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What Makes a Success?

I think I love you... but, what are your subscription numbers again?

Over the last few years, we’ve seen an absolute explosion in the amount of MMOs being released. A lot of them came about purely because WoW was such a success. The result, it seems, is that these games are being measured against WoW to determine if they’re successful or not. Now, I think we can all agree that it’s silly to compare a new MMO to WoW in terms of subscriptions, so I won’t go there. What I’m wondering, however, is what it would take for an MMO to be considered a success in today’s market.

Keen has an article up this morning where he highlights a comment he received that I found particularly relevant to this discussion. Here are a couple of pieces that stood out to me:

It is hilarious that people still think that making big $$ WoW clones is good business…

[sic] Audience you expect to attract with 5 mil investment is not same as with 80 mil…

The first is interesting and pointedly true, if we’re holding WoW’s subscription numbers to be the golden standard all companies should shoot for. It insinuates, however, that the games that have tried to mimic WoW have failed. Some have, to be sure, but certainly not all. By this standard, both LotRO and Aion are failures because they share combat mechanics and UI similarities with Blizzard’s baby.

The second is a design consideration I’ve honestly never thought of. It’s one of those things that’s obvious, on one hand, and a little contradictory on the other. If a company is expecting to pull 11 million subs with a fraction of the investment, the natural outcome is a failed game. But, if these companies considered their games “failed” then why aren’t they shuttering them?

Public perception of success or failure is so subjective, it’s not even funny. It’s no coincidence that half the bloggers claiming “Game A is a failure” are also burnt by that game in some way. The unfortunate truth is that most of those same players never had any hope of being satisfied with the game anyway. They came to it from another game, expected it to fulfill them in the exact same ways, and we’re let down. If there’s a failing with the game that drives the player away, I’d say that there’s equal blame in the player for not being open to it in the first place. There is a big difference between wanting a vacation from your home game and wanting a new home entirely. Unfortunately for developers, players have a hard time telling the two apart.

This deer is a FAILURE. You are a FAIL deer! ... FAIL!

But, back to the point of success. From a business perspective, if the game can turn any kind of profit, it’s a success. So, that game that cost 5 million to develop? They don’t need a million subs to be a success. They can make up their investment and turn a profit with far less. From this point, it’s just a matter of degree. Is a game a behemoth success that exceeds all expectations, or is it a modest but reliable source of income for the company? That’s what it’s about. How much does it earn per month. If it’s making money, it’s a success.

John Smedley, SOE head, seems to agree. I recall reading a while back they he planned to keep games active, so long as they paid for their upkeep. Beyond that, it doesn’t really matter. Look to their stable of games for proof. By the WoW standard, every single SOE game is a failure. Yet, the original EQ stays hosted. Vanguard’s alive.

More importantly, by the WoW standard, every single game that’s tried to stand up to it is a failure. Now, how much sense does that make?

It seems to me that WoW is an outlier. By general estimates, the average MMO floats around 200-300k subscriptions. When you’re setting a baseline, you don’t choose the most freak figure possible. You go with the average. In the world of MMOs, anything that breaks 300k subscribers is a massive hit.

It’s really about whether you want the glass to be half empty or full. We’re not in a market of failed MMOs. We’re in a market with a lot of choice and, like most things, most of the options aren’t a good fit for us. That doesn’t mean games such or MMOs are failing. It just means a lot of people are looking for the perfect game and, coming up short, like to vent about it. That’s great, but, when we consider the success or failure of a certain game, we should keep in mind the thousands of people who love the games we walk away from. It’s all about perception.

Happy Monday, folks.

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  1. Green Armadillo

    “We’re not in a market of failed MMOs. We’re in a market with a lot of choice”

    The concerning question is whether the choice is financially sustainable. Development budgets for current generation games were set in the hopes that a million subscribers was an attainable number. Now that we’ve established that 400K is a more realistic ceiling, budgets for future games may be smaller.

    1. Chris

      True. Those big budgets would mean they’d need a lot of subscribers, but look at SW:TOR. They’ve put TONS of money into that game, and they say they only need a million in the first month. Since other games cost much less to produce, it stands to reason that those games would only need a fraction of that to break even or even cut a reasonable profit.

  2. Yogi

    Great read Chris. Good points on how players unfairly judge the success on non wow titles. It most cases Id say those that call them failures are indeed ex/current wow players. When it comes down to it, the success of and mmo (when not referring to financial profits) is a very subjective thing. Personally I think that WAR is a failure for MY enjoyment. So one can likely assume that the comments I make on its status will be more towards FAIL BOAT!! However, people are still enjoying the game and having fun. And it has not shut down.

    Whats a failed mmo? One that shuts down its servers within the first few years of launch. Everything else can be deemed successful on some degree. Especially Hello Kitty Online. /hug

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