Why Trion & Co. lose out to cottage cheese

Hirz, my favourite cottage cheese producer, have recently launched a new “summer special” in their product line: cottage cheese with cucumber. Hirz is a Nestlé brand and stands for consistent and traditional products; no fancy stuff, no groundbreaking novelties in the dairy sector, no fixing of what ain’t broken. Their cottage cheese is creamy and light, not too sour and not too bland and comes in two variations – regular and with chives. I prefer the latter because I’m a bit of a rebel.

Lately, on an annual base, Hirz has started to launch limited editions to test the waters in their regular customer base a little. A couple of months ago they introduced their “cottage cheese & wild garlic” special, which they ran temporarily on smaller production volume, parallel to the top sellers on the shelf. Depending on more positive or negative consumer feedback, quantities would be increased and the sale of the new flavour would be continued. Maybe it would even make its way into their main product line. A small financial investment for a huge company. Virtually no risk.

How jealous game developers must be of cottage cheese producers.

Of tradition, novelty and risk

Ever since Trion have launched their new MMO, they have faced colliding opinions on their new product. First and foremost the “die-hard Warcraft front”, consisting of all those players either too scared to actually give Rift a try or just generally picky and negative when it comes to anything without a Blizzard stamp on, ironically enough complaining that the new MMO is way too much of a WoW clone. Then, there are the more moderate critics who genuinely look for the new and will find it in Rift, acknowledging that it’s by no means as novel as it feels new, but comes with great potential and a promising outlook. At the other end of the spectrum are the “WoW burnouts” who will over-hype anything that isn’t WoW because Blizzard broke an emotional contract of sorts in Cataclysm, and of course a few fanboys you will find for any game in existence (and who therefore are negligible).

In his most recent blog post, Wolfshead elaborates on his ambiguous feelings about Rift and why he believes the game lacks polish in the really important areas, mainly its selling point and signature concept: rifts. After all, it’s the rift events and dynamic content that set Rift apart from other MMOs such as World of Warcraft and make the game appealing to MMO veterans who look for new, cooperative concepts and online worlds that feel altogether more “alive”. But Trion still has a lot of work to do in that department, from basic balancing issues to the question of impact and replay value. As current subscribers we can only hope for future improvements there and maybe marvel about why the devs wouldn’t spend more time and focus on this subject prior to Rift’s launch, rather than on delivering the standard MMO package that Rift has no doubt provided.

The answer isn’t really a though one, though; how far do you dare go with progress and novelty, when facing such a competitive market that is at the same time so shaped by tradition and committed to genre? How far can you risk the initial and crucial success of a one-time launch by deviating from what a great part of today’s MMO players consider the standard, basic package? How do you balance learning from past success with expectations of innovation? And not least, the eternal crux of most developers: how much more time / financial means do your investor and publisher grant you? Which other cooks are spoiling your broth with their deadline pressure and revenue strategies?

Unfortunately this will always be a big factor, not only in determining the launch date for a new MMO but essentially its entire fate from there. A successful launch is absolutely crucial in a bracket that relies so heavily on convincing players to subscribe long-term and needs to achieve such during a short, very sensitive initial “grace period” when MMO players are curious and willing to give a new game a try – but also sceptical. Many promising projects, such as Aventurine’s Darkfall never got the chance to develop their game concept fully, because of lacking financial backup and added launch pressure. Any reasoning here gets stuck in the same vicious cycle: launch an unfinished game because you cant afford to keep developing -vs.- don’t launch a game and run out of money before launch. Your investors want to see cash. You too, really need cash coming in soon in order to continue making improvements. But if you already alienate your player base with a pre-mature launch, who will keep paying? In the long run, you are always doomed to fail. Trying to calculate the financial risk arising from either a post-poned or pre-mature launch, is depressing business.

Now, Hirz never had that problem. They keep their cash cow flowing while launching a new product ever so often, checking if people like it and removing it again from the market after a couple of months. They can afford to have customers test a demo, they can launch limited “samples” without any considerable risk. The wild garlic edition disappeared from shelves after a couple of weeks. I sampled the cucumber version last night and I can’t say that one’s a keeper, either. Lucky for Hirz, they didn’t already spend all their cash and the last three years of development on cucumber edition. Phew.

