Over the last two years or so Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) have grown out of the niche market it filled previously and into the main-stream. Mostly, this was due to the release of World of Warcraft, a massive online game growing to over seven million players, at least ten times bigger than Everquest at its high point. Other games now hope to either mimic Blizzard's success with World of Warcraft or purposefully attempt to distance themselves from the giant. Today we take a look at the trends and predictions for massive online gaming in 2007.
Two games in particular have a lot of attention right now: Vanguard, Saga of Heroes, and World of Warcraft's first expansion, the Burning Crusade. This prediction should be pretty easy. How can Vanguard expect to have any market at all when they release their "Everquest of Olde", Vanguard, two weeks after Blizzard releases the first expansion for the most popular online game on the planet? What can Vanguard possibly have that would take any attention away from Burning Crusade? What does Vanguard offer that one can't find in Everquest 2, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Everquest, or Warcraft?
Vanguard takes the approach of distancing itself from World of Warcraft. This isn't Massive Online Gaming refined into an action adventure game. This is massive online gaming in the style of the original Everquest. Deaths are hard. Travel takes a long time. The big question is, do players want this sort of difficulty when they can hardly stand waiting for a griffin to take them from Stormwind to Ironforge?
Maybe it doesn't have to worry. The market is big enough now that even a nitch game can still survive and thrive. We've seen a few MMOs die, like Asheron's Call 2, but many others with very low subscription numbers like Everquest Online Adventures continue to survive by lowering the service cost enough to keep them going with few subscribers. The MMO market is a big one now, big enough that a dozen or more MMOs can live long lives.
Life isn't easy for an MMO, though, for either the players or the producers. Traditional games live and die strictly on sales numbers. If they die, everyone either forgets them or never heard of them in the first place. Few players are left out when a single-player game doesn't do well. Those that liked it can still play it. But when a MMO dies, tiny universes collapse and crush everyone inside. Entire social networks shatter. Friendships cease. There's a big commitment to an MMO and one of the big reasons players continue to play older MMOs is from this investment in character progression, time, and social networks. They look to the company to continue cultivating and growing the world in which they reside.
Knowing this, it's hard to invest in a new MMO that doesn't have at least a good chance for long-term success. Who wants to play a game they know might die in a few months or a year? Sure, there are a lot of things people might not like in WoW, but we know it's going to be around a long long time. Is that enough of a reason to play through the bad parts?
And what of console MMOs? I was excited to hear that Phantasy Star Universe isn't the most horrible RPG on the planet and might even offer up some good entertainment as a Diablo clone on Xbox 360. I doubt that the sales numbers came anywhere near the typical first-person shooter hit, Gears of War, but it is encouraging to see some movement in that direction. While I've spent most of my adult life chained to a PC to play games like Everquest, I much prefer the console as a gaming platform for a few reasons:
1. Consoles run on my big TV.
2. I don't have to install and troubleshoot games.
3. It sounds better on my home theater system.
4. The consoles are cheaper and require less frequent upgrades than my PC.
5. The usability is much improved.
6. Console games usually allow for shorter more life-friendly play sessions.
7. They just work.
The Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii are the first consoles to include nearly everything they need for console massive online gaming. The PS3 and Wii lack headsets, but the Xbox 360 includes one in the bundle pack. Even though MMO guru Richard Bartle warns us against voicechat in MMOs, it is the only reasonable way to communicate in a multiplayer console game. From what I understand, Microsoft's Xbox Live subscription complicates the subscription model for any massive online game released to 360, but assuming they find a way to build a revenue stream, all of the hardware is there and it is a virtually untapped market. If someone isn't building a World of Warcraft clone for 360, Wii, or PS3, they should be.
Sony brings another variable to the table; MMO franchises. Sony Online Entertainment now hosts the most amount of massive online games of any single company. Matrix Online, Everquest Online Adventures, Everquest, Everquest 2, Gods and Heroes, Planetside, Star Wars Galaxies, Vanguard, and an upcoming DC Comics game all reside within the umbrella of SOE. They learned that niche games can survive with very few players by simply hosting a whole lot of them. The players from the most popular hosted game help fund the maintenance for the games with far fewer players. It's a great idea and proves, so far, very successful. If (when) SOE starts releasing massive online games for the Playstation 3, they may have a leg up in the fresh market of console MMOs. Much of this, of course, depends on the dubious success of the Playstation 3, a trojan horse console designed to push Sony's proprietary format into every home in the world.
SOE's label on the Vanguard box makes me feel confident that the game will meet with at least some long-term stability. Their decision to release so close to the behemoth of Burning Crusade still makes me scratch my head. There was a lot of work put into a game that will very likely get crushed out of existence on retail shelves and Amazon sales ranks. I'm sure a group of self-proclaimed hard-core gamers disagrees with me and, according to Bartle again, they may be right to question a game that simplifies MMOs into an arcade shooter. That doesn't change the market, however.
Whatever new expansions and new releases we see this year, 2007 is the year of the Burning Crusade, whether we like it or not.
3 January 2006