March 12, 2009

The Winners Write the History Books

When people ten years from now talk about what MMO design was like in the 2000's, they'll be talking about World of Warcraft. One huge game, played by millions of people, will be more or less all people remember. Hell, it's all most people think about already.

Everquest was the same way in its time. The success of Everquest led to the success of WoW, and the success of WoW will lead to more games like it. This is fine, don't get me wrong. WoW's a great game. It's just not the only game worth noticing.

When a game sells really well, its features will be emulated by games that also want to sell well. When a game doesn't sell as well, its features fade into obscurity - even the great ones.

One quick example

Shadowbane was released in 2003, and it never got above 50,000 or so subscribers. A lot of people talk about what a shame it is that the territory control mechanics, player cities, and seige warfare from that game didn't become more popular, but those are all fairly controversial ideas that not every MMO player necessarily enjoys.

However, their incredible UI customization is not a controversial feature at all. Show any MMO player in the world the following video, and I'll bet you a dollar that they say they wish it was this easy in whatever game they're currently playing:

If more people had played Shadowbane, this degree of native UI customization would be considered a basic requirement of every game released. WoW set an impressively high standard of UI customization through mods, but it's not nearly as easy as Shadowbane's system. Despite that, games that come out next year will be held to WoW's standard, not Shadowbane's.

We need to keep track of good ideas from all games, not just from the games that sell the most copies. I'll be posting about more great-but-overlooked features here in the future.


Tesh said...

I've argued before for a historic documentation of game design history. We really need to learn from more than just the current market trends.

Eolirin said...

Guild Wars actually is pretty similar to that, it's just got less fiddly bits that the system uses, so they're mostly displayed all at once and you can't add or remove elements to the same extent, nor do you need to. You can move everything around, resize it, etc, though.

But yeah, it would be really nice to see more games using that level of easy UI reorganization though.

Mike Darga said...

Those sneaky ArenaNet guys. I shouldn't be surprised. They're another great example of a game that doesn't get nearly enough attention paid to it.

I'm definitely just as guilty as the next guy at letting design details from smaller games slip through the cracks. That's one of the reasons I wanted to start recording some of them here.

Aaron Miller said...

Meridian 59 designer Brian Green is among a group in the process of documenting a history of the industry. I'm sure he'd appreciate any help, if you have ideas.

Shadowbane also had some impressive character customization, like the runestone system. Other games never made it out the door but had some worthwhile concepts, like Trials of Ascension. When a game fails, it might not be due to the concepts, but instead due to poor implementation, the wrong combination and balance of concepts, or poor business management. There are good ideas in many bad games.

Eolirin said...

GW isn't small! Heh. It's got more users than anything short of WoW or maybe RuneScape. :)

Mike Darga said...

That's a pretty hard thing to define for GW, since they have no subscriber numbers to reference. In thoery every person who ever bought the game counts as a player, but I wonder how many active players they have right now.

The only way we have to tell how many people are really into GW right now is how much buzz it receives on forums and blogs, etc. By that measure, it strikes me as a smaller game, because I never really hear anything about it unless I go looking.

If I had to guess, I'd say GW has about 200k active players, just based on how often I hear people talking about it.

Eolirin said...

Active players fluctuate depending on what's going on, since there's no barrier for people coming back after they stop playing for a while. *shrug*

GW players in general are more casual too, and that's going to result in an relative lack of external forum activity, so that's not necessarily a great metric either.

But they sold over 5 million boxs, and that's at least a million and a half if not more accounts. Even a third of that is bigger than pretty much everything else on the western side, short of Runescape and WoW. And I'd suspect at least a third when you average out the peaks and valleys of user activity.

It's probably dropping off a bit since there haven't been any new expansions for a while now though.

Eolirin said...

Oh, right, I forgot to say, and how much do you hear about Runescape? I certainly don't hear *anything* about it, outside of Koster making mention to it from time to time. But it's got more users than the rest of the market after you take WoW out of the equation, combined.

But it caters to a market that doesn't intersect with my interests, so even though it's hugely popular, it barely blips my radar.

And this just to illustrate how easy it is to end up with a distorted view of things from inside our echo chambers.

Mike Darga said...

Jeez those are huge numbers. I hope you're right actually. I'd be happy to be wrong about that, because I think ArenaNet makes great games.

But yes, as you say I probably am just talking to the wrong people. I don't know a single person that plays Runescape, Second Life, Habbo, Dofus, etc, but those games all report huge playerbases.

By the way, I do consider it a very good thing that it's possible to phase into or out of games as your interest permits. This is exactly how I play games like TF2, although it also does occur to me that it would make more sense to consider GW in a category with TF2 rather than with WoW.

Eolirin said...

That's probably right on a lot of levels; I would say GW is a lot closer to Diablo 2 than anything else, which makes sense considering it's heritage.

