Do MMOs Have a Specific Window of Opportunity?
World of Warcraft was the MMO that broke the mould. The reasons for its success are too numerous and complex for this blog post, so let it suffice to say that it rode a perfect storm of factors and has maintained a strong presence for fifteen years. And as a result, subsequent developers have often sought to duplicate its success. Yet frequently the opposite has happened. In fact several MMOs have launched and experienced a brief time “in the sun” only for things to come crashing down thereafter. Perhaps the most well-known example of this was SWTOR which experienced a triumphant launch in December 2011, yet within three months the majority of players had left for pastures new. It took the game going F2P and a lot of hard work by BioWare to claw back the playerbase. It has also been argued that many MMOs have grown too big for their own good? It is true that a new player starting a game such as LOTRO today has a long slog ahead of them and some may simply find that too daunting.
The reason I mention these two points is because I think they are linked and reflect a shift in mindset towards MMOs. Many of the older MMOs were originally based around group content and the formation of guilds. As a result many titles have a sizeable community of players that have reached level cap with multiple alts. Players such as this have played through pretty much all the content that the game has to offer. They play within guilds that have lasted years and have strong social bounds. Now consider a new player that has just started playing LOTRO for example. They have a prodigious amount of content to play through before they reach level cap. Furthermore because many players now prefer to play solo, they have an even more arduous task ahead of them.
Now I know some will argue that it's not about racing to level cap but the journey itself. This is a fair point if you are a player who is content to work through content in this fashion. However many games developers are still focused on the so-called endgame and creating new content for those at level cap. If you start playing LOTRO today, the only way you can reach Western Gondor or The Grey Mountains is if another player summons you there. It's a shame that so many of the older titles are hindered by such a linear approach to landmass and content but that's the way these titles were created. I personally would like to see more of an open world approach like The Elder Scrolls Online where content scaled according to your level and you are broadly free to go where you want.
So considering these points, I am beginning to think that for many MMOs there is an initial window of opportunity as to when it is most favourable to start playing the game. I started playing LOTRO in late 2008, just after The Mines of Moria expansion launched. As I was playing through The Shire, Bree and The Lonelands, senior members of my guild were levelling from fifty to sixty in Moria. However because I was very invested in the game at the time (it was my first MMO) I managed to catch up within nine months. I am now part of the group of players permanently at level cap and I can therefore immediately enjoy whatever new content Standing Stone Games develops for the game.
The Elder Scrolls Online and Guild Wars 2 are both relatively new titles, so I think one could start playing these games and still be participating during the optimum window of opportunity. Plus they do not have such a difficult levelling curve or level cap that is extremely high. Is this the same case with EVE Online, Final Fantasy XIV or Black Dessert Online? I'm not so sure. These are games where the key to success is the investment of time. Some MMOs have mechanics or store items that will allow you to level quickly but does that really solve the issue? There is an inherent contradiction in selling an item to boost your level, hence paying money to bypass playable content. But levelling through intermediate level content can be a lonely process sometimes. Zones can be devoid of other players. At least in Guild Wars 2 the game downscales players to the zones specific level thus providing an incentive for the veteran player to return. Sadly many other titles do nothing to encourage players at cap to revisit lower level areas.
I also think this window of opportunity may be tied to wider factors, other than the games progression system. Many MMOs experience a period when the fan base thrives and produces a wealth of content. This can be blogs, guides, podcasts, You Tube videos or livestreams. However this tends to be cyclical. Due to the rise of the casual player and their migratory nature, this if often more pronounced. I remember sites like the LOTRO Combo Blog that used to aggregate fan related blogs. It has long since gone. Another example you can see is the way your Twitter timeline may be awash with content regarding a new title and then over time it simply fades away. Twitch TV is also another interesting litmus test. A look at the homepage will quickly tell you what is popular and what is not. Is the window of opportunity for MMOs therefore not only verifiable but also clearly getting shorter?
There are other genres and franchises that experience similar optimum windows of opportunity. Harry Potter and Friday the 13th are two examples from the movie industry. There was a clear period in time when both were immensely successful franchises. However, their transition from silver screen to multiplayer game took a lot longer and perhaps the proverbial boat was missed. The Wizarding World eventually found a home in the mobile gaming market and not as an MMO. Friday the 13th fared slightly better as a multiplayer game and captured a nostalgia wave. Yet it was ultimately hamstrung by legal issues surrounding the rights to the franchise. MMOs take a lot of time to develop and the market trends can change during that time. Amazon Game Studio appears to have halted the development of New World. Is this game now going to be repurposed to tie in with their Middle-earth themed TV show. If that is the case the game may launch during the optimum window of interest.
Finally there is an odd codicil to this question. We have seen recently a trend towards “Classic” servers which strive to serve up a broadly comparable experience to that of launch and the first year of an MMO. Is nostalgia the key to successfully creating a second window of opportunity for a game. Is it sustainable? Or is it going to have an even shorter arc? So far, the LOTRO Legendary Servers seem to be ticking over and I have not at present seen any data pointing to a decline in population. Perhaps the launch of World of Warcraft Classic on the 27th August will provide a greater insight into the longevity of nostalgia. In the meantime there is much to reflect upon, as the points raised here have barely scratched the surface of the matter. Because when we talk of a window of opportunity for an MMO, there is the player perspective and then there’s the business perspective. For all the market research and data analysis, I suspect that there are also some other factors that are much harder to quantify.