Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling remarks from my mad, muddled, meandering mind.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Is It Greed, or Good Design?

Picture, if you will, a design studio in Irvine, CA, circa late 2009:

Jo Mount Specialist is hard at work, studying skeletons and body mechanics or something. Jo's supervisor comes and says:
"Jo, I have new project for you. We want you to take one of the pegasus designs and convert it for a new flying mount."
"Sweet," Jo says. "What do you need?"
"It needs to be semitransparent and have bright points of light in it like stars. The idea is that it's sort of a rideable constellation."
"Sounds totally wicked; is it a new drop for the next raid wing?"
"No, we're gonna sell them in the item store for like twenty-five bucks a pop."
". . ."
The House that Thrall Built
Within a day of the Celestial Steed going on sale, they had sold over $2-million worth. I don't think there is any way of knowing how much time and money went into the development project, but if it was based on previous designs, it wasn't more than a few thousand. (EDIT: Full disclosure: I never purchased this mount or any other from Blizzard, though I did buy a couple of the minipets "for charity.") Blizzard decided it was an excellent source of revenue, and now there's a whole line of $25 mounts, not to mention the $10 companion pets. Was the endeavor any less artistic for being sold rather than included with the subscription as some quest reward or loot?
I'm sorry but if every designer's goal is to maximise the amount of people and profit, then they would theoretically need to create a game that appeals to the broadest variety of interests but we know that doesn't work...
~J3w3l of Healing the Masses, in a comment on a recent post here
Au contraire, ma sœur. You need go no further than World of Warcraft to find the epitome of appealing to the broadest base possible, and let's face it, succeeding. The problem is that WoW is an anomaly that nearly every game company since has tried to replicate, with none even approaching similar success—by orders of magnitude. Blizzard's success with WoW has fed their ability to keep the fire going, as pointed out by Psychochild in a comment on my post yesterday. And other games that require subscription access are expected to have as much content as WoW, since the monthly "rent" each player pays is about the same.

Now, don't confuse me with a Blizzard apologist. That same broad appeal has thinned the WoW broth considerably in my opinion, and there any number of games I feel are better. But they are all more . . . niche, if you will.

Also, don't confuse my reference to "developer" as being about individuals. "Studio" or "publisher" may have been a better term. I can guarantee that for many people involved in making, say, SWTOR, or even Rift, the idea that they could garner several million concurrent subscriptions and compete directly with WoW did not seem too far-fetched. Looking back, it seems like folly. But in the early, heady days of development and investor meetings, potential profit was talked about at least as much as graphics and mechanics.

That doesn't mean they don't want to make great games. But, no matter what mission statement or manifesto a game studio puts out, deciding on the business model has to be part of the earliest stages of the design of a triple-A MMO, especially if they are making the game with other people's money.
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  1. My very last day playing WoW came when I logged in, and I was by a fountain by a bank in ... some city... but while I stood there, I saw a person riding a broomstick, a person flying on a dragon, a person riding a motorcycle, a flying carpet, a person dressed as a pirate, a tree, a bear, elves, humans, etc. etc. etc. I realized then that WoW didn't specialize in anything other than trope fantasy for everyone. Any fantasy? WoW has it. Zombies, tiny mechanical geniuses, giant robots, etc. That's why nobody cares about WoW's story. It's so bland fantasy, it doesn't matter anymore! Then after releasing victorian werewolves, they released drunken pandas, and that was the nail in the coffin for me. By spreading their "lore" so thin, they lost any real storytelling credibility. WoW: The Walmart of fantasy.

    What did they just release? A new mount for the store, a two-headed dragon with jet engines attached... and I'm sure it makes sense in the lore... somehow.

    A couple days ago, a Massively report was released on MMO earnings on digital sales by different model types, and subscriptions only took up 9%, I believe. But the report classified WoW for a lot of FTP tactics, like selling mounts and convenience items in their store, and other digital goods (double-dipping). People bitched how the report was bunk because WoW was a sub game. How dare they be lumped into other FTP games for doing the exact same thing as FTP games!

    ... A rose by any other name...

