Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Blizzard, won't you sell me a Honda Accord?

The auto business has been on my mind lately as I recently purchased a late model used car. As I buy a car once every ten years, I do a lot of research and prep work. Meanwhile, the news has been inundated with the latest gyration in GM and Chrysler’s decades long death throes, this time ensnaring US taxpayers. At first glance there doesn’t seem anything similar about making games and making cars; a look under the hood tells a different story.

Detroit

One way to categorize personalities is to use the product life-cycle. There are individuals who have a preference for creation, those who prefer to maintain, and those who prefer to repair. US Secretary of Defense Roberts Gates recently articulated this approach when he said that President Obama didn’t keep him on from the Bush Administration to maintain the status quo but to continue fixing what Rumsfeld had broken. As he bluntly stated, “I don’t do maintenance.”

For 50 years the American auto industry has been based on a league between people who like to create (design autos) and people who like to repair (auto mechanics). This agreement between creators and repairers has a name in economics; it’s called planned obsolescence. If a car wears out and begins breaking down after three years/60000 miles (whichever comes first) it effectively amounts to a periodic redistribution of wealth from those who buy a car to those who produce it or repair it.

Since the fundamental purpose of a car is to get one from point A to point B, worn out or broken cars become nothing but expensive lawn ornaments. For most of the 20th century the average consumer in America’s interstate highway culture had the option to either pay a mechanic to fix the car or buy a new one once the warranty ran out. This was a great-set up if you had to have the latest hot wheel or if you enjoyed tinkering with the tappets, but it stunk for everyone else.

Tokyo

Japan killed Detroit by breaking up this conspiracy between creators and repairers. Producing reliable cars at competitive prices that lasted for 300,000 miles did exactly what Tokyo hoped: maintainers fell deeply in love. Truth is most Americans prefer never to see a mechanic and have no interest in buying a car every three years. They want to put oil and petrol in their car and the drive down the road safely. As soon as they were given a choice, these sad pandas abandoned American made cars and never looked back.

Japanese cars were derided as boring econoboxes by Detroit. Yet those cars sold and sold profitably. For both the 1980s and the 1990s Japanese cars accounted for every single car on the top ten lists of those decades most reliable vehicles. Apparently hassle free is something people want to buy. It’s a testament to the reputation that Japan has built that a Toyota or a Honda compact car sells on average for $2000 more per car than the exact same American model with the exact same features. In fact, there is this hilarious story from Russia where an eastern province is threatening to secede from the Federation because Putin banned the import of their beloved Japanese cars.

Irvine

The MMO world inherited the business model of planned obsolescence from the single-player game. A publisher would create a game and then post a few patches to fix it on a bulletin board. As a technological fact there was no practical way to maintain a persistent game. Occasionally a publisher attempted to maintain a particular game franchise (e.g, Baldur’s Gate) but there was little that was persistent from game to game. This model of produce and patch is analogous to the effort between creators and repairers that ran the American auto industry for 50 years. The only significant difference is that with games the creators and repairers are one and the same group.

The explosion of the internet and the development of the MMO changed gaming in ways that have yet to be fully grasped. For the first time it became possible to create a persistent world. The key attribute of a persistent world is that it is a world that doesn’t needed to be expanded or fixed, only maintained. Most of the server down time in Warcraft comes not from expansions or from hotfixes but from Tuesday’s regularly scheduled maintenance. The same way that a Honda Fit will spend more time out of commission getting its oil changed and its tires rotated than it will because its broken down by the side of the road.

The sad part is that while Blizzard understands the technical need for maintenance it still doesn’t understand that maintainers are a market it can sell too. It’s still caught up in maintaining the Warcraft franchise instead of the Warcraft world. Biobreak hits the nail on the head when it says, “Blizzard has all but come out and told everyone that the 1-60 content — classic or “Vanilla” WoW — is an obsolete abomination to them, and they simply don’t want you to experience it…Now, as an ex-player, why should I care? It’s because nobody likes it when a cherished memory is cheapened, especially by the creator.” (emphasis added). In other words, Blizzard’s planned obsolescence is running straight into Biobreak’s desire to maintain his experiences and he don’t like it. Shocking. Now he knows how GM owners felt in 1980.

