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Signs Your MMO is Dying

This post brought to you by inspiration from a long-gone forum title, courtesy of one PegasusMD – who, as a flying horse, is an honorary mule.

His title was simply “Signs Your MMO is Dying” or to that effect, and as it was posted on what the publisher at the time continued to claim was a healthy, thriving MMO, it caused a moderator scuffle and plenty of bad-mouthing on all sides.

He was right, though.  The MMO was dead within months.

What “Peg” did not mention were early warning signs that occur in pre-production, ones a player never sees until at minimum an alpha or beta release.

Number one on that list is “does the story work” and the answer for many is “yes!” and carry on… the problem being, who made that judgment?

An MMO does not have some things a local, console game has, and it has options a console game does not.  One of the boosts or requirements of any MMO is story, lore, mission text, and non-linear, interactive playability.

Which means the description of the game on the dust jacket is insufficient.  Players – not all, but some, and certainly those who become rabid fans and stay – demand a story that makes sense within the world created.

If you are out there creating the next great MMO, whether it’s a $100M fund-fest or an indie project in a dorm room, be mindful of the deep MMO and MMORPG roots in the D&D tradition.  As creator of the world and its words, you are the Dungeonmaster and more.  You make the universe, populate it, you spin stories from it, and the quality and believability of the whole is what sinks or floats.

Not that there are not other ways to kill an MMO, of course, or make it superior – there will always be the timely quirks of “game” technology and usually any big-budget release will feature several “cool factor” ideas in play style, landscape, graphics, and more.

But as with a fat movie, a “big” MMO is weakest where it is most easily and cheaply corrected: in the story, themes, dialogue, any background material, and the supporting cast.

Heavily-funded MMOs appear to suffer from a combination of not wanting to bother a vast, fickle audience of male tweenies and the “need” to move from concept to production swiftly.  Indie games should have the ability to pause longer on story, but may suffer from a lack of top talent in the writing department.

News flash – your tweens are more sophisticated than you think, and one reason they’re an overwhelming audience is content provided may turn away more “sophisticated” (slang for old) gamers.

Check for a pulse at each stage; see if your MMO is dying before it’s born.  If so, hit the pause button on development until you feel a heartbeat.

As a final thought, beware comparisons to bigger fish, there may be reasons their story is “weak” yet successful beyond your initial examination.  World of Warcraft is zinged constantly as brainless fantasy hack-n-slash fare by many gamers.

Yet as an MMO, the WoW franchise can tap a powerful history into which its “new” story elements fit… the entire collected history of mankind’s nightmares and fantasies and myths and traditional lore.

Read your story, read dialogue aloud, read mission text aloud: look for the signs of MMO death, and glance at your breadth of “inspirational” materials.  The thicker and more homogeneous the body of related works are, the less you may need to do while still creating a compelling and believable world.

Even so, the more quality content you can add to that existing body of work (killing a band of trolls a hundred times adds nothing), the higher the probability your MMO with avoid unintended death throes: instead, it could become part of the next generation’s foundational concepts and assumptions of the genre.

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