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The Free Zone: Some Year-End Wondering

Column By Richard Aihoshi on January 01, 2013

As I write this, a couple of days still remain in what has been yet another very interesting year in the global MMOG space. This makes it pretty easy to do some form of retrospective or look forward. As it happens, some of the things on my mind these days take the form of questions involving aspects of both the past 12 months and the future.

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What will the Old Republic's full impact on the market and the industry be?

This is a tale still in the telling, and I suspect we'll be seeing and feeling the ripples for quite some time. That said it's hard to find much reason for optimism except in one area. This is my feeling the game will improve over time, although I'd guess this would happen at a pretty modest pace, mainly because I'm hard-pressed to envision EA allocating the money and other resources necessary to make substantial changes rapidly.  

On the other hand, it's plausible that SWTOR is operating at a profit. So it's clear, what I'm referring to is generating enough revenue per month to exceed the ongoing expenses - the live and customer service teams, the studio facility, maintaining the servers, etc. I'm not talking about recovering the huge amount that was spent to develop and launch the game. I have no clue whether all that money can ever be recouped. But since they're “sunk costs”, it's now more of a concern whether the project is continuing to bleed or not. I'd guess the latter, in which case, it will probably be worked on at a rate related to its net cash flow.

Of greater interest is the fate of the IP in the MMOG space, where I believe it still has exceptional potential, far more than either TOR or Galaxies achieved. It's hard to imagine that the honchos at LucasArts are now thinking anything like “Oh well, but let's give it another go in a year or two.” And even if they are, they'd have to recruit a team or a development / publishing partner. Does either seem likely to happen any time soon?

At the industry level, how many more endeavors are we likely to see where the development and launch costs run into nine digits? It's easy enough to say Titan, and The Elder Scrolls Online might be up in that range. But let's not forget both these projects were started years ago. The market was different then, as were the trends and directions it was projected to take. Now, looking at the current situation, do you see a lineup of publishers or other funders eager to spend $100 million or more on an MMOG?

Can ESO out-perform previous “next big ones”?

While Zenimax Online had been around for four years before its initial project was unveiled last year, the official announcement wasn't exactly a big surprise.  After all, what could possibly furnish a more natural basis for an MMORPG than a hugely successful RPG property in which the freedom to wander the world at will is a core element? 

But in the shadowy recesses of my mind, a dark thought took seed at that time, and it's still there, still alive. Is this the game or at least the type that the market is truly waiting to embrace? Admittedly I don't have a solid read on the degree to which this implementation is likely to capture the distinctive essence of the franchise. Failure to do so adequately wouldn't bode well in terms of attracting and holding the franchise's audience, part of which doesn't play MMOGs. Thinking its single-player fan base would easily adopt a different feel plus group-based online play and be happy to subscribe as well didn't exactly work out for another highly successful game IP, The Sims.

Don't get me wrong; I hope ESO will be a great game that captures the flavor of the RPGs. I'd also welcome a new major hit that, even if it doesn't approach WoW's market presence, at least gets closer than any other mega-budget MMOG has. But I'm certainly not prepared to predict that Zenimax' project will soar to such a level. Is anyone other than the most fervent of fanboys?

Is crowdfunding a viable way of financing an MMOG?

Although I didn't mention this funding model in public until recently, it has been on my mind for a while. It sat in a back corner at first, but has had more of my attention since a couple of projects demonstrated it's possible to raise sizable sums. The largest amount to date seems to be about $7.1 million. Obviously, this isn't nearly enough to make an MMOG like the above-mentioned pair. However, I wonder what would be feasible with a budget in the same ballpark. So far, we've only seen a few attempts to go this route. I expect to see more in 2013, and am keen to see what kinds of games are put forward.

In addition, I'm rather interested to see how crowdfunding itself will evolve. In the basic version, backers' basically pledge to donate their money, receiving tiered packages of rewards and benefits bearing little if any resemblance to what “normal” investors would expect. It's completely unrealistic to think funders who put up a few thousand dollars at most will be treated like venture capitalists or angels who commit much larger amounts. However, this doesn't mean nothing will change.

Given the time required to make even a small MMOG, it seems unlikely we'll actually see a crowdfunded one reach the market in 2013. Nonetheless, by this time next year, I expect to have a much better gut feel for the answer to the question above. 


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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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