Series Info...Biting The Hand #45:

I See in My Crystal Ball...

by Jessica Mulligan
March 4, 2003

If anything has held true about online gaming throughout the last seventeen years, it is this: We always seem to be on the verge of some great breakthrough and never quite attain it.

We always seem to be on the verge of breaking open into truly huge crowds of players compared to what we have right then, but never quite reach the numbers we thought we would. We always seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough in game systems or mechanics design, but never quite manage to make it work the way we thought it should. We always seem to be on the verge of making truly decadent sums of money, but never quite manage to find a way to break the fiscal barrier into humongous status. And so on, ad infinitum ad nauseam.

There are a number of explanations that could be assigned as reasons why: We're still a relatively new industry, it took time for the requisite technology to be adopted in large numbers, the industry is still developing standards, the technology changes drastically every 18 to 24 months, the sun was in our eyes and we lost the ball, la la la, yada yada yada. The simple truth is that we keep shooting for the stars and hitting Pittsburgh. Yeah, sure, we cratered Katmandu once with Ultima Online and briefly managed low Earth orbit with Lineage but, by and large, we never manage to reach nearly as far as our own expectations. Nor do we as an industry often understand the 'why' of our repeated failures, so we can't adequately explain it rationally to those interested others who want to hear it. It is always something amorphous like "We're ahead of the market" or "Who knew the economy would tank?" or my personal favorite, "I guess the players just didn't get it."

From the Throne of Perfect Hindsight, I can tell you it isn't rocket science; while there is some truth to all the reasons mentioned above, the main culprit has always been unreasonable, over-hyped expectations. We're experts at it. In an industry where success depends on how well you manage the expectations of the customers, we suck at managing our own expectations and those of our stakeholders on Wall Street. Some of that over-hype is intentional, of course; I've never known a company to promote an online game as "Incredibly evolutionary! Breaks less ground than its predecessors!" That would be like describing Superman as "Able to leap small mud hovels in two jumps and a squat thrust!" No power to excite imaginations, float a stock price or ring the cash register, you know? A certain amount of wink-wink, nudge-nudge is expected; customers learn pretty quickly how to separate the wheat from marketing fluff.

What has always irked me, though, are the over-hypes that come purely from not understanding important elements of the industry. I'm not talking about the technology, necessarily, although how you use the technology is certainly important. Company leaders tend not to understand the whole concept of what online gaming is about, and that is the emotional attachment that a player forms to an avatar and group from collaborating with, sometimes competing against, but always virtually being with other real, live humans. Sure, they give lip service to "socialization" and other wonderful buzzwords that make analysts feel all warm and fuzzy, but they don't quite understand it. How can they? Most of those guys have never played a persistent world or even the multiplayer module of a hybrid such Counterstrike or NeverWinter Nights. How do you understand what it really means to be the Cleric in a hunting party or the tank or the master armor crafter, or the importance of player-owned housing, until you get in the trenches with the players and experience it for yourself? You can't, obviously, no matter how often or how brilliantly someone explains it to you.

It has given us a bad reputation of not knowing what we're talking about, a well-deserved reputation, at that. The people that analysts and reporters go to for quotes about online gaming and persistent worlds are the "names," senior company executives and those few designers that have made a name for themselves through outrageous sales numbers and/or one or two innovative games. They may or may not have ever built an online game of any sort; at this stage in our evolution, probably not. And as expert as these people may be at standard PC or console games - and don't kid yourself, they are experts and pretty damn smart, too - they have no experience with the totally different market of collecting money on a regular basis from people playing your online game. It is no wonder the public hears glowing tales that later turn out to be merely the snuffed embers of misconception and misunderstanding.

So, naturally, I must now climb upon the arrogance train and contribute my own chapter to this sordid tale of woe. Here comes Jessica, climbing down from the Throne of Perfect Hindsight and clambering up on the Podium of Not-Quite-Perfect Foresight to make her own predictions about where the industry is going. Somewhat semi-accurate ones, she hopes and prays, looking warily at the crowd holding their rotten tomatoes and cabbage heads and grinning savagely. Gulp. I'll stick to three top-line prognostications this time around. Translation: I'll tackle the easy ones for which a correct answer probably can't be determined until I'm long gone from the scene. It is in this manner that experts remain experts and not failed prophets. Some other time, if I'm feeling adventurous - or feel like retiring - I'll get more daring and detailed.

  1. During my career, there will be little mass market acceptance for subscription persistent worlds.

    I use the term "mass market" here in the traditional sense: made or intended for use by the average joe, with a penetration of 25% or more of the total market. This is the Holy Grail for any company providing a product or service to the general public, because success here means riches beyond even my dreams of avarice, and I'm a pretty good dreamer. I just don't see for-pay online gaming going here any time soon. In other words, I seriously doubt 70 million Americans will be paying for use of a virtual world/persistent world by the time I retire, nor that some 1.5 billion people worldwide will be paying for them. How long will that be? Well, I turned 47 the other day; you do the math.

