It’s been a busy year for MMOs. It’s a genre almost totally dominated by one title, World Of Warcraft, which continues to go from strength to strength. But the success of WOW also makes the genre a tempting proposition for other developers - succeed with an MMO and the potential profits are not only mind-boggling but also seemingly endless.
The two major releases of the year were Age Of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and Warhammer Online: Age Of Reckoning. The perception seems to be that both were essentially failures, with attractive-looking initial sales, followed by a near-inevitable falling away of subscriber numbers. It seems that there is a definite appetite for a potential wow-beater, but after the initial launch it seems that people just drift back towards WOW. I’m not sure that sales of near a million for both titles constitutes a failure, but the fact is that the games just couldn’t get players to stick with them.
Age Of Conan in particular was a valiant attempt at a more adult-themed MMO. The presence of grisly ‘fatalities’, scantily-clad females, and the air of brutality that surrounded the Conan universe really gave the game a fresh appeal. Shit-brown-themed badly-designed zones made pathfinding virtually impossible at times, but the landscapes themselves are probably among the most beautiful ever presented in a game. But you just cannot make excuses for a game that is launched essentially broken - PVP simply didn’t work, and the content simply fell away at higher levels. Given a year or so, Conan could be a WOW-beater, but the future looks fairly bleak after the initial lead designer fell out with Funcom, and the game looks set for a grisly demise. Such a shame.
Warhammer Online, in comparison, simply tried to compete with WOW on its own turf, turning out a similar-looking, similar-feeling MMO. One might be forgiven for wondering if you could transfer your characters between the two games. I felt this game was a pretty major misfire - why ever play Warhammer if one could play WOW? Why launch an MMO with so few distinctions from Blizzard’s title - it just comes across as a very cynical attempt, rather than a genuinely creative attempt to move the genre forward. Add to that some terrible problems with zoning - one wanders through a multitude of desolate empty PVP zones on servers that are apparently chock full of players. Criminal, and a really cheap attempt at a WOW clone.
The little bit of time I spent with EVE Online soon cheered me up about the future of MMOs. At their best, incredibly deep and complicated games like EVE seem to be able to thrive without the millions of subscribers in tow - niche MMOs seem to be able to survive on less than a hundred thousand subscribers, and I think this type of achievement is far more appealing, if less lucrative, than the WOW model. EVE is incredibly tough to enter, the tutorial is pretty awful, and the appeal more mystifying than most, but those who inhabit its universe love it dearly and that’s great.
I also looked briefly at Ultima Online this year - 11 years after its 1997 release there is still a small band of subscribers to the game, alongside a good amount of unnoficial retro-shards playing tweaked or vintage versions of the game for free. I don’t actually think MMOs have developed very far since the liked of UO - WOW simply took the best ideas from the series of games that preceded it, and presented them with a polished and easy interface. Indeed, look back at the best MUDs that preceded the first MMOs and they offer an almost unprecedented level of complexity, and many of those are still running.
So while WOW, with its latest expansion, continues to dominate in terms of subscribers and profits, there are many MMOs that can still offer an alternative without having to compete with the market leader. While high-profile failures like Tabula Rasa and Hellgate London make it seem like the MMO is a graveyard, that couldn’t really be further from the truth. I think the lesson this year is to stop trying to chase WOW players - WOW has a 4-year headstart on the competition and will dominate for years to come. Try something different and you could create a new niche - talk of MMO FPS’s seems to be gathering steam, and the console market is surely ripe for an MMO.