Samples of online worlds

There are no samples in the world of games; there is early testing in closed circles, there are alphas and betas, and thanks to the interwebz there are easy to download demos of existing games today, allowing a more informed choice on whether to buy or not. For MMOs, we got trial accounts – but that’s not really the same as samples. Imagine Trion had the chance to test the waters first by launching a free, limited edition of Rift for a few weeks, to see what their potential customers really enjoy. A Rift “mid-launch” of sorts, only half-way through production, where players could experience the first 15 levels and starter maps, a glimpse of all core mechanics such as questing, talent specs, rifts and professions. Let people play like that for 1-2 weeks, then shut the servers down, assess feedback and re-focus. No half-assed, feel-good betas for an already finished game one month before launch, but a real sample of your work in progress. Real feedback and direction, real customer centricity. And much less risk to yourself.

I’ve no idea how applicable such food business models are for online game development; it’s obviously a ridiculous comparison (I enjoy nonetheless). MMOs rely heavily on the entire framework of a consistent, existing world – I don’t believe they get developed in independent, modular “bits and pieces”. Blizzard probably couldn’t have launched a “WoW: Elwynn Forest sneakpeek”-edition before creating most of the game first. Then, there’s the whole copyright and NDA fuss.

That’s not the point though; there’s always room to optimize and re-think business and development strategies – if we ask for new concepts and gameplay innovation, we might as well ask for that too. It strikes me as utterly bizarre that a business dealing with so many crucial factors and dilemmas, such huge time and financial investment involved and so large an audience to recruit, wouldn’t think of ways to test their market and survey their potential playerbase’s wishes before launching a fully fledged, multi-million enterprise meant to last for several years.

All this care for cottage cheese but not for online worlds? You lost me at multi-million.

P.S. Cottage cheese rules! Especially on Skorpa (Swedish crisp bread).

5 comments

  1. Part of the difficulty is in story. As much as we say we skip quest text, we cannot entirely ignore the context of what we are doing. 15 levels tested are 15 levels that would be repetitive to those players, if only due to the rerun of scenery and mob names.

    I can eat a fresh apple and then eat another fresh apple (or suitable aged milk products). I cannot play a new quest and then play that same quest again and call it new.

    Giving no context at all and merely trying for gameplay might work, setting up a random quest generation system with the essential bits of “talk to exclamation point, kill things over here, talk to question mark” with no text to explain it, but …

    Never mind, maybe that last idea is the future. Think of the cost savings by never having to hire any writers!

  2. I think that moving away from a subscription model will help some games deal with some of the issues that come with getting a steady subscriber base. Getting word out about a game and making the bar to entry as low as possible is important.

    Other than that the game just has to be a good game with the ability for high retention. Having a set story or pre-made events for the player to go through makes it so that a game can be tried and finished. Games need to be made with the idea that they can’t be experienced definitively like some type of product if developers want to safeguard against loss of interest. They have to emphasize the fact that games are experiences.

    As for “test their market and survey their potential playerbase’s wishes”, I believe the suits do this by trying to copy past success. The kids like that WoW game so it must be doing something right!

  3. @Kleps
    Screw story – I want shinies!
    No really, I see your point about repeptition, but how problematic is it, really? a ton of players will level a character through the early stages of a game several times, many people love alts and while not everyone might enjoy betas spoiling their fun, all of today’s MMOs are so heavily end-game focused that the first 15 levels or so wouldn’t exactly spoil that much. that said, it would depend lots on execution – do you just let players have a go or do you involve them a lot more directly.

    yeah, I don’t really have a strategy in place. :D but I don’t think story is the major issue nearly as much as practical realisation would be. and random quest generators: how many people would notice, you think?

    @Gilded
    The problem with copying everything though is that at some point the market is fed up with same old – once the “been there done that” factor kicks in, especially for your biggest idol (wow), being similar isn’t a great selling point no more. like Wolfshead pointed out too, you can only cookie cut for so long. I can see why Rift wouldn’t take too many risks at the very start and I actually think it’s a wise move, but that same move might prove their doom later if they don’t catch up quickly now on innovating and showing off where they are different, rather than similar.

    and indeed, no costs for the first 1-2 months at least, can help you get that initial player base; if you can afford it. making big changes after a game has officially launched can be problematic for several reasons though.

  4. I think one of the biggest issues with running a sample week of an unfinished game is that players often seem to strugle with the concept of a beta and expect it to be the finished game. If a game gets a bad reputation from a beta it can kill it before it even comes out.

  5. @Masith

    Good point! but new things are always strange until somebody established them. I guess if this procedure was standard, people would see the pros and look at things in a different way. 10 years ago open betas weren’t exactly the norm.

    especially MMOs rely on the longterm factor, cooperative gameplay and player generated content – they’re a lot less about a scripted story like classic RPGs, so perfect to allow sneak peeks?

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