This year, Funcom's big MMO launch, The Secret World, went bust. While the beta was a hit, players didn't flock to the title after it got middling reviews from critics; it also came out amidst a market flooded with high profile titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2.
"It's very hard for a new IP to stand out in a landscape of sequels and big-name franchises," post-launch game director Joel Bylos told Gamasutra earlier this year. Project lead Ragnar Tornquist said, "Being different can sometimes be a big disadvantage, particularly when the threshold for losing patience with a game is low."
Craig Morrison, creative director for Funcom's Montreal studio, is facing a very different market for the genre than he was used to. He'd like to see the walls between sub-genres get smashed down, and he'd love to see games launch small and build up, rather than launch big and be perceived as instant failures.
It's a bit disappointing, because everyone was excited to say, "Oh look, it's not in that tiny little wheelhouse of what MMOs are." It becomes "Look, someone stepped out of that line and they got punished for it."
Craig Morrison: Yeah, and we need to try and move beyond that. It's looking to the future and seeing [that] we have to find ways to utilize the potential of the genre that isn't just into this very narrow theme park or sandbox-type mentality, where you want to pre-define things before they're done.
I'd love to get rid of those phrases; I hate the terms "theme park" and "sandbox". To me, the beauty of these virtual worlds is they're community-based and that they can be actual virtual worlds, where players can tell their own stories alongside storytelling from the developers, and that they can merge into one. "Convergence rather than divergence", I think, is the [way], if you want to put it down into one phrase, because there's so much potential for the genre.
The EVE/WoW dichotomy doesn't have to exist.
CM: Yeah! We don't have to look at it in that way, and I think there's so many interesting ways where we can take the best parts of both and bring them together when we're making these games in the future, because we have to get there. Otherwise, the only people who are able to launch games on that scale will be a tiny, tiny handful of developers, and even they're going to be afraid.
You know, you look at the results for The Old Republic and you see a game massively invested in. I don't know their budgets, but I'm guessing something five or tenfold what we've spent on Secret World, at a conservative guess -- where they can retain a million subscriptions and that's a failure. That's a very harsh situation to be in for a genre.
We need to find ways where we can build these worlds. People tend to forget that EVE Online started with 10,000 customers and held that for the first few years, and then it grew organically to where it's now up to 400,000 accounts. And we have to have the space to allow those games to develop like that, because they build better games.
An MMO at the three-year point is a far better game than the MMO that released. And I think we have to find a way as an industry -- and specifically as people working in this genre -- to let that flourish, because that's how we'll build better virtual world games in the next five, 10, 15 years.
It's taking that approach to it, rather than this huge bet that we're going to spend 300 million dollars in the hope of making 2 billion from having a huge mass market, instant hit. When I think the true potential of the genre is in that more slow-boiling, building game that might build up and up and organically build a community.
The Secret World
Well, that's the thing. This is awfully oversimplified, but the failure of a lot of the games to retain their audience is because people play through the content and they reach the end of the content, and then they move on because the content peters out.
If you look at EVE...
CM: It's system-driven.
CM: And that's exactly the key. You need to build an ecosystem. You need to build a collaborative set of systems which give the players the ability to tell their own stories alongside yours. And I think a lot of the problem in the genre is people want to make it a partisan discussion. It's like your game's either story-based or your game's sandbox, and to me that's doing ourselves a huge disservice. Because we can take the elements that are really good in a theme park setting, and maybe the strong storytelling can still play a part in a sandbox setting. It's just a different part.
And then the question is how do you do that? How do you bring it in so that your story can sit alongside the player's? And then build the systems up that allow the players to express themselves and be part of the system. That's the beauty of a game like EVE, is that the players are kind of this organic wheel in the middle of all the systems that the designers have made.
And that's really where I'd love to see the genre go, is taking all the best bits. So you can have a quest-driven game, but it doesn't have to be linear progression. I think games like The Secret World and Guild Wars 2, to an extent, were kind of pulling at the edges of that, to see if we can bring it back to being more virtual world-y rather than a single player game where there happens to be other people doing the same thing as you at the same time. But I don't think anyone's quite there yet.