Crash and Burn MMRPG's Die! Die! Die!

After reading up Desslocks recent rpg site I came upon this tidbit of thought,

so Earth and Beyond is on the shelves looking like it will sell like Allegiance (not much) and some NEocron game is out and nobody plays it (with plans of an expansion?!?). And then there’s AC2 and the DAOC expansion that somehow I dont really care too much about anymore.

Hasn’t the MMRPG bubble burst already? HAven’t they told the devs this already? When solo crpg’s limited multiplayer ones seem to be doing well, why don’t they make more solo crpg’s? Only the non Americans seem to think so. All the next big crpgs seem to be coming from across the oceans … yah.


IIRC, bandwidth in Europe is a lot more pricey than it is here. People (well, at least people in England) pay for it the way we pay for long-distance calls. If practices are similar in other nations, is it any wonder the MMORPGs haven’t caught on there?


It’s not that bad in England - the dark days are mostly behind us now. Somewhere between $15-20 will buy you a month’s unlimited access to the internet via a 56k modem, and $35-40 will get you a months access to a 512k broadband connection. Most of the problems in the country are broadband based, and due to the slow roll-out of Cable/DSL, but most people in urban areas can get affordable broadband now.

That’s good to hear.

I just remember English people on UseNet getting p*ssed over binary files in the newsgroups because they had to download the group’s contents for off-line reading, and the binaries jacked up the amount of time they had to spend online–time they had to pay for (I think) by the minute.


Yeah, it used to be really bad. I remember playing CivNet every evening on my old 28k modem back in 96-97 and I suddenly found I was paying about $200 per month in call charges, not including the $15 per month for the ISP. I pretty much gave up online gaming until BT heralded a new era of internet access in April of '99, with a $15 package that allowed you unlimited evening calls to the ISP. Now I have a blisteringly fast 512k cable connection for $35pm, and I’m in seventh heaven :D.

I think in Dublin the current rate for Eircom’s Internet service (“free”, charged by the minute and accessible without a sign-on from any phone) is something like 6 cents per minute during the day, 1.4 cents per minutes on nights and weekends. I think that’s pretty decent, compared to the 40 cent per minute mobile phone bills common in Ireland.

It is just part of the cycle. More money was spent on online games, including RPGs, in the period 1994-1996 than has been spent since then. At one point in 1996, over 130 online games - including a couple dozen MMOGs - were in development, representing something close to $350 million US in development and deployment funds. Most of those games never saw the light of day and many of the development houses and some of the publishers are now gone.

Now that the weakest of the weak sisters have been weeded out of the group and some lessons learned (though damn few), we’re into the next stage of the weeding cycle, where the big money is raising the bar to close young pretenders out of the field. It was predictible. In the end, it looks like there will be three or four publishers funding most of the games.

I find rather sad that E&B is performing only at a mediocre level. The experienced online people at EA predicted such when Wing Commander Online was cancelled in favor of fair-haired child Westwood’s effort, said opinions based soley on the fact that Westwood had never developed an MMORPG before and the WCO team had experience. Note that the core of that team left EA and formed Verant/Austin, and is now developing Star Wars Galaxies. As Niven says, God is an iron.

Well, I think they’d have doubled their sign-up rate if they’d just kept the “Wing Commander” name attached to it somehow. From a branding perspective, E&B has zero… I mean, “Earth and Beyond” probably sounds like it involves Buzz Aldrin in some way. Might as well name it “Some day, man will reach the moon” - which, by the way, were some of the antique space books that our highschool library had in the 80’s… what a hoot. Illustrations consisted of 2001 style ships that looked a lot like the Discovery, and these weird “bulldozers with bubble cockpits”.

E&B, to me, is a refined EQ-in-space sort of game. It pulls it off pretty well though. I could sit and rant for hours about the faults of EQ, yet I have comparatively little beef with E&B.

I may have misread this, but Desslock said in his article that E&B is the only MMORPG that will be released this year. Unless he has better information than I do, which is probable, Asheron’s Call 2 is scheduled to be released 11/14/02. Even though CGM had this game on their cover recently and various mags have previewed it, I get a feeling there is no buzz about this game other than the AC1 community and quite a bit of that is negative. After playing beta for a couple months, I’m not surprised.

