Rants tag

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014

For the Right Reasons

We can measure facts, but a cause is not a fact—it’s a fiction that helps us make sense of facts.
~Jonah Lehrer, Wired.com
So, I guess Turbine is laying off some workers. To those whose jobs are on the chopping block: you have my deepest sympathies. I hope you land on your feet in a great new place. Meanwhile, there are those jumping at the chance to gloat at your misfortune, ready to draw conclusions not only about the health of Turbine, but the MMO genre as a whole.
Instead of linking to that old PR release about how great LotRO and DDO are doing thanks to F2P, please use this updated link.

~Syncaine, Turbine finally updates us on the continued success of their F2P conversions
Yeah, because no proprietor of a subscription-only game ever laid off any employee. Syncaine makes a fallacious correlation between a business model he personally dislikes and the health of a company that operates it. (And yes, it's fallacious, because we don't know the circumstances or reasons behind the layoffs.) Syncaine espouses all sorts of valid reasons to dislike F2P. This instance, sadly, is just his schadenfreude showing through.
No game succeeds or fails purely due to its business model. The success factors of both WoW (which has hemorrhaged more players than pretty much all other MMOs ever had) and EVE have little to do with their business model (btw, doesn’t PLEX make EVE a hybrid?) and everything to do with game design. Turbine’s “rightsizing” is business, not game design. We need to look at the design decisions behind LOTRO and other games, as well as external market pressures, to understand why they succeed or fail. Syncaine insists on oversimplifying it to a question of how the companies extract money from players’ wallets.

I'm not saying business model doesn’t influence design. But a crappy, unpopular game will be crappy and unpopular regardless of the business model. And a good game will be good regardless of how the player is asked to pay for it.

Pretty much every game that is not WoW (including EVE) has proven that WoW is a glaring exception to the rule that MMOs are basically a niche in western markets. Every game has its fanbois and haters, regardless of its relative success. And every fanboi thinks his favorite is the result of superior game design.

But Syncaine has declared himself arbiter of both quality and success. He has "yet to see a great F2P MMO," but he's also the one determining "great." He knows "what a great sub MMO looks like," but again that is his personal opinion. This reminds me a little of the SCOTUS definition of obscenity.
I assume Syncaine is playing EVE. He certainly holds it up as an example of great game design. I don't dispute its success, but I would never play EVE, given the tales of what I consider dickish, unethical, and downright criminal behavior of the players. All explicitly allowed by the premise of the game. That's not a great game, in my opinion; and it's by far a distant second in success to the behemoth that is WoW, a game that Syncaine deplores, if I am not mistaken. And when we take into account that the average EVE player allegedly has upwards of 2.5 accounts, Syncaine's 500,000 accounts translate into maybe 220,000 really enthusiastic players. So about the same number of subscribers as LOTRO from what I could gather; though they pay far more per player.

I love TSW, but I don't subscribe. I throw money at it every once in a while for either "fluff" costuming, or the DLC-style content updates. And I am happy with that. Does it struggle? Yes, but it is in a niche genre. However, I haven't encountered a better progression system (imho) or better content (imho) in any other game. Syncaine, naturally, probably thinks it sucks. But I defy you to find any way that TSW drives players into the cash shop from within the game. The shop certainly is available through an in-game interface, but I don't really think that's what we're talking about when we say a game is "purposely designed to make me use their cash shops," as Xyloxan put it. Maybe LOTRO does, I don't know.
I am past the point in my life that I want to be tied to any particular MMO because I am subscribed to it. You can argue about my level of commitment, I suppose. But there are more important things in my life I have committed myself to than a game. Therefore, F2P is perfect for me, right now. If I don't like a particular F2P system—*cough*SWTOR*cough*—I don't play. I don't play LOTRO either. But the reasons have nothing to do with the business model.
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  1. A business' success is made up of so many factors, most of which are invisible to people on the outside, that trying to prove that a company's success or failure is based on some simplistic element like a business model makes that person look like an idiot. The reality is a lot more complex than one can guess. Of course, some people eagerly fall into the confirmation bias fallacy because it makes them feel smart.

