Last week saw what seems like a notable and potentially quite significant occurrence in the massively multiplayer space, the commercial launch of Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures, developed by SOE in conjunction with franchise owner LucasArts. In case anyone doesn't already know, the game is the interactive entertainment adaptation of a popular animated TV series set within this prime property.
The umbrella reason I think this title could turn out to be pretty important is that it represents a number of major trends in the MMOG space. One it that while it's described as "a free-to-play family-friendly online virtual world", it's not F2P in the sense of having item sales as the sole means of revenue generation. Rather, it employs a business model that also incorporates a "Jedi membership" option, which is basically a $5.99 per month subscription. The main benefits include the ability to create characters of the Zabrak race (in addition to humans, clones and Twi'leks), enhanced character and house customizability, and access to VIP areas and events as well as member-only items.
Some will argue that despite the ostensible positioning, such a scheme isn't really F2P. I agree, although with the proviso that this doesn't mean it's subscription either. Others will say it's only an extended free trial. I disagree. It's a hybrid revenue model, which is one of the prominent trends we're seeing these days. This particular implementation has premium content. It doesn't fall neatly on either side. Instead, it's a variant that further fudges the dividing line, which wasn't a neat, binary demarcation anyway. And it's almost certainly a harbinger of more alternatives to come.
Clone Wars Adventures also reflects the growing importance of the browser-based sector. The title's choice of platforms does place some restrictions on its visuals, which has a cost in that it's enough to keep some people from even trying it. However, the upside is much greater ease of entry. The potential audience isn't limited by hardware accessibility, and is thus far larger. As a result, the degree to which the development industry is focused on making "games for gamers" has been in decline for quite some time, and I have no reason to think this will change.
Design-wise, it isn't a "classic" MMOG by any means. A lot of the play is solo mini-games; there are various types ranging from action to puzzles, strategy et al. From what I've seen so far in a fairly small number of hours with a free account, it looks like it fits the trend toward quasi-MMOGs where the scope and scale of interactions with others are quite limited.
It's also worth noting that the primary target audience is stated as 10 and up. The kids segment of the market is has been getting more attention for a few years now, which also seems likely to continue. Aiming at young users can tend to suggest less depth; detractors often call it "dumbing down". While the degree to which this is accurate is at least partially subjective, I think developers are increasingly realizing that fun is fun, and that games can effectively appeal to players having different preferred levels of complexity.
Speaking for myself, I can add that the depth I want at a given moment depends on my mood and other situational considerations. For example, there are times when I'm perfectly happy to play something straightforward that won't tax my memory, game knowledge, reactions, etc. So even though I'm well past the age of 10, titles like Clone Wars Adventures can appeal to me - just not all the time.
Another factor in my thinking is the unquestionable prominence of the Star Wars property. Not so long ago, when we looked for broadly known ones in the F2P sector, what we'd find simply wasn't of similar same stature. Think Hello Kitty perhaps. Now, we have Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, D&D, EverQuest... and possibly Final Fantasy when it enters China. Rumors continue to circulate about WoW, albeit I've yet to see or hear a credible one, and Star Trek Online already has an item shop. In terms of franchises, the times have definitely changed, and pretty quickly at that.
It's obviously too early to see how successful Clone Wars Adventures will be. Considering the property and that the game seems, at this still early stage, to be well made, my gut feel is positive. And putting on my rose-colored glasses, I even hope it will become a milestone in accelerating the erosion of the F2P / subscription divide.