The Next Detroit?

Needless to say, the arguments against the maintainers are the same as they always were. Green Armadillo writes, “In a very real sense, constant progression for everyone - not merely players who got into the raiding circuit years ago - is the price we pay for the ability to experience the game worlds we get to play with.” In other words, if Detroit doesn’t make its cars obsolete every three years how on earth is it going to fund the creation of new cars that are necessary to develop new features and new styles. That logic was untrue in the 1980s and it’s untrue now.

The argument that planned obsolescence is necessary for continued progress is fallacious because it assumes that there is a never ending desire for novelty. My computer screen can only get so big and then it begins to hurt my neck. I do not want or need constant progression. I do not need it in my car and I don’t want it in my MMO. I have never even played a single Horde character, which is half the content of the game, because I can’t even keep up with the expansion cycle on Alliance. The early adaptors, the hard core players, may love each expansion or major patch because just like Pontiac it builds excitement. Pontiac is also defunct.

Produce then patch is a business model that failed Detroit and it is going to fail MMOs. Planned obsolescence is not the price I choose to pay, it’s the price I have to pay to be in a persistent game. Give me an MMO Honda and I will gladly take it. Give me a game where the effort I put in to get Ambassador is not flushed down the toilet six months later and I’ll buy it. If Honda can figure out how to make a car… and make a car profitably… that can persist for 20 years and 300,000 miles with only basic maintenance then game developers can do the same. There are no valid excuses.

I want to make clear that I am not predicting the death of Warcaft today, next year, five years from now. I believe those concerns are over-hyped. But the clear lesson from Detroit is that when given a realistic alternative, consumers reject the constant progression used to justify planned obsolescence. They did it with cars and they are going to do it with MMOs. If I were a young computer geek in college I wouldn’t bank on the planned obsolescence model funding my retirement, not unless I expected the government to bailout MMOs thirty years from now. Instead, I’d be busy building the gaming version of the Honda Accord.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well from what i hear (ill have to dig out the webpage) There will only be 2 more Expansions for WoW as we know it. Taking the lvl cap to 100. then what? WowII? Whatever comes after will have alot to live up to...and not just game wise. What other game could match $1.6 BILLION a year?

yours

Cack

Jormundgard said...

Genius post. The Pontiac example is perfect.

I believe that the people at Blizzard still care about fun. But I also believe that they won't financially commit to the work that's needed to make a more responsive MMO.

Players still make that monthly payment, but at least they are angry now. Maybe change is a-comin.

Klepsacovic said...

You ask a good question and right now I can't say I really have an answer, though I suspect people like me might be part of the problem. You know the type: plays constantly, needs constant progression, burns through content faster than most players. No I'm not Ensidia, and I despite their effect on WoW, but the truth is, I've downed around half of Ulduar (minus achievements) while I'd bet a huge number of people haven't even been inside. I was asking a friend how he's doing: He's farming Wailing Caverns for the Fang set.

I suppose that's the answer: constant progression keeps people like me playing. That leads to the next question: Are we worth it? Do we bring in enough revenue and contribute enough to the community to justify pandering to us? The fall of EQ and the rise of WoW showed that purely pandering to the hardcore wasn't the most profitable. Will the next discovery be that the top 5-25% aren't worth it either? I've argued for years that the top 5% are worthless, consuming huge amounts of content, always faster than the devs can make it, and always Blizzard has to make more and more just to keep them around. Maybe it's time to let them go, EQ2 could use some more players.

@Jormungard: I've seen people angry and quitting for four years. Somehow WoW is still here and has even more obsolete content than ever. That wasn't meant to sound rude, I just don't see a huge change coming any time soon. Maybe the next MMO from Blizzard will change that.

Tesh said...

But, but, Blizzard is too big to fail! Of course they will be bailed out. ;)

Y'know, I detest planned obsolescence, but I don't see it applying well to nicely crafted games. I can still play Star Control 2 and have a blast with it, and it's well over a decade old. It's like rereading a beloved novel. Games are more like books or movies than cars, in that they are a packaged bit of consumable content, not something we need to get around quickly and carry stuff.