    In the case of Turbine, the reality is much more complex. Turbine's two big games are licensed, so we don't know what restrictions the license holders put on the game. Turbine is owned by a larger company, Warner Bros., and we don't know if the parent company is giving Turbine the support it needs to adequately be profitable. It could also be that the Alphas and Betas floating around right now have drawn too many people away after years of only having a slow drip of MMO releases and a revenue milestone was missed.

    Those of us not on the executive teams at Turbine or Warner will likely never know the full story. But, that doesn't stop ignorant people from wild speculation.

    1. Thank you for sharing a little perspective as an industry insider. As few commenters at Hardcore Casual pointed out, there are myriad reasons to lay ofa portion of a workforce, and relatively few are because the company is in any kind of jeopardy.

  2. And when we take into account that the average EVE player allegedly has upwards of 2.5 accounts, Syncaine's 500,000 accounts translate into maybe 220,000 really enthusiastic players.

    Half of which are Chinese players.

    It always makes me smile that people like Syncaine dismiss the Chinese players of World of Warcraft as not relevant to be counted, but do count them when reporting on the subscription numbers of EVE Online. Outside of Asia, EVE Online is actually shrinking.

    1. I, of course, see no reason to discount Chinese players in either case—unless they're part of gold farming schemes. Still, even gold farmers pay a sub, until they get caught.

      Thanks for stopping by. :)

    2. Well, Chinese players are different. IIRC, the way WoW was set up in China was a per-hour charge, with a player worth a maximum of $5 per month. This is quite different than the $15/month maximum a western player could pay if they don't buy multiple months at one time.

      And, given how difficult it is to break into China as a western developer, it can be hard to gain those raw numbers to compare favorably with existing numbers. Games like WoW and EVE got in pretty early, before there were a lot of regulations. Anyway, the point is that a company with 100k western subscribers and 1k Chinese players is probably better off than a game with 20k western subscribers and 100k Chinese players, even if the latter has more absolute number of players.

      But, yeah, saying they "don't count" for one game but "do count" for another is just cherry picking data as it suits you.

  3. "I assume Syncaine is playing EVE."

    As far as I know, he's not and hasn't been for some while. No doubt he'll correct me if I'm wrong but I think I remember reading him confirm on his blog recently that he's currently playing neither EVE nor Darkfall. In fact, I don't believe he's played MMOs all that regularly or intensively for a good while now. Like an awful lot of longer-serving bloggers he seems to have become disenchanted with both the content and the direction of the genre.

    It's a shame, because he a clear-thinking and interesting analyst when he chooses to be, but I guess there's not much motivation to engage constructively when you feel everything is inexorably heading in the opposite direction to the one you'd prefer.

    1. I would fault him for not carrying his own torches, but I often comment about MMOs I don't play and never have. :)

  4. Syncaine's post is more of a reference to the trend of pro-F2P articles always referencing older articles talking about how great LOTR was doing when it went F2P.

    Its become a running joke that writers talking about the virtues of F2P always refer to the massive player & revenue increases that were reported during the initial months of DDO and LOTR's conversions. It still happens today, years after those game's conversion to f2p and the initial player surge have long since past.

    If those games were continuing to do so amazingly well obviously they would not be announcing that there will be no new expansions + company lay-offs.

    1. I don't know where the joke is running, since none of the blogs I follow refer to old references. As has been pointed out elsewhere, F2P conversion often breather new life into games that would have been shut down long ago if subs were the only option. Which again leads to the question: is it the business model that has failed, or the game design? Or should we go back to the original understanding that even MMOs come to an end, and were never intended to run for decades?

      Thanks for your clarification of Syncaine's post. :)

    2. The joke is running on a loop in Syncaine's head, I guess. The problem is that he tries to equate business success with quality of a game, and as I said above, the reasons for a business to succeed or fail are often more complex than anyone on the outside can imagine. Especially in the case of licensed games (which both LotRO and DDO are), license holders are going to expect a level of success to maintain the value of their property above and beyond what would be necessary to keep a game running otherwise.

      The transition to free-to-play might have been a big enough bump to keep the license-holders happy for a bit longer. Perhaps the games have more players and are making more now under free-to-play than they were under the subscription model, but projections aren't being met so layoffs happen. Neither of these scenarios is an indictment about how good the free-to-play business model is for games.