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The Rise and Fall of MMOs in 2008

January 9, 2009

The Rise and Fall of MMOs in 2008
By Michael Lafferty

Did new releases advance the genre or cause it to stumble?

The popular thought is that the massively multiplayer online genre (or MMOs) is a video-game class that is still in its infancy. While that certainly may be true, it could also be argued that developers have gotten to a stage where they seriously underestimate the capabilities and desires of those who play MMOs, and as such – unless dev teams really step up to the plate – the whole MMO genre may experience a serious stumble in the coming years.

What leads to that conclusion? Well, three new triple-A games were released in 2008 (not thinking about the expansions to existing franchises – which did fare well), and all three were greeted with open arms and now have serious fallout in terms of declining subscription numbers … check that – two have serious declining numbers; the third, Tabula Rasa, is already slated to close in February of 2009. (Hellgate: London, which opened in October of 2007 – and featured both solo and multiplayer elements – has announced it will close its online servers at the end of January.)

In the meantime, titles that have been out for a couple of years – World of Warcraft, EverQuest II and EVE Online, are all still plugging along nice, releasing expansions that have drawn favorable reviews. You can lump in another 2007 release, Lord of the Rings Online, that is drawing acclaim for its latest Moria expansion.

But in the ever burgeoning genre that is the MMO branch of the video-game tree what developers are failing to realize is that the very players that have cut their teeth on MMOs in the past, and have been educated by them in the basic elements, now demand solid products that advance the genre. Seemingly gone are the days when a game could ship out, have a poor and buggy release and then patch like mad to catch up – all while players are finding exploits, cheats and forcing developers to evolve the game ahead of schedule. It’s been said before in previous articles – the player base for MMOs has much more experience in the genre than those creating the games and if there is an exploit built into the code, they will find it and quickly.

WoW's Rise of the Lich King was one of the top draws in the MMO space in 2008

This past year was clearly the year of the expansion for the genre. WoW’s Wrath of the Lich King lived up to expectations in many regards, Moria provided intriguing new content to LotRO and EverQuest II released The Shadow Odyssey in mid-November, and EVE’s latest version is called Quantum Rise (with the next expansion scheduled for March).

It is unfortunate when games stumble. While it drives the player base back to established titles, with the current economy, and the fact that these are subscription based, a major flub can hamper the genre as a whole and cause players to simply drift away. It can be argued that there is more entertainment value in playing MMOs. After all, you plunk down $15 a month (for the upper end games) and are treated to a month of endless adventure, socializing and entertainment. You can blow through much more than that in a two-hour seating at a movie theater.

In 2008, more casual MMOs cropped up as well, with a free-to-play format that included micro-transactions, titles like Trickster Online (which is cute and has charm). Basically the idea was to lure in players with free-to-play titles, then have stores within the games that sold items that allowed players to buff up their characters much better than if they played the base game. A title like Wizard 101 allowed players into the game, but cordoned off areas of the game, where quests would eventually lead, until players had upgraded their free subscriptions to a minor pay-per-month version. Other games, like Gladius and Ikarium, took casual gaming to a level in which you might visit your account once a day, start it on the path of building and then come back to reap the rewards of your labors.

It is simple to state that 2009 may see more in the way of the casual MMO market, with only a few triple-A titles on the horizon. A few titles that have been in development for a long, long time (Darkfall and The Chronicles of Spellborn) might actually see the light of day. Aion (from NCsoft’s Korean studio) shows some promise, but is still being worked on to prepare for launch in North America and that means reducing the grind often associated with Asian-developed games. DC Universe Online could well be the killer title, but no solid release date has been set for that and it may well not release until 2010. Stargate Worlds might give the sci-fi MMO genre a facelift and may well release in 2009. Also in the hopper is Star Wars: The Old Republic (from BioWare and EA), with no release date and a Star Trek Online title (you think newcomers to the game will be outfitted in red shirts?). Neither have firm release dates.

The real question, though, is whether the proposed release dates will be met, or whether developers – taking a cue from 2008’s crop of titles – might delay the launch in order to make sure their games are ready for a more experienced community of players and can have a flawless launch. The hype surrounding the new IP released in 2008 seems to have been more hype than substance. Let’s hope the class of 2009 will fare better.

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