A View from Atlas Park: The Ante Ups in 2007

The next twelve months is going to be very interesting for the MMOG genre. According to this list on MMORPG.com, there are 23 MMOGs scheduled to launch in 2007, assuming I can count properly. Now, some won’t make launch this year while some new titles may even pop up before the year’s end. WoW’s Burning Crusade (or any other expansions, for that matter) aren’t counted in that list either. Also, some of those MMOGs are pretty minor while others are AAA titles. Regardless of those things, that’s a lot of MMOGs.

Which means that CoH/V will be up against a lot of new sources of competition this year. Some of it will come from niche sources, such as NCsoft’s own casual friendly Dungeon Runners or MMORTS Ballerium. Other launches pose a stiffer challenge, such as WoW’s Burning Crusade expansion (which may siphon off players who want to see the new content) or Conan or Warhammer Online (aka WAR). As stated in Warcry’s Editor’s Choice Awards, 2006 wasn’t a great year for new MMOG launches, with several arriving stillborn (eg Auto Assault) and some completely missing their market and underperforming (eg D&DO: Stormreach). The upcoming 12 months certainly holds a lot more new material than the previous 12… and I’m not even going to mention the fantastic line-up of AAA single-player titles that are due out this year that further promise to attract the eyes of gamers.

New MMOGs are the biggest threat to CoH/V simply due to the fact that they are new. The entire computer game industry is based around the Next Big Thing, with the vast majority of games only given a cursory glance post release. Take a look at any major gaming site and I estimate you’ll find at least 60% of its content revolves around games not released or just on the cusp of release. Once released to the public, a game might get one review before disappearing into the annals of history. MMOGs fair slightly better, since new content is (or should) be being released all the time, so MMOGs get to hype some Next Big Thing every few months that brings their name back into the spotlight to some extent. However, completely new trumps slightly new, so even if CoH/V releases all three issues that have been promised for 2007, it is going to have to fight for attention alongside the launch of WAR and Conan (at least).

That said CoH/V remains in somewhat of a unique position in the market. It remains the only superhero MMOG and is rare in that it is a MMOG set in a modern world – the vast, vast majority (vast!) of MMOGs are set in fantasy worlds. The majority of launches proposed this year don’t really challenge for this setting, preferring future sci-fi as an alternative setting if they don’t do fantasy. MMOG players sick of fantasy and perhaps not wanting to pilot a spaceship are stuck for choices if they wish to remain in a MMOG, with CoH/V as one of their few alternatives.

(I’m not saying that people will play CoH/V purely because it isn’t fantasy or future sci-fi – that would be damning the game with faint praise – only that it stands out on the surface for not falling into the MMOG genre standard settings.)

As I also said above, CoH/V has been promised three issues across 2007 – a promise made by both Positron and Statesman. Now, I don’t use the word “promise” lightly, but if Cryptic doesn’t think they can get three issues out in 2007, they should flap their lips and say so. Better to say two and deliver three than the other way around. They said three, so I’ll expect three, pending any major problems that may occur. Again, if there are problems (and there may be) Cryptic will be better off telling the community sooner rather than later about them and revising that number down to two (or one, if worst comes to worst).

Issue 9 is next up, containing the Inventions system at the very least. Inventions promises to allow further improvement of your hero / villain through some sort of crafting mechanism and it has the forums positively terrified in anticipation. I say “terrified” because a lot of people expect the worst – phat lewt, bullying for key salvage, powergamers streaking ahead due to increased salvage collection, the big SGs / VGs getting even more powerful, rampant game imbalanced followed by massive nerfs… you know, the lot. I will be writing something on Inventions in the future, but right now I don’t feel I know enough to really comment. Too much of the current commentary on Inventions relies on “what ifs” and worse case scenarios and it may be completely unwarranted.

That said, I certain look forward to Inventions with some trepidation and hope that Positron et al have really put a lot of thought into how this massive new system is going to hit the playerbase. (Hell, I’d say that they should identify the top CoH/V players, fly them to Cryptic HQ, sequester them into a room for a weekend and get them to break Inventions as much as possible. Better that it gets broken by a limited number of people than by the masses when it hits Test!)

Past I9 and whatever else that may contain, we don’t have as much information. Things have been mentioned in the past – things like at least one new powerset for each Archetype, new Epic Archetypes, new villain groups, new zones, etc – but arguably it is hard to take those things too seriously since too much time has passed since the original announcements were made. That three issues will ship in 2007 is a big call for the devs to make, but that’s what they’ve said. What they’ve always been less clear on is exactly what is shipping in an issue or two in the future (although Inventions is a bit of an exception to this rule). That way some things can slip and some things can be brought forward.

To make a wild guess of it, I9 will have Inventions (duh!), some further power buffs and nerfs to try to forstall any Invention issues and maybe an extra or revamped zone – pretty much every previous issue comes out with a new zone to go exploring in within CoH/V. The “new” zone is probably going to be Boomtown. I10, which will ship around the time the paid expansion was going to, will have new powersets, some new Epic ATs and probably open up some co-op zones for heroes and villains – the Hamidon can look forward to being stomped on by both sides at that point. I11 will conclude the story arc started in I8, so it will be off to the moon for both heroes and villains to fight the Rikti and the “surprise” return of the 5th Column who are not happy that they’ve left on the shelf for so long.

There might be a new villain group or two and other things I can’t see, but that’s how I see the future of CoH/V panning out this year. I stand by my expectations to see I9 in late February / March, I10 in late June / July and I11 in late October / November. If Cryptic wants to get three issues out and give them enough time to filter out on the live servers, they are going to have to come very close to these periods. I can’t see them wanting to launch a new issue around Christmas, so that last issue will have to be out around mid-November (unless there will be no Winter event for 2007, in which case late-November would do).

Now, despite three new issues in the works, CoH/V is generally going to feel the hurt in 2007. I expect that player numbers will drop from about 170 000 as per last announcement to about 160 000 by year’s end. Worse than that, the CoH/V world is going to feel a lot more empty as players keep up their accounts but spend a few months in the new MMOG worlds that will be available to them. Unless something new happens that really makes CoH/V stand out – and I don’t think Inventions is going to cut it – then this game is sadly passing the point at which it is going to fall out of the consideration set of a lot of players. Old, established players have shown a remarkable tendency to stay loyal to CoH/V – bugs, crashes and nerfs generally aside – but I can’t see much player growth in CoH/V’s future unless a different marketing tactic is taken (ie not relying on MMOG players who read MMOG websites to join CoH/V and maybe going further afield).

But that’s enough waffle from me for now. As I said up front, 2007 is going to be a big year for MMOGs and a big year for CoH/V. I can’t wait to see how things are going to turn out by this time next year.

[i]- UnSub [@UnknownSubject] unsub@warcry.com 19 January 2006[i]

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