Releasing an MMO too late
Pretty much every time a new subscription-based MMO is released or is about to be released there is a lot of comments about “game is released too soon”, “it would need another X months”, “it is missing vital features”. These comments have been for many years – if the answers were that easy, one would think that would have picked up on that, right?
The issue here is of course that there are no easy answers like that – repeating comments like that hardly brings any new insight and may very well be wrong anyway.
Take Age of Conan – I remember Funcom announcing that game when I was playing Anarchy Online initially; so that was probably announced in 2001/2002 timeframe. 6-7 years later it is released and sort of fell flat on its face. Woulkd more time in development before release made it a much better game? I do not think so actually. One important thing that happened in Age of Conan’s case what that it was started to get managed better. This might or might not have happened if they continued with the game in development for a longer time – public exposure can force changes much more efficiently than someone rasing a concern on internal company/project meetings.
The point is though more time and resources does not necessarily make a better product in the end and in the long term. If that were true, Tabula Rasa would have been one of the best MMOs ever released. While I can say that I personally probably liked Tabula Rasa better than a large portion of the potential target audience and I have no insight in the details of that project, it is still pretty safe to say that the project did not end up using its resources in a good way.
The latest game to get the regular “released too early” comments is of course Star Trek Online. I do agree that a game should preferably iron out some of the serious bugs and major gameplay issue before a release – but I do not agree that a game should push a release further back in time to add more content and gameplay features. As long as they have reached some “good enough” minimum I think it is ok or perhaps even preferable to release a game.
Why? Because MMOs like many other customer/consumer-oriented software packages out in the real world has a long life ahead of it. In order to be what the customers want, it needs to be exposed to customers and get their feedback. Customers to MMOs, as with many other software packages, have trouble expressing what they want out of it – in a way that a software developers translate into a real solution.
Look at blogs and forum posts talking about MMOs. In general if people say what they would like to see in a game which is not there, it becomes quite vague and generic and not put in a context. It is much easier to be specific and point at various existing features in a game and say “I like that” or “I do not like that”.
I think the approach to release early in order to get a better game for the long term is what Cryptic is aiming at with Star Trek Online – although that is of course pure speculation from my side. But I see it as positive that they have “only” spent 2 years before release and focused on implementing some features that they feel are somewhat safe. From then on they can work on other features and improvements with a better feedback cycle from real customers.
It is also a matter of adjusting the approach to the budget and capabilities one has to work with. It is possible that long development cycles before release, which seem to be the case for Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic, will pay off. But I do not see that as a guarantee and not something that would work for every game.
Regardless of approach to when a game is released, one would also have to consider price and payment models and the target audience. Who and why would persons play the game? If the game has some features or content that is unique enough, other limitations may be more acceptable. If there are not enough or good enough compelling features/content, then price may come into place.
Again, no easy answers. And that is really my point here – when we comment on new releases we too often get in the habit of delivering the same simplified view every time. Perhaps because that is the only answer and view we can give. But it does not make it true.