    1. "By spreading their "lore" so thin, they lost any real storytelling credibility. WoW: The Walmart of fantasy." I challenge you to phrase that in a way that isn't just baseless mocking. Can you make an actual argument with this or is it just a phrase that sounds like it hits hard?

      I'd argue that it is a strength that the world is so diverse. It makes it a world, rather than just a constructed and restricted stage for someone to throw a story at you. Can you imagine how sad Earth would be if there were only one or two cultures? The architecture, the food, the music, would all be homogeneous.

      Besides, if a diversity of cultures and races makes a game "thin", then why not level the same at TOR or STO? Both universes are known for their strange variety of races, many introduced just to be a villain of the week, who then were kept around. Are those games bad because they are "thin"? (I am not implying that they are bad)

    2. Challenge accepted:
      WoW: The Walmart of Marketing, is the largest retailer of big-box fantasy items such as 6 packs of mounts sold at a discounted price. WoW's success is so great that when it opens shops up near small towns, the mom and pop stores that have adorned main street since the turn of the last century often end up going out of business."

      There, that's not baseless mocking! (;

  2. Everyone likes to mock Walmart, but they do bring value to the customer. Specialty stores can bring more value or higher quality goods in some areas, but not the "one stop shopping" that appeals to so many. I don't think that any game approaches the versatility of WoW, but I think there are games that do some things much better than WoW.

    My point is that every game that has set its sights on cutting deeply into WoW's share of the pie has failed to do so. That doesn't mean they have failed. Most are still turning a profit as far as I know. My question is when are the other companies going to realize they can aim lower in terms of expected playerbase and succeed? There are enough people done playing WoW (more every day) that still want to play MMOs, that there is no need to try undercut the behemoth.

    1. My other point is that wanting to make a quality game/virtual world and wanting to make money are not mutually exclusive, but devs ignore the business side of things at their peril.

  3. With precious few exceptions, trying to broaden their audience and appeal to as many playstyles as possible, is all MMOs have done since WoW latest. it's a business, as well as a labour of love. as you say, it doesn't mean devs don't also care to make great games but they're likely to try and achieve both which results in more compromise for everybody. exclusivity is something to be afforded and well....it depends on what parties are calling the shots. there's many a designer or developer with stories to tell on how they would've done things differently "if only they let us".

    As for your title, it's a bit of a trick question, isn't it? ;) in the end, there's no question of good design vs greed: much rather, "good design" is whatever design fulfills the purpose you have set for it. if the purpose is to get as many players as possible (aka what some probably call "greed"), then yes - good design is whatever design delivers that particular goal.

    1. " 'good design' is whatever design fulfills the purpose you have set for it."

      And with that, my dear, you have won the Internet today. ;)

  4. Care sales is a good analogy here I think. Cars are sold with configurations in various packages, that are supposed to contain a variety of upgrades that Everyman wants. In truth, for a real customer coming in, the package will contain some or most of that, but there will always be a few extras the customer didn't care about and some things they wanted that weren't in the package.

    The secret to a totally satisfied customer is to a) give them the option to purchase a la cart those things that weren't in the base package and b) to convince them that the value of the package is such that the things they didn't really want aren't really costing them anything extra.

    Whether or not the goal is to make money or satisfy the customer, I think the goal is always "both." You may miss the goal but that has to be what you are shooting for in some sense.

    1. Oh yes, and I'd say Blizzard is doing a reasonable job of satisfying their customers. Of course many more people are not satisfied and rather than just somewhere else to "shop for cars" they hop on the internet and talk about how dumb Blizzard "car" design is, and/or other complaints about how it's not a good value, even if it was at some point in the past. Or, in regards to other studios, that people were promised Porsches and the company delivered Yugos. Of course, neither claim is exactly true.

  5. I don't think I'd call that greedy, as it's not anything anyone really needs.

    Would love to know who exactly pays $25 for such things though.

    1. Trust me, when the Celestial Steed came out, there were quite a few people that decried it as a money grab. After all, weren't we already paying a monthly subscription? But you're right, no one was forced to buy it. Just as no one is forced to subscribe to WOW in the first place. Doesn't stop people (unreasonable people IMHO) from accusing studios and publishers of being money grubbing bastards.