When I was living in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, I’d sometimes hang out with the gaming group at the nearby college. (That’s physical, board/card/RP gaming group, not vidya games.) Between comp copies of games I got from publishers and some of my own collection, I had a pretty wide variety of tastes, and I was eager to share them with what seemed like a like-minded group of people.
It never quite worked out that way.
Multiple times, the following scenario would occur: I’d bring in a game, say something fairly well-known like Settlers of Catan, The leader of the group would then offer his opinion:
“Settlers of Catan? I love that game! I’ve played that a lot! It’s awesome!”
Me: “Great! Want me to set it up?”
Him: “Nah, I’m going to play D&D.”
This occurred two or three more times, with different games, before I quit bothering to bring in games, and eventually stopped going to the meetings altogether. There were a few other games running, including a Star Wars RPG campaign I sat in on once or twice, but it was very quickly clear to me that I wasn’t going to inject anything new or different into this insular crowd.
None of this means that Settlers of Catan, or any of the other games I tried to arouse interest in were bad, and they certainly wouldn’t have cost anyone money to try out. People were just set in their ways, and no matter how much they might have professed interest in my games, they were going to stick with their old, comfortable tropes.
Showing its age
I’ve received some flak for my various opinions regarding MMOs. The most recent one is Age of Wushu, which a certain crowd seemed to think, about two months ago was all the sexy. It’s a sandbox! It has Chinese martial arts! You can kidnap people! It’s amazing!
When I tried to point out the game’s flaws, I was called things ranging from “carebear” to “whiner.” After a lengthy argument, I said to my TWIMMO co-hosts, who had expressed much love for the game, that they wouldn’t be playing it in a month. While I can’t speak for them personally, by and large, it seems I was right.
Website traffic isn’t the be-all and end-all to determine how successful an MMO is, and all games experience some post-launch decline, but this one is pretty stark. After three months, the games I tracked in that article had between 14% and 32% of their traffic at their launch peak. Age of Wushu plummeted less than a month after launch and is currently at about 4% of its peak traffic at launch.
This isn’t meant to totally pick on AoW, but I’ve rarely seen such a divide between pre-launch public perception of a game and my opinions on how the game would perform. And maybe that’s the heart of it: When I’m asked for my professional opinion on a game — which can differ from a personal opinion, though I wasn’t all that high on AoW from that standpoint, either — I tend to analyze it based on how I think it will be received and what its long-term prognosis is, not by how many people are excited about it before or at launch. I pointed out what I perceived to be several flaws with AoW that I believed would hurt it in the long term, but all some people got from it was, “Jason’s a casual, he hates sandboxes.” No, Jason hates people who aren’t honest enough with themselves to know when they’re pursuing something they won’t like when they catch it.
Quality is only the beginning
This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how “good” — by whatever standard — a game is. Not everyone thinks World of Warcraft is the “best” MMO, but it’s still the clear #1 in the industry. Other games, some of them quite good, have come along and failed to topple it. Settlers of Catan is a good game, by most people’s judgment, including the leader of the gaming group, but if people are really into something else, it’s hard to get them to try something new, even if it’s “better.” In short, a game’s quality is only one factor — and sometimes not the most important one — in determining how it will perform financially.
(In my opinion, Yu-Gi-Oh! is a horrible CCG, awash in broken cards, microscopic/confusing game text, and ugly art. But man, does it sell.)
Just as it’s the task of the fans to weed out a company’s BS in its marketing, it’s a company’s task to weed out the BS in customer response and produce a product people will actually spend money on. It isn’t the job of a developer to produce a game people say they’d like to play; it’s their job to produce a game that people actually play. Like my experiences with the college gaming group, what gamers said they wanted to play was different from what they actually played.
No one would dispute that MMOs have gotten more “casual” in recent years, and even if they don’t expect to draw World of Warcraft-type numbers, they generally try to appeal to a broader cross-section of gamers, and even non-gamers, than EverQuest or EVE Online did 10+ years ago. A lot of people grew up with that generation of games, and so when they see a game that’s more like them — like Age of Wushu — than the current trend of “friendlier” games, they tend to get overexcited and believe their own, self-generated hype, only to — as is often the case — be disappointed once the game actually launches and they see the faults that others were pointing out for months.
This doesn’t mean that every MMO has to be some kind of mega-hit with millions of players, but even a smaller publisher has to have some sense of reality. Marc Jacobs knows Camelot Unchained won’t be huge, but he also knows he can’t invest millions of dollars and years of time into a game that only has a few hundred players. Obviously, Marc has crunched more numbers and has more financial data at hand regarding CU‘s costs and projected profits than I do, but his wouldn’t be the first company to believe too strongly in their vision and make grave miscalculations.
Those who ignore history…
We’ve all seen countless examples of games being hyped — whether by the companies themselves or by overeager players — and then falling flat on their faces. Age of Conan, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, and Star Wars: The Old Republic are three of the most notable examples, and there are plenty of others that were similar, though of a lesser magnitude.
When I’m asked on TWIMMO or F2P Cast, “Jason, what do you think of this? Is this a good move by (Company X)?” or when I write an article about a game’s potential to succeed, I’m not drawing on what people say they’ll do in it, but what, through trends that I’ve seen and the general shifting of opinions on MMOs, I think players will do. The two are often vastly divergent. We’ve seen games that fail because they do things gamers — and I mean a large subset of gamers, not just you and your personal friends, which don’t mean squat, statistically — reject. If a new game does those same things but puts a shiny skin over it or introduces some other new gameplay tweak or feature, the results will probably be the same, no matter how much you might hope they’ll be different.
And I’ll call it out, no matter what the backlash from gamers who are just as quick to rally behind a new game as they are to leave it when it’s not absolutely perfect right out of the gate. Check your expectations at the door when you listen to/read my stuff. I deal mostly in facts and experience, which are objective, not hopes and dreams, which are subjective.
Yes, there are different opinions out there. I’m sure some people absolutely love Age of Wushu. And maybe Snail Games is happy and profitable with their current fan base (layoffs notwithstanding). I’ll use my opinions and best guesses when I have little else to go on, which is often the case when we’re speculating about games for which very little information has been released, but I’ll use the past as a guide as best I can. There’s a whole lot of “past” out there, and there’s no reason not to learn from it.