Just to get this out of the way first: Should you find yourself in or about Mendocino—say, with the wife on your birthday—do yourself a favor and take a drive down the Comptche-Ukiah Rd. It’s a not-too-windy 40-mile stretch that takes you past some cranky old towns that by all rights shouldn’t have made it to the 20th century, as well as sweeping vistas of the serene surreal Anderson Valley idyll.
But anyway, video games. On Friday Luke and I attempted an alpha vidcast in which we beta-tested The Secret World. (You all don’t know Luke yet; perhaps he’ll introduce himself at some point.)
One sentence description of The Secret World: From Funcom, the maker of Age of Conan, comes this modern-set MMO that posits a world in which the myths of civilizations both present and past are not only real, but coming to fry your ass unless you take up sledgehammer, automatic rifle, or blood magic to stop it. Having recently spent my fair share of IRL time wielding a sledge, I went with blood magic (and Wolverine claws).
Stress-testing and PVP were the stated goals of the beta (plus publicity, natch), but these two points are fairly moot because The Secret World will very likely fail. Oh, look at me wearing the cynical bastard hat! Well, I’m just going to point out the obvious here.
Luke and I chose to play as Illuminati because, well, sex, drugs, and Rockefeller, and the first thing we killed out in the open world was a zombie. Pretty good start, right? Wrong. The time between creating my character and whacking that first zombie? Sixty goddamn minutes! Look, I don’t care if your game is infinite hours long. I don’t care if the story-telling in those 60 minutes is high quality (which, in this case, it was). What I do care about is first impressions, and The Secret World makes a lousy one.
It’s about managing players’ expectations. People buy a game to play a game, not bear with a developer for an hour while they hem and haw to get the scene set just so. The impression I’m left with after that first hour is that The Secret World has no qualms withholding the goods, and who really wants to be with someone who withholds?
It would have been so easy to start this game off right. Everything’s normal, and then everything goes to crazy ass, right? The tension in that situation, that’s what Funcom needed to keep in mind. From the get-go, put me in a fight for my life against one of those aforementioned zombies. Make it hectic, chaotic, disturbing. Make it so the player survives by the skin of his teeth, using just his bare hands or some random found object. Make it cinematic, a setpiece with faux interactivity. That zombie is after you, and it’s going to claw out your eyeballs unless you bludgeon it to death with a peewee league soccer trophy. And then, zombie thus dispatched, with the player still disoriented, frantic, euphoric, have members of one of the three clans roll up in a sweet minivan—does it really matter which clan? Change it later!—drop a hood over the player’s head, and cart him off for some exposition.
What I’m talking about here is pacing. People like fireworks. Start with the fireworks. Online gamers want the hare, not the tortoise, and they’re not going to play along if developers don’t give them what they want.
Insurmountable reason why The Secret World is doomed to failure, #2: Why oh why do developers insist upon launching MMOs in this day and age with a subscription-based business model? The Secret World’s plan, in particular, is shockingly dim-witted, in that they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too with a subscription model heavily augmented by microtransactions.
Here’s how microtransactions can be successful. Make a fun game and give it away for free. People like free games, so they’ll try it, and because it’s fun, they’ll keep playing. Most of those people are in it for the free ride, and that’s OK, because some of those people will fork over shocking amounts of money for items or perks that they perceive have value.
The proven, market research-supported result? Beaucoup dollars. However, this formula can not work if you charge people for the game because it ignores the mechanism by which this model succeeds. In the above equation, you need that overcharged population to be 10s or 100s of thousands of players. Millions if you can manage it. And you’re not going to get those numbers when you’ve got as massive a barrier to entry as subscriptions and up-front buy-ins.
And perhaps even more to the point of why subscriptions are a failed model, there are too many developers out there making games that are just as enjoyable as The Secret World, but those games are free. EA Partners is publishing this game. How is it possible that they could let this happen, especially given the state of Star Wars: The Old Republic? EA! Electronic “Master of Online Machinations to Bleed Folks’ Wallets” Arts! It’s right there in the middle name!
Do your market research, as this one’s an absolute no-brainer. You. Must. Go. Full. Micro. Transaction. Blizzard and World of Warcraft no longer offer the paradigm by which other developers can duplicate success, and arguably they never did. Instead, Funcom and others need to look to Facebook, Zynga, and the mechanism behind social games to build a sustainable MMO.