Space sims haven’t been selling well, so it doesn’t surprise me that a game that at least looks like a space sim isn’t selling well.

I agree with Jessica that there will probably be only three to four publishers of these MMOGs, though I suppose there’s still some room left for indie developers who can fund development enough to get something far enough along to strike a publishing deal.

I expect these games to eventually be bundled like a cable TV deal where you pay a flat monthly rate for access to 3-5 MMOGs. Once SOE has EQ, EQ2, and Planetside out, they can probably bundle them and sell them for $24.99 a month.

I played the beta too. It’s barely a game. I’m reasonably certain that it’ll tank pretty hard.

When I’ve pitched such projects, I’ve been told that the “official” rationale for this is that space sims are too complex for the average gamer and that they don’t sell unless they’re attached to a major franchise i.e. Star Wars, Star Trek, etc…

I’m going to politely disagree. I buy just about every one of them. I’m a space sim freak. I’m the developer of a cult space sim that racked up a lot of perfect 10s in its reviews. Did it sell? No and yes, while I targeted a niche platform which caused low absolute numbers, if I extrapolate our sales out to the PC market, I penetrated 5% of the installed base effortlessly. While that’s a nice fantasy, the reality is that I had no competition so all I did was feed a voraciously hungry audience. But that’s getting off the topic a bit, so let’s return to my beef.

I think space sims don’t sell because, by and large, space sims suck as games. Half of them are half-assed remakes of Elite that get pushed out the door, sell like hotcakes in Europe, and then die painfully in America because, well, Elite, sacred cow that it is, just isn’t a fun game for most of us. In fact, it’s damned tedious (I know, boo hiss). But stay with me, OK? Compare the process of getting rich and powerful in Elite versus doing the same in Diablo. What do you prefer to play? I LOVE space sims, and the only Elite remake I ever enjoyed was Hardwar (which though quite buggy, was also strangely fun). Elite rubbed me the wrong way the minute I had to pay every time to dock at space stations unless I could somehow roll the damned ship into the rotating space dock on manual. The designer was somehow telling me that an algorithm that would run perfectly on a frickin’ 2 MHz 6502 CPU would not be running in the computers of an advanced star freighter of the far future. Bzzzzt may we have the next futurist? Anyone ever play a game called Sundog? Why oh why won’t they remake this? Why is the target of worship always frickin’ Elite?

As for the other 50%, they’re all remakes of Wing Commander. This style can really work when it’s set in a known universe and the developers are provided with top-notch playtesters and level designers. Sadly, once they get the B-tream working on these suckers, most of the levels reduce down to fly to waypoint A, engage fighter group Alpha, and protect the mothership. That was fun for the first 10 or games like this, starting back in oh 1990 or so, but it got old around 1995, and I don’t think anyone has yet to top FreeSpace 2 (which was a bit late to the party, but a great game nonetheless). Sure, we’ve got some console favorites like Star Wars Starfighter and Robotech: BattleCry, and these puppies are kind of fun. But they also sacrifice critical tactical interface elements in order to squeeze the control scheme onto a gamepad. Any time I see a wandering targeting computer (you know, the kind that automatically locks onto the closest target without any user control whatsoever) I cringe, because without fail, I engage a fighter or a turret or a giant space slug only to have something fly between us, costing me the lock, and that’s just WRONG.

So then we’re left with maybe 1% of the weird hybrids like Allegiance, Earth and Beyond, and BattleCruiser 3000. Allegiance: what a pretty title, really. but where’s the damned game? The one player training is intriguing enough, but once you enter a real game all you do is fly and fly and fly. Occasionally, somebody streaks past you at mach 1, and you shoot each other up a bunch, but where’s the swashbuckling derring-do in that? Oh wait, the damned thing came out of a thinktank, not a game company. Well, that explains a lot. Maybe they ought to remake Citizen Kane as an infomercial next. I’ll just shut up about BC3K for now: others have said their peace and said it better than I could, and from what I’ve played of Earth and Beyond (which isn’t much because I didn’t like the 2D space flight interface even though I completely understand its necessity), it’s just not engaging to me. And that’s a hard one to figure out. Everquest didn’t grab me either. I think it might be that I’m unwilling to invest the kind of time to explore a huge canned universe these days as I’m no longer 16 years-old and desperately looking for a distraction from all that pining for a date. My time is valuable, and I want the damned thing to move as quickly as a good movie with just about as much time commitment a couple times a week.

