I want to talk about the interesting crossroads we are on at the moment in MMORGP land. Currently, the leading MMO designers are at a loss which road to take. With the numbers of WOW-subscribers steadily declining after a long period of population-size dominance, Blizzard hopes to land a well-placed blow to the competition with their upcoming WOW expansion, Mists of Pandaria. EA Bioware Mythic is hanging in the ropes, bleeding and panting heavily after the relative failures of Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR) and Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR). Sonly Online Entertainment seems to have given up the fight after the EverQuest series was knocked out by WOW, and after the utter failure of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. In the meanwhile, dozens of smaller developers have been gnawing away at the WOW-player base, and WOW’s strength seems to be dwindling as it slowly grows older, leaving a considerable part of its players wanting for something new and more spectacular. So with this debilitation of WOW, and the relative failures of so many MMORPGs to live up to expectations and to beat WOW in population dominance, what lies ahead? What went wrong and if developers wish to avoid making the same mistakes, what necessary evolutionary changes do MMORPGs have to undergo?
An important evolutionary question is whether the formula of subscription-based MMORPG is sustainable. With the upcoming release of Guildwars 2, the MMORPG world is going to get acquainted with the first large-scale high-fantasy MMORPG that can be bought as a standalone game, without the need for a monthly fee for players to be able to play the game. Moreover, the large media hype, and Guildwars 2 steadily being amongst the trending games on the major gaming websites, enables us to compare it to other similarly hyped MMORPGs such as WAR, SWTOR and Diablo III that were unable to live up to expectations. So, after the release of Guildwars 2, will there be a future for subscription-based MMORPGs or will players refuse to pay when the competition is able to offer something comparable?
To take this further, can the failures of WAR, Vanguard, Lord of the Rings Online, SWTOR and so many other MMORPGs be condensed in this single aspect: the monthly subscription fee, I think not. First of all, Ultima Online and EverQuest set the scene for the monthly subscription fee system. Despite these games having been (and being) played by a population of perhaps more hardcore Roleplaying-minded players, Dark Age of Camelot and especially WOW brought the genre to a broader crowd, who all were seemingly unhesitant in paying this fee. So in a landscape where only a handful of MMORPGs used to be available, the monthly fee never was a limiting factor. However, in the past few years, this MMORPG landscape has gradually become crowded, creating the historical and entirely new situation where MMORPGs have to bring that something extra that is worth paying for on a monthly basis. My prediction is that such games will not cease to be made, and there will always be that ‘next big thing’ that Guildwars 2 currently is. As such, my prediction is that more free-to-play games will come, without the need for subscription-based MMORPGs to disappear, as long as the quality of the game justifies the payment.
So if it’s not all about the monthly fee, then why did games with, in my opinion enormous potential, are so often denounced as failures? When does an MMORPG fail? Is it a failure when the game is unable to beat WOW with regard to population size? Is it when the game turns out to be not what you wanted or expected it to be? Or is it when the game is unable to produce the desired amount of money in order to generate a profit for the developer? In this regard, is it fair to say that a game like SWTOR, which broke every sales record out there on release is a failure? Some will say yes; it failed to bring what people expected. A major point of criticism came down to its single-player-oriented storyline design. Others castigated its visual design, but most complained about insufficient end-game content. Nevertheless, the release of SWTOR brought in a huge amount of money and the game still has a player base mounting around one-point-five million subscribing players. Whether that is enough to cover the gargantuan costs of making this MMORPG, I do not know, but with the recent announcement of SWTOR going free-to-play, it most likely did not bring what EA wanted it to bring. So was EA Bioware Mythic then perhaps unrealistic in its financial prospects with regard to SWTOR? Perhaps yes, after buying Mythic Entertainment (the developer of Dark Age of Camelot) and Bioware (the developer of a long line of outstanding RPGs, amongst which Dragon Age: Origins), they made some disastrous decisions amongst which the push-release of an unfinished version of the very promising WAR MMORPG while also killing its funding in one of its most crucial phases. Also they utterly mutilated part II of the similarly very promising Dragon Age RPG series, in order to make it more suitable for console play. Finally, perhaps they overreached with their attempt at making SWTOR the biggest MMORPG out there, which to be realistic, was never going to happen in the first place, and I wonder whether their decision to make SWTOR free-to-play (with a hint of pay-to-win in it perhaps) will fit this list of not-so-great decision making. So with the recent rumours of EA now being for sale, perhaps their seemingly failed attempt at setting foot into the (MMO)RPG industry nicely illustrates that you need a very specific marketing plan, a plan that differs completely from the plan for publishing console games (which was what EA did best prior to their hijacking of Mythic and Bioware).
To conclude this first Blog of mine, with the seeming decline of current MMORPG giants such as Blizzard (Will Mists of Pandaria get them back on track?), EA bioware Mythic (Will EA change hands soon, and will this affect their production strategy?), and Sony Online Entertainment (Currently losing every marketing battle from smaller developers such as Bluehole studios), what lies in the future of MMORPG development? Is Tera going to be the future with regard to its refreshing gameplay? Is subscription-free Guildwars 2 going to be the leading payment model? Will producers stop aiming to top WOW’s vast amounts of players with ailing push releases? What I can conclude is that in the end quality wins it all, and let’s hope that quality is what the future will bring most of all.