The MMOG Landscape in the 2000s
Can it really be a decade already since we entered the new millennium? There are times when that doesn't seem possible, but when we look at how much the massively multiplayer landscape has grown and changed, it can feel like a tremendous amount has happened, far more than we might expect in only 10 years.
As we entered 2000, the dotcom explosion had already happened. In fact, the dotbomb period had hit. The first phase of the MMOG era had begun less than three years prior with the release of Ultima Online in 1997. EverQuest was a baby, in service for less than a year, and Asheron's Call was a mere newborn, less than a month old. Those were the only three prominent live titles.
Or so we thought. Out of sight to all but the most curious industry observers, Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds had launched in Korea in 1996, followed by Lineage the year after. Little did we know what lay ahead in and from the other side of the world.
Of course, there was plenty more in the pipeline to keep our attention focused in this hemisphere. UO2, Middle Earth Online and the MMORTS Sovereign had all been revealed in 1999. Coincidentally, they would ultimately suffer the same fate, cancellation before going live. 2000 would bring quite a few more high-profile announcements such as Star Wars Galaxies, Final Fantasy Online (also fated to be canceled), Dark Age of Camelot, Anarchy Online and the MMOFPS PlanetSide.
Now the Game Director on Funcom's Age of Conan, Craig Morrison recalls these titles and more as belonging to a different age. As evidence he cites the fact that when he began playing UO and EQ in college, no one else in his circle of friends even owned a modem. Likening the MMO category then to a toddler taking its first steps, and now to a confident, strutting teen, he doesn't hesitate to dole out credit for this progress.
"Many people ask how it feels to have to compete with the industry goliath that is World of Warcraft. The simple truth is that it's damn hard and costs a lot of money and time. What's also true, however, is that its runaway success and acceptance have introduced far, far more people to the genre, the subscription model and online gaming itself than probably would have been possible otherwise. So as a developer of MMOGs, I genuinely thank Blizzard for showing what's possible and demonstrating that the right idea, executed correctly at the right time, does not have to be bound by the perceived limitations of the genre."
Morrison does recognize that WoW didn't appear out of nowhere. "It was the culmination of much design that preceded it," he explains. "It wouldn't exist had the likes of UO, EQ, AC, DAoC and AO not come before. This past decade really has been a 'golden age' for the genre, with great games building many social bonds and even friendships that will last for years. There have been lots of excellent releases and worlds, and we have learned from each and every one."
Now heading up Zenimax Online, Matt Firor was a co-founder of Mythic Entertainment and the Producer on DAoC. Looking back, he agrees that the decade brought many notable developments, and cites examples including seamless world technology, cross-platform play and the increased adoption of broadband. At the same time, he seems more focused on relatively recent trends that are continuing to shape the MMOG space.
One of these is ease of entry. "The fact that MMOGs are becoming as easy to get into as console games has spelled success for the major players in this space. The overall progression of this trait goes back pretty far - when Dark Age of Camelot was released, we were all only focused on EverQuest customers and how we could appeal to their needs while expanding interest into our brand. At that time, the PvP component - Camelot's RvR system - was a great innovation, but we also were able to give people easier access to our product since the bar was still set quite low."
Firor also references WoW, suggesting Blizzard was the first company that didn't fear customers churning through all of a game's content. "The reason is because it gave everyone so much to do that players subscribed for long periods of time - and continue to do so. This was accomplished in many ways, but ease of entry into the product, coupled with low machine specs, significantly expanded what had been perceived as a niche market."