Wither White Wolf?

Usually, I try to keep my posts in the 500-800 word category, and usually end up around 600-1000 because of that.  That was not the case here.

The perpetual fall of White Wolf Games is something that’s unavoidable, and somewhat expected, but still a strange and miserable way for a former major gaming company to end. Its parent company CCP has finally shelved the World of Darkness MMO for the duration, also pulling back their Dust 514 Ps3-based EVE shooter. There’s a number of reasons for this, the big two being the numbers: the number of fans dropping EVE, and the number of executives who’ve been working on projects that aren’t CCP’s existing cash cow, directly correlating with the first. Oh, and the numbers of the current depression/recession, which caused the Icelandic economy to enter the spin zone.

To get the full view of the setup, we have to go back to 2006, to when CCP was raking in the cash, the Icelandic economy was a booming bubble, and White Wolf was looking like hot property.

The appeal of White Wolf started in the early ’90s, emphasizing a more story- and character-based RPG (whether or not it was is up to debate), with taglines like “Games for Mature Minds” and “A Game of Personal Horror.” At the very least, it was new and different, and it worked, offering a strong degree of flexibility that drew players away from 2nd Ed AD&D. Its grim and angst-filled World of Darkness games based around playing supernatural creatures also attracted numerous fringe groups through its aesthetics and mindset—the big one being the goth/industrial crowd.

That would be a problem: the goth/industrial trend was a self-contained product of the 1990s, and it didn’t survive much past that decade. Trying to recreate itself, White Wolf came out with a new World of Darkness, revising many mechanical issues, balancing the game lines and cutting down on system bloat. However, some fans were already sick of earlier revisions: 2nd Editions and 3rd/Revised Editions of most games, to update metaplots and fix balance issues. On top of which the New WoD was divisive, despite the numerous changes it made to streamline the games and make them function together. Between the aversion to change, and the decline of its driving trend base, White Wolf wasn’t doing so well: still close enough to being a second-tier game publisher in the wake of Wizards of the Coast, but far from its mid-late-90s glory days.

By all accounts, by 2006, White Wolf’s top seller wasn’t its angsty World of Darkness line but its new line combining classic mythology and anime: Exalted Second Edition. It’s not a stretch to imagine, as the three capstone lines—Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf—had their output shamed by the sheer number of Exalted sourcebooks. (The varied d20-based lines and imprints were also expansive, including the Ravenloft and Warcraft lines and Monte Cook’s Malhavoc Press imprint, but I never got a sense of how much these affected White Wolf’s budget. Still, these lines were larger than Werewolf, and even Mage in some cases.)

Even considering the Old WoD was bloated and overrun with releases that weren’t critical, the New WoD output was sparse. Mage averaged one book every two months; Werewolf even less. Vampire, the most-produced game in the line, capped out at seven books in 2005. In the ’90s, White Wolf managed to afford a half-dozen lengthy product lines consisting of numerous sourcebooks, more when you add in the Trinity line; in the 2000s, most of these product lines were limited to five-book runs. The only game to escape that tight five-book line was the revised Changeling, from much popularity. (Considering that White Wolf has always been more reliant on freelancers than house writers, it’s telling when they couldn’t afford to pay for half the amount of material they put out in the ’90s.)

Meanwhile, CCP was in the midst of an economic bubble. Through some sketchy but commonplace economic practices Iceland was doing fine, as was the rest of the world, thank you very much; it’d take another two years before those bubbles burst. CCP’s game EVE was attracting a lot of publicity and a large player base, not to the level of World of Warcraft but enough to make it very profitable. CCP’s EVE growth even included a short-lived EVE CCG. At the same time, vampires and werewolves were coming back en vogue yet again due to the Twilight boom, and when CCP looked to expand its MMO lines, somehow its eyes fell upon White Wolf: once a giant in its industry, now a declining publisher, but one with some potential for an MMO.

So when CCP bought out White Wolf, the reaction from most gamers was either “Huh?” or “What the hell’s a CCP?” (Numerous are the “I thought it said CCCP and imagined Russians” jokes.) Normally, when a company wants to use an RPG line for a video game, they simply license the game’s IP and rules: White Wolf had sold licenses for two Vampire games, a vaporware Werewolf game, and a reported Exalted game. (Or, in the case of D&D, another branch of the parent company is used to make the games—Atari.) Instead of licensing, CCP had simply bought White Wolf and incorporated it to the fold, which came rather out of the blue.

