Plenty of life in MMOs

All-star panel says so.

In a packed Games Convention Developer's Conference today, four of the industry's leading online game developers discussed the prospect of Life After World of Warcraft, GamesIndustry.biz reports - and all agreed that there's a lot more to come for the genre.

The quartet, comprised of Jeffery Steefel (Turbine), Jeff Hickman (EA Mythic), Robert Westmoreland (Cryptic Studios) and Matt Firor (Zenimax Online Studios) pointed to a market that's grown massively in the last few years. They also suggested that there are lessons to be learned from World of Warcraft's success.

But the key ingredient, according to the panel, was Blizzard's lack of innovation - with the company focused instead on producing a game that was finished and ready to play.

The result is a game that's accessible, user-friendly and has now surpassed the 9 million subscriber level - with none of the developers on the panel able to boast of such a high figure for any of their titles.

"They had an established franchise, a frantic customer base, and they executed extremely well," said Westmoreland.

However, he went on to warn other companies against attempting to copy Blizzard's methods too closely: "I think it's an anomaly, and you can't just focus on that because you'll get yourself into trouble."

The panel also talked about the overall massively multiplayer online games market, with Steefel confident that despite World of Warcraft's success, there was plenty of room for other games to flourish.

"There's plenty of life after WOW," he commented. "The market will segment and diversify, and that's beginning to happen. That's why all these games can exist at the same time."

Jeff Hicks added, "The sophistication of the customer base is constantly changing. There's plenty of opportunity, and it's only limited by the interest of the consumers."

On the subject of customer churn, the group also seemed optimistic that it is a healthy part of the genre's development providing that certain criteria are met.

"If you make a game fun to play, the game will take care of itself," said Westmoreland. "You've got to find your niche, and it's got to be fun."

Touching on the subject of subscription models, there was agreement that there will be a more dynamic range of payment methods available in the future.

"Subscription models won't go away, but it won't be the only way we'll pay," commented Steefel. "Other people might want to interact with our product in other ways."

"In the future it will be "easy" to get a game up for distribution, but it won't necessarily be successful if it's not good enough."

There was some disagreement about whether or not MMOGs were suitable for any platforms other than the PC, with Steefel and Hickman fairly clear that it was the most logical piece of hardware to develop on.

Firor added, "It doesn't make any sense to make a console MMO unless you're Microsoft or Sony. The PC is free [to develop for], and there are a whole range of other issues."

Unsurprisingly Westmoreland, whose studio is developing a game based on the Marvel universe for Microsoft's Xbox 360, didn't agree.

Finally the group also discussed the issue of community, whether it was integral across all MMOGs, and how involved it should be in creating content for the games.

There was firm agreement that community was crucial. "Without the community there wouldn't be a game because the game is designed from the ground up with the community in mind," said Firor.

And when discussing the issue of whether or not it is 'hardcore' gamers who are most involved in the community aspects of games, the definition of the term itself was queried.

"The question is, what is a hardcore gamer? A person can play Club Penguin for 80 hours a week and still be a hardcore gamer," said Steefel.

Referring to his own title, Lord of the Rings Online, Steefel added, "We have an audience who are there to be in Middle Earth, not to be hardcore. We have people who will never get past level 30, they'll just continue to do what they need to in order to remain in Middle Earth."

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