This week Turbine Entertainment announced that Infinite Crisis is shutting down, news that shouldn’t have really been a big surprise given the game’s extended development period, stretched out beta, lack of promotion, and how Turbine was throwing $50 cash packs in with Nvidia graphics cards.
Infinite Crisis isn’t the only game I’m going to talk about here, so just imagine the title was “Lessons We Should Learn From The MOBA Industry”
1. Developers Face A Steep Uphill Climb
If earning a seat at the MMO table is about as hard as getting a reservation at Rao’s in New York City, then the MOBA industry is right up there with a gig at Carnegie Hall. There are a few dozen MOBAs on the market right now, only a small handful of which will dominate the rest while the industry graveyard continues to branch out and buy up more land for the recently deceased. We talk a lot here about how World of Warcraft clones fail because, for the most part, players aren’t willing to forego the time and money spent leveling their characters to go do the same thing over again.
The MOBA genre, with its hyper-competitive nature, has a lot of shortcomings that can kill it early. You’re going up against companies with established communities, years of work balancing each individual hero, and thriving eSports scene. In order to break into the industry, it seems that companies either need to bring something different to the table (ala Smite), be backed by a company with a massive community (ala Dota 2) or to have gotten into the industry at an early age (League of Legends/Heroes of Newerth).
2. Big IPs Still Mean Squat In Gaming
Isn’t it fitting that, out of all of the MOBAs, the ones that crashed and shut down happen to be based on very popular properties? Warhammer is a franchise that spans tabletop games, pen and paper role playing, video games, novels, and more, and yet none of that mattered when the MMO toppled and the MOBA couldn’t sustain itself through beta. The same goes for Transformers Universe, a popular IP with the backing of an established developer with a massive customer base.
Even Guardians of Middle Earth, with all the power of the Lord of the Rings, couldn’t avoid being critically panned (22% approval on Steam) with presently deserted servers on PC. The game came and went on PS3 so quietly that even Warner Bros. didn’t notice to update its website to stop directing people to buy the PS3 version on Amazon, or even acknowledge the game’s existence on PC. According to Steam Charts, Guardians of Middle Earth has a 30 day peak of 19 players on Steam.
3. The Perpetual Beta Is Tired And Pointless
The idea that a game should receive more lenient coverage when in beta became a thing of the past when developers started fully charging for products that were still in beta, and it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge this when MMOs/MOBAs are shutting down without ever launching, and many don’t even offer some form of refund to the customers that went out on a limb and spent their hard earned money to fund an unfinished project.
And while the unfinished state of the game is a great excuse to deflect criticism when reviewers tell you not to spend money, Turbine apparently has no problem using beta time played to justify denying a refund to their founders, which is the exact sentiment given by Turbine’s Community Manager.
That’s mostly it. Because Founders got to play for 2+ years, you guys were well outside our refund window. We really do thank you for supporting the game, as it was your support that kept us going. Make no mistake about that. But, they guys who just bought their elite pack or starter pack from Steam, they didn’t get to play for as long as you guys.
4. The MOBA Genre Is In The Middle Of A Soft Crash
Right now the genre is in a position where developers are looking at the success of the likes of League and Dota and saying to themselves “I can do that too.” What we’ve wound up with is three major players (League, Dota, and SMITE in that order) and a whole lot of stragglers. This isn’t the case of the MMO industry where we have one game to rule them all and a ton of other companies making much smaller, but still livable incomes. The MOBAs that are down on the bottom of the list are struggling to remain relevant, in a genre that is heavily favoring those few at the top.
Compare the 30 day peak of Infinite Crisis to Dota2 on Steam: 1,557 to 967,674. Or Super Monday Night Combat (152), or Demigod (27), or Guardians of Middle Earth (13).
5. Fully Funded Betas Are Still A Bad Place For Your Money
Paid betas have taken on one of the worst attitudes and practices by developers, as repeated by Turbine’s community manager. Developers like Turbine have no problem selling a beta as though it is a finished product, ending character wipes, opening up a fully functional cash shop, and pulling hundreds of dollars out of players, yet when push comes to shove and people start giving the game negative reviews because of bugs or unfinished features, they turn around and claim that it’s unfair because the game is not released and not a finished product.
And when games like Infinite Crisis shut down after a prolonged beta and short launch? Well then it’s considered a full experience, and when pushed on a refund? Deny the entire concept of a finished game.
I know some of you feel as though you only had a small amount of time to play a “finished” game, but Infinite Crisis is a game that was built to consistently change. Even after launch we were still going to produce new champions, add new features, and continue iterating the game as we went forward. As we posted during our launch announcement, launch was never going to be a stopping point in the eyes of our development cycle. We’re an online game, and we’ve changed a lot (and changed for the better) over the last two years.
Turbine’s CM knows as well as you or I do what the players mean by “finished,” that being when the game sheds its beta tags, but you have to hand it to Turbine. Infinite Crisis was finished enough to open up the cash shop, not finished enough to review as a final product, and when it shut down right after launch? Well what exactly does “finished” mean, really? Hold two sides of the same coin, and then deny that the coin exists.
We understand when indie developers can’t finish a game because it’s a couple of guys working out of a motel/office funding the game partially out of pocket and partially through donations/pledges. A company like Turbine, on the IP of DC Comics and the backing of a corporate hulk like Warner Bros. shouldn’t be dropping development of a game because it wasn’t making enough money during beta.
It’s PR spin, and people aren’t going to fall for it. Infinite Crisis shutting down right after launch is bad enough as it is, bridges will be burned and customers will be lost, it’s an unfortunate part of business. But burning founders can damage a brand, in the case Turbine’s future ability to put a game out in beta and ask people to join in early to fund you, as people will look back to when Infinite Crisis shut down and see that while those who jumped in late were refunded, the people who were there from the beginning were told “oh well, too bad.”
I feel that this is a bad sign for Turbine overall.