Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Art of the Soft Launch

I’ve noticed a worrisome trend in the MMO industry lately, a reliance on short term profits rather than long term viability. In the age of the 24/7 everything now age, are we in danger of like the character from Roald Dahls' Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Veruca Salt, wanting everything right now? A MMO is unlike any other game in that is meant to be played for years, even decades. Gaming is business and as such profit and loss is important but game writers, players, and even CEOs’ seem to have lost sight of the big picture.

There are some games that need to have huge launches such as SWTOR to prove that one they are viable in the long term, and two to get back some of the enormous start up costs, in many ways like the R&D development of a company. At first the price is high to get back initial Research and Development costs, but as time goes by those costs are paid down and so the price too can fall. Eventually a friction point is achieved that is perfect for both consumer and producer; in much the same way do MMOs work. In the beginning hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies of games are sold defraying the enormous cost to bring a game to launch. Then the smaller sales of games combined with the monthly fee brings in the revenue to defray the overhead and any remaining start up costs. This is the traditional model, but it is not the model that all MMOs’ must take. One bright example is FFXI.

A game like FFXI were happy to have, what used to be enormous but is now seen as paltry, 300k subscribers, even when the numbers of other games went up Square Enix was happy with those numbers and they remained mostly steady over the course of nearly a decade. Because the company was happy to cater to its crowd and give non-traditional and smaller expansions their customers responded and stayed loyal. They had what can be referred to as a soft launch. They sold the minimal necessary to keep everything up and running but over the years they sold many more copies. Moreover at launch, while stable, the game was missing features that players wanted and clamored for, in the end it took Square Enix years but they managed to find ways to not only keep their consumers happy but also kept putting out new and vibrant content. Now FFXI is one of the healthiest and longest running MMOs today. Contrast that against the history of its cousin Square Enixs’ own FFXIV, an MMO that launched with the same basic problems as the first. While servers and game features were stable for the most part, the game lacked the features that gamers and writers expected. No patience was given this time and the resulting debacle cost jobs and subscribers. In many ways while the launches were the same the outcome and expectations were completely different. FFXIV is to this day still the best looking MMOs on the market and soon to be relaunched in a 2.0 version, though it’s uncertain whether either the media or gamers will return.

In the rush to match the astronomical numbers of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft the industry is failing to consider that there is more than one way. Short term profits are fine and dandy but they are not necessarily the only stick in which to measure the viability of a launched MMO. Until the industry realizes this fact it will continue to be disappointed.

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