stone paths to some bullshit endgame.

    – sPvP, so you like to be competitive. Good we’ve got the perfect PvP for that. No longer do you have to wade through content that doesn’t intrest you, instead dive right into a fair and balance competitive PvP.

    – Style, graphics, atmosphere, sound and music all come together thanks to competent artists and composers. I’m getting nonstalgic now.

    – The polish, oh god the polish. People though Rift was polished, I thought it felt like scrathing my hairy ass (it’s quite hairy). GW2 feels like caressing a set of godly tits, jizzing all over the place.

    – The combat, sure it’s not super innovative but it feels so right. I’ll just leave it at that don’t feel like adding another awesome metafor.

    Take all that and add in all the other awesome small touches everywhere, like being able to send all your crafting mats directly to you bank with two mouse clicks. The difference this time is I feel like I’m playing an actual game, like I’m actually having fun as opposed to logging in to some fucking skinner box.

  • http://www.dpaddbags.com/ Phegan

    I did explicitly say that I didn’t have the balls to say that GW2 would fail. I actually think it’s going to be a good game, but that also doesn’t mean it would succeed. I am going to try it, after I know there is going to be a good player base and my friends who plan to play it at launch let me know it’s actually worth it. I have plenty of games to play in the meantime.

    My bad Rift, looking back, I am not sure why that got lumped into innovative MMOs. WAR wasn’t listed as innovative and Aion did things graphically that no other MMO has done, I consider that innovative. 

    People are very protective of GW2 before the release, a lot of people seem to have a lot invested into the success of the game, everyone is touting it as the next big thing. Don’t get me wrong, I want it to be. I played in the beta and I have enjoyed it. I also enjoyed WAR, and the early game of Age of Conan, both of those games show that a small sample size can really make you think a game is better than it is. 

    I am not going to say you are wrong, I am also not going to say you are right. As I noted before GW2 has the opportunity to be the game that breaks the mold and is actually successful. I really hope it does succeed too. Looking at MMOs in general, it’s hard for them to do well, the player base expects too much now.

  • Redbullchips

    I disagree. I love paying for a subscription. I’m paying for constant quality. I’m also paying because free to play games are just that free to play, anyone can download. ANYONE. While it doesn’t cut out frustrating assholes all together at least half the player base of children need their parents permission to play. I enjoy paying for a subscription, then I get what I play for rather that what my money can buy me.

  • http://www.dpaddbags.com/ Phegan

    Well, of course there are people who still enjoy paying a monthly fee, WoW still has over 9 million subscribers, so it’s not a small amount of people. 

    With that said, Monthly subscription doesn’t instantly me quality. In some cases, yes, you are paying for quality. You also can not deny that the non-MMO games I sited (League of Legends, TF2, Tribes) are quality games. Sure, League of Legends does have an infamously bad community, but the game is still solid. 

    If you don’t mind me asking, what MMOs do you currently, and have you, paid for?

  • Calundrus

    WoW always loses a bunch of subscribers near the end of an expansion when no new content is being released. They then gain it all back plus more (at least temporarily) during the newly released x-pac.

  • Warle

    That is actually a trend that has been more and more obvious with each expansion because every new expansion lowers the level of difficulty of the game, which brings in more casual players that have a higher tendancy to leave any given game. Why do I know this? Because I used to co-run a guild that catered specifically to casual players. Even from our own statistics within the guild we can see that roughly 2/3 of our guild has unsubscribed from the game since June. But as you have said, with each expansion nearly all the players from our guild come back and indeed we do get more players.

    Of course, from the nature of our guild we will definitely be getting out-of-proportion statistics. But just from talking to other players even in the Hardcore scene (and sometimes especially in the Hardcore scene) this phenomenon is very prevalent. So any company that just wants to cash in on players leaving WoW will most likely fail for another reason: these players will always have a nagging urge to go back to the game just from the amount of investment they have placed into it and will most likely jump back even upon just hearing news that the game is getting better (just think of investing in a house and why people don’t want to sell it – same psychology).

    So the success of GW2 is really flimsy at this stage, because every MMO to this day that has tried to be successful has in fact done poorly despite media hype.

  • Bronyaur

    First point, you are generalizing a lot and I notice you have to defend yourself in the comments because of it. Using extreme descriptors like “none of” or “all of” is bound to get you called out on exceptions.