(And the 5 million boxes is a press release number, so that at least is correct, with the caveat that it includes all of the campaigns in that tally, so the number of accounts is some fraction of that. Dividing by 4 gets you a little over a million, but it's unlikely that dividing by 4 is accurate, since that would indicate that everyone who bought one bought them *all* which would be crazy high "retention")

Mike Darga said...

Based on my experience making expansions, it's pretty likely that there was a fairly low retention rate from the base game, but the retention rate from pack to pack gets higher and higher.

Your audience gets distilled to its most hardcore players over time.

Half of the people who buy one expansion pack are probably very likely to buy a second one, most people who buy a second one will buy a third one, and almost everyone who buys a third will hang on for the fourth, etc.

Eolirin said...

Hmm, I'm not sure if that holds true for guild wars though, and as it is a multiplayer experience, the sims may not be directly applicable.

The numbers don't quite add up for traditional expansion sales. It hit 3 million boxes sold two months after Nightfall (the second and last of the standalone campaigns) was released, in December 06 (2 years and change since the launch of the original game), and then proceeded to hit 4 million 10 months later in August 07, and crossed 5 million in Feb 08 (6 months), a few months after the Eye of the North expansion hit; this is a relatively linear rate of growth, though the lack of new updates shows that it's halted somewhat, or that they haven't felt it important to mention hitting 6 million.

A big hint in actual numbers is actaully in this line from another press release though: (Jan 07) "Players racked up more than 20 million hours of gameplay during the Wintersday Festival..." Wintersday is a high peak activity period, being a seasonal holiday, and it only runs for about 18 days. 24 hours to a day, times 18 gives us a total of 432 hours for that period, which would mean you'd need at minimum 46k active players if they all played constantly over that period with no sleep. If we assume an average of about 20 hours per week per player though, (which is about industry standard, but may actually be too low for a special event like this, or possibly too high given GW's more casual nature) that gives us somewhere along the lines of 388k users (2.5 weeks), for that interval. And this is before the 4 million and 5 million barriers were broken in terms of boxs sales, though the impact on additional accounts is hard to gauge, and active players even harder.

Still, I think that points toward there being a LOT of GW players, at least during peak times.

But yeah, I'm kinda rambling a bit, still it was a fun process to go through looking at those numbers and playing at reading the tea leaves, so forgive me the indulgence :)

Eolirin said...

Err, whoops, one year and change between 0 and 3 million.

Eolirin said...

Oh, and they had at least one weekend period with 500k active accounts, but that was during a Factions preview, so it would've been excessively high in terms of attention.

Mike Darga said...

Wow, thanks for digging all that up!

You're right, it looks as though they really are one of the biggest western MMOs.

I'm glad you corrected me on this, I need to get my facts straight next time.

By the way, I really wish this data was all as public as movie box office data.

I'd love to be able to see information for threads like this, and I'd also love to be able to see how much many people out there are actually playing the offline games I've made.

Eolirin said...

Well, if Onlive succeeds wildly, and manages to take over the entire gaming industry, it'd be really easy to get that metric data for singleplayer stuff, and more besides. The sort of data you could cull about user habits if everything's being done on the cloud is a statistic geek's nirvana.

It'd kinda suck for the hardware people though... and the pirates too I suppose, but no one likes them anyway. :)

Mike Darga said...

I'll be interested to see how that pans out. It might be a bit ahead of its time, but it's a pretty cool idea.

Something about Steve Perlman makes me really want to believe what he's saying, but the sheer fact of how much I want to believe it makes me wary of actually believing it heh. Tycho expressed something similar today as well.

Eolirin said...

Yeah, absolutely. However, I think it's inevitable going forward, though, for this to happen in some form. Even if it's not them.

It just simplifies and solves SO much. It may take 20 years, but I suspect everything will really eventually move onto "the cloud", and we'll only be using dummy terminals for everything. It's the logical end result of an increasingly wired society.

Mike Darga said...

I look forward to it. In a way, Steam already approximates this experience for me.

Eolirin said...

So, quick update on Guild Wars numbers; they just put out a press release that mentions that they hit 6 million copies sold. So there's definitely been a slow down in the rate of growth, but they haven't released a new expansion/campaign since they hit 5 million, so that's perhaps to be expected.

The fact that they've still managed to sell another million copies in a relatively similar time frame (14 months instead of 10 for a comparable dry period of releases) even though there's been no new product (and the only new products on the horizon will be GW2 related at that) says something though.

Mike Darga said...

Those are definitely some impressive numbers. I'm excited to see what new things they'll be doing with GW2.

It sounds like they're trying to achieve a pretty interesting mix between open world and instanced story driven stuff. I know from experience this is a difficult sweet spot to hit.

Eolirin said...

You and me both Mike :)

The complete and utter lack of any new info on GW2 is driving me crazy. heh. :)