To be sure, games have plenty of elements of planned obsolescence, to so do books, and the huge difference between them and a car is the cost and expected longevity. If I were spending $15,000 on a game, you can bet I'd expect it to last me a lifetime, or even to be a tool that I could use to profit from. Also, games don't decay and suffer from wear and tear the same way cars do. Yes, they can be made technologically obsolete, and the console landscape reworks itself every so often, but good game design is timeless in that it's just data that can be replicated very cheaply. Cars require material goods, and don't function economically the same way.

That said, I've always seen WoW as more of a single player game that has optional multiplayer. The leveling game could easily be a single player offline game with only one fee, the retail box. The only point of playing online in a world that is being maintained is to either consume new content (which is expensive to produce, and notably, even WoW charges for the boxes come expansion time), or to play with other people.

The MMO that really leverages the notion of playing with other people and lightens the crushing weight of content creation will be the Honda you're looking for. Maintenance will be more about giving players new tools to play with each other, less about making new single player experiences and storylines.

Anonymous said...

I just have to say to Tesh: in my humble opinion if this is how you view leveling a character as single player fodder, you are doing it wrong! There is, in my eyes, nothing more satisfying and wonderfully enjoyable than running Wailing Caverns, SFK, RFC, heck even Arcatraz and the Botanik, at level with good friends. Remember CC? Remember having to think before pulling? All those wonderful unfortunately lost forever things can still be had, in the old world of azeroth.

I think the XP stop and Faction change will do people like myself, who aren't bleeding edge raiders and don't give a flying whing about achievements, a WHOLE LOT more to do in this game.

I just don't understand how players can be bored in this virtual world of ours... Do we all have the ambassador title and the seeker as well?

I think blizzards mistake is forgetting the leveling part of the game being the journey and solely concentrating on endgame raids will make WoW more like a console game and less like an immersion worthy world you waste your time in.

Salvànus@Khadgar.EU

Carra said...

In other words, if Detroit doesn’t make its cars obsolete every three years how on earth is it going to fund the creation of new cars that are necessary to develop new features and new styles. That logic was untrue in the 1980s and it’s untrue now.

Except that it is true. Thirty years ago people bought a new car every three years. Now people use their cars for a decade. Then it goes on the second hand market and goes for another decase. In all this time no new cars are being sold. The second hand market is blooming. Detroit does have a problem as people buy a lot less new cars. Of course I'd have to see some figures to see how this impacts the industry.

As for mmorpgs, I wouldn't even be playing if there wasn't a constant progression. I stopped my account two months ago. I'll happily renew it when the next expansion hits with more, new content making all my progress obsolete.

You have to add new, more challenging content to a game or people will get bored very fast. So you can either restart every year like WoW does. Or you can just keep adding content without doing a reset.

For example, adding new dungeons for the hardcore players with end game gear. Except that in this case, you can't just start raiding two years after the game came out. Players stopped doing the old instances and you don't have the gear to do the new ones. You can never catch up.

Elnia said...

Thoughtful responses so far; more than I can handle in the comments section.

Let me address the "boring" issue because Larisa and I talked about this before it was even posted.

One person's meat is another persons poison. One person's commitment to identity is another persons stick-in-the-mud. Honda's are boring; boring sells. That's a major point. Boring sells. It won't sell to Klepsacovic and it won't sell to Carra but there are lots of people who will buy "boring". When you look at society as a whole, I think there are more people who want to buy boring than their are people who want to buy excitement. So building an industry over the long run on people who buy excitement is path doomed to failure, or at best marginalization.

Nightzbane said...

Wouldn't it be fun to be able to change your level? (to a level below yours currently ofcourse)

Possibly in doing so, you would down grade your gear to said level or be able to keep full sets of say level 60 and 70 gear on alternate tabs (like glyphs work with dual spec)... yea...that'd be awesome.

That way you could be able to go back and experience a level 60 raid like it was meant to be? I know I'd love to go back and do BWL like it was meant to be ran. I'd even love to do level 60 naxx like it was meant to be...it'd sure show everyone that says it is tough now how wrong they are.

And twinks...you could twink yourself out and wouldn't have to worry about level caps!

WoW Dev's...I hope you are reading this...cause this would be awesome!