    Second, glad you mentioned Eve. I think Eve is different than most other MMO’s in that it’s not even close to an EQ clone. Eve is more like a space age simulation than a game in some ways. It definitely has a completely different feel than WoW and the other games you mentioned. I think this difference is what makes it successful.

    Next, you brushed on this one point briefly but I would contend it’s one of the biggest factors in why no MMO has toppled WoW. WoW came out relatively early and yes it had bugs and lacked endgame content and had server problems blah blah blah. But I think one of the huge factors there is FEATURES. 90% of the people on my server could not have cared less about PvP before the honor patch. In fact most of the people who engaged in PvP (just for FUN – gasp) knew each other by name because there were so few. As soon as there were battlegrounds, grindable honor points, and GEAR to be had, well the craze started. Suddenly, but notably not before, PvP balance came under the spotlight. This was quite awhile after release.
    As far as I know, WoW was the first to have battlegrounds. And they
    sucked. Well they were cool but the queueing sucked. It took them months
    to fix it. By putting battlemasters in the main cities. Now games let you queue anywhere, I’m guessing also a feature pioneered by Blizzard.
    I realize WoW doesn’t come up with EVERY feature first, but the point I’m trying to make in so many words is that it’s not just loyal clients and polish that occurs over a long period of time but features. New MMO’s are practically forced to have ALL these features and more (the ones they promised in order to be different!) totally ready by launch. The same features it took Blizzard years to get in their game. PvP balance alone is a tremendous challenge and one that WoW didn’t have to deal with for a long time. Then you have battlegrounds (more balance problems there), social/grouping/lfg functions, guild functions, pets, endgame, etc etc. Quite a challenge. And if it’s not there, then you can bet there are going to be nerd tantrums all over the internet.

    D3 is having similar issues just due to its own progenitor. Well and Blizzard forcing everyone to play their RPG how they think it ought to be played. But that’s another story. :)

    Lastly, I want to mention a couple notable games you kicked in the teeth.
    SW:TOR – I had a really great time playing through on one character. It was almost like a multiplayer KOTOR. I would say they have a GOOD game. Really polished at launch. Why don’t I play now? Cause they screwed up PvP horribly and I have no interest in raiding. Maybe PvP is good now, but it’s too late, I’ve moved on. See? One chance — it’s a hard world.

    Tabula Rasa – I actually thought that game was really fun and interesting. I think the main problem they had was the content was not finished past around mid level. Given another year of development I think that TR would have had potential.

  • F43AK

    All games die, eventually WoW will get to a point in which other games have out grown its current gameplay, and content. Just because new content comes does not mean other games will fail because of that expansions release. I can promise you, you will see WoW, or Blizzards next game be a F2P, or one with one initial payment model.

  • Sophung

    You forgot to mention another shortcoming of the F2P: cheaters. Big MMOs are ALWAYS bound to have Bots or Cheat Engine abusers, but making the player have to pay to play is one way of combating this menace, because it would be completely foolish to pay to play a game and end up being banned and thus wasting money because one used cheats. Of course this is not a definitive solution, and requires good investments on the GM teams, but is better than nothing.

    A good example is Lineage 2. When it was P2P, there was already way too many Bots plaguing almost everywhere. When it became F2P, I grew tired and bored right on the first day. The reason? Bots. Now there were more Bots than ever before, and this was more than enough to make me start hating a game which I loved and played everyday a few years ago.

    I can’t blame only the cheaters on L2’s case, though. L2 is a game that is pure, monotonous grinding from beginning to end, and it was in a state that most of the players were already on the high levels with a very sparse and in-between joining of actual new players. The result was that the game felt like a single-player game until you got at least lv 60 and the content and features quickly became old and boring for the high-lvl players. NCSoft desperately tried pumping more and more content for endgame players, but it failed ultimately into delivering something actually new and exciting.

    The result is already known: the game eventually died and did the “F2P March of Shame”.

  • Vorx

    “Reward people for playing. For the sake of ease, I am going to say that all gear and upgrades can be purchased with something called “D Bag Tokens.” As a player completes a quest, a dungeon, or a raid, award them “D Bags Tokens.” Tokens can be spent on upgrades. If people enjoy your game, they will continue playing; the rewards are just icing on the cake to make the player feel like he or she is progressing and have a reason to do things.”
    Interesting concept. What about Wizard101 though? That game is huge and requires a monthly subscription to get past free areas OR buying areas in crowns.

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