In recent years, one of the big trends in gaming has been making online games. To that end, many companies started production of huge roleplaying games, called MMOs. Everyone, from huge companies like Sony to startups like 38 Studios, started production of these games, with hopes of huge profits. They saw these games, and the large amounts of sustained income that they generate, as cash cows that they could milk for years and years, funding other ventures. Everyone wanted to be the next Blizzard. Unfortunately, no one can replicate what Blizzard accomplished.
When Blizzard released World of Warcraft back in November of 2004, the gaming world was hyped up for it. Blizzard has long been a legendary developer whose games had always been Game of the Year contenders. The Warcraft series, on which World of Warcraft was based, pretty much redefined the enter strategy gaming market, introducing that genre to people who had never considered it. And gamers were ready for a new MMO as Sony’s Everquest was beginning to show its age and Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XI had a extremely steep learning curve. People wanted an accessible MMO that was fun and was supported. Blizzard succeeded in giving gamers what they wanted.
And in doing so, they killed the market.
How? Well, since the success of World of Warcraft, every company wanted to make the World of Warcraft-killer. Since then, games like Warhammer Online, Final Fantasy XIV, Matrix Online, Star Trek Online, Lord of the Rings Online, DC Universe Online, and many, many others have released, and most of these come no where close to the success of World of Warcraft.
It is especially jarring when a game like Warhammer Online or Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures comes out and is deemed by everyone to be the World of Warcraft killers. But these games could not touch the impossibly high bar that Blizzard had set. While Warhammer still sports a subscription model, Age of Conan has had to go Free-to-Play and their initial support dwindled. With both of these games, they had huge initial subscriptions (from World of Warcraft players wanting a change of pace) that went away when people realized they are effectively playing another copy of World of Warcraft.
Everyone thought that would change, though, when Bioware released the new Star Wars MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. The old Star Wars-based MMO, Star Wars Galaxies had a number of issues, mainly with how Sony ran it. Fans of Star Wars believed that Sony had made mistake after mistake, and that Bioware would finally do the license justice. The hype on this game was reminiscent of what was out there before World of Warcraft released. This game was going to kill, or at least heavily dent, World of Warcraft, especially since the last expansion for World of Warcraft, called Cataclysm, did not get a warm reception from fans and the next expansion, called Mists of Pandara, is even less popular. Star Wars: The Old Republic would finally be what strikes down the juggernaut from Blizzard.
Or, maybe not.
This week, Bioware announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic was going to go Free-to-Play. And, with that, the market for a subscription based MMO is dead. Yeah, some games, like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI, will still be able to have a subscription model. But new games coming out will not be able to sustain this model. If Star Wars fails at it in under a year, then what can succeed? World of Warcraft, in being the biggest and the best, made it impossible for others to succeed.
The problem is that MMO producers completely miss the mark in what has made certain MMOs stand the test of time. Games like City of Heroes, Final Fantasy XI, Everquest, and the aforementioned World of Warcraft succeed not because they are graphically superior. Nor do they succeed because they have hours upon hours of voice acting (like Star Wars: The Old Republic does). No, they succeed because they are fun, and their developers continuously add to them. Take a look at how any of those games were when they initially released and then look at them now: level caps increase, new zones are unlocked, bigger and badder enemies emerge, and equipment gets better. The trap of playing a good MMO is that you always want something better, a better piece of armor, a better weapon, something better than what you have. But, when a MMO cannot give the masses the progress they desire in a way that they find fun, people turn away. And, in the end, it is about fun.
So, is this the end of MMOs? In a way, yeah. The subscription model is on the way out, with only a few games still sticking to it. Free-to-Play is the wave of the future, which should change how many of these games continue with development. Gone are the days when a company sees potential huge profits from a MMO. Gone are the days a retired baseball player wanting to get as rich as Bill Gates from a MMO that he does not even believe was fun. Maybe now developers will focus more on making these games fun than on the huge dollar signs they want to see from them.