Many gamers think of multiplayer online persistent worlds as part of a relatively young genre that evolved in the late '90s from the success of EverQuest, Ultima Online or even 3DO's Meridian 59. In fact, the genre itself is one of gaming's oldest, predating real-time strategy, first-person shooters and even the Reagan Administration. A full decade before there was Doom, or Commander Keen for that matter, there was MUD, the game that launched and named the genre that would eventually be called MMOGs.
1978's MUD is as much like a modern MMOG as Pong is like the latest version of Madden, a rudimentary hint of the possibilities that would only be realized decades later, but it was the virtual trilobite from which would evolve the modern beasts we know and love.
While there were attempts to bring the genre that MUD built to mainstream gaming throughout the '80s and '90s, the limits of early online services put most attempts beyond the technical and financial reach of the average consumer. Consider, oh ye who complain about a $10 or $15 monthly fee, that 1984's Islands of Kesmai cost players $12 an hour to play over Compuserve.
Eventually, costs declined, homes with reliable internet connections increased and 1997 gave inevitable birth to Ultima Online. The rest is widely-known history that completes a decades-old line culminating in World of Warcraft, a game that has dominated a genre like no other PC game before it, a game so overwhelmingly popular that virtually no new title seems capable against its might, and existing games are depressed in its shadow.
As the highly anticipated World of Warcraft expansion, The Burning Crusade, is even now lovingly pressed onto glorious discs that will deliver whole new realms of exploration to the game's legions of fans, the future for the genre itself has never seemed more lopsided and limited. What was a wide open field of limitless possibility for companies interested in exploring subscriber based gaming as few as five years ago, has become an environment where even cash-rich companies with dependable IP are completely unwilling to challenge the 800-pound gorilla.
And the few studios willing to take a chance can barely scrape together any meaningful attention in a market that seems to know only of struggles between Horde and Alliance. Outside of Asia, which seems at times to be on an entirely different spiral arm of the galaxy, World of Warcraft has laid claim to more than half of the now 13,000,000 subscribers to major persistent world games. Put another way, if you added up all the subscribers of Ultima Online, both EverQuests, City of Heroes, both Lineages, Star Wars Galaxies and virtually all other MMOGs combined and populated a single game with them, that game would still have fewer subscribers than World of Warcraft.
In fact, the number of people playing MMOGs that aren't World of Warcraft has, as a whole, dropped since fall of 2004, with every major player in the North American and European markets losing population over the given timeframe. Only cult hits like Runescape and EVE Online show any ability to grow a population.
In the face of that kind of market domination, it's not hard to understand why competitors to the throne get so very little attention. Not even an MMOG based on the monumentally popular Lord of the Rings franchise, developed by veteran Turbine Entertainment, can seem to gain any hardcore gamer traction, much less mainstream attention, despite the advantages of a franchise that has enjoyed stratospheric success in other media.
It seems to be left to the men behind EverQuest, Sigil Games' Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler, and the forthcoming Vanguard: Saga of Heroes to make some kind of headway into the locked down genre. Even as their original brainchild continues to hold together a community of a few hundred thousand, a once stellar accomplishment for the genre, Sigil is putting the finishing touches on Vanguard. Last week Sigil unleashed Vanguard into public beta to mixed reactions.
There are, of course, the standard shortsighted beta complaints regarding game performance and server crashes, and one hopes Sigil learns the launch lessons of games like Anarchy Online, but behind those predictable troubles exists a conflict of gaming philosophy. Within Vanguard, I found a world that wanted to be different but kept feeling the need to conform to the standards set by World of Warcraft. The game seems at odds with itself, trapped by an original pre-WoW mandate of appealing to a core audience that "has been ignored - even alienated," while now having to appeal to the broader player base that has been uncovered since 2004.
The game tries to bring some fresh ideas to the table, particularly with its clever parlay, diplomacy and crafting systems, but is compared in the media at every turn to Blizzard's masterpiece, present company included. One begins to wonder if this or any game has a reasonable opportunity to make its own mark on the world draped in the darkness of such a large shadow. Has World of Warcraft, in its unparalleled success, killed a genre? Is it even fair to lay such responsibility at a single game's feet?
The answer to both questions is probably no. Eventually, it will all die down, and Blizzard will finally see a plateau in subscribers, and finally the inevitable decline will come. Eventually, as they always do, people will begin to search for something new, and many of those that found the WoW gateway drug will become broader citizens of the genre. But, in the meantime, as World of Warcraft tramples onward, it's equally hard to imagine that a Conan, a Lord of the Rings and even a Vanguard will be fighting for anything more than a slice of the small pie parceled out to that other half of the genre.
Azeroth will barely even notice.