So in closing, I think a really fun space sim, with decent marketing would really sell. But I don’t think anyone’s going to take a chance with top-notch talent creating one. FreeSpace 2 rocked, but it got just about zip marketing, so while the sim freaks ate it up, the mainstream never even knew it existed. Who knows, maybe I’m deluded. But usually when there’s a niche crowd having a blast with something, that usually means there’s an unexploited opportunity to expand the audience.

Well, it doesn’t take an expert to predict that a Westwood MMORPG (hey, that’s fun to say!) will bomb. People haven’t respected Westwood in years, and have respected them even less recently. On top of that fact you have alot of people who are blind Blizzard zealots who wouldn’t play a Westwood game if it was the best thing ever.

Westwood could have developed the most insanely fun game ever with E&B, but it was destined to bomb because of who was making it and what people think of their biggest competitors. It’s like a subliminal thing. Westwood bad. Westwood bad. Westwood bad… mkay, right.

OK, all fair points (and I’m now insanely curious to know which cult space sim you developed for a niche platform – wouldn’t be the Jaguar by any chance would it?). You give lucid arguments for why existing space sims “suck as games,” which I think can be summed up as “because the game mechanics haven’t evolved at all in ten years.”

But you neglected to mention what you think would make for a “really fun space sim.”


as I’m no longer 16 years-old and desperately looking for a distraction from all that pining for a date

Ah, the good old days.

If it makes it, it shouldn’t. Given that Microsoft has actually been pretty good about not releasing games until they’re ready (including the original AC), or even longer (like all of the AOE games), I didn’t think it’d make it (or that that November date was even seriously contemplated anymore).

FreeSpace 2 is the best computer game of all time. The end.

Good points – I agree with all of them. All of the Star Wars sims sold well, even the last couple, so there’s still some hope for the genre’s commercial prospects. The death of joysticks has definitely hurt the genre as wll – it’s a bit of a catch-22, but games used to automatically be associated with joysticks (arcade games, early consoles). Cripes, coming from that generation, I’ve only used a gamepad on a couple of occasions in my life - I suspect a lot of gamers under 25 can say the same thing about joysticks.

But I do believe that if you build it - they will come. At some point there will be an amazingly innovative new sim that breaks the mold and doesn’t restrict its design to the existing stereotypes (which is why I think it’s great that guys like Derek are trying new things). The genre died, as “anon” indicated, because it had devolved into a series of incredibly derivative games. The RTS genre is in going through the same phase – while the top franchises still sell, releasing a no-name RTS is one of the easiest ways to have a commercial bomb these days.

And I wouldn’t just characterize E&B’s commercial success as mediocre – it’s on its way to becoming one of, if not the, biggest commercial bombs in gaming history (in spite of generally getting favourable reviews).

The Mechwarrior games sell ok, and they use joysticks. Joystick games can sell, but it seems like they need a strong license or brand behind them, like Battletech, Star Wars, or the Microsoft Flight Simulator brand.

I also wonder if the success of Wing Commander 3 wasn’t due more to the novelty of the cinematic cutscenes than the gameplay.

Maybe it’s just not my genre, but I started Freespace 2 actually because Desslock was praising a non-RPG so highly. I guess after the first few missions I just didn’t see what was so exciting about it. The gameplay is fundamentally identical to all the Wing Commanders. Flying, shooting lasers, shooting missiles, countermeasures, torpedo runs, etc. I saw very little that stretched the genre at all. Unless they decided to leave all the exciting stuff for the later missions while reprising WC2 for the first fifth of the game (I honestly have no idea how far I got).

I had far more fun with Crimson Skies because it offered something fundamentally different – stunts, cool environments, a multitude of interesting objectives. So what did I miss by uninstalling FS2, Desslock (et al)?

Well, the beam weapons, the fog nebulas, and the flak cannons. Those immediately come to mind as innovative. Also the huge capital ship battles you participate in are breathtaking, with the beams ripping through each ship’s hull, the flak blasting away, and the giant furball of fighters.

Really top notch stuff.