Friday, December 21, 2012

An Open Letter to MMO Developers

An Open Letter to MMO Developers
– by David Matthews 2

This is an open request to Massive Multimedia Online Role-Playing Game developers and their corporate managers:

Stop trying to kill World of Warcraft!

That may sound a little confusing, so bear with me while I clarify.

I keep hearing the phrase “WOW-Killer” from reviewers and developers as though the purpose of any MMO program is to utterly destroy World of Warcraft (aka “WOW”).  I know it’s more of a competitive mindset and a somewhat lofty goal to be able to knock the biggest name in MMORPG off its pedestal.  But if that is truly your goal, then in all likelihood you will fail at it.

Is it impossible to defeat the Elite Boss of MMOs?  No.  Warcraft can be beat.  But it’s not going to be beat by a company that is fixated on just doing that.

The MMO market is in a bit of a transition right now.  The old subscription-based model worked when the economy was capable of keeping people employed with a steady income.  But those days are over with and the Great Recession really stripped a lot of income away from the very users that would otherwise be paying for a regular subscription.  Today the trend is the hybrid of subscription along with free-to-play and pay-for-features.  Free-to-play gets the users to start playing the game, and to allow normal subscribers to keep playing the game should the economy force them to drop their subscription for a limited time.  And pay-for-features allows MMO developers to figure out which features are really popular with the user-base.

So that’s really what the MMO developers and their corporate managers need to focus on first and foremost: survival.  You’re not going to be able to beat Warcraft if you’re not still standing after they fall.

Another thing that self-professed “WOW-Killer” companies fail to do is they fail to advertise that their MMO even exists. 

I’ve never played World of Warcraft, but I can tell you that their latest expansion is called “Mists of Panderia”.  How do I know this?  Because Blizzard Entertainment spends big money into letting people know about it.  It’s on the TV and in magazines.  You go to your local big-box superstore and you’ll find it displayed in their electronics section.  In fact, you’ll probably find it easier than you would the latest Microsoft operating system or the newest anti-virus security suite.

Yes, Blizzard Entertainment spends the money for Vern Troyer and Mr. T and William Shatner to talk about the joy of being gamers.  T can even brag about his “Mohawk Grenade” and claiming to know something about being a programmer.  It’s funny.  But the question to those other companies that claim to want to beat Warcraft is this: where’s your TV spot?  Oh, and “YouTube” is not an acceptable answer.

You want to beat Warcraft?  There is the venue that you’ll need to play in to do it.  If you’re not willing to pony up the money for that kind of advertising, then don’t even start trying to claim to be able to compete with them, much less beat them.

Then there’s this: how can you “beat” Warcraft if your MMO is just like it?

Take a look at your MMO.  Can you describe it without you making any comparisons to Warcraft?  If the person you’re describing this to responds with “So it’s like Warcraft but…”, then you’ve failed.

“It’s a fantasy world of swords and sorcery where you develop your skills and relationships through team activities.”  Sorry, but that’s Warcraft.

“It’s a fantasy galaxy of lasers and blast-cannons where you advance in rank and create your army through team activities.”  Sorry, but that’s Warcraft in space.

“It’s a fantasy city of capes and cowls, where heroes develop their powers and organize into super-legions with other heroes.”  Sorry, but that’s Warcraft with capes.

Take a look at Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO.  One MMO reviewer came to the realization that the whole player interface was pretty much ripped off from Warcraft.  In fact, he even showed the screens of the two games and showed how SWTOR mirrored Warcraft’s activities.

I’m going to go on a limb and make a prediction here: the MMO that replaces Warcraft on the top of the heap will be something that is so different that people won’t make comparisons to Warcraft.

The last way that you can beat World of Warcraft is this: by not continually competing against it. 

The now-defunct City of Heroes MMO earned a huge support base because the developers didn’t try to compete against Warcraft.  Rather, the developers at Paragon Studios worked to make their MMO to be the best possible in the superhero genre, so when all other superhero MMOs came out, from Champions Online to DC Universe Online to the future Marvel MMOs, those MMOs were compared to City of Heroes instead of Warcraft.  The MMO was bringing in over two million dollars a year in steady income with almost no advertising whatsoever.  That’s all from the steady user-base.  And when NCSoft made the mistake of shutting that game down, the whole MMO world knew about it, and even their competition showed their respect and appreciation for the game. 

