Looking Ahead at 2011
A week ago, I offered up some thoughts on the year recently ended, stating my overall feeling that it was relatively uneventful. This doesn't mean I think the MMOG space completely stagnated, just that the main new releases, trends, news stories et al didn't dominate 2010 or stand out as much as they often have in the past.
As we enter 2011, there are things happening, various forces at work that are shaping and shifting the market and the industry. So, it seems appropriate to complement my previous column by commenting on a couple of the questions and issues that are in my mind at this time.
Is the pendulum swinging back toward subscription?
Some observers clearly think so. They invariably cite the fact that among the titles we will and may see launched this year, most of the handful with the greatest visibility and the highest levels of anticipation will charge monthly fees. On the surface, this seems reasonable enough, especially since it's so in Korea, which tends to be stereotyped as a free to play market. However, I can't help but wonder if this position is being over-stated by people who hope it will happen.
My main reason is because I see little or nothing else presented to support it. For one thing, while it's definitely a generalization, subscription MMOGs always tend to get more media exposure and thus to build up more hype. So, this factor isn't anything new. Note that I'm not suggesting it should be discounted completely. What I am saying is that it's a matter of assessing the weight of this single consideration and how much it may affect the overall balance of the entire category.
Another major consideration is that when I look beyond the North American and western European regions, I don't sense nearly the same levels of anticipation for titles such as SWTOR, GW2, DCUO and Rift. All of these are high on the horizon here; they were all candidates in this site's recent "Most Anticipated" reader poll. So was Tera, which would have been on any similar list for Korea. However, I don't know that any of the other four would have ranked in the top five. And in China, the world's largest and fastest growing market it's possible none would have made the cut.
So it's clear, I feel some new subscription titles could well have significant impact in 2011. Indeed, I hope so; I'm always keen to see new games worth playing no matter what business model they use. That said, I'm not prepared to anticipate that any or all of them will produce a major shift in the global MMOG space.
What affect will social gaming have?
It's popular in some circles to disparage the social sectors. The most common reason put forth is that they somehow don't belong in the category, and thus don't warrant consideration. This is a matter of perspective. Mine happens to be wide, not just geographically, but also in terms of the breadth of my interests. That said, it doesn't matter much whether I consider social MMOGs to be "real" or not. I don't even have a strong opinion. What I do see as a major current issue is how they are affecting and will influence the industry.
There's no doubt in my mind that social gaming will significantly impact the entire MMOG space. The questions are really how much and how soon. One of the Internet's great benefits is that it serves as a channel for making new online friends, people we will probably never meet face to face. But it's also highly enjoyable - arguably more so - to find further ways to interact with those we already know.
The rapid rise of social gaming has made it very evident that there was an unfulfilled need out there, one we may not even have recognized existed. We felt content playing, questing and raiding with those in our respective, fairly small circles of friends and guild mates. So what more could we possibly want?
To varying degrees, one thing is more ways to interact with more people. In a broad sense, that's the core of what social gaming is about. It's really not important whether something like Mafia Wars is a true MMOG. (Btw, the same can also be said of casual titles and quasi-MMOGs such as online poker.) What is critical in my mind, is how they will help shape the future of the category, up to and including the very hardcore segment.
In this regard, I'm not going to predict anything specific. In general, however, I believe we are already seeing a shift where social elements are becoming more important, and thus receiving more attention. It's hard to believe this won't continue. I'm eager to see the directions and implementations people more creative than I will come up with in 2011 and beyond.