Simplicity Makes Money

Syncaine’s recent post on old Blizz vs new Blizz is pretty spot on.  I’ve mentioned more than a few times that while certain components of their game require skill (heroic raid mechanics for example), the majority of the other systems have been drastically simplified and segregated into discreet buckets.  WoW removed reforging, gemming, types of enchants, crafting bonuses, engineering boosts, hit, dodge, parry and a dozen other items to make the game easier for everyone.  Heck, people are hitting 100 in a day.  They waited 13 months to consume 50% of the content in a day…

I did comment on the post, curious as to the potential motivations for this shift in design philosophy.  It was, at one point, easy to learn, hard to master.  This does not apply to WoW, unless you’re a heroic raider – at which point there is no other system in the game that has any value to you.  It does not apply to Hearthstone.  It does not apply to HotS.  It’s somewhat present in D3.  It is there in SC2.  Overwatch, I’ll hold judgement.

My theory is that of market weights having a larger impact on design direction than an actual philosophy internal to the group.  So I’ll start off with a basic example.

House flipping.  Many have seen the TV shows, some people have done renos to sell their house.  In order to increase the value of your house, comparative to your neighbors, you renovate certain parts of the house.  There are rooms that have more value than others.  The kitchen and bathrooms top the list.  Bedrooms and basements the bottom, where you never seem to recoup a cost.  If you want a decent return on your investment, you need to put the money where it makes sense.  Paint the bedrooms, reno the kitchen.  And don’t think your house is going to sell for 500K on a street of 200K houses.

Ok, now for the meat.  First, here are some metrics on MMO subscriptions since 1999.

Under 150K

Under 1m

Over 1m

Ignoring Lineage for now, as it wasn’t really available in the West until  much, much later, the MMO landscape in 2002 (WoW’s inception) til 2004 (WoW’s launch) topped with EQ at 500k and the rest at 300k.  Realize that at this point, Blizzard had sold 3 million copies of Warcraft 3 and 5 million of the Frozen Throne.  The Warcraft IP was very strong.  Sure, they might not have expected to hit 3m players in a year but they certainly were expecting to beat EQ numbers.  The market was far from saturated… it was immature.  They hit at the right time and the rest is history.

LoL has 67m players per month (30m per day).  It was based on the DotA mod for Warcraft 3 (which was the high skill cap part of War3) and that peaked at around 1.5m.  There were other MOBAs at the time but again, immature market as they were actually RTS players.  LoL put in a high quality stand-alone game and then just took over.  DOTA2 came after but only hit a fraction of the daily users.  HotS could be the absolute best MOBA ever made, it will not take over 67m players.  Because even if it was the best game, that would only marginally be better than LoL.

Starcraft came out in 1998 but it wasn’t until Broodwar that it really went insane.  10m copies, half in Korea.  It build a genre and TV channels to stream it.  There was nothing to compare, even after years.  Starcraft 2 came along and to compete with it’s own product, had to have the same complexity.

Hearthstone is designed from the ground up to be mobile.  And let’s be honest, there are hundreds of PvP card games on the mobile front.  Heck, I’m sure there are tens of thousands.  It’s a simple business model where you sell card packs for cash.   A mobile game has to compete with every other mobile game and the money in that pot.  It’s crazy saturated, so you need a super high quality game.

Clash of Clans was launched in 2012.  Freemium, MMO, strategy PvP game.  There were lots of freemium games, there were MMO games, there were a few strategy PvP games though most of the “send number of soliders to X and see the math results”.  There was little competition for a visual strategy game and a high market cap.  They made $100m in the first year and $900m in year 2.

Investment Factors

For each game, there’s an evaluation on the existing market.  How many competitors exist?  How many players are possible?  What’s the market cap?  This is how you do business by the way, market analysis.  You don’t build a million dollar house in a slum.

So when you do reach those answers, it gives you an idea of your potential return.  Based on that return, you figure out how much you want to invest.  Are you going to triple your budget to be marginally better than the top of class competitor?  Can the market even support that?  Or is it better to aim for the larger mass who will float between companies caring about value for the dollar and less on the quality of the item produced?  (Which is the core business of Walmart and Costco by the way, sell a lot for cheap with low overhead).

Blizzard isn’t stupid.  They build high quality games with tons of polish.  They are also very easy to learn.  The difficult to master part is the question.  They invest in that portion up to the point where the investment has a potential return.  If they can invest $100m and get 5m players, why invest $200m for 6m?

WoW is faceroll easy today and it still made over $1 billion in 2013 (over 7m subs), with $200m from microstransactions alone.  LoL has 10x the user base and made $600m.  SWTOR and LOTRO both made mode money than EvE.

Blizzard builds for the masses and invests for the few where it makes financial sense.

That Said…

I do really wish that large companies like Blizzard actively tried to push the genres forward.  BioWare took a near 8 year break between Mass Effect 2 and DA:I of arguably stupid gaming calls, but they appear to still be making money.  Wildstar tried to go for the high skill cap and ignored polish and the “easy to learn” portion and took a massive nosedive.  We’re in a market where it’s mostly indie developers that are pushing the envelope because the large ones absolutely must have a return and are extremely risk averse.  It’s too bad, because the old Blizzard magic would really make their games much more fun to play, to me.

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