The Endless Spiral of MMO Self-Destruction

Warhammer Dwarf and Orc

I know what you're thinking but the game is nowhere as fun as this screenshot makes it look

I believe in an effect called critical mass, particularly in social dynamics, especially when applied online. The more momentum something gains, the more likely is it to succeed and the more likely it is to generate it’s own self-momentum and perpetual growth. There comes a special point though, a moment in time when a certain number or percentage or stage is reached when this snow ball effect actually kicks in and the appropriate critical mass required has been achieved.

Usually the expression critical mass is expressed in a positive way (except of course when you’re talking about meteors plummeting towards the Earth and what not) and it can applied to a whole variety of situations. Web sites, for instance, have a critical mass and when a certain number of visitors have taken notice of a particular site, it becomes somewhat easier for that site to get noticed. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that makes perfect logical sense – the more people tweeting, liking, +1′ing, commenting and generally discussing something, the more people will sit up and take a peak. It’s exponential growth.

Of course, MMOs are no different and we only need to look at the success of games like WoW (or even EVE Online) to see it in action. So many people started playing WoW that, at some point, it hit critical mass and started self-growing at a massive rate, sucking in people who had never played video games before let alone a subscription MMORPG. This was the true secret to WoW’s success. Let’s not be quick to underplay Blizzard’s skill and talent though as creating this rolling boulder of addictive death is no easy feat – if it were, every MMO would be doing it.

However critical mass can also act in a negative way and, unfortunately enough, we tend to see this side of it happen the most in the MMO industry. Instead of hitting a point of popularity that causes a fantastic snow balling of success, we often see a lot of MMO spiral into their own self-destruction. Warhammer Online, Age of Conan, Vanguard, Tabula Rasa, to name a few, are all examples of this. As it’s bringing out a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) spin-off and just celebrated its third birthday though, let’s pick in Warhammer for the remainder of the article.

WAR was a game that no only failed to hit any sort of positive critical mass, it actually hit a negative one and, within a very short period of time, had doomed itself to its own destruction. Make no mistake about it, Warhammer Online is lurching along, a half dead MMO zombie that – out of either blind hope or naivety - just plain refuses to die. In my mind, the issue for failure was twofold: it released when it wasn’t ready and then soon afterwards most of its development support was pulled out from under it. It always truly amazes me how companies think their MMO will continue to become a success if they lay off two thirds of the development team who are desperately trying to fix and improve it.

But then we see this sort of thing all the time in other aspects of life. I’m no clever economics or political wiz like Mr Nils but I do know that the stock market, just like MMOs, is based on confidence and that when people get spooked and start pulling out instead of holding tight, an inevitable spiral of negativity and implosion occurs. In many ways (maybe in all ways) its really these MMOs that end up killing themselves, nothing to do with the consumer.

I’d also encourage floundering MMOs to stop trying to cut their losses but instead perhaps push a little further and invest a little more to try and get their game back on track. Warhammer, not to mention poor ol’ Vanguard, never did have a chance for those exact same reasons and it’s a real shame. All I wanted for Christmas 2008 was a Warhammer MMO that didn’t suck ass.


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  1. bhagpuss says:

    The critical mass part is indisputable but I doubt that WoW was actually “sucking in people who had never played video games before let alone a subscription MMORPG” any faster or in any greater numbers than a whole raft of previous games.

    I’d bet Sonic or Lara Croft or Mario introduced an awful lot more people to the joys of videogaming than WoW ever did. WoW probably brought people into online gaming who would never have tried it otherwise, but I wouldn’t make any bigger claims.

    On a smaller scale, Rift is an MMO that clearly hit critical mass recently. It was evident it was happening during beta and you could watch the snowball rolling downhill, growing bigger day by day. WAR did exactly the same, pre-launch. The problem tends to come when the snowball of anticipation hits the brick wall of launch and shatters into a billion pieces.

    • Stabs says:

      Space Invaders was my first video game and I think quite a lot of other people’s. Pretty well everyone in England my age started with either that or the daft tennis game (the ball was a square and your racket was a thin rectangle on the side of the screen).

      I would guess that just in the UK 5-10 million people’s first video game was one of those two.

      • bhagpuss says:

        I can remember the very first time I ever saw a Space Invaders machine. It was in the King Dick pub at the bottom of Park Street in Bristol and I was somewhere around 18 or 19, there with my girlfriend, later to become my wife (and later my ex-wife, but let’s not digress!). I can also remember the bizarre experience of playing the game and having that heartbeat sound effect get faster and faster. That sound has a lot to answer for.

        That led to three years at University playing Galaxians and Frogger and then an Atari 2600 console, a ZX Spectrum, an Amiga…

        And I *still* don’t consider myself to be a gamer.

      • Gordon says:

        I think my first game was Mario Bros on the NES.

    • Bronte says:

      @bhagpuss: I would actually agree with Gordon on this one. I served as a guild leader in vanilla and TBC for a top-ranked guild. We had players that had never gamed before in their lives. Some joined because their spouses were guild members. Others had friends, or other members of the family or other significant others (way too many “other” in that statement). WoW didn’t just changed MMO gaming. I think it fundamentally changed gaming. Right now it has 11.2 millions subscribers (that is $168 million a month in Blizzard’s coffers), and many times that number of people have already unsubscribed.

