Editorial: The New Reality of MMOs


Today we present an exclusive editorial that looks at the MMO industry since the launches of World of Warcraft and Guild Wars in 2005. These two games changed the industry, both in the way people design them and what players are willing to pay for them.

Editorial: The New Reality of MMOs
Article by Dana Massey

It’s been over two years since Guild Wars and World of Warcraft redefined how gamers and developers see MMORPGs. Only one AAA subscription based MMORPG has launched and been both a critical and moderate commercial success and that one – City of Villains – is more accurately an upgraded new theme on an existing project. Guild Wars and World of Warcraft redefined the genre, what players willing to pay for and how they’re willing to pay for it.

We’ve seen dozens of MMOs imported from Asia with varying degrees of success. We’ve seen some colossal commercial disasters (Auto Assault) and some generally unfinished games (Vanguard). World of Warcraft hit the genre hard and at first bit into the profit margins of established games like Dark Age of Camelot, but while those games have recovered and continue to do good business, no one has come even remotely close to the worldwide phenomenon or, for that matter, even close to the previous king of the hill EverQuest.

The only major AAA commercial release on the MMO scene since World of Warcraft was Vanguard: Saga of Heroes from Sigil and SOE. The team made a game that traced its lineage beyond WoW to the days of EverQuest. It is a hardcore game for hardcore MMO players and Sony got a jolt when it launched to poor sales.

When original publisher Microsoft split ways with Sigil prior to launch that was probably a fair sign that things were not going so well. By all reviews, the game came out unfinished and entirely too hardcore. Sigil President Jeff Butler admitted at GDC that the game was simply too hard and that many players did not seem to enjoy the slow leveling curve, lack of instant travel and other more traditional elements.

What is to blame for that? World of Warcraft of course. That game changed what developers can and cannot do in a successful mass-market, AAA MMORPG. Vanguard ignored them and tried to make a game that reacted to and positioned itself squarely against WoW. They failed. The market likes WoW right now and even two and a half years after the fact, no one can even fathom the lead that they have built.

World of Warcraft is at its heart an easy game. That’s not a bad thing, far from it. It’s a sensation, it’s breaking records and it’s damn fun, but it’s not really that hard. It did make the steps of an MMO easy to follow, easy to enjoy and shrunk the curve to something manageable. It did a wealth of other things right that made it what it is, but along the way, the core ease at which players can get somewhere in it has redefined what players will accept in terms of torture from an MMO.

WoW also redefined polish. Scott Hartsman, the Executive Producer of EverQuest II, told us at GDC about polish and how it had become the cornerstone of everything they do. Some may remember that EQII launched along side WoW and while it is by no means a critical or commercial failure, it is not even in the same league as Blizzard’s game. One reason? Polish. MMOs had long been releasing as half-finished games. Blizzard put out a complete product. That means now companies cannot pull that old stunt. It’s a new reality for developers and the extra polish required not just to thrive, but to survive, now means that there are extra millions and extra months involved in finishing an MMO that hopes to compete on a high level.

World of Warcraft reshaped the MMO genre, but it was Guild Wars that redefined the MMO business. Guild Wars is a retail game from NCSoft that is essentially an MMO – some will argue that point – but definitely at least an online RPG. The content is highly instanced, personalized and relies on PvP arena battles and other forms of cyclical content. The game is undeniably fun and most importantly, polished. That lets it survive in the MMO market, but when ArenaNet and NCSoft put it out sans monthly fees, they made it a hit.

The result is that now players have also redefined for what they’ll pay a monthly fee. I theorize that NCSoft’s Auto Assault and Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online owe their relative commercial anonymity to Guild Wars. Both are highly instanced, highly personalized online RPGs, as was in vogue during this period in MMO development, but unlike Guild Wars, both embraced the traditional retail box and subscription fee model. Players, already with a taste of free, saw these games and their comparable scope to Guild Wars and balked at both the fee and the box. The result? Auto Assault was an unmitigated disaster for NCSoft and Turbine did not come close to expectations with a game on an IP as huge as Dungeons and Dragons.

Admittedly, that’s a large leap of faith to make and both did have problems beyond simple instancing. Both employed foreign worlds – Auto Assault was set in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max style world and DDO chose the new continent of Eberron upon which to build their game – and both were quite honestly less well reviewed than Guild Wars. Compared to the quality of Guild Wars and WoW, they came up short. But neither are without charm either and both had some level of polish. The sheer scale of Auto Assault’s failure indicates a broader reason and pricing is that reason.

No one has found that magical recipe for success in a new era of MMOs, but quite a few are taking a good shot at it. Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online comes out later this month. Its style is clearly inspired by World of Warcraft and they definitely learned the polish lesson. It is also deep enough to justify the cost and carries the best IP a fantasy MMO can have. If anyone can stand up and put up some good numbers in the new reality, they’re the ticket.

Beyond them, Age of Conan from Funcom will try the MMO formula for a mature and action-oriented audience, while Warhammer Online from EA Mythic attempts to combine some elements of traditional gameplay with an innovative Realm vs. Realm design and the marketing muscle of Electronic Arts. Each can take a chunk out of World of Warcraft in their own way, but it remains to be seen if any of them can actually compete with it.

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