If you believe the various sensationalist reports on the news the game is either a failure or going to be announcing a free-to-play offer in the very near future. However you only have to scratch a little to find out the truth. Whilst sad news, large layoffs are not uncommon following MMO launches, and in fact Funcom did exactly the same thing after the launch of Age of Conan four years ago.
What's not in doubt however is that the game failed to sell as well as even the lowest of Funcom's predictions (their Age of Conan like scenario envisaged over 1 million boxed copies sold, and one scenario envisages less than half of this number). There are some rays of light however. In the investor report issued earlier this month Funcom did say that player satisfaction was high, user retention rates were better than forecast, and store sales and pack sales were also better than predicted.
In various statements today the company reiterated that they remain fully committed to the game, that there are no plans to change the subscription model, and that the layoffs are temporary (as was the case with the layoffs in 2008 after Age of Conan launched).
|Has the fecal matter hit the fan?|
The Secret World is the first MMO for years that I've been pulled into hook, line and sinker. The last was probably Dark Age of Camelot. I'm interested in why a game that really does mix things up and innovate in the MMO arena has failed to sell, especially when the market seems to be crying out for new approaches.
Let's be honest, The Secret world was always going to be a niche MMO rather than a blockbuster. Adult themes; the age rating; a game that requires patience and thought; a steep learning curve; tougher gameplay than most modern MMOs - all offer a barrier to casual entry. I think there are a few reasons that can be pinpointed for the game's failure to perform however, but more reasons to be hopeful for its future.
Why did TSW not sell well?
1. The Big Elephant in the Room.
Guild Wars 2 launches at the end of this week. It's no secret that GW2 is widely viewed as the saviour of the MMO market and the hype has reached ridiculous levels. Every MMO on the market is going to take a hit at the end of the month as the crowds flock to the latest flavour of the month. However, in the case of The Secret World, launching just before The Next Big Thing has probably hurt its sales as players decided to wait a few weeks to get started Guild Wars 2.
2. TSF - The Subscription Fee.
I don't think subscription games are going anywhere, despite the many cries to the contrary (WoW still has over 9 million players for a start!). However TSW launched with a higher than normal subscription fee as well as an in-game cash shop. The shop itself sells purely cosmetic items (unlike the cash shop for GW2, WoW, LoTRO, DDO, etc), but I have seen many comments saying that this double dip approach turned many off the game. I think a reduction in the subscription fee from £11.49 to around £9 would help, whilst still helping to pay for the promised monthly content updates.
3. Promotion, or the Lack Thereof.
For a small MMO going up against the big guys you can't hope to have a huge start based purely on word of mouth and goodwill. The advertising and promotion for The Secret World has been distinct by its absence. Many of my PC-Gaming friends hadn't even heard of it. Electronic Arts were supposed to help market the game in the US but seem to have done precisely nothing. TSW is different and has received some really great reviews, but neither fact has been used to market the game.
|Things look bad...|
4. Critics Reviews.
A small game with no big IP behind it relies more on reviews from journalists than other games (GW2 and SWTOR I'm looking at you). The critic reviews for The Secret World have been good but not stellar. Mixed might be a better way of putting it! I do find it a little odd that games like The Old Republic and Rift get better critic reviews than a game that dares to be so different however. Just compare the critic reviews with the user score however (the game is the highest rated MMO on that basis).
5. The Age of Conan Factor.
MMO players have long memories and bear grudges. Age of Conan left a bad taste in the mouths of many judging by the comments on many MMO sites, and I've seen many people saying they wouldn't even look at the game due to the experiences they had with Funcom and the launch of AoC. It's a shame because Funcom seem to have learned their lesson, and the launch of TSW was one of the smoothest in recent MMO memory.
Reasons to be Cheerful (to quote the great Ian Dury)
1. Player Reviews.
Despite the lackluster critical reviews of the game the playerbase overall seems very happy. The game ranks as the highest rated MMO on metacritic, and the highest rated released MMO on mmorpg.com. The word of mouth from those actually playing the game is really very good. Good word of mouth should lead to increased sales over time (I've already pulled in a few friends based on word of mouth and the new three day trial). Once people start to play the game the evidence suggests that they stick around. It's getting them to play in the first place that is difficult.
|...but hope dawns.|
2. Funcom Support.
The customer service so far has been extraordinary in my direct experience, with quick and effective responses to all my petitions. I'm just hoping this level will continue following the layoffs. Regardless, Funcom seem to be (and really have to be) commited to the long term future of the game.
3. Monthly Updates.
There are currently no signs that Funcom will change their plans for monthly updates to the game. Both updates announced so far have been substantial and trouble-free, and if they continue to add quality content at this rate the word of mouth will get even better. The plans for future updates look great as well based on the recent Gamescom presentation (the raid in particular looks spectacular), and hints of a dynamic event system in development.
|A brief glimpse of the first raid's main boss - Times Square is going to need some redecorating...|
4. Guild Wars 2.
A few months after the launch of GW2 many of the players will have reached endgame and be drifting off looking for something new. I daresay there will be the usual wave of complaints at that time as players realise that the game could never (and in fact doesn't) live up to the ridiculous hype. Good word of mouth and the release of the new raid around that time may help pull them back to TSW, especially those tired of yet another high fantasy playground.
5. It continues to be DIFFERENT.
TSW does a lot of things differently to most MMOs, though much of this does not become apparent for the first few hours of play. Slowly the depth and complexity of the game systems are revealed (even the combat, which some have maligned). Rumours of event systems tied into collective decision-making offer hope that the game will continue to innovate.
At the end of the day The Secret World is an MMO created by a relatively small development company. It competes by being different in setting, PvE questing, class and level systems, and story. It excels in all those things and such creativity deserves to be rewarded rather than stifled by the souless generic fantasy MMO behemoths. It's never going to be a blockbuster, but it deserves success. I think it may take some time, but what Ragnar Tørnquist and his team have done will eventually be recognised.
I'm not the only one who thinks so.
I'll sign off this post by offering my best wishes to the developers who have lost jobs and companions in the layoffs.