World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft

When people remember 2007 in the MMORPG genre, it will be remembered as much for what didn’t happen as what did and for a game launched years before. Of the four major scheduled 2007 MMO launches, two slipped into 2008. EA Mythic’s Warhammer Online and Funcom’s Age of Conan were delayed, while Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online – which was supposed to launch in 2006 – made its mark and NCsoft’s Tabula Rasa struggled in the tail end of the year.

And so, yet again, the year-in-review looks bleak. It’s been three full years since World of Warcraft redefined the subscription MMO genre, and they were still the biggest story of 2007. Blizzard launched an expansion pack, continued to pile on the subscribers and brought their game into the mainstream of popular culture.

Yet, while World of Warcraft has been celebrated as a major step forward for the genre, the game – for all its done right and all the success it has had – has become an albatross around the neck of the genre.

Since it launched, only two traditional subscription-based MMORPGs launched and found any degree of success: City of Villains and Lord of the Rings Online. The former, a glorified expansion pack to City of Heroes, reinvigorated the game and sold well. The later came into view with a massive intellectual property behind it and while the game undoubtedly found financial success, it likely didn’t make nearly the dent Turbine hoped, as evidenced by the company’s decision to replace CEO Jeff Anderson. Every other truly successful, “mainstream” subscription-based MMO launched before World of Warcraft and of them, only one – EVE Online – appears to have made significant strides forward since.

Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online

WoW casts a huge shadow and no one has been able to get out from under it. The evidence is in the numbers. Before WoW, EverQuest lorded over the genre with an estimated peak in the range of 500,000 subscribers. Star Wars Galaxies was at its most successful still considered a relative disappointment with over 300,000 subscribers. Games like Dark Age of Camelot once hovered well over the 200,000 mark. Then came WoW, now at 9.5 million and counting.

Other developers spouted off about how they wished Blizzard all the success in the world. It was reasoned that as Blizzard blazed new trails, other games would follow and pick up the table scraps. Everyone truly believed World of Warcraft would make the subscription-based MMO pie bigger for everyone. Three years later, the evidence says that is not true.

There is no doubt many of the old guard have suffered. The combination of time and Blizzard make the decline inevitable. For example, Dark Age of Camelot’s numbers have fallen off considerably, as evidenced by their publicly available active user numbers. It is also obvious that a game like Star Wars Galaxies has suffered significantly from its missteps and is no where near its historic high. In fact, I would be shocked to see any pre-WoW AAA MMO with a Western subscriber level above 225,000.

Guild Wars

Guild Wars

While the decline of older games may be inevitable, the real concern is that no one has come forward to replace them. EverQuest II launched simultaneously with WoW and likely sits in the upper tier of “other” subscriber MMOs, but it never reached the same heights as the original EverQuest. City of Villains, as mentioned, likely prolonged the life of City of Heroes, but according to NCsoft financials, only had 139,313 subscribers as of September of this year. Lord of the Rings Online has only 13 servers [Editor’s Note: That number is for North American only, as Codemasters administrates additional servers in Europe] (by comparison, CoH/V has 15), which translates into a minimum of 150,000 subscribers and a generous maximum of 400,000. Even at the high end, that doesn’t match EverQuest in its prime. And Tabula Rasa? It has only four active North American and European servers, no doubt a huge disappointment for NCsoft.

The really scary thing for MMO investors and developers is the basic fact that Lord of the Rings Online was actually a very good game. It did everything everyone said they needed to do in a post-WoW era. It’s polished, it’s fun, it launched smoothly and it has a monster mainstream IP behind it. Yet, despite these things, and the supposedly expanded marketplace, LotRO has failed to capture even as many eyeballs as the original EverQuest did.

All the evidence suggests that World of Warcraft is not the harbinger of an expanded marketplace, but an aberration, a lightning strike at the right moment. Among Western audiences – as it was among Eastern audiences years ago – the subscription based MMORPG is at best on life support and more than likely on its way out the door.

The one-two punch of WoW and Guild Wars in 2004 has delivered a significant blow to the prospects of any company that has the audacity to charge their subscribers a monthly fee. Guild Wars showed that a high quality experience can be free and WoW redefined what people expect for that $14.95 a month.

Warhammer Online

Warhammer Online

Still, the big Western companies refuse to admit defeat. Undaunted, two major AAA traditional subscription-based MMORPGs are headed to stores: EA Mythic’s Warhammer Online, and Eidos and Funcom’s Age of Conan.

EA Mythic’s Warhammer Online will rely on their experience with Dark Age of Camelot, the backing of EA and another monster IP to break through. At AGDC, EA Mythic General Manager Mark Jacobs said he wants WAR to be the second largest subscription MMO available, behind WoW. Yet, in late 2007, the game had to be delayed to address many of the problems from the Beta. It should make for a more polished product, but that is really only a silver lining to the grey cloud of delay.

EA Mythic’s position is not altogether unlike the spot where Turbine stood a year ago. They had a big backer in Midway, loads of experience with Asheron’s Call and Dungeons and Dragons Online, and an even bigger IP to back them. I have no doubt that WAR will be a profitable game, with lots of units sold and a healthy number of subscribers, but will it reach the goals EA Mythic had for it and will it justify the millions of dollars they have pumped into it?

Funcom’s position is also eerily similar to that of EA Mythic and Turbine. This time Eidos is the big publisher, Robert E. Howard’s Conan novels the IP and Anarchy Online the experience.

In all three situations, the IP is likely more popular and accepted in Europe than North America, a detail that complicates things in terms of language, but also represents a major opportunity. Funcom’s offering of Conan is likely to be the least like WoW of the three, which also represents a major hurdle or opportunity, depending who you ask. As an added bonus, though, Funcom has plans to follow the PC launch six months later with an Xbox 360 edition. They’ve designed Age of Conan to be compatible with the popular console and this could be their salvation. Like the others, moderate success seems quite likely, but nowhere near the precedent Blizzard set.

Age of Conan

Age of Conan

The other possibility though is it’s not the fault of the business model, but rather of the game designers. At the dawn of the big graphical MMO wars, there were two competing schools of thought: sandboxes and directed experiences. Ultima Online represented the sandbox, while EverQuest represented the directed experience. Up until WoW, that battle was healthy, if slanted towards directed experience games. WoW changed that. Every major MMORPG to launch since has been firmly on the side of a directed experience, even Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the exception to most these observations and numbers is EVE Online, the current standard bearer of the virtual world/sandbox genre.

Depressed yet? Don’t be. The evidence says the subscription model is in trouble, but the fact remains that more people play MMOs today than ever have and they spend more money in the process.

While game after game hits the market and buckles under the subscription model, the Eastern revolution quietly extends to North American shores. Completely unheralded English-language versions of MMOs like Acclaim’s 2Moons, IGG’s Tales of Pirates, Nexon’s MapleStory and countless others have quietly carved out much larger playerbases than the majority of big studio MMOs North America has put forward. There is also the browser-based Runescape, which combines the Eastern and Western models with amazing success, as well as a whole litany of MMOs aimed at young people like Club Penguin. This, no doubt, scares the hell out of big companies with an old-fashion MMO in the pipeline, but proves the appetite for big, online worlds is alive and well, even if the desire to pay a bill each month is not.

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