Punching Babies: Why Darkfall Can, Should, And Must Succeed

Punching babies is one of my favorite turns of phrase. It is probably most popular from Penny Arcade, but Old Man Murray had the ultimate explanation of sucker punching a baby in the gut to get it to be quiet… it’s easy and it works, but you don’t want to advertise the habit. Which defines a lot of my posting habits about, well, events like Darkfall’s launch. It’s easy, it works, it’s kind of fun, but it’s not something you particularly want to *brag* about.

In the midst of the multi-post baby punching threadnaught that has consumed this site out of, well, a lack of anything else going on, a comment I made that upon reflection I think deserves more attention and fleshing out:

Yeah, I think [Darkfall] will spike at around 100,000 and then settle down to around half that. I even made a blog post to that effect! I could be wrong… and if they can sustain growth at 50k and then get 100k and sustain it, well then they get some financial reward for staying up till 3AM on launch week.

And I’m all about niche games succeeding. I really do hope these guys succeed, even if I personally recoil at the community and think the design has serious issues. Niche games can, will, and do work in the market.

So, why do I believe that, despite the obvious glee I have at punching this particular baby over and over? A few reasons.

It can succeed… because the market is there. The “no rules! extreme carnage! total domination of the weak!” PvP str1cktly-hardc0r3 may not be particularly a market *I* want to service, but it does exist and is quite capable of funding a realistically budgeted MMO.

It should succeed… because most previous attempts to service this market have failed. The most prominent of these, Shadowbane, clearly had a market, one lovingly sustained over years during the game’s development (much like Darkfall later), and which abandoned the game due to technical, not design issues. This same market was a significant subset of Ultima Online’s early adopters (albeit one that limited the early growth of the service, which is why they were eventually tossed over the side). And one game, Eve, has in fact prospered by serving this market, albeit with a radically different product and a different genre. This is what people who have more money than I do call “market opportunity”.

It must succeed… because the big-budget MMO business model is killing our industry. World of Warcraft’s success has been wonderful for exactly two companies: Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts.

The reason for Actiblizzard’s good fortune is obvious – WoW is such a huge part of the PC gaming market, that it effectively IS the PC gaming market now. To the extent that World of Warcraft’s revenue is sustaining Actiblizzard through the recessionary spiral that is consuming many of its competitors.

Electronic Arts’ good fortune is less clear, and more dangerous. To be specific, WoW has effectively raised the barrier of entry to the classic kill-things-loot-pants-grunt-twice MMO market, to the point that only megacorporations like EA can afford to compete with WoW on its own terms. Smaller companies simply will not be able to raise the tens-of-millions budget required, and more importantly not have access to the huge reservoir of art teams, content pipelines and engine technology readily available to large corporations like EA. This is something I ran into even at NCsoft, which is not by any measure a small company. We are coming to the point where there are literally only two companies that can make successful MMOs – if we define successful as “competing with WoW”.

So, how do you kill a giant? By being agile and hitting the giant where it’s not looking – underserved market segments that may be willing to overlook that your game doesn’t have the breadth of content and years of production polish that a game such as WoW has, because it delivers on innovative – or even different – design.  And for all the myriad problems Darkfall has had in its launch, for all the head-scratching technical design decisions made, and for the completely justifiable lampooning of its hilariously overwrought community – it still is a great example of this concept made manifest. Darkfall isn’t a game for me, or for many readers of this blog – but it is for a given market segment, and that market segment, if it embraces that, will make the game a financial success – and be another case for being able to succeed in a post-WoW apocaplypse.

And if that given market segment does NOT embrace that, due to technical failures or simple boredom or the worst possible case of all, “You know, I could be playing WoW right now <cancel>”, that is also another case. A case that only $100m+ budgets can create a successful MMO. A case that only two companies are in a position to make MMOs.

And for those two reasons alone, if I were able to, I’d buy Darkfall. I wouldn’t PLAY it mind you. I’d put the box on my shelf alongside the other MMOs I don’t play. But risks deserve rewards.

Probably not the ringing endorsement Aventurine was looking for, but they shouldn’t be looking for one from me in any event. They have their own market segment to serve and they had better get busy serving it. For the good of us all.