As an industry pundit, I've always had one simple rule - if you don't want to go wrong in predicting the future, predict stuff that's already happened. Unfortunately, that's going to be difficult for 2010, since... um.... the past year has been pretty wackily crazy.
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Welcome to my end of the year recap for 2010. Let's get right to it, shall we?
Cataclysm releases, breaks some records, fails to break others
November saw the release of World of Warcraft's latest expansion, Cataclysm. Complaints about the low number of high-end raids released with this expansion paled next to the roar of millions of new goblins and worgen rushing through the revamped introductory zones as swiftly as they can, so that they could get to the endgame of high-end raids that they could complain about. The huge lines at Cataclysm release date parties attract a great deal of media attention (especially the scantily clad female goblin cosplayers), but the total revenue for the weekend of $275 million globally, while record setting for an MMO release, fails to dent Modern Warfare 2's record of $310 million sales on its first day. Some industry analysts begin to wonder if the MMO market in general has peaked, thanks in large part to some industry analysts confusing the words "MMO market" and "World of Warcraft."
The Old Republic enters beta, Internet explodes
Bioware finally lifts the veil on The Old Republic with a "limited open beta" in October. (Some wags speculate that EA forces Bioware's hand to steal some of Blizzard's thunder as Cataclysm's impending launch begins a media feeding frenzy.) Bioware's websites and mail servers begin to crumble as the difference between denial of service attacks and millions of Star Wars fans trying to get a prized early look at TOR become difficult to distinguish. Early impressions are generally positive (although a small, loud remnant of "true believer" Star Wars Galaxies players are enraged at the complete lack of open virtual-world gameplay), and 2011 definitely looks to be Bioware's year in terms of MMO releases.
Linden Lab sells Second Life
Virtual worlds receive a shock as Linden Lab, bleeding cash, announces a sale of Second Life to Sony Online Entertainment in August so that a (much smaller) Linden studio can fund a newer VW in development. The assurances by SOE that Second Life's libertarian (and somewhat libertine) social environment won't be changed completely fails to reassure its residents. The "Great Offworld Migration" to open source servers fragments the community, although cross world communication becomes a priority for now extremely overworked VW hackers. The mass media uses the announced sale to proclaim how prescient they were for predicting that the whole online gaming thing wouldn't work out, just before they begin to write the stories predicting record sales for World of Warcraft's Cataclysm.
Final Fantasy comes to consoles, yet again
Revisiting Final Fantasy 11's trailblazing and somewhat difficult release on the PS2, Final Fantasy 14 comes out for the PS3 in September, causing Japan to basically shut down and roll Moogle Red Mages, er, I mean Lalafell Thaumaturges. The Windows release is "delayed", and difficulties with integrating an MMO into the Playstation Network cause woes that last into the remainder of the year, putting a damper on worldwide sales.
Batman doesn't need subscription fees
SOE causes a stir when it announces in early 2010 that DC Universe Online will be the second major SOE title (after Freerealms) to be free-to-play. When DCU launches in August for the PS3, it becomes of the flagship games of the platform (though it struggles in its Windows incarnation versus Champions and the still-market-leader in men-in-tights games, City of Heroes); its action-based gameplay finds a niche with console players and the revenue model of sales through the PSN marketplace avoids problems other MMO companies have struggled with in finding ways to make a profit on consoles. (Left unsaid, like with Freerealms, is how much money the game actually makes - in the free to play marketplace, popularity does not always result in profit...) Unfortunately, DCU's main limit is the PS3's limited market itself, and the game struggles to achieve a million players.
Lt. Worf, set phasers on "grind"
Star Trek Online releases in March. Its launch isn't nearly as troubled as Cryptic's recent Champions Online, and the gameplay attracts friends and foes in roughly equal measure. Hardcore Star Trek fans are completely revolted at the spectacle of Starfleet officers receiving credits and XP for killing "a_Gorn_soldier001". Bloodthirsty MMO players take to the Klingon PvP experience with a vengeance, and the Federation-Klingon war suffers serious population balance issues on most servers. Still, you only argue about games you care about, and Star Trek Online becomes Cryptic's second huge hit (remember, they originally developed City of Heroes before selling it to NCsoft) with subscriber numbers stabilizing in the 500,000 range.
Other, lower profile releases of the last year include:
Meanwhile, other MMOs kept on keeping on in 2009; predictions of Warhammer Online's demise were exaggerated, for example (though not greatly so, as the game finally shrinks to a single server). Most MMOs not named World of Warcraft, from Aion to Everquest, to EVE to Darkfall, remain essentially static; holding on to a core of fans who have found communities that won't go away any time soon despite the storm and thunder of The Next Big Thing. Although every MMO saw far less populated servers last month in what some wags have already dubbed "the Cataclysm Effect", even now population figures are climbing back to normal.
And for those of us odd folk who actually try to make a living in this crazy industry, 2010 was something of a relief after 2009's serial executions. A great many startups started to get funding again (Richard Garriott and Mark Jacobs in particular both attracting much attention, if not a lot of actual news) as investors started to realize that (a) MMOs do make a lot of money! Really! and (b) 2010 was a good year to hire a good deal of out-of-work people to make those. By the time 2010 closed out, the health of the MMO market, at least employment-wise, had started to return to where it was in 2008. (And yes, someday I'll be able to tell you what I'm working on. Again.)
So what can we expect from next year? It's difficult to predict reliably, given how badly I screwed up 2010's predictions (come on, *no one* predicted Evony 2!) but it's easy to make some ballpark estimations for 2011: Bioware will hit it big with The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2 will be the big subscription-free release of the year, and World of Darkness Online will, if nothing else, give Peter Murphy some work for the soundtrack.
But really, nothing will define 2011 more than the shocking announcement in December of 1$!!#$...$!##....
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