Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Broken Business Models

Scott Jennings, previously known as Lum the Mad, does his best Richard Bartle imitation and gives an interview in which he says something provocative, which gets a lot more attention than the rest of what he says, forcing him to explain himself. He says it is not the monthly fee subscription business model that is broken, but the fact that neither the monthly fee model nor the free-to-play model create good enough games. Quote: "There is little room for creativity and advancing the state of the art in any of those scenarios - either you are working too fast, have too little budget for your scope, or you don’t have the flexibility because you are responsible for a blockbuster-sized budget."

Scott is totally right in saying that "You Can Make A Lot Of Money From Subscription MMOs". But I think he misses the point when he says "People Enjoy Playing Subscription MMOs". They don't. If they could play *the same* game for free they would certainly prefer that. Many western WoW players would also prefer to pay the same hourly rate as the Chinese do, instead of paying per month. Monthly subscriptions are an absolute advantage over hourly rates only for those who play the most hours, and that is less people than you would think. The reason why players appear to prefer monthly fee subscription games over free-to-play browser games is simply that they enjoy all those elements that only huge budgets can buy: Better graphics, more polish, more content. Many players end up opting for a mix, paying both a monthly fee to the game company and microtransactions to a gold farming company, so clearly they aren't all that against paying for in-game advantages.

I agree with Scott that there are lots of low-budget games full of great innovative ideas, and nobody plays them because they are ugly, or buggy, or too small. I also agree that a development team with a $50 million budget will err towards being conservative. I can also follow his argument that monthly fees are responsible for gold farming, because microtransaction games where you buy the gold directly from the developer are immune to gold farmers, who can't compete. I do not agree that monthly subscription games encourage bad design. His argument of "You gotta keep those people subscribed somehow" is exactly as valid for free-to-play games with microtransactions as it is for monthly fee games. Grind and time sinks aren't unique to monthly fee games, in fact most Asian free-to-play games are a *lot* more grindy than WoW is. Creating unique hand-crafted content is more expensive than creating grind, so in the end the big budget games have more and higher quality of content than the free-to-play ones.

I also think that Scott (and Raph Koster, and Richard Bartle, and many others) overestimate the desirability of innovation. If innovation was so important to players, then why do they refuse to play innovative games just because they don't have the fancy graphics and quality of execution that the big budget games have? Why did games like Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, or Hellgate: London fail, in spite of being not so bad graphically and technically, but being very much different in gameplay than WoW? "New" is not automatically better, sometimes an innovation is just a bad idea and doesn't sell.

What I find most unacceptable from all these innovation worshippers is how they manage to overlook the real, evolutionary innovation that took place all the time, and is still on-going. They dismissed WoW as a Diku/MUD/EQ clone, they are dismissing WAR as a WoW clone now. And thereby totally missed important innovations like the WoW quest system (Everquest, in spite of the name, was not a quest-based game), or the WAR open groups. Scott thinks public quests are the only innovation WAR brings to the genre, and completely misses the important development from WoW as a solo game to WAR as a group-centric game. He doesn't see the innovation in creating a gameplay where the best way to advance is to not grind the same stuff repeatedly, but to change from soloing to public quests to RvR and back repeatedly. How can you trust those bigwigs if they don't even try to play the new games and analyze how much really has changed? They remind me of old Marxists still waiting for the revolution, without noticing that the proletariat is now driving SUVs and watching plasma TVs, instead of being oppressed and ready to overthrow the establishment.

In the end you can't predict how good or bad a game is just from looking at the business model. Microtransactions and user-created content are fancy buzzwords that look good as bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, they don't automatically make any game they are attached to into a good game. Nor does the fact that a game has monthly fees turn it automatically into a bad game. The sad reality is that most game developers have trouble coming up with any new ideas that actually work. What business model a game has is secondary, if it is based on ideas that don't work. And a big MMORPG is such a huge collection of thousands of ideas that demanding that all of them are new *and* work better than previous ideas is just asking too much. Microtransactions, and a gameplay that works well with that business model, could work one day. But the reason I know that it can work is that I spent thousands of dollars on Magic the Gathering cards, increasing my power and options in the game with every card I bought. So even the microtransactions idea itself isn't all that innovative, it has been done offline 15 years ago. So make a good game first, see what business model fits best, and stop blaming the business model if your game just plain stinks. There is no such thing as a broken business model, there are only tons of broken games who couldn't have been saved by any business model attached to it.

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