In Dana's column last week, he focused on a key reason for the burgeoning popularity of free to play MMOGs. They're much more accessible in terms of their hardware requirements. Simply put, they run on more PCs, which means more people can play them. This is a topic area I've visited multiple times over the at least the past five or six years, and frankly, I wonder like he does - why some people, both gamers and developers, don't seem to "get it".
Graphics don't make a game. They can and do, however, significantly impact the size of its potential audience.
Let's be clear; I'm not talking about stick figures and monochrome. But consider this. There are millions upon millions of people whose usual online activities consist of little more than e-mail and surfing. What standard do you think they have when they look at their computer screens?
That's a major reason why browser-based MMOGs are a lot more popular than you might realize, and also an important factor in why I expect to see considerable growth in this segment over the next few years. The visuals may be low-tech and boring to graphics whores or even serious gamers in general. However, for huge numbers of other people, they're fine, even good.
And there are other forms of accessibility. One is that there's little or nothing to download or install. Another is that aside from an e-mail address, it's generally not necessary to provide any form of personal information before starting to play. No credit card number either.
Of course, browser games can utilize various revenue models. However, F2P obviously allows free trial, which addresses the potential barrier to entry of paying for something without knowing what it's like or how enjoyable it is.
It's difficult to gauge how large the browser MMOG segment is at this time, but I have no doubt it's substantial. In part, I suspect this is because, as with F2P in general, North America currently trails the global market. This means less information floating around for people like me to find. Another reason is that when companies anywhere do release numbers, they typically talk about registered users, a practice I truly dislike since the figures are far less meaningful than others such as concurrent or active users would be.
That said, I've heard from very credible sources that popular international titles generate revenues well in excess of a millions dollars per month. Such amounts pale in comparison to World of Warcraft, but they don't look bad at all beside moderately popular subscription offerings. This is especially true when we consider the cost of development, both pre-launch and ongoing, is undoubtedly far lower. Operating expenses might be too.
Frankly, I wonder how much longer it will be before the major game publishers start to catch on. Maybe some have already, although none spring to mind. But since I'm not privy to anything I can't disclose, I can speculate to my heart's content. So... I think it's really just a matter of time before we see the industry big guns getting into web MMOGs. There's simply too much potential audience and profit for them to continue ignoring the category.
Some people are sure to object since these hypothetical future releases won't be "real" MMOGs. If you feel this distinction is important enough to avoid even trying them, that's undeniably your prerogative. Personally, I'm looking forward to them since they'll mean more ways I can have fun.
One I'd really like to see is a Star Wars web MMOG. The broad appeal of this property is undeniable. Galaxies never had a realistic chance to capitalize on this. Why? Primarily because of limited accessibility - not just from the hardware requirements perspective, but even more so from a design point of view. Both originally and following the various fixes that were implemented, it's a game for gamers. That's fine in and of itself, but it never fit with the hype about attracting a truly mass market audience.
I have no doubt that The Old Republic will be better in terms of its potential reach. But do I believe it will appeal to a substantial proportion of those who aren't already gamers to at least a moderate degree (i.e. a good majority of the North American population)? Among the people I know, I expect quite a few more would be willing to check out an online Star Wars universe if they could do so quickly and easily through their browsers... especially on an F2P or extensive free to try basis.
And what about interesting properties that don't have the same magnitude of audience? Like me, I'm sure you can readily come up with some personal favorites - perhaps a fair number - that could provide highly enjoyable play experiences, but don't seem likely to warrant the time and monetary investments required to build conventional MMOGs no matter how much we wish for them. At least with web-based and other alternative approaches, I can have some hope.