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More Top News Stories of 2009

Shannon Drake Posted:
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This is part two of my horribly biased take on the most interesting MMO stories of 2009. You can read part one, here.

WoW's New Expansion Announced

The announcement of the Cataclysm expansion is not a sea change or a major industry indicator so much as a sign that it's still good to be the king. In addition to the usual, and expected, new races and new classes, there was the big announcement that the world is getting overhauled--a true cataclysm--to reflect the new reality of the game's lore, though one of the overhauled zone is a sundered Barrens, leading to the terrifying possibility of not one, but TWO Barrens Chats, which should horrify any right thinking person.

At the very least Cataclysm is looking like a gutsy expansion, as well as an interesting game design decision. After all, one of the biggest hurdles to players, new and returning, is playing through zones everyone has already played before (and they probably aren't interested in returning or hanging around). New players don't see anyone around--bad for retention--and old players plow through content they've done three times and are sick of doing and simply want to get out of. And it takes a certain amount of cojones, as well as the position of undisputed market leader, to say "We're remaking the game, including a bunch of the things we've already done." Will it pay off for them? Only time will tell, but it's a rather bold stroke in a very staid industry, and answers one of the biggest complaints of MMO players, that being, "Why do I constantly do all these things and nothing ever changes because of it?"

Free Realms Launches

In the interest of full disclosure, I previously worked for SOE handling PR for the Denver studio (the card games) and the Tucson studio (PoxNora), which, judging from some of the lectures I got, means I'm personally responsible for the NGE though it predated me by several years. I'm also sorry I caused all that cancer. So, just FYI.

Free Realms is interesting, from a business perspective, because it's the first AAA MMO from a major game publisher made entirely for nontraditional audiences with the budget and marketing push of a major title. Obviously targeted at kids and casual gamers, Free Realms was designed from the ground up to be easy to play and to be accessible, on the theory that while hardcore gamers may be perfectly willing to update their drivers, wait for patches, and wrangle a client, more casual players would not. And the cost barrier was lowered, with a free to play with optional subscriptions model in place from the start, and plenty of shiny things to buy if you're so inclined.

"Close to" 5 million people have registered so far--though how many of those are spending money and buying subscriptions is undisclosed, an important caveat--which is a heartening benchmark if you're looking for hope beyond fantasy MMOs. If you don't want to take on World of Warcraft head-on, perhaps it's possible to avoid that fight altogether by doing something different. Then again, it's hard to justify rolling the dice on an unproven genre to the guys that sign the checks, so the decision to try something new is much riskier than trying something proven with a little spin on it.


Warhammer's Endless Trial

From now until the end of time (or until they stop it), you can play Warhammer: Age of Reckoning up to the end of Tier One for as long as you want. While it's only one racial pairing--Empire vs. Chaos--and there are other significant restrictions, it's an interesting take on the classic limited trial idea (since you seldom get very far in 14 days anyway).

On the other hand, there's the not-insignificant consideration that Tier One was the most fun part of Warhammer, at least for me, so the prospect of using it as almost a fantasy FPS and just logging in to play scenarios is tremendously appealing, but I don't see where I get hooked into paying and playing longer, since all I wanted to do was play scenarios anyway.

However, from a pure marketing perspective, it's rather brilliant. As I said previously, the biggest problem with coming into an "older" MMO are the deserted new player areas, and providing a constant stream of new players in scenarios provides plenty of grist for the new, actually paying player to chew on. Will it work, though?

Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes Release Player-Generated Quest Systems

The endless MMO developer dilemma is "How do we cope with the fact that our obsessive-compulsive playerbase will burn through any content we create in way less time than it took to create it, then demand we have more content?" While it's still early, the answer may lie in harnessing those same obsessive urges and allowing players to indulge their game designer fantasies, while getting more content for your game and, here's the fun part, they are actually paying you for the privilege of filling your game with content, which your other players then (presumably) enjoy. It's actually a remarkable twist.

To this end, this year, both City of Heroes (Mission Architect) and Star Wars Galaxies (Chronicle Master) launched in-game systems allowing players to create their own content, allowing an unprecedented level of player control in the game worlds. While there are plenty of considerations for developers pondering giving the keys to the players, this is still the first year that two live games have robust collections of user-generated content within the world and may finally provide the solution to "How do we create a living, breathing world when we can only employ a couple hundred people?" At the very least, it's an exciting development, especially given the additional sales potential behind, say, providing people the tools to create that Star Wars story they've been plotting for years. One day, Leia will be mine, oh yes!


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Shannon Drake