Star Wars: The Old MMO Problem
Another month passes and another big MMO announces it's moving from a standard subscription model to free to play, with the publisher strenuously re-iterating that this is both A Good Thing and also What They Planned All Along. Nothing super interesting in that, except that the MMO in question is Star Wars: The Old Republic - the most expensive game ever made.
Not only was it the most expensive game ever made, but it was also developed by one of the best studios in the industry and based on one of the world's most popular franichses. And it's still unable to run on subscriptions after less than a year? Blimey.
Now, there are a lot of reasons why The Old Republic specifically has struggled since release and there'll doubtlessly be a lot of other critics pointing out the holes in EA's online strategy, the issues with Bioware's design and so on. Personally though, I don't think the issues we should be concerned with are exclusive to The Old Republic. I look at the other big MMOs which have faced the same transition - Age of Conan, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek Online - and wonder if there isn't a wider problem with MMO design.
Not even if you paid me.
Actually, strike that. I flat-out know that there's a problem with what we've come to accept as conventional MMO design. It's that that design rests on ideas which are explicitly manipulative of players, having been cynically created to trap them in a system that will never reward them enough to make them feel they can stop playing.
This is the dirty little secret of most MMOs. They are not designed to be fun, interesting or even social experiences. They are designed purely so that you keep playing. They are not entertainment; they are traps.
Now, there's a lot I could say on that point about developer responsibility and the evils of systems which promote and glorify these types of design, but those are other arguments for another time. What matters as far as the fiscal realities of SWTOR and its ilk go though is that there's only room a certain number of games that are this brazenly manipulative - and I think we've already reached that limit. Most gamers simply aren't interested in more games like that, while those that are have already got unbreakable bonds to existing games, such as World of Warcraft.
Who remembers Age of Conan? Anyone?
This doesn't mean that the MMO genre is dead, however - merely that developers need to look at new approaches and new ways to make the medium work. EVE: Online is a great example here, becoming successful for eschewing conventional design in favour of a pure sandbox model. Likewise, Second Life.
It still baffles me that there are so few games which are classified as 'Massively multiplayer' which offer genuinely social experiences. MMOs such as SWTOR and WoW may occasionally host social experiences, but these are by happy accident rather than design. In fact, a casual Twitter poll I just run (thanks to Kieron Gillen
, Richard Cobbett
and Joe Percy) only came up with one really likely looking possibility, called A Tale In The Desert
. I'm going to dedicate some time this month to checking it out.
The rest of you can play The Old Republic, if you prefer.