Adapting to MMO Churn
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 July 2013, 7:19 pm
I enjoy the occasional time "offline" from my hobby reading and writing about MMO's.  It's a change of pace and a chance to get perspective on the way things have been going, both in my personal gaming life and in the bigger picture.  My thought, sitting back and observing the major discussions of the last month, is that this entire genre - players, developers, financiers - is still struggling to adapt to the current reality that MMO's are no longer a long-term commitment to a single title. 
  • Business model discussions remain the hottest issue in MMO's, in part due to Blizzard's effort to create the infrastructure and groundwork for a significantly expanded cash shop in World of Warcraft.  The upcoming title Wildstar is actually announcing in advance that they intend to make a business model announcement in the future. This environment is affecting the direction of game development, as studios struggle to recoup ever rising costs, but no one seems to have found a solution that is as mutually acceptable to both producers and consumers as the monthly subscription was in the days where players stayed put for the long haul.   
  • Increasing portions of the innovation that we're seeing in MMO's focuses on lowering entry barriers to combat the effects of churn on PVE groups and guilds.  WoW announced a new raid format with flexible group sizes in early June.  SWTOR is rolling out story mode flashpoints which remove the requirement for the holy trinity, and has also added guild bonuses that require players to be in guilds that have at least 25 active accounts.  Titles including FFXIV and WoW are adding instanced content intended to train players to function in groups.  These features simply weren't necessary in the old days where players stuck with games for the long haul and were forced to learn to group as they leveled. 
  • Another topic of the day is the decline of MMO bloggers - especially blogs that focus on a single title.  In an era where more and more people are hopping in and out of games, the investment required to set up a dedicated blog for a single title is harder to justify and sustain.  The same seems true for single-game podcasts - the recently concluded 200-episode run of Casual Stroll to Mordor is the highest profile example, but I've been seeing both smaller numbers and shorter runs on game-specific podcasts for a while now.
  • I think the story of the Pandaria era in WoW is that Blizzard attempted to use incentive design to replicate the level of daily engagement that players had in Azeroth back in the days where people stuck with the title for years.  My view is that people stuck with WoW in 2005-2006 largely because no other title on the market in that era was as focused on solo play, and that people formed legitimate social bonds that led to ongoing long-term engagement as an accidental consequence of not having anywhere else to go.  You can get players to log on for daily quests, dungeons, and raids, but you cannot replace genuine social ties with an alliance of convenience motivated purely by the fastest path to the daily incentive reward.  Instead, the artificial drive for commitment leads to faster burnout. 
People who lived through the old days and liked them continue to hold out hope that some future niche-focused title can recapture the level of stability that MMO's took for granted 8-10 years ago.  I wish them the best, but I see this outcome as highly unlikely.  The wide array of titles on the market today is a huge driver of player mobility, and a major challenge for retention - I believe a title that succeeded in this approach would need to be revolutionary, not merely evolutionary, such that no one who played the new title would be willing to return to anything we have today.  If the road back where we came isn't likely, and the place where we are now isn't financially sustainable, then the only hope is to adapt to modern demographics and find a way forward.  It's just not clear whether and how this can be done. 

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