    There are many reasons why I so believe - the technology has too long a way to come to be truly intuitive to the average person, there is too huge of a time commitment for the average person to stay involved in a persistent world, different geographic regions demand different play styles and features, involved games such as RPGs have always been a niche and not a mass market, the morons who started the first Internet Land Rush trained consumers to expect content for free, no matter how much it cost to develop - but what it really comes down to is the label of 'game.' That one is the real killer, because consumers have come to associate Internet gaming with membership in a geek subclass of l33t d0od subject matter experts, one that confounds, frightens and, frankly, disgusts many average folks. Sure, you know and I know those unsocialized, acting-out misfits represent maybe 5% of the total gaming population, tops; try telling that to Joe and Jane Consumer. It is part of the common wisdom now and there is nothing tougher than trying to shake up the common wisdom.

    We can, and probably will, get past that impression, but it is going to take years; it may take 20 years, until the current videogame generation raises kids of their own in a society in which the technology is ubiquitous. At any rate, I suspect I'll be feeding the worms before it becomes a reality.

  2. How the customer is treated on a day-to-day basis will become the defining factor between success and failure for a subscription game.

    Right now, the industry has fooled itself into believing that pretty pictures and lots of marketing buzz make a great online game, as long as you view the pictures with your pals. Few subscriptions games perform adequate customer service, player relations or community relations because it's, you know, expensive and stuff. With a couple exceptions, what little of it we get is based on the failed notion that form email responses, 45 minute-plus response times to issues that prevent game play and bottom tier service by people who don't speak the language and live 10,000 miles away is good enough for games that feature notorious problems that often require real-time, one-on-one contact to fix. And still analysts, publishers and pundits scratch their heads and wonder why even relatively few hard core gamers want to cough up $12.95 per month to play.

    The truth of it is that these games are so complicated and intricate that they are, by nature, contact-heavy in both customer service needs and content administration needs, sometimes called "interest game mastering." At times, some persistent worlds have had adequate amounts of both and the growth patterns have shown the desirability of having it. For the most part, though, there has been a 'conspiracy of acquiescence' among publishers; if you don't go spend a lot of margin points on service, neither will I, savvy? Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more.

    That worked when there were relatively few games available and players had little choice. Now there are several big games, several more medium to small ones and lots more of both coming down the pipeline in between 2003 and 2005. In the fight to survive, the gloves are going to come off and customer service will have to get better. Believe it; if the larger publishers don't do it voluntarily, the small to medium sized developers and publishers will force them into it.

    If I'm right about 1 above, the hard-core and moderate gamer become even more crucial to developers than they are today and point 2 becomes a logical necessity. Dungeons imply dungeon masters and the term 'online service' implies customer service. Artificial Intelligence just isn't capable of doing either job and it will be decades before it is, if it ever is.

  3. The feature set needed to acquire and hold a customer for an extended period of time is only going to get larger.

    And that means two situations are likely to occur: Class AAA games will become even more expensive to develop as publishers match a few new features with more top-of-the-line graphics, and Class AA and below games will start featuring less top-line art but a whole boatload of the features for which players clamor and which tends to keep them paying a fee each month. It will be the battle of the pretty but somewhat less capable versus the plain-jane go-getter.

    The feature set of a persistent world that is generally acknowledged by players as 'rich' is already pretty big. What they've been getting more of lately is, interestingly, less. Persistent worlds have actually been launching with fewer features, active game mechanics and game systems than the two games that kicked off this, the third generation of persistent worlds: Meridian 59 in 1996 and Ultima Online in 1997. How many RPGs today launch with guild halls, enhanced guild management functions and player housing? Not many. UO was especially feature-rich, so much so that it took years for the game's technology to catch up with the design intent.

    What we'll start seeing in a few years are games that contain all the features found in a variety of today's games rolled into one offering (and which will look a lot like UO's current feature set), plus a whole suite of tools to allow players to create their own content, events and competitions. Letting players have some control over the environment will be the only way to let them create a compelling experience for themselves, and the economics make sense; the more content they create to amuse themselves, the less you have to pay to create. It will be done within some guidelines and constraints, of course; can't have little Johnny making PenisLand for his friends and stocking it with Star Trek characters or other copyrighted content killing each other with marital aides.

In summary, my predictions are that the mass market won't be rushing to embrace for-pay games, meaning that the competition for the hard core and moderate gamers becomes more important, not less. To grab them, games will become more feature rich and will have better overall customer service and player relations.

Or, I'm totally wrong and eighteen years from now we're all playing Halo XII on Xbox Live version 190.1 and no one but a few academics and Trivial Pursuit players will remember that persistent worlds even existed.

I know which of these visions I consider more likely.

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