For years, the only thing that changed was that “Copyright White Wolf 200X” was replaced by “Copyright CCP.” Rumors slowly built around the World of Darkness MMO, which hadn’t even begun until after the buyout. But the dilapidated state of White Wolf was somewhat apparent: when the company finally unveiled a new website, it was mocked by players, who pointed out the horrible grammatical errors and date info (“Changeling the Lost: Coming 2006,” a game that had been out for several years and already expanded into a full line).

Not that White Wolf didn’t make the occasional movement or noise—it released a special edition of Vampire for its 20th Anniversary, and is scheduled to do so again for Werewolf and Mage—and DriveThruRPG, operated by a former White Wolf employee, started doing print-on-demand products, starting with a massive chunk of Old WoD. The WoD MMO was to return to the Old WoD, and a revised version of Mummy was announced as a player-driven, print-on-demand product.

But things began looking down for CCP, and by extension, White Wolf. First, the collapse of the world economy, and by proxy, the Icelandic banking system; EVE suddenly became much less of a cash cow, even though it’s still profitable. What changed things up was that CCP didn’t notice the financial situation, lost track of its existing fanbase, and overextended itself on multiple projects: a bad case of eyes being bigger than its mouths.

EVE Online has been the big moneymaker for the Icelandic corporation, with its reputation as a hard grind laden with scams and seedy espionage, but for the past two years, there hasn’t been any substantial ingame content. CCP’s single source of income received the lowest number of developer staff, and the results weren’t pretty. First was the attempt to replicate Facebook in EVE (“Spacebook”). Next was “Walking in Sations,” taking the WoD MMO engine and adding it to EVE in a beautification project; a noble endeavor, until CCP decided to start with the race whose stuff looks like hammered shit.

These weren’t well-recieved by players, who wanted starship stat rebalancing for space combat, but the situation didn’t collapse until the micro-transactions for character apperal (for the new Walking in Stations): CCP decided that their first batch of micro-transaction cosmetics should be so exorbitantly overpriced to include a $70 monocle, causing ingame riots on a massive scale, being dubbed Monoclegate by players. The overpriced ingame apperal micro-transactions ($70 monocle! Yes, $70 real dollars for some pixels!), badly integrated content, and lack of substantial updates—killers in the MMO industry—caught media attention. Rather than seeing a post-update boom of interested players, the updates caused a sharp decline in subscriptions, which impacted the smaller CCP more than the million lost subscriptions Netflix suffered after its announcements.

EVE’s player base caused such a ruckus that CCP has re-evaluated its lines, which meant Dust 514 and World of Darkness. Dust, a Halo-like shooter designed to impact planet-conquering in EVE,  is a fantastic idea, but misplaced and irrational, something gamers and critics noticed well before CCP did. (Getting PS3 owners to buy and then log in to impact a PC-based MMO is questionable, especially when you consider that most EVE ops are timed to put their opponents in a tight spot, time-zone wise.) World of Darkness would have been a fantastic seller six years ago, and perhaps even now could cause a boom between the final Twilight movies and a return of Old WoD to print; CCP doesn’t want to take the chance of putting its eggs into that basket while its single existing basket is yelling at them.

White Wolf had been trudging along on its own through all this, relying on Exalted, its freelancer-based publications, Vampire LARPs, and other core sources of income. Its production has been downgrading progressively; the switch from 3.x D&D to 4th Edition meant most of its d20 lines folded, and its World of Darkness print runs became smaller and smaller: try to find a cheap copy of NWoD: Mirrors, Geist, or NWoD: Inferno.

Which brings us to the actions of CCP almost a month ago: as part of its restructuring, it laid off a huge chunk of employees, focusing mostly on its Atlanta offices of the former White Wolf Game Studio, making it something of a nigh-defunct label. CCP still owns its logo, label, and print lines, but its focus isn’t on the print industry; my assumption is it’ll keep the rights so it can continue with the World of Darkness MMO as a back-burner, once its EVE situation has stabilized, and if it proves untenable or unprofitable, then sell the WoD line off. (It probably won’t; they’ve sunk five years, a lot of money, a large design team, and a trailer into the game already.)

Most of White Wolf’s products were already returning to print-on-demand, along with print-on-demand/digital products; as long as the arrangement with Drive-Thru continues, they’ll be accessible. And staffers say the WoD MMO will show its head—in another few years, maybe—unless CCP manages to lose sight of its consumers’ interests again. But as a content publisher? CCP isn’t focused on print lines, just MMOs, so it looks like White Wolf’s finally run its course. I’d like to be proven wrong—the company could still produce content through judicious use of freelancers, and did just move from print to print-on-demand and the digital marketplace to cut costs—but the ongoing trend hasn’t made the company’s future very bright.

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