Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) seem to be having a rough go of it lately. Age of Conan has recentlty had to merge their servers, after initial subscribers left once they learned that there was not much to the game after Lv. 20, in a move generally seen in the MMO community as applying a Snoopy band-aid to a gushing artery. With that said, Funcom’s short-sighted and poorly maintained MMO is having a better time of it than Pirates of the Burning Sea, which is running four servers and not looking good, and they’re both having a much better time than Tabula Rasa, which was abandoned by Richard Garriot and left to rot, literally, in massive landfill piles that remind me of the E.T. fiasco that facilitated the Crash of 1983, and Hellgate: London, which is being shut down completely at the end of this month, after numerous bugs, a terrible launch, and awful management came together to bomb the game out of the gate, sink Flagship Studios and ruin Bill Roper’s name forever. These are just the big names that have been talked about recently; who knows how many other MMOs have started and flamed out just as quickly.
It’s easy for me to sit back and say OK, it’s cool, to hell with them; after all, there’s very little more enjoyable to me than seeing a company run by monkeys drown themselves in the copious amounts of poo they throw around (especially when Sony is involved, as they are with PotBS), and furthermore, this doesn’t affect me one iota; the only game I personally play online for non-review purposes is Team Fortress 2. I can personally sit back all day and laugh like a banshee at all of the money and man-hours that companies waste when they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
That said, I can’t just sit back and laugh due to the fact that, while it’s fun to see major projects that marketing teams blather on breathlessly about crash and burn like one of Wile E. Coyote’s props, there are real consequences at play here. As mentioned, Flagship Studios crashed and burned, meaning that all of their staff – staff that were very vocal about being frustrated as hell at the fact that their projects were failing – lost their jobs. The stakes are just too high nowadays, due to heavy gaming budgets and a virtually saturated market, to make a large-scale mistake, and Flagship proved that one mistake can cost a company it’s very existence.
More important than the companies, however, are the gamers. The paying customers that, in order to get anything out of the experience, have to devote an untold amount of time and resources to MMOs. There’s the initial purchase price – most games start at $50 nowadays – which gives you a game that is absolutely and totally useless without online access, which goes for a monthly fee; at least Hellgate tried to give a free option. Furthermore, in order to do anything significant, usually a large amount of time is spent levelling up or attempting to hoarde resources that enable you to get the kind of weapons and gear that let you do anything remotely semi-advanced. At their best, games such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online are never-ending games that require you to continually play them in order to get anything out of them, and for that, you have to continually pay. With the above two examples, it works most of the time, even though some horror stories – like the guy that walked away from an investment bank in EVE Online with over 80bn of that game’s local currency – crop up now and again. With other, less successful titles, it doesn’t happen like that, and you get what we have now: consolidated servers, a loss of other players (the whole point of playing an MMO), and worst come to worst, the game’s servers being taken down, with said game’s customers, both old and new, stuck with giant “SUCKER” signs around their necks, due to the fact that once an MMO goes dark, that’s it; the game’s over, the software now useless.
As much of a wake-up call as this should be for both developers and gamers, it will likely serve as neither. As I speak, Age of Conan is still retailing at $40 on both Steam and at Gamestop, while Pirates of the Burning Sea is at Gamestop for $50 for anyone too stupid to buy it for $15 on Steam; whereas I realise that railing against the price of a game being so high when you’re required to subscribe to a service in order to play it is only going to make me hoarse as long as people pay those prices, it doesn’t obscure the point that for games that are obviously hanging on for dear life, the price of admission should be coming down a bit, now that it’s known that anyone that enters the game in this situation is more or less gambling their money. Furthermore, if you were to take ten CEOs in any business, and tell them that they had the potential of coming into an opportunity that allowed for premium prices on entry into a subscription based service that brought perpetual, never ending revenue that relied specifically on other sources of revenue being involved, with a customer base that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban referenced in what he called The Fanboy Culture due to their tendency to be fanatical by nature, all ten CEOs would be listening to you very intently. On the surface, that sounds like the ultimate business opportunity. Therefore, you can expect more companies to take the plunge, pinning their future on a big gameplay mechanic, or a huge virtual world, or new and exciting ways to interact with other players, and effectively treating their paying customers as a never ending beta test. I expect to see more games like Hellgate: London sooner before later.
