Words Are Wind

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.

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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.)

ImageJust 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.

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8 Responses to Words Are Wind

  1. Greibach says:

    You bring up a lot of really good points here sir. There is often a vast gulf between “good” game design, and “successful” game design. In the ideal world (IMO), they would be one in the same, but realistically they are not. Further, as you say, many people don’t really know what they want. Many people don’t actually know nearly as much as they think they know about themselves, about game design, and most importantly, about OTHER customers.

    I will say however, that it can be frustrating if you are the type of person or player that truly does enjoy something against the grain. People are quick to jump on the “You don’t really know what you want, you won’t actually like that when it happens” train. I find it can be pretty insulting, so I don’t generally say it to specific people. Many said that of me when I talked about how I liked a gear plateau, how I liked sPvP to have no gear/stat progression in GW2. I was told that I really would miss those things, and that I didn’t know what I really wanted. Those people were wrong, I really do want/enjoy those things. What IS true however is that MANY people DO want progression content. There are FAR more people out there that hate a gear plateau or hate lacking PvP progression. I can’t argue against that fact, and I can’t argue that a business may get larger numbers of players to stick around longer with that kind of content, but that doesn’t mean that I PERSONALLY like that kind of content.

    I fully recognize that what I like isn’t necessarily what enough OTHER people like to make a successful business model. I think its very important for people to learn to step back and think from a broader perspective than their own personal likes and dislikes when analyzing whether something will succeed or fail. As you said, your “professional opinion” is different from your “personal opinion”.

    • jasonwinter says:

      Regarding the gear plateau situation, I’d at least say that, pre-GW2’s release, your saying you’d like it was based on what you thought you’d like. It sounded good, it was something you hadn’t really seen before, and you were willing to give it a shot.

      That, to me, is very different from the situation with most new MMOs, where players who have been disappointed by buggy launches, lack of endgame content, server queues, unbalanced PvP, and whatever other issues new games have, rush into a new game that they’re super-hyped for, as they have 20 other times already, and then are shocked, SHOCKED that these issues exist again. You’ve got a wealth of experience with this sort of thing, and there’s been a ton written/shown/streamed about the game before its launch, yet in your exuberance you ignore the signs that it’ll happen again and rush headlong in and can’t believe you’re disappointed when it crops up again. That’s more the crux of my “don’t know what you want” feelings. Maybe it would be better to say you do know what you want and keep trying to paint a new game as that thing despite loads of evidence to the contrary.

      • Greibach says:

        Re: Gear Plateau- part of it was actually experience with GW1 as well, which had even more of a gear plateau than GW2, but yes, I see what you are saying. And re: second paragraph, I totally agree. People often project what they *want* onto what they have been told, rather than, as Lis would say, “Applying critical reading/parsing skills”.

        I definitely enjoy hearing your viewpoint on things. As you said, you tend to give the most realistic outlook rather than the most *hopeful* outlook. I appreciate that.

  2. DontNeedToRegisterSoEnteredThisForMyName says:

    Interesting article. I’m curious what you think about how Wildstar will do, or is there not enough information yet?

    • jasonwinter says:

      I tried to deliberately avoid mentioning WildStar because that seems to be another “hyped by the fans” game that, number-wise, probably won’t be hugely successful. It’s especially groan-worthy when people compare it to Elder Scrolls Online, thinking that they’ll be equivalent or that WS will actually do better.

      If WS is amazing, and TESO flops like SWTOR, maybe that will be the case. But in the short term, assuming a similar pricing structure, TESO should blow WS out of the water, sales-wise, even only taking PC sales into account. Check this out:

      WS Twitter followers: 19,381
      TESO Twitter followers: 245,141

      WS Facebook Likes: 61,936
      TESO Facebook Likes: 1,213,351

      Twitter/Facebook isn’t the ultimate measure of a game’s potential, but that’s an enormous gap. I’m really interested to see what WS is like (though some of the combat details we’re getting from E3 are troubling), but no rational mind can think that a game based in a world that nobody’s ever played by a studio most people have never heard of is on equal footing with one of the top game companies in the world exploiting a popular, ~20-year-old IP that’s been enjoyed by millions.

  3. couillon says:

    Enjoyed the article Jason, it’s one to reread again and again. Keep up the good work, it’s always a joy to read/listen to your material.

  4. This article makes me realize I have a long way to go as a video game journalist. Bravo, good sir.

    All I can add is that I don’t understand why gamers still hype themselves to the point where they view the next game as some messianic revolution that will fulfill every want they could possibly have. There are so many things that can go wrong with a game that you really never know if you’ll like something until you try it, no matter how good it sounds going in.

    The only time I can recall myself really falling for pre-launch hype in recent memory is Guild Wars 2, and even then, I had quite a few misgivings, and I wasn’t terribly surprised or disappointed when it didn’t turn out to be all that I’d hoped.

    I mean, do people just lack all sense of history? Do they not remember what’s happened every other time a game is built up to be something that will conquer WoW, shatter sales records, cure cancer, and foster lasting peace between dogs and cats?

  5. dungin2 says:

    Reblogged this on The Heart of MuD and commented:
    Great stuff.

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