Every year, the message boards read the same way. “[Insert new year here] will be better than [insert previous year here]!” As 2005 closed, I read the threads, blogs and even articles that proclaimed it. Now, as 2006 is behind us and has blatantly fallen short of even the most negative expectations, we do it again.

Last year will be forgotten as the year that brought us Dark and Light, ArchLord, Auto Assault to headline a list of MMOs that seem poised to chase the dodo birds off into the footnotes of history.

It wasn’t just MMOs either. Looking at every major site’s games of the year shows me that despite the flash and pizzazz of the new console wars, it really wasn’t a banner year. When Gears of War takes home every major prize, you know that even the current console leaders at Microsoft have some work to do.

So what did the MMO genre do this year? Well, it may have launched in 2004, but let’s face it, this was once again the year of World of WarCraft. They’re big, they’re huge and they’re on South Park. Blizzard is so far a head of the competition in popularity it is almost unfair to compare WoW to any of the other MMOGs.

Despite the overwhelming mediocrity of the products, 2006 also saw more MMOs hit the market than any other year on record (with the possible rivalry of the last MMOG bubble in 2003). Of them all, only two of them could be called a hit among Western audiences: Guild Wars Factions and Guild Wars Nightfall. That’s not exactly what I call a variety of choice.

It can also be remembered as the year of the Asian import. Companies like Acclaim, Codemasters, NetGame, IGG.com and so many others have tried to take popular Eastern games or concepts, and bring them to Western audiences. Given the results, I’d say no one’s gotten it right yet. Of the roughly 28 new MMOs last year, 18 appear to be Asian imports. They’re quick and cheap to get to market and many may well be doing more than well enough to support their minimal localization teams. Yet, with the exception perhaps of Silkroad Online, none seem to have made much headway.

Rewind one year and people everywhere were waiting for big things from the genre that had disappointed them so in 2005 when the original Guild Wars and City of Villains were the only games of note. Everyone just knew that Codemasters would perfect the Asian import with RF Online and ArchLord, how could Turbine’s license to print money (Dungeons and Dragons Online) disappoint and people were certain they’d be playing Gods and Heroes, Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Vanguard and Pirates of the Burning Sea. Well, Codemasters disappointed, Turbine apparently didn’t have a license to print money and the rest of those games slipped to 2007.

Now with this two year run of mediocrity firmly in mind, time to look forward to what 2007 may offer.

Surely, the postponed sisters mentioned above will make it out this year, right? Well, I’m willing to bet at least one slips to 2008 or is unfortunately canceled. I will say, Vanguard and Lord of the Rings Online will definitely launch, but what will they offer? The hype is out of control and both seem poised to take the market by storm, but so was Dungeons and Dragons Online. We’ll see when they hit store shelves.

What about those other games we might see? Warhammer Online seems like a runaway freight train for EA Mythic. They have the money, they have the reach and they definitely have the following. Can this game actually topple the giant? It’s impossible to say, but according to the developers we’ll find out in time for Christmas. I don’t like betting against Mythic, but given no MMO has ever launched when it was supposed to, I’m going to guess we’ll know for Valentine’s Day ’08.

I’m sure there will be another wave of Asian imports, the growth of the genre in general, a list of games cancelled before they ever saw the light of day, some active games close their doors followed by petitions from their jilted communities and – I have no doubt – a small army of games that make you scratch your head can ask how they got out the door while [insert rose-colored recollection of cancelled MMOG here] didn’t!

We’ll also see the continued expansion of ideas in distribution and payment as new models rise and fall. This is an industry still finding its way and I am guessing we have a lot of flailing around left to do as consumer habits and even laws evolve.

So next year, when I sit down to rant, how will I remember 2007? Well, it’s time to fall prey to the syndrome I warned against in the opening paragraphs. The new year is looking up. There are so many high profile releases in the early quarters that I cannot help but believe that a few will make it onto shelves and maybe, if we’re all lucky, a few of them will be good games. Until then, if like so many others you’ve spent the last two years playing WoW, you should likely keep that subscription active.

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