So other than just giving up and becoming one of the millions upon millions of people to sign up for World of Warcraft, what can someone do to ensure that the new game they sign up for doesn’t blow up into a cloud of poorly rendered smoke? It all comes down to research. Based on the research I’ve done, here are a few things to keep in mind when looking into a new MMO:
* Check out how the beta went – Hellgate had an awful beta, and depending on who you talked to, so did Conan. If a game doesn’t fix anything that’s fed back to them in the beta, why would you pay money just to find out that the same thing is going to happen with the live game?
* Let others be the early adopters – I work in IT by day, and because of this, I usually get volunteered for free tech support and advice. One of the things I always tell people is never to buy any piece of kit as soon as it’s launched. It doesn’t really matter what it is; if it’s electronic, it’s going to have bugs and quirks that need to be worked out, and since most kit is released by large companies, fixes tend to take a long time. I historically am proven right with this advice; everything from iPhones to game consoles to graphics cards to operating systems come out, people suck them up because nothing’s really changed since Pre-School and they have to be the first in line, and then I have to hear these same people that ignored my advice bitch and cry and moan about the problems they’re having; this is right about the time they learn that my tech support is not only not free, but they start to understand how I can afford my own gadgets so easily.
MMOs work the same way. On the first day an MMO is opened, you don’t know how it’s going to react to being open to any gamer that wants in, how the servers are going to handle load, how the moderators and developers are going to tackle cheaters, how many bugs weren’t taken care of after the beta, or what the general temperament of the gamer base is; after all, normal people don’t want to be bothered playing with a bunch of screaming, cursing children who are cranky because hair is starting to grow in weird places. Why would you want to be one of the unfortunate people to find out that the problems with your $50 plus monthly subscription game are more than skin deep? And what if you find out that fixing said problems isn’t very high on the priority list of the company in charge of the game? Let someone else traverse those waters; if the game ends up struggling or even failing, congratulations, you just saved yourself almost a hundred dollars. Don’t rely on big-site reviews for this information, either; Gamespy’s review of Hellgate was dated November 2nd of 2007, but the game came out on October 30th. How the hell can you get enough information on an MMO to properly score it after three days?
Of course, to fix issues that the early adopters found, patches and other work-arounds are required, so this leads straight into…
* Research the patch schedule and change logs – It’s almost physically impossible to release a large scale game that can take on thousands of concurrent connections without a bug; chances are good that there are a lot of bugs, especially in a newer game. Development time is limited; companies have to determine what the priorities are, work those priorities, test them internally to ensure that their fix isn’t going to break three other things, and get those patches out. This is harder than it sounds considering the plethora of bug reports a company can receive; often times, someone else’s bug is another man’s feature, and a lot of bug reports tend to be garbage. That said, this is a definite skill, one that requires good management, competent programming on a tight schedule, and spot-on QA work. Just “trying” isn’t good enough; if a company either isn’t capable enough or doesn’t care enough to fix it’s problems in a timely manner, why should you bother spending your time and money? And what do those patches contain? Are they bug fixes, or content additions? It’s one thing to add content, but if a company is trying to add content when there’s a ton of bugs that need attention, they’re trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
* Gauge the player base – Let’s not forget that you’re playing with other players, real people using real computers, just like you. If any internet message board can tell someone anything, it’s that there’s nothing more fun than someone who becomes brave once they’re behind the anonymous veil of the internet. Someone who is meek and timid and a loner in real life can become a flaming asshole once the threat of being punched in the face is removed. One person like this can be exceptionally annoying for someone that’s just gotten home from work, paid some bills, ate and wants to chill for an hour before going to bed and doing it all over again the next morning.
What if you’re dealing with a community full of these little darlings? A game can have a great interface with wonderful control being played on lag-free servers that don’t require top-end PCs to play, but that is going to be moot if you’re being called a “fag” every five seconds with no retribution for the other player. Before committing to paying out for an MMO, check out the game’s official forums to gauge the players and the moderators a bit; if it’s a hostile environment either way, that’s something that should be taken into consideration.
There are a lot of choices for MMOs now, and will be more in the future. However, one major disadvantage an MMO has it that unlike a console game, being good enough for a few players isn’t good enough; I love Mount & Blade, but I also don’t have to connect to a server to play it with other people; it’s a niche game, and this market doesn’t have room for niches. Finding a game that deserves the time and money that is necessary to make it a worthwhile experience is not an easy task, nor should it be. With more games in the coming year inevitably promising big things for gamers far and wide, hopefully these recommendations can help people determine the legitimate contenders from the bums before the first dollar is spent.