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Michael Bitton: 2014: A Big Year for MMOs

Column By Michael Bitton on January 02, 2014

If you checked out our latest List column, it should be pretty obvious that 2014 is going to be a pretty big year for the MMO genre. Aside from the successful relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV, 2013 was an otherwise down year for the MMO. Sure, there was a whole lot of news, but not a lot for MMO fans to sink their teeth into if FFXIV wasn’t their cup of tea.

A couple of years ago, I had a discussion with one of the more accomplished members of our industry and he conveyed to me his feelings that the genre was essentially a dead man walking. In the intervening years since that conversation, I’ve definitely had times where I’ve felt that this may be the case, but I no longer think so. The variety of titles mentioned in this week’s List (and other titles that didn’t make it) perfectly highlight what is really going on: the genre is evolving.

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You’ve got everything from three major AAA MMO releases, two console MMOs, to two independent sandbox MMOs all likely or guaranteed to release sometime this year. That isn’t a sign of a dead or dying genre; it’s a sign of one that is growing in a number of interesting ways. I have no idea how the big three (EQNL, ESO, WS) are going to shake out this year in terms of popularity; it’s an exciting discussion to have, for sure, but what is more fascinating to me is where we are going aside from these more typical MMO releases.

For one, independent MMOs are a real thing now. Whenever an indie MMO developer tosses up a Kickstarter campaign or other means of crowdfunding, those who understand how much money and infrastructure really goes into the development and support of an MMO sometimes balk at the notion, myself included. It just doesn’t sound realistic. However, these projects continue along and new ones appear all the time. Heck, Star Citizen has raised $35 million dollars so far! I don’t know if these projects will ultimately work out, but there are still a host of indie titles on the horizon that may appeal directly to some of the more niche MMO players out there.

Many fans of the genre have been put off by the way AAA MMO releases in recent years tend to play it safe and try to cater to everyone. If the whole indie MMO thing works out, we may have found a possible solution to the issue while simultaneously offering a mechanism to prove out whether some perhaps riskier ideas can appeal to a broader audience. While not exactly an MMO, it wouldn’t be a stretch to attribute the resurgence of the sandbox genre entirely to the success of the independently developed Minecraft, for example. I don’t think we’d see EverQuest Next coming along in the form it is now if not for that trend.

Then there are the console or multiplatform MMOs. SOE has been leading the charge here with DC Universe Online (PS3/PS4), PlanetSide 2 (PS4), and EverQuest Next (PS4), but this newest console generation was also the first to launch with a whole bunch of MMOs (mainly on the PS4) and there are quite a few more coming this year, including the hotly anticipated Destiny from Bungie. While I haven’t been much of a console gamer in many years now, MMOs being available across multiple platforms and not just the PC can both lead to more varied projects (see: The Division) and also help lower the risk associated with the cost of their development. For example, DCUO released on both the PS3 and PC, but the last figures I was given by SOE pegged the population split at 70/30 in the PS3’s favor. Would DCUO still be receiving consistent updates and DLC packs if it had released PC only? I'm unsure.

It also offers us some interesting opportunities for cross-platform play, as we’ve seen with (again) DC Universe Online on the PC, PS3, and now PS4. The team behind The Division is showing some serious initiative with their game in this regard by extending the game’s experience to mobile play on tablets in a way that makes perfect sense for that particular platform. We’ve seen some companion apps, and there are more to come, but being able to actually play and meaningfully impact the game with your friends while on the go and simultaneously layering a new gameplay experience on top of the main game is something to be commended if it works. And the best part is that it’s also only the tip of the iceberg.

We’re entering an exciting new era where we get to ask entirely new questions about what a developer is doing to really take advantage of a more networked and broadened player community. Are you available on multiple platforms? Do you offer cross-platform play? Are you doing anything interesting or innovative to extend the experience outside of the main platform(s)? These are all important questions to ask about MMOs as we go forward and the games coming out in 2014 will lay the groundwork for what looks to be a promising future for the genre.

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB

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