Sunsetting an MMO
(a member of the community asked me about my views on Sunetting an MMO. Unfortunately, some really big games have been sunsetting in recent years, or at least their focus and revenue models, both of which drastically change the developer's priorities and where they focus their time and resources. So, while as I explain below it isn't really something on our minds, I can and do understand why someone in our community would bring it up and while it was certainly worth our time to address the issue).
First, a definitions of what exactly it means:
Sunsetting, in a business context, is intentionally phasing something out or terminating it.
The term is often used in reference to brands, partnerships, agreements, business policies and hardware and software products, among other possibilities. Sunsetting something may be part of the original plan. In a legal context, for example, a sunset provision is a specification that legislation will no longer be in effect beyond a certain date or after a particular event has transpired, unless an extension is mandated.
Products and services are often sunsetted when they are no longer sufficiently profitable or when a company decides to change its focus. Software vendors usually sunset older versions of their products when one or more newer version is available. In that context, sunsetting usually means that the product is no longer supported.
Sunsetting.... What an interesting topic to think and theory-craft about -- and I mean that honestly. The irony is that when we were designing EQ we were hoping and praying that most people would play at least 2-4 months. No expansions were planned; instead EQ 2 began to be designed as a true sequel because we assumed people would get sick of EQ 1 after a few months, no matter how good the game was.
So ideas about increasing the level cap (of both PCs and NPCs) was totally new to us (hence dragons are 50 when they should be 200 and gods 500!). Hence the hell level bug that persisted so long. Hence how long it took to go from 50-60. Hence AAAs, conceived with the goal that players would need other things to work on now that we were slowing down leveling. Continents we had planned to ship with (Kunark and Velious) instead of being tossed in the trashcan were then resurrected…
I was involved with the early design of EQ 2 and it was meant to be a true sequel, and by that I mean we expected that after X months, the majority of EQ 1 players would migrate to EQ 2. Therefore, EQ 2 was much more EQ 1 like. Later, when we found we were *totally* wrong about all of this, EQ 2 became another game, targeting a different audience than EQ 1 as opposed to the same audience in the hopes of growing our online gamespace. I wasn't really involved at this point, but in hindsight we probably should have changed the name as soon as we made this shift because 2 does indeed imply a sequel of sorts.
So here I find us in Pantheon design meetings crafting documentation, formulas, mechanics, the world itself, designed to last for more than a decade, with multiple expansions, level increases, etc. The hope is by assuming long term success we will be able to avoid 'shoehorning' in things we had to with EQ because with that game we were victims of our own success. Not to mention major systems that we didn’t even have the chance to shoehorn in (for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here).
And then the OP brings up, “hey, what will you do with Pantheon once there aren't enough people playing it such that it is no longer a profitable venture?” Whoah, like I said, my first reaction is to say ‘wut?’.
My second reaction is to say 'I have no idea -- we've been focused on making sure Pantheon *is* sticky, has great retention, that it is designed for expansions and such. By making a grouping game, a community focused game, an open world and open economy game, our desire is to create a renaissance within the MMO genre and to bring back a lot of things left behind that not only orphaned a great many MMO gamers, but also hurt an MMOs ability to entertain people for more than a few months. If we cannot achieve this and make an MMO a home once again with a vibrant community who truly wants to keep playing month after month, year after year, then we have failed. So Sun Setting? It just hasn’t been on my mind – rather, the exact opposite has – making sure Pantheon remains viable and fun for years after launch.'.
Once I make it beyond that almost instinctive response, touching on our core messaging, etc., and explaining why we are doing what we are doing, the Sunsetting ‘thing’ does get my mind thinking on it, if only for a little bit. So, while this is about a far away from setting something in stone as anything I've ever said, I think I would keep it running and slowly but surely hand it over to the players depending upon how mature our post-launch User Generated Content mechanics and tools are or aren't.
I don't think we'd ever truly have to completely shut it off, and I say that mostly because of server and bandwidth costs. Both bandwidth and hosting costs have gone down a TON since the old days.
What does all of this mean? Well, it means that, at least in theory, if one had an MMO that was simply too old, with not enough people playing to make it financially viable, my guess is that it could still be left online because the operation costs are now so low. I think it's safe to assume that running and paying for the bandwidth costs of a 'sunsetted' MMO would nowadays (and in the future even more so) be pretty trivial. So while you probably can't blame a company for shutting down an MMO in the past, I don't see that, going forward, there truly is any reason to do so... it would have to be marketing related. And, of course, tough decisions would have to be made regarding maintaining it.... zero coders? zero designers? zero additional content? Or a tiny bit? How about CS? No CS at all? Skeletal CS? Because those costs would remain – if you kept a small dev team on the game and a small CS team, and the game is not making money, might no longer make sense. Would some players keep playing even though they knew there would be no customer service and like zero chance of new content in the future? Great question indeed!
Anyway, fun stuff to theorycraft about, but also something I don't plan on having to put much thought into for quite some time (planning on being part of Pantheon for at least a decade in order to see my Grand Vision have a chance to become a reality). I regret leaving EQ and VG where they were and while now is not time to delve into the past and explain why (there are no simple answers), the fact is that I never got to bring these games to the point where I and others had dreamed that they might come to one day. That stings, and the only cure is Pantheon and the assertion that launch day is like having a baby -- it's a beautiful thing, but she/he then has their entire life ahead of it. That's how we're looking at Pantheon too -- our focus is on our MMO's Sunrise (launch) and then refreshing it, adding to it, expanding it both vertically and horizontally, well into the future, not only making Pantheon a better and better game, but also a broader and more interesting game.
-Brad "Aradune Mithara" McQuaid