Raptr has published their most played PC games of July 2014, and the news is not good for Zenimax. The Elder Scrolls Online has dropped out of the race. Considering all the bad press it received that doesn't really surprise me. But more on that in a moment. First, the official list!
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="550"] Raptr's Most Played PC Games - July 2014[/caption]
The top three are no surprise. The most popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game on the planet retains its number one ranking. It even managed to add nearly a full percentage point to its share. That also isn't really surprising as regional qualifiers are just around the corner (and some already begun.) Practice makes perfect, right?
I can make a similar statement about DOTA 2. It had a rise of just over a half percentage during a month that saw the completion of the 2014 International Championship, the biggest DOTA 2 championship in history. Congratulations to Newbee, the 2014 International DOTA 2 grand champions! Well played gentlemen. Your hard work and investment in your chosen MOBA paid off handsomely.
Even World of Warcraft managed to eek out a slight rise in playing share. This in the same month when WoW subscriptions hit their lowest point since the third quarter of 2006. Blizzard claims the loss 800,000 subscribers during their last quarter is seasonal. It is true that gameplay decreases for most MMOs during the Northern Hemisphere summer. I doubt that completely explains such a large drop in subscriptions. That's more than a ten percent drop, and makes the slight bump in subscriptions WoW for Mists of Pandaria look positively anemic. When you look at the graph, all Pandaria seems to have done is moderate a slide in subscriptions that was becoming an avalanche; resetting subscription numbers by six months only. I doubt Warlords of Draenor will do much more for WoW, and the moderate slide will continue.
The next game that raised my eyebrows was Smite. It rose 14 places to capture the number ten spot. That's three MOBAs in the top ten now, all free to play (F2P.) But I don't think the F2P status of the game is the real contributor to the hours spent playing the games. I think it's the allure of professional competition. And I don't mean the thrill of victory. I mean the thrill of cold, hard cash. I see this all the time in the blogging community. If you have 5000 readers/viewers, you can make substantial bank from monetizing your site. If you play a MOBA long enough, you might just be able to qualify for a tournament paying out millions to the winners. MOBA game play is highly incentivized in this manner. Players dream of making huge bank, and seeming to have no barrier to entry feeds that dream.
I've always found it somewhat naïve of gamers to point at F2P as the future of online gaming in general because MOBAs have been so successful at it. They point at LoL and assume LoL is similar to every other game. It isn't. What they totally miss is that the MOBA business model works best under F2P because it lowers the barrier to entry to nothing. It leads everyone to believe they can be part of the next team Newbee and win that million dollar jackpot. Tournament oriented games leverage the promise if you become good enough you can earn a living. But to become good enough you have to invest in training yourself. That means you have to spend money to get the most out of every minute you practice, and until you hit the big time that all comes our of your own pocket. Nevertheless people pay, and pay, and pay, hoping one day to be good enough to win a million dollars. That's how MOBAs make money - that and advertising. ;-) They are not selling the game, they are selling the dream™.
This also seems to me to be the mechanism in games like Minecraft and Landmark. However, in those games it's not the big cash payout that is the dream™. It is the dream of becoming Internet famous. If you can just build that really incredible thing, then everyone will acknowledge your godlike skills with voxels, and you will become Internet famous. And deservedly so I would add. I've seen some things built-in Landmark that are just freaking incredible. They are works of virtual art, and SOE seems to be taking great strides to insure the really talented player/creators get their showcase and their Internet fame. SOE also has a market where these newly famous virtual artisans can sell their virtual wares for real money, minus a "modest" commission of course. ;-) SOE does this because they understand the only reason people want to become Internet famous is so they can monetize their online activities. It's just another perturbation of the dream™. Just look at all the bloggers and vloggers who have gone that route. PewDiePie is estimated to make $4,000,000 a year from his YouTube site. That's some really strong motivation to make oneself Internet famous isn't it? And for those of us who are too introverted to act like PewDiePie in front of a camera (that's what really got him Internet famous BTW, not his expert cough, cough gameplay,) creating cool virtual goods from voxels is a good alternative. The dream™ can still be sold on that premise.
But can you sell the dream™ with an RPG game? If you can't sell the dream™, forget the F2P model. Many genres don't have a dream to sell. RPGs are a good example. Let's look at The Elder Scrolls specifically. If you look at the chart, you'll see Skyrim climbed from 19th position to 14th. I attribute that to Elder Scrolls lovers giving up on The Elder Scrolls Online and going back to the boxed game. MMO mechanics just aren't working well for The Elder Scrolls. The essence of what makes RPGs like Skyrim so compelling can only really be achieved the old-fashioned way: create the game as a self-enclosed (boxed) ecosystem and then sell the experience™ at a one time cost. The experience™ is what the Elder Scrolls sell, not the dream™. The same can be said for the Assassin's Creed series, or Far Cry, or almost any other MMO you care to name. Many RPG titles are just not MMO suitable games. The complexity of the game, the expected storyline, the character progression over long timescales, hell, even the graphics quality, all of that suffers when the game goes online. And none of it can be maintained with a F2P model even if they could get the necessary quality online. And as we are seeing with TESO, people are unwilling to pay every month for the privilege of suffering through the experience™. Enhancements come too slowly and people can't see the value for the money they are paying. Mistakes and bugs, which always occur in a dynamic MMO, are not tolerated by those who expect a near perfect box-like experience. They are willing to pay $60 for a finished, polished product. They are not willing to pay $60 a year in monthly installments on the promise they'll get that finished, polished product eventually. Bottom line, if they are not MMO suitable forget F2P. No online mode, no dream to sell.
Wow, did that take off on a tangent or what? I didn't plan those last three paragraphs. They sort of just came tumbling out. I actually like it when that happens. I hope you didn't mind. It made this post rather lengthy though, so I should bring it to a close. In the Raptr July numbers, we see the rise and fall of new MMOs. It's not looking to good for that gaming Genre. Even the MMO giant WoW is suffering, though most MMOs wish they had Blizzard's pain. MOBAs are on the rise. I feel this is because gaming is slowly moving from a recreational pastime to a full-time job for players. But MOBAs will only succeed if they can continue sell the dream™. For the rest of the gaming industry, they need to figure out how to sell the experience™. That will become a tougher and tougher sell as those looking to buy the experience™ expect more bang (or slash) for their buck.