Tesh said...

Another relevant point: We don't actually purchase MMOs. We rent them. If we don't pay the sub fee, we don't play, period. It doesn't matter how much we've paid or played in the past, we must keep paying.

For some people, a car lease supposedly makes sense, but I just don't see it. Just like I see no sense in a sub model game for my purchasing patterns.

Even in a game like Guild Wars where we are pretty much "purchasing" the game, they can still turn off their servers at will. We can't just play GW offline if we feel like it.

Perhaps we could try to stretch the analogy to equate server access with gasoline, but that's not quite effective either, since we *must* deal with a single provider in MMOs, rather than being able to comparison shop between different providers for the best service price.

It should also be noted that WoW players have to pay the retail box price (or "account generation" price), and *then* the sub fees as well. This is double dipping as far as I'm concerned, and it's not unsurprising that game players want to be able to play all of the content they paid for in the box. Thus, the cries to make everything available to anyone "because they have paid for it". That naturally means dumbing things down since skill levels vary wildly.

So... I nitpick, but I wholly agree with the core notion that "boring sells", especially as driven by whose who aren't at the ends of the bell curve. It most certainly does sell, and in our current economy driven by a more austere social mood, it may even wind up more profitable than selling bling or luxury.

Dw-redux said...

I feel your logic is flawed, there are two reasons to play wow: social aspect and character improvement. (or both). half the people want to chat with the other half, and the other half needs the first half to make a raid-group.

In a game where people play together, you need 2 things: something to play with and someone to play with.
And in order to have someone to play with each night, you have to do better than bring out scrabble 50 nights in a row. If you do that, you would soon run out of people to play with.

So they have you skip the initial parts of the game, so that everyone can at least be on the same level (in game and metaphorically speaking), and play.

If you honestly think that people will play together read the quests and do the dungeons a 5th time around with no new content comming out, you are sorely mistaken. How do i know?
Because right before a new expansion is released the subscribtion numbers blow up. account reactivation is in the millions then. People who have gotten bored, lost a reason to log on, so they stopped. And the people that used to talk to theese people stopped logging on aswell because they had noone to talk to either.

What will be the end of WoW eventually is when they go too far with the pleasing of the casuals. If you've got nothing to strive for, and everything in game is beeing handed to you on a plate, why log on? to chat? I like the social aspect, but as a part of a whole package, not alone.

Firespirit said...

I completely think that WoW could use a complete overhaul of its 1-60 content.

I honestly think that they could bill it as a grand battle of the titans - then rebuild it from the ground up.

Progression and maintenance would be hand and hand in that expansion. Perhaps the signal from Algalon actually made it through?

At the VERY least, there could be an old world zone revamp every other patch. I love how they redid Dustwallow (god, I have an excuse to skip STV now), and I think that content is coming a smidge TOO fast now a days (we haven't even started working on hard modes in my guild)... It would give them more time to develop the next expansion at least.

Great article!

AcidCat said...

Your post was really interesting, but I find myself disagreeing on the car/MMO comparison. While I agree - I want the reliable car just to get from point A to point B - an MMO is an entirely different beast that I want entirely different things from. It's not a utilitarian transportation device, it's a game that speaks to my imagination, which a car does not. One is merely functional, the other is fun. And I do crave novelty in my fun. Lack of novelty in WoW is why I haven't played for 5 months.

Sprink said...

I don't know if I agree with the whole Detroit/MMO comparison myself. Cars... are machines. Machines have moving parts, and break. MMOs... are I guess a form of machines, but I don't see what's so wrong with the 1-60 content. I don't really think it's that broken. That's why I like the refer a friend thingy they do. It gets old players to bring in fresh blood. It lets old players experience the beginnings all over again. Sure, you get bonuses for leveling with your friend, but if you're breezing them through with you level 80, you don't get that good of a bonus. It's like when you get run through Shadowfang or whatever. You get SO much less experience than you would if they were closer to your level. It still kind of promotes same or similar level characters grouping up. I don't know. Maybe I'm still too new to the game. ~_^

Also, this Detroit Chrysler girl is still holding out that there's Avengers and Challengers and other muscle cars in the future, not just rice burners. ^_^

Elnia said...

