Salem’s Fire #16: Made of Money?


Made of Money?

E3 has come and gone, the reviews have been written and published, the awards given. And once again I am left scratching my head over an oddity that has emerged in the gaming market in recent years. It seems that all of us, or so many of the game companies seem to think, are either immensely wealthy or immensely dumb. They almost have to think one or the other. Why? Because they seem to be stuck on the idea of making massively multiplayer role playing games.

I like the idea of massively multiplayer games, though I remain skeptical that such a game can be played on anything less than a broadband connection. Time will tell on that point. A greater drawback is the pricing scheme. It seems that to play a massively multiplayer we will be expected to pay for the game, as well as a monthly fee for the online gaming service. If Everquest is any indication, we will be asked to shell out for expansion packs as well. Even this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does drive up the cost of the game. Let me use World of Warcraft as an example. Right now, online stores seem to expect the game to retail at around $50 a box. Current speculation also pins the monthly fee at about $10 a month. I will assume Blizzard will include a few months free access in the box. In fact, I will be positively optimistic and say that Blizzard will include six months with the purchase of the game. That places the estimated cost of the game for one year of play at $110. That is steep, even on today?s gaming market. Each additional year would then cost $120, not counting expansion packs. However, since this is Blizzard, I will add a $35 expansion pack to that total. Now, assuming the game keeps me playing as long as Diablo 2, the cost of World of Warcraft for me would be at least $300 so far. That is definitely on the high end, but if the game is worth it, paying might not be so bad. I could see giving $300 of my money to Blizzard over the next two or three years for that game. The problem comes when I look at the gaming shelves over those two or three years. Along with World of Warcraft, promising massively multiplayer online role playing games under development include titles from Star Wars, Middle Earth, and the Matrix. Better sit down, because playing all of those for as long as we have played Diablo 2 will cost in excess of $1000.

Last I checked, that was a lot a money. Keep in mind, a sizable chunk of the gaming market is made of repeat buyers. We do not usually buy just one game, and quit. We buy and buy and buy some more. Realistically, most of us will not be able to afford to play more than one of these games, meaning none of these games are likely to achieve the audience a quality normal role playing game can expect. For the gaming companies, this means nothing. Instead of the $40 or $50 box price, they will likely get over one hundred dollars just for a year of gaming, and more beyond. MMORPGs are expected to be a huge revenue machine for the gaming companies, beyond anything they can now expect. They will get their money. For the gamer, however, this is disappointing. Most of us cannot now afford to try more than a few new games a year anyway. By making nearly every new role playing game a pay-to-play massively multiplayer, the gaming houses will force us to keep playing the older games, from the days when single player was still made. Fortunately, games like Diablo 2 and Divine Divinity are still available, even discounted. It is unfortunate, though, that just as single player role playing gaming was getting very promising, led by games such as Dungeon Siege and Morrowind, the run ended. Sure, we will have Icewind Dale 2, and probably 3,4, and 5 as well. Baldur?s Gate will no doubt add on to the series, and Diablo 3 is all but a forgone conclusion. Part of the success of all of these series has been their great popularity, which translated into a strong and dynamic internet following. It is not likely that any of the MMORPGs will achieve that kind of online community, at least not as large a community, because not as many of us will be able to play. Hopefully Blizzard North and the makers of Baldur?s Gate will continue to write games that do not require internet connections and fat bank accounts. In the meantime, we are forced to play either Shadowbane or Everquest. World of Warcraft or Middle Earth Online. Many of us will not be able to afford more than one of these. At best the role playing market will be split between the online only variety, and the single player included variety.

Or perhaps, I should say at worst. Think. You are the head of a gaming house. You have on your desk a plan for what promises to be a great RPG. It has all the elements any role playing gamer could ever want. It has innovation and accessibility and an incredible story line, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. You have to decide which group of programmers to send it to, the stand alone gang, or the massively multiplayer group. This should not be a hard decision. The online house will provide more revenue, likely much more revenue as gamers keep paying up to come back for more. You would likely make the good business decision and give the game to the online programmers, and send to the single player coders yet another sequel for an existing series, or a less promising title. The single player stand alone RPG will likely be subjected to second-class citizenry, because even with a smaller market, the money is in the massively multiplayers.

But their may be a bit of promise to this trend. Under the model I often see described, the animation, artwork, and pretty much the whole engine will be stored on the local machine, or on the game CD. The only information traveling along the phone line will be information regarding the status of the world (time, weather, etc.) and of any actions taken by other players around you (attack, chatting, etc.). That is quite a bit of data, but nothing that could not also be provided by a separate script running on a local machine. Now consider that it is entirely possible that a scripting language could be written to provide that information to the game engine, sort of like the scripting language that allows map makers to automate events in the Warcraft 3 editor. Such a language could make it not too difficult to make a single player game out of any massively multiplayer. A small group of developers with a few months hard work could take a good massively multiplayer game, and add single player capabilities to it. It is unlikely that any gaming company would do such a thing in the short term. There simply would not be as much money in it. As the glut of MMORPGs arrives, however, I sincerely doubt that all of them will be financial success stories. There are just too many titles for too few gamers. It is possible that some of the less successful titles could have their game engine overhauled for more traditional single player/B.Net style game play.

And if the gaming houses pass on that opportunity, there are always the moders. Let?s hope someone, maker or moder, will find a way to make several of these interesting titles accessible to everyone, even those without huge paychecks.

Disclaimer: Salem’s Fire was written by Luke Blaize and hosted by diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.

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