And, really, the biggest threat for World of Warcraft is not the competition, but rather it is the corporate hands that feed them.  Paragon Studios and City of Heroes found out about that all-too-well with their own parent company, and, one day, the people behind World of Warcraft will realize it with Blizzard.

Maybe there’s a new MMO that people are flocking to.  Maybe the gold-farming spammers have overwhelmed the servers.  Maybe there’s a team of game griefers that make the experience too troubling for the others.  Maybe the developers make the mistake of not listening to the users and come up with things that nobody wants to pay for.  Maybe Blizzard has another MMO that they want to re-focus their corporate love.  Maybe the Blizzard bean-counters will simply declare the game unsustainable.  Whatever the reason, at some point the Blizzard execs will make the inevitable decision to shut down World of Warcraft, and then whichever MMOs are still around will be able to compete for the title of “King of the MMO Mountain”.

So the name of the game for MMO developers that really want to beat World of Warcraft is this: don’t try to be like Warcraft.  Be your own MMO.  Support and promote it.  Earn the respect and support of your user-base by making it the best in its own genre.  And when Warcraft does itself in, you’ll be in position to be the new measuring stick.

David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in Georgia.  He has been around computers in one form or another since the 1980’s. 

This article may be distributed freely only so long as it is reprinted in its entirety, with all proper credit given to the author.

2012 – Get Brutal Productions

Monday, December 03, 2012

What is Microsoft Doing?

(The following is reprinted from "Brutally Honest" with permission of the author)

What is Microsoft Doing?
– by David Matthews 2

When it comes to Microsoft’s new Windows 8 operating system, I have one simple question…


That one question encompasses a whole bunch of other questions such as… Why now?  Why shove us into a new operating system that abandons pretty much everything we’ve been taught to adapt to with Windows 7?  Why should we care about upgrading?  What is it about Windows 8 that will make us want to abandon what we’ve been doing with the previous versions of Windows?

Instead of getting answers, we get slick mindless ads for their “Surface” tablets.  We hear about “live tiles” on the Windows cellphones.  We watch a little girl painting stuff that eventually gets printed up and posted on a bedroom wall while she talks to her father via Skype.  We see people dancing and prancing and doing acrobatics and pretending to be cool.

What is not being sold is why current Windows users should upgrade or even be excited about Windows 8.

There are many reasons why the push for Windows 8 at this time is just plain wrong, with timing being the first reason why.

It was only three years since Windows 7 came out, which was supposed to be better than Windows Vista, which was supposed to be better than Windows XP and Windows XP Media Center Edition.  And now that people are getting used to Windows 7, we’re being told that we now have to completely scrap everything we know about Windows and embrace the new “Live Tiles” concept with the big ugly boxes that you’re supposed to scroll on through with a flick of a finger… if the ads are to be believed.  (For the record, I’ve tried it.  It’s not to be believed.)

So people that have gotten used to XP get barely used to Vista, get shoved Windows 7 down their throats, and then three years later are told to scrap all of that for Windows 8.  Why?  Because some slick advertising campaign featuring leaping lunatics says it’s “cool”?

Timing also plays a key role when it comes to the business user… and that’s supposed to be important because Microsoft has always been known as the company that favors businesses with programs like the Microsoft Office suite.  Corporations do not embrace sudden change like Microsoft does, especially when that change affects their own operations.

I’ll give you an example: suppose you’re in a company that uses a specific proprietary program to function.  This program has worked for all the previous operating systems without too much difficulty… until Windows 7 comes along.  Windows 7 has a different kind of authentication security that doesn’t recognize the certificate from previous versions.  This means that your long-running proprietary program that your business relies on as part of its economic survival no longer works for computers that are running on Windows 7.  That company will not upgrade their computers if those computers cannot use that proprietary program.  It will destroy their company.  So now the company’s IT department have to find a way to either craft a new authentication certificate to recognize that proprietary program, or they have to completely redesign their proprietary program specifically for Windows 7 and then thoroughly test this program to make sure that it works.  All of that takes time.  We are talking months; not hours or days.  And now, while the IT people are still trying to get their company’s proprietary programs to work on Windows 7, here comes Windows 8.