More good comments. One point I want to stress. I don't actually think cars=MMOs, that's too simplistic. What I think is that the *reasons used to justify* planned obsolescence in the auto industry are the same reasons being given to justify planned obsolescence in MMOs. It's important to remember that once upon a time cars were considered a nice market just MMOs and were considered to be a form of entertainment, just like MMOs. Mass consumption of autos didn't take place until the 1950s, early 60s.

Pangoria Fallstar said...

They didn't so much plan it as came into it from the fact of how dead old world content has become. We of course don't have the numbers, but they see it all the time. They see which instances are being skipped, they see where people are, and are not going to.

From what they are showing, people ARE leveling low levels (either new or alts), as shown by Heirloom items and earlier mounts. This is to both encourage those who are not leveling alts to try it out (hey it's not as boring as before!), and to get new players to where the action is at (Northrend).

If they REALLY wanted to make 1-60 obsolete, they'd simply allow people to start at higher level (everyone's a hero!). When you see that though, I hope it's when they decide to do what I've always suggested, progress the old world in levels.

here's my plan, let's see what the PPI crowd thinks: Everyone starts at 30+. The game world has progressed by 4 years. (Plaguelands are more cleaned up, Centaurs gone from Barrens, Exodar is more fixed up, westfall is nicer, etc etc, all those quests we did have had an impact and the world and ecology has changed). People level from starting zones and a couple of zones til 60 (Alliance side example would be, Teladrassil training zone, Darkshore "now level 40 mobs", Ashenvale "now level 50 mobs"). Then we go to outland for 10 levels, northrend til 80, then go back to Classic world. "Vanilla" now has zones that have been terraformed, with high level monsters. 80+ Where our level 30+ zones were (Stranglethorn Vale, Desolace, Tanaris, Un'goro, Silithis, Burning Steppes, Plaguelands, etc etc).

Of course this is at the later point (like after the next expansion). The problem with a vertically growing MMO, is that it's pointless for the high level to go backwards, and the low level is lonely (to the point of quitting for lack of social activity).

Another point is that visually, Vanilla wow is bad. REALLY bad. Parts more than others. I would welcome a recreation of old world, but if they're not making it for high level players, then it's pointless.

Whats my main? said...

@ All the comments wanting a revamp of old content.

Why? Because you don't want to level an alt doing the same quests you did before? Thats all fine and good but there are new players doing these quests and dungeons for the first time.

Besides... say they make all these changes... how many people will you see decrying that the old content was harder and better and wanting servers dedicated to old old content.

I agree it would be cool to have some form of world event that changes the face of the world... but not for brand new players. If you redo Azeroth it would have to be phased for players near the end of the game. Add flying mounts and new quests for 80+ characters and you get your wish.

I don't view the expansions though as obsoleting the other parts of the game. Blizzard adds new features to make the game more appealing. Since the characters are persistant this is more along the line of Blizz handing out engine upgrades and a new stero to your honda. Its basically the same car... only a little improved.

Pangoria Fallstar said...

@What's my main:

The idea IS that WoW is already OLD. It's an old game, and the old content is still old. Is it less fun than the first time I played it? No, not for me. But I do get bored on some quests that I've done dozens of times.

Seriously, you guys are attached to an old movie you're never going to see again if a change like this were to happen. But let's be honest, as the game gets longer, the fact that so many people are on the top, makes being on the bottom feel like such a chore. For those wanting to be on top, they feel like they'll never get there, and will quit.

This isn't a change for when the max level is 80. This is for when max level is 120, or 150. They claimed 6 planned expansions. We've had 2 already. 4 more will put max level at 120. That's a life time to some people. As a matter of fact, if they were to have ALL raids available in scaling difficulty, and had a 20 level 24 hour play time intro to get people to end game, it would be fine (say starting zone, and attached zone are levels 100-120) and the rest of the world is level 120, with instances and raids all over that could be explored. Now the content is still there, and useful to everyone, but it's at high level with high level difficulty.

Yes, though you're right, phasing would be most likely. Like you'd have to go to the Caverns of Time and go through a portal to get to WoW 4 years later, and you could make a 4 years later newbie toon if you had a main there already.