2009 was a year of adjustment, which is a polite way of saying that the economy crashed into the sea, all the would-be World of Warcraft killers couldn't leave a dent in the beast, and a significant numbers of us wound up looking for jobs at one point or another, your humble correspondent included.
On the other hand, there were launches, shutdowns, announcements, pushbacks, and all the other usual causes for celebration and Internet Drama in the MMO space, and there were other interesting stories that came and went, maybe noticed at the time, but quickly forgotten as the latest story came to the fore.
As an aside, announcements and pushbacks do not (usually) concern me, because the following were all marked "coming in 2009" at some point, be it by the press or be it by official company line: Darkfall, DC Universe Online, All Points Bulletin, The Agency, Stargate Worlds, Free Realms, Aion, Lego Universe, FusionFall, Jumpgate Evolution, Black Prophecy, Earthrise, MechScape, Huxley, The Chronicles of Spellborn (US), Guild Wars 2. Of these, only Darkfall, Free Realms, Aion, FusionFall, and Spellborn (US) made it out. Announcing a game is something pretty much anyone can do (see Dawn, " in development" for almost a decade) and pushing back a game is something pretty much everyone does. Actually releasing a game, though, proves to be the tricky bit, which is why there aren't any announcements in here (though there certainly were some intriguing ones).
Accordingly, this is my own highly biased take on what I found most interesting in 2009, with a focus on the business side, because very, very few companies spend $30 million on a game out of the kindness and benevolence of their golden hearts.
In no particular order, my Most Important MMO Stories of 2009 are:
January begins with Big Content stomping into the MMO space in the form of Cartoon Network Universe: Fusionfall. Originally scheduled for a Summer 2008 release, the family-friendly game featured a powerhouse lineup of Cartoon Network properties, the financial backing of Turner Broadcasting, and the development expertise of Korea's Grigon Entertainment and drew writeups from Wired, MacWorld, and The Washington Post in addition to the usual MMO and tech sites. The world held its breath. Would Fusionfall herald a new world of entertainment synergy, where we'd play alongside our favorite characters from our favorite movie and TV properties?
The answer is pretty much: no.
The problem with launching an MMO targeted at kids (and stoners watching Adult Swim) is that the average MMO player is 26 and other studies show gamers tend to be older, male, and possibly deeply depressed, which is hardly a market down for hanging out with Dexter, Dee Dee, and the Kids Next Door (though others are certainly trying to compete in the space).
Fusionfall is not unsuccessful, persay, since it is currently still active, but it rather remarkably disappeared off the face of the earth after its January launch. The game rolled out, and nobody seems to have said a word about it since, save for a few mentions in Unity engine promotional materials and a blurb or two on them moving it into Asian markets, and silence seldom indicates "our game is massively successful," especially among publicly held companies, where you trumpet anything remotely good to boost your stock price and make everyone happy. Aside from its initial burst of buzz, nobody seems to be saying anything good or bad about FusionFall, proving it is possible to launch with a massive budget and promotional backing from a major network and still slip into obscurity.
No new MMO actually makes it onto the 360 or the Playstation 3.
This one is simple. Of the new games announced with console support--including Champions Online and Age of Conan--how many can you actually play right now on your XBox 360 or Playstation 3? While some are coming or "still in development, we promise," the answer is none, none whatsoever. Time to renew that Final Fantasy XI subscription, hunker down, and hope for the best.
Darkfall and Fallen Earth Launches.
Darkfall was something of an internet in-joke for years, with an eight year development timeline and a hyperaggressive, hyperdefensive community dedicated to the "hardcorer than thou" PvP aesthetic that largely died out after the launch of Trammel.
And then it actually came out, launching in July (and earlier in Europe). Despite ongoing Internet Drama, it continues to be out, and people continue to play it, with two expansions out and the team working away on more new content and features, proving that at least some of their most-vocal fans are putting their money where their mouth is and are signing up to play the game they've been clamoring about for years.
The big question for Darkfall in 2010 will be the same one that confronts PvP games and servers everywhere: can a game full of the "wolves" survive without a steady stream of "sheep" to keep them entertained? PvP servers and games tend to launch in big bursts of hype, then deflate as the 90% of would-be hardcore players realize no, they're not actually as good as the 10% that actually are the wolves, the way the loudmouth on any FPS server mysteriously disappears when someone better than him shows up.
Fallen Earth is in a similar niche product vein, though with considerably less drama. Post-apocalyptic games are hard enough to come by, but a post-apocalyptic modern game built around the sort of serious crafting game play last seen in pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies? More than that, the world is desolate and rather bleak. While it is appealing to a certain part of the brain to romp around being chased by giant mutants, it takes a different sort of aesthetic taste to enjoy doing it in the reds and tans of the Arizona desert, surrounded by the remains of modern human civilization.
Still, the launch and continued success of Darkfall is heartening, if only for providing proof that a niche game with a specific for a specialized, niche audience can make it through launch and do well enough to merit subscriptions and playtime. Perhaps more developers will consider it, rather than taking a swing at the AAA MMO fences.