      I’d bet the number of people worldwide who have played WoW for however long must be close to 60-70 million. If not more.

    • Gordon says:

      Oh I don’t doubt other games introduced more people to the world of video games but I don’t think any other game has introduced so many people to the MMORPG genre as WoW has.

  2. Stabs says:

    I think it’s not true to say there was no critical mass effect for WAR. I think this phrase exactly describes the hype train which lasted up to but no further than launch.

    WAR was hugely anticipated and nowhere more keenly than on the blogosphere. Some very eminent bloggers started with the WAR hype train including Spinks, Syp, and Sisters Fran and Julie.

    People were so excited by WAR pre-release that a million people rushed out and bought it straight away even though many of them knew they’d be ditching it for WOW’s new expansion a month later.

    There’s no way that that game would have sold so many boxes without the critical mass effect, the excited whisperings of how awesome the game would be and how enthralling the beta was.

  3. Azuriel says:

    All I wanted was a Warhammer 40k MMO, and was willing to put with with WAR until they inexplicably would not accept my credit card after the free 30 days expired.

    That being said, while Public Questing and the BGs were amazing, the actual solo leveling experience in WAR was garbage. A lot of people harp on WoW’s easymode leveling and such, but the “mindlessness” of killing mobs comes from the underlying mechanics feeling solid enough that you feel comfortable going into a trance-like state. You know how mobs are going to react – they aren’t going to teleport around, glitch out, or suddenly be impossible to kill – and you feel like you have complete control over your character. That sort of thing doesn’t happen by accident.

  4. Lierothegreat says:

    “I’m no clever economics or political wiz like Mr Nils but I do know that the stock market, just like MMOs, is based on confidence and that when people get spooked and start pulling out instead of holding tight, an inevitable spiral of negativity and implosion occurs”

    Incorrect. The PROBLEMS of the stock market are based on confidence. When people get spooked and pull out instead of holding tight, that is merely a correction for the error of having irrational confidence in the first place. The people who never have irrational confidence are the ones who make money from the crashes, and from the bull markets, as they operate rationally and profit from others’ irrationality.

    The analogy to MMOs is not perfect, except insofar as the people who are in an MMO merely because it’s the current cool thing are not the customers you really want to cater to as a developer, and attempting to do so has ruined many otherwise good games.

    • Lierothegreat says:

      p.s. you know what the abbrevation “con artist” is short for, right? That’s what makes it so amusing when the government, sorry I mean the “Free press”, blathers on about investor confidence and consumer confidence like they are intrinsically good things.

      • Gordon says:

        Starting to digress but personally I think the media should take more responsibility for the way they deliver news, especially about the economy – everyone is so negative now, usually without cause. Someone said to me today that the UK is in a recession… we’ve been out of recession for two years!!

  5. vortal says:

    You also forgot to mention when certain MMOs (not pointing fingers or anything <_<) become so big they start to actually slow down a bit. This is because the MMO has reached saturation of it's players, and player populations can never exceed Critical Mass ever again. It can either lose players and spiral down to it's slow deteriorating death, or stay at around relatively the same amount of players and never exceed it's Golden Age.

    Also League of Legends is very fun indeed. I recommend people to try it out. 4 spell hotbars, another representation of your previous post.

  6. br3ntbr0 says:

    Good ‘ol Warhammer Online. To this day that game still has a soft spot in my heart, but I don’t hate it the way I hated Star Wars Galaxies even though both games fell apart. Both had a chance for greatness, both did some innovative things, and both fell short of said greatness.

    They just tried to do too much, and didn’t do some of the basics very well. I remember that performance problems were some of the biggest issues that plagued that game, and it was many months later when some code was re-written that it got better. By then it was too little, too late and the masses were back in Azeroth.

    WAR should have gone totally free to play months ago, it’s not worth a full blown subscription to play right now. Actually, no game is worth that any more. I’ll pay it for SWTOR, but I can guarantee that will likely be the last game I play a monthly sub for. With all the f2p moba and mmo games out there right now, it’s just hard to justify the commitment to subscription based game any more.

    • Gordon says:

      I think WAR was doomed to fail as soon as Mythic pulled so many developers from it. It’s been going 3 years and they haven’t even launched an expansion to help expand the game and bring in more revenue. That’s a bad sign. At least Age of Conan is pushing forward a bit.

  7. Isey says:

    Warhammer was awesome in Beta, as it was all focused tests (so always had enemies around your level), and you got to know your opponents (dammit, here is ‘X’, again – he’s awesome, take him down first!). Once you got past the beta to live, it fell apart.

  8. Rinvan says:

    I enjoyed Warhammer Online back in the spring of 2009. I didn’t quit because the game was bad or anything, there just were not enough people in tier 3 to get anything done. By the time I quit in July my guild had only 3 people & the biggest group in prime time was a mere 7 people.

