Richard Aihoshi's Free Zone: The State of Sports MMOs
More and more game companies are combining sports with MMOs and most of these games are free-to-play. Richard Aihoshi digs deeper.
There's no question in my mind that sports MMOs have a lot of potential in this hemisphere. How can it not be so? Just consider the degree of interest the population at large has in football, basketball, car racing, etc. The list is far longer, and if that's not enough to sway your opinion, then think about how well sports games sell year after year.
However, it's fair to say the category has yet to be tapped in any truly significant manner. Various titles started to appear a few years ago. Off the top of my head, the first one I recall seeing was a golf game, Shot Online. It's still around, and seems to have a decent following. But I wouldn't describe it as a major hit. The same applies to a few others I can think of; they appear to be reasonably popular, but none has broken through to another level.
To help look into the current state of this sub-genre, I decided to solicit comments from a couple of publishers. OnNet USA offers Shot Online, MLB Dugout Heroes and a number of non-sports releases via its portal site, GamesCampus. Ntreev's entry is Pangya, a fantasy-themed take on golf that first became available here under a different title, Albatross18.
The latter company's Hana Park pointed out that the category's boundaries tend to be rather loosely defined, with titles included because they have persistent character elements even though they may be relatively minor. There's also the matter of a permanent game world, not just instanced stadiums and matches. With only the latter, how well does the "massively" qualification really apply? I expect there will never be universal agreement on the definition of sports MMOs. For what it's worth, I would require persistent character and world elements that are reasonably significant, but that still leaves the largely subjective question of where to set the minimum thresholds.
David Chang of GamesCampus brought up another issue, the lack of market information. When looking at the possibilities for MLB Dugout Heroes, his company had to generalize from the data available for sports games in general. Nonetheless, he sees lots of potential for the category. "It's just a matter of time before the online sports genre really takes off in the west," he states. "All the other necessary elements are there."
He continues by saying his biggest challenge is educating people used to thinking about fantasy sports or manager-style sims. He says many just aren't aware of the fully playable team titles available online that incorporate live action matches and MMO elements such as leveling to provide what he calls "an all-encompassing sports experience".
Park adds that sports gamers may be pre-conditioned to expect what they're used to, which is a generally realistic style of play. She feels "this can be to the detriment of other traits that would give titles more appeal, such as lightheartedness, colorfulness or an arcade-like approach." In her opinion, the focus on accuracy is one of the reasons the sports MMO category is still comparatively small.
Personally, I think there's plenty of room for both types. Releases designed to be more simulation-like may be easier to market in that it's simpler to define target audiences for them. However, there's also a lot to be said for good old fun gameplay, which certainly doesn't need to be authentic. On the other hand, this isn't as simple as the casual vs. hardcore debate. My gut tells me that even liberally interpreted version of sports will always be limited in their reach since many people who don't care about hockey, for example, will never try any kind of game based on it.
Still, Park is optimistic, saying "We'd like to think online sports games can reach the level of success of titles like WoW, eventually." Not surprisingly, she sees a connection with overall visibility, citing the example that although anomalies can arise, a tennis game is likely to be more marketable than a badminton one.
In a related vein, Chang notes that licenses can definitely help, but aren't always necessary. MLB Dugout Heroes has one because creating players' dream teams of past and present stars is a vital element of the concept. However, he does allow that with a different type of baseball offering, it wouldn't be essential.
As expected, his primary reason is sports' broad appeal, which extends well beyond serious gamers. Fortunately, the PC platform has far greater reach than any console, and of course, the free to play business model means prospective users face a rather low barrier to trial, basically nothing more than reasonable hardware and a connection suitable for downloading. That said, I can't help but wonder if a business model incorporating some sort of pay as you play usage-based scheme might be an even better fit.