Archive for March, 2011
Kotaku is reporting that Sony Online Entertainment has laid off 1/3 of its work force. While SOE has not confirmed this yet the rumblings I am hearing is that this is credible. Before I go any further (and start talking about why I think this is a good thing) I want to say I really feel for my friends at SOE and those who have made some of my favorite games. When I was Managing Editor at Stratics I was fortunate to have a very close relationship with members of the community, development and management teams at SOE and I’ve never seen a more dedicated group.
SOE has not put out a big AAA MMORPG-genre title in a few years now (I know I know DCU – but I argue that is an IP title that lives on its own – disagree if you will) so it is easy for those who have come to the genre in the post-WoW era to scoff and question just what it is these guys have done lately. In 2008 SOE was given a Technical Emmy Award for advancing “the art form of the MMORPG” and I couldn’t think of a company more deserving. This is a company that spent almost as much on R&D as other studios spend on their whole game. These guys helped found this genre (we wouldn’t have World of Warcraft today if there was no Everquest, that is just fact) and for years they’ve done huge things to move it forward.
But in recent years, since around the time (2008) SOE was moved under the SCEI branch of Sony, SOE has become a company that is a little lost and a little bloated. Since moving from Sony Pictures to SCEI they have gone from a company that makes AAA pay to play MMOs to a company that makes primarily F2P games, builds strategy card games, and ports games to the PSN on the PS3. It feels like it has come to the point where SOE is a mish-mash studio dedicated to supporting SCEI. I would challenge anyone in SOE’s management to tell me just what the identity of the company is today.
I hope these layoffs are the start of a new day at SOE, the start of getting back to their core competency of putting out AAA MMOs, even if it likely is with a new business model (free to play or hybrid models). SOE has been a great contributor to the genre and I hope they can get back to that. There is of course a real risk that this goes another way. MMOs are expensive products to produce, and Sony has likely seen some quick profits from having SOE porting games or build smaller games for the PSN.
I really hope, for the sake of the health of the AAA MMO marketplace that SOE lives to fight another day. I truly believe that SW:TOR with its large production budget is going to move the AAA standard forward in a big way. In the future it is going to take companies with deep pockets like Sony to take a risk to create AAA titles. I’d hate to live in a world where Bioware/EA & Blizzard/Activision are the only ones able (and willing) to compete at that standard. As players, we all lose out in a world without SOE.
In practical terms, here’s my speculation about what this could mean for projects at SOE:
- Vanguard is in deep trouble (dead)
- Pirates of the Burning Sea is either dead or going to maintenance mode (I’d bet dead)
- Everquest 2 will see a shake up – SmokeJumper’s time as producer has been turbulent and I’m not sure he’ll be around after this. Further pushes to Free to Play could result, but I’m not sure it’s worth SOE’s effort to do that push (they’ll likely do it anyway…)
- You’ll never hear about The Agency again – unless someone gets Smed to admit it is dead in public
- Everquest Next will survive. I wouldn’t be so sure you’ll see Planetside Next in this life
- SWG is at best now on life support and won’t long outlive the release of SW:TOR. The Kotaku article suggests half of the Austin studio was laid off. While Austin is responsible for two things: DC Universe and SWG. I’d be willing to bet the farm where most of those lay offs came from (S W and G)
I hope SOE emerges a better company from this rethink.
Rift has been a surprise hit for many hundreds of thousands of players. I know in my guild it went from a game we knew nothing about in December to a full guild chapter with over 80 active members now in March. Rift’s success has caused some confusion for those who have only tried the first 10 to 20 levels. A common confused question that gets asked is this: “This game is so much like the competition, why would anyone play this over X”. While I disagree that Rift is a “WoW clone” (excuse the expression) it does iterate well on the previous gold standards mostly defined by Blizzard over the last 5 or so years and it certainly is one of the game’s greatest strengths (just how well it pulls it off).
More than anything I believe the success of Rift has to do with the time and place we are with the genre right now and how Trion (the makers of Rift) set themselves a high standard to deliver against the expectations of the current time and place. It is no secret that 2010 was an abysmal year for new MMO releases and it was on this backdrop of low expectations that Rift launched. Trion delivered a polished and feature complete package and they are going to reap the profits because of it.
So what lessons should the people who fund games learn from Rift?
1) The AAA standard is all consumers will accept. Players in the MMO genre are tired of games that are half finished, buggy and have large content gaps. Trion decided on their feature set, set a target for bugs and refused to release until they hit that AAA standard. If you want your game to implode in 3 months just try and release a game missing a mid game or end game.
2) For a subscription MMO, consumers will accept you launching a AAA platform. Rift very much is a platform. The dynamic content in the game (Rifts, invasions, ancient wardstone quests, etc) that we have seen so far is “only the beginning”. Trion put out a platform that they will build on and used their marketing channels to very clearly define where they will take the platform from where it is at release. The old adage that an MMO is never done is true, but it is important that your players can envision the way forward based on the potential of your platform. In a subscription MMO the player is making an investment in your platform.
3) There is a desperate appetite for a AAA PvP game. Of Rift’s 100+ servers half are dedicated to PVP. But it isn’t in the server count and the population volumes (and the PvP servers are some of the busiest and most active) that you can find the opportunity here. If you spend any amount of time on the official Rift forums you very quickly begin to find this under tone: There is a HUGE PvP community that is just dying to find a home. The dynamic content and zone capture mechanics in Rift are wetting the appetite but I don’t think it will last long. There is literally a 110 post thread on the forums begging Trion for more RvR like mechanics. Seriously. If you are a publisher or have the money to fund a AAA studio project you should be doing everything in your power to release the spiritual successor to Dark Age of Camelot (and no, Warhammer Online was not that).
4) You need to be feature complete. One of the things I heard time and time again from guildies as started to pick up and play Rift was that “I looked for feature X and to my surprise it was there and worked awesome”. Almost universally everything you’d expect to be in an MMO was present in Rift’s beta. From straight forward things like keybinding and tool bar setup to more advanced things lik full UI setup, twitter integration and other social features Rift had it all from the go. I think we can agree that there are now standard features that fans expect. You cannot launch without these.
5) The subscription model is still alive and well. You can compete in a space occupied by Blizzard and World of Warcraft. Plain and simple. I am of the belief (although there have been no official numbers) that Rift has sold in the neighbourhood of 750,000 to 1,000,000 boxes. I also believe that first three month retention will be good (we’ll see beyond that). The fact is Trion set out to make an iterative game and has and will make some good money doing it. There is still Blue Ocean here.
6) World of Warcraft’s days are numbered. I know I’ve talked about this before and people have been declaring DOOOOOOM for WoW for a long time now. And honestly that’s not what I’m saying here. WoW will still be here and profitable for a long time. But I think the sheer volume of people who lept at Rift directly from Cataclysm and the negative backlash in the WoW Blog community after the launch of Rift is a noticeable and should be a warning sign for Blizzard. Again to be clear: WoW is not going anywhere. But I think we have seen the beginning of the end of WoW as the undisputed heavy weight champion of the world. (Even Blizzard is starting to talk about Diablo 3 and Titan as a potential WoW killer).
I think Rift heralds the fact that we’ve now entered a new post-WoW era in the MMO genre. This era will be defined by high budget and high quality titles (SW:TOR with its insane production values will only serve to advance this point even more). Releasing crap will not be forgiven and we’ll see games that don’t live up to the standard shutter at record breaking speeds.