  9. dresdor says:

    I agree that an MMO (and anything socially based like social networking sites) needs a critical mass of people in order to become self sustaining. I do not, however, think that the failures of mainstream MMOs comes from this critical mass being achieved, nor do I think achieving critical mass is enough to make it successful.

    There’s a sweet spot in the middle, above the minimum critical mass, but below the “black hole” mass where the game becomes cumbersome because of the huge community. The lower end of it is where most MMOs struggle, and should they fall below it, they usually suffer from starvation of both funds and players willing to spend time playing it. No amount of talent in developing can save a game people have given up on.

    I wish WAR was a more popular/better developed/balanced game, as many of the aspects of it seemed interesting…I recall their crafting an keep siege (guild banners flying from the walls if you capture it ftw) mechanics to be an interesting idea, though I’m not sure what was implimented in the game.

  10. [...] can go wrong (disregarding for a moment the problems they had even without that at launch), and Gordon at We Fly Spitfire talked about that just recently. Behold, the Warhammer Online or Vanguard of the early [...]

  11. Wolfshead says:

    I cringe when I hear that Blizzard claims to have 11+ million subscribers. Blizzard has spent a lot of money in promoting the notion of social proof i.e. “everybody is playing WoW and you should too!”.

    Unfortunately much of this is hype as two thirds of those 11 million subscribers are not monthly subscribers paying the full price of $15 a month for WoW, rather most WoW “subscribers” are in China and other countries where they use a completely different monetization model and subsequently pay next to nothing to play. They have fooled a lot of people by comparing apples to oranges.

    At best WoW has a couple of million subscribers that are paying the full monthly fee.

    I agree that most of us treat MMOs very harshly; we don’t like to give a MMO a second chance after it has been deemed a “failure”. When you ask a player to get involved with a MMO you are asking them to make a huge investment in their free time, their friends and their allegiances. Players need to have confidence in a MMO and the people that make them.

    We have been hoodwinked and bamboozled by MMO companies in the past like SOE and Funcom; people are rightly cautious and suspicious about playing a new MMO. It’s just too bad that we as a MMO community of players can’t seem to support more MMOs on an even basis.

    Most people are sheep.This bandwagon effect of everyone gravitating to a MMO such as EverQuest, then WoW and then the next big MMO is unfortunate. We need more choices but that’s wishful thinking given tendency of players to choose one “cool” MMO and head there en masse.

    • Asmiroth says:

      Blizzard makes 300 million profit per quarter (look at their financials). Cut the numbers whichever way you want, they make PILES of cash. Everyone I know has an inkling of WoW and I would say 1 in 50 that I have met over the years played. I’ve met people that were in top 100 guilds, just randomly through friends. There is no denying that it has had a cultural impact.

      It’s the typical response from the “I was in it before it was cool” group. New people have ruined what you enjoyed and thought was your special little world. There are EQ progress shards still active and hosted UO private shards to play as well. You’d think they would be full of people with all this “the MMO world is ending” hyperbole but here we are.

    • Gordon says:

      Part of the effect is due to the fact that a lot of people playing WoW have never even heard of any other MMO. Blizzard have very strong (and persuasive) marketing.

  12. bloob says:

    Part of achieving critical mass is low barrier to entry imo. MMOs that *require* above-average comps will always struggle to achieve lift-off precisely because they shut out too many people at the beginning.

    The single best thing WoW did to achieve critical mass was make it run on a toaster. For every hundred people who were tempted into trying it say 90 % all of them could run the game perfectly and if say on average 20% of those who tried it liked it enough to carry on that’s 18 new customers. For something like AoC it might be 20% could run it adequately and again if say 20% of those remaining 20 liked it enough to subscribe that’s only 4 new customers. Plus as well as being new players in themselves that would also give WoW another 18 customers pulling in more people by word of mouth while AoC would only have 4 doing the same.

    That wasn’t so much WAR’s specific problem but i think it’s generally true if an MMO wants to achieve critical mass.

    • Gordon says:

      “The single best thing WoW did to achieve critical mass was make it run on a toaster. ”

      This. Perfectly said. Blizzard were also smart in keeping their art direction bright yet simple, aiding the low computer requirements whilst also making it easy for them to churn our hundreds of types of armour, weapons and general new graphics. Games like AoC and EQ2, which tried to be overly ambitious with their graphics, really struggle in this department and I remember when they first came out being bitterly disappointed in the variety of gear available.

      • dresdor says:

        I have to agree with this. I know I won’t even bother with games that I have to upgrade my computer to run (with the rare exception of TW games for some reason, I’m addicted to them). WoW runs beautifully on my laptop with the settings turned all the way up, even though I have them lower to improve performance.

        One of the reasons I’m not even playing COH for free is because it has random spats of system lag on my laptop. I meet all the specs for it, but it wont run properly so I’m not bothering.

  13. las artes says:

    I’ve been working in the game industry for 14 years, but over the past few I found my career taking me further and further from actual development. Last summer my love of zombies and my desire to return to making games reached critical mass, and I knew it was time to get busy on something new.

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