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The Free Zone: Is the Global MMOG Market a Myth?

By Richard Aihoshi on May 24, 2010 | Columns | Comments

Is the Global MMOG Market a Myth?

The talk of a global market started well back in the day.  It's probably impossible to pinpoint an exact date, or maybe even a year.  However, by around 1996, and even more so after Ultima Online launched successfully in 1997 - it quickly cracked the 100,000 subscriber plateau - it wasn't uncommon at all to see predictions about MMOGs reaching around the world and bringing gamers together from anywhere they could connect online.  And most of these said it would happen relatively quickly. 

The latter part wasn't very likely, largely due to the length of time required for development.  While there were a few anomalies such as Dark Age of Camelot, which took about two years, three to four was certainly more typical.  One reason was that for most intents and purposes, the concept of a less than fully featured MMOG didn't yet exist, perhaps because the entire category was still a niche.  So, virtually every project was big.

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Globalization hasn't happened, at least not nearly as rapidly or to anywhere like the extent that was often envisioned during the early rush of (over-)enthusiasm.  In retrospect, such expectations were pretty unrealistic since they didn't adequately factor in a number of significant real-world considerations.  For example, there was an unspoken assumption that everyone would automatically want to play the kinds of games that were being made here in the west.  That was presumptuous, perhaps even arrogant, and it has obviously proven to be inaccurate. 

As far as I know, no one in this hemisphere, myself included, fully foresaw how the MMOG market and industry would mushroom in places like Korea and China.  This led to the creation of numerous titles with themes familiar to users in those countries, and designed to fit the play style preferences that emerged in them.  Another major factor that few if any anticipated was the extent to which some governments would erect barriers to entry.  Distribution, especially finding a capable regional operating partner, has also shown it can be a key issue.

Despite these and other hurdles, we have seen some movement toward a global MMOG market during the past decade, although we still fall far short of the scenario that was repeatedly put forward.  International gamers simply haven't adopted western titles en masse.  Aside from the success of WoW, how many others have made any real impact in the Far East? 

On the other hand, it's not difficult to present the case that the majority of said movement has been in the opposite direction; i.e. into North America and Europe.  To be fair, if we ask the same question in reverse and attempt to list notable eastern imports, we may not come up with a huge number.  Instead, what we do see is quite a few that are popular enough to stick around, which leads to the presumption that most are profitable to some degree.

But it's not just games that have come our way from Asia - while it's arguable where free to play actually originated, it certainly took off there first.  The same thing can be said of other entire sectors of the industry including advanced casual and casual. 

The big question, of course, is how much more globalization we can reasonably expect to see, and in what time frame.  In the short term, say the next couple of years, my best guess is that the trends driving our market won't change dramatically.  Since we already have hundreds of games available, we may see some slowdown in the rate of new imports arriving.  However, with our market still expanding at a respectable rate, just not one comparable to the leader in this respect, China, I can't see the inflow stopping.

How about in the other direction?  Will western games markedly improve their collective penetration into the Far East?  Again, I have my doubts we'll see anything significant.  There are still major barriers to both entry and success, and while they may be eroding, they won't magically come tumbling down any time soon.  As well, the major western publishers are still struggling to figure out how to address F2P at home; doing so on the other side of the world is obviously a step or two beyond that. 

So, the global MMOG market isn't completely mythical, but I strongly doubt it will become a reality within the foreseeable future.

This week's MMOG trivia

Before it was adapted for and launched in the west, Runes of Magic used another name in some Asian markets.  What was it? 

Answer

The Free Zone The Free Zone Editorials
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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