Was That a Bubbling Burst I Heard?
by Dave Rickey
Well, it's been a long hiatus. Lots of reasons for that, some professional and some personal. In the meantime, a lot of things have been happening in the business. Microsoft shut down the Mythica project, EA moved the UXO project from Austin to California (leaving the senior staff behind), and rumors of trouble surround The Matrix Online. Although there are almost certainly many more issues involved, I think much of it can be traced back to one event: Horizons launched and didn't do well. This, added on top of a series of disappointments (essentially, every game launched since Asheron's Call with the singular exception of DAOC), has the industry a little jumpy.
What's frustrating is that the disappointments were not only predictable, they were predicted widely by nearly everyone who really has been watching the industry. There were a few surprises: many didn't believe DAOC would do as well as it did, some expected SWG to do much better (it did have the fastest initial growth of any game ever, though). But this is the way of things, a new paradigm comes along, is initially doubted, then accepted, then lauded as the next great thing and everyone jumps on the bandwagon, then tossed aside. Everyone wants to be associated with a hot new concept; no one wants to be the last one to bail out when the going gets rough.
Irrational exuberance has become equally irrational pessimism. What's really going on here is simple: Cloning EQ isn't going to cut it. The original is still around, still adding more content, still updating their graphics engine to remain competitive. No knockoff can simply refine the EQ formula and expect to do well. It's not even enough to recreate EQ's gameplay in a different setting, "EQ with laser guns", "EQ in space", and so on. A game has to bring something new to the table in terms of the gameplay experience it provides, or it's doomed from birth.
But adapting a formula is easy, creating a new gameplay experience is hard, not to mention a big gamble. And any time millions of dollars are involved, risk-aversion goes with the territory. The people who control the money don't understand gamers, or gaming, they look at it as a straight investment proposition, and they want to know, as surely as possible, that if they pour money in one end, they'll be able to take more money out the other, and they want to understand what's going to happen in the middle, without having to spend a great deal of time actually understanding the intricacies of the process. People with money to invest have no shortage of places to put it, and a major shortage of time to choose which ones. So they want simple propositions. "EQ is hugely successful, and this game will be just like EQ, but in space" is a simple pitch they can understand, even if it's a bad idea.
And now what they see is EA, Microsoft, and Ubi Soft, three of the biggest companies in the market, all backing away from it. The simple truth is that none of these companies really understood the market to begin with. However, these cycles are inevitable, and this being the first major downswing it's equally inevitable that it will be the most severe.