There are companies that still use earlier operating systems for that very reason, and they are not going to rush to upgrade to anything that endangers their own operations.  That is a business fact of life that Microsoft needs to accept if they still want the business crowd.

Money is another reason why this is a bad time to shove a new operating system down our collective gullets.  America is still trying to get out of the Great Recession, something that our own government refuses to acknowledge is still going on, and that means that a lot of people don’t have the money to replace all of their computers just so they can use that new operating system.

Upgrade, you say?  That depends on whether or not their computer can handle it.  Here’s a hint: if your computer is still running on Windows XP, then it will not handle Windows 8 without spending a lot of money on hardware upgrades. 

Another established fact of life is that every new operating system requires more and more resources from that computer.  More hard drive space, more RAM, faster CPU speeds, and updated drivers for all of those peripherals, and not all of those things are readily available.  If Intel or NVidia or AVG decide to sunset a certain graphics card, then there will be no new drivers for that card.  In many cases, it would be cheaper to simply buy a new computer than to upgrade the one that you have, and if money is an issue, then neither option is viable.

This is why a lot of people are still using old computers with Windows XP or Vista on them.  Being stuck in the Great Recession means having to make do with what you have, and to hell with Moore’s Law.

Speaking of security, one of the new complaints about Windows 8 is that many of the major gaming companies are finding themselves shut out from all of the techno-pop celebrations.  If you play Worlds of Warcraft or Diablo 3, for instance, the developers of those programs have said that Windows 8 is a “catastrophe”.

Time for a little history lesson.  Remember when Bill Gates ran Microsoft in the 1990’s?  One of the things that he did that set Microsoft apart from Apple was that he pretty much handed out certifications to whoever wanted to develop programs for Windows.  Good programs, bad programs, mindless games, office applications, financial software, publishing aids, it didn’t matter.  It was far easier to develop those programs for Windows that it did for Apple, and that allowed Windows to become the dominant operating system.  You could walk into any computer store and find rows after rows of Windows programs, and then you’d be lucky if you saw only one rack set aside for programs designed for Apple.  Apple set their own bar too high to be competitive.

Now fast-forward to today: if you’re an online gamer and you’re being told by the developers of your favorite MMO that they cannot support your favorite program being used on Windows 8, do you really think that you’re going to be in a rush to upgrade your computer to that new operating system?  I didn’t think so.  Especially if you’re spending money on a regular subscription to that game.  All of the leaping lunatics dancing to techno-pop music will not change that fact.

Bear in mind that I understand where Microsoft is going with Windows 8.  I do.  Let’s get brutally honest here… Microsoft is trying to develop a sense of portability, just like Apple.  They want to be able to have your PC, tablet, cellphone, and Xbox game system all connected, so you can do common functions like check your email or watch a movie or play a game anywhere from any device.  So you can take a picture with your cellphone and send it to your other applications, or order a movie through Netflix on Xbox and then watch it on your tablet or cellphone.  That’s what the whole business with “Cloud” was about a few years ago; they’re just taking those things to the next step.

But just because I understand where they are going, that doesn’t mean that I agree with the method.  Windows 8 essentially turns your computer and tablet PC into glorified cellphones.  This is especially the case with the new cellphone-like applications that Windows 8 users will be able to acquire.

One may even argue that Windows 8 could be used to eliminate the personal computer altogether, since the operating system is designed to be used primarily by the touch-screen interfaces seen in tablet PCs and cellphones, instead of the traditional hands-off monitors and mouse-cursor peripherals of the desktop PCs.  One only has to look at the computer stores pushing laptops instead of desktop computers to see where the trend is heading.  I would hope that this is not the case, though, as there is still a use for the personal computer for the end-user.

The executives at Microsoft need to understand that they did not become the 800-pound gorilla that they are now by trying to be like Apple.  They became the major corporation that they are now because they reached out and encouraged development.  They didn’t shove things down our throats and told us to simply accept it. 

In other words, they out-did Apple by not behaving like Apple.