The State of the MMO in 2010

When MMOs went west.

I'm on the phone to EA Mythic's Paul Barnett. I can hear him wandering about on the other side of the world, occasionally saying something to people as he passes them in an office somewhere in the US. We're chatting because we're continuing a conversation about the MMO panel at the PAX East convention in Boston, for which he was one of the panellists. "MMO, as a phrase, is something that is becoming irrelevant," says Barnett. "It's like 'dialling' a telephone number. You don't actually dial numbers much now. And MMOs, the games that are massive and multiplayer and online, aren't really MMOs any more."

What he means is that the term "MMO" now encompasses such a large area as to be unrecognisable. We identified the same problem with the word "games" a few years ago. We might have meant, roughly, "videogames" when we used that word, but what that term referred to was becoming increasingly varied. As the meaning of the word has expanded, so it has become imprecise. While we can always identify games, we can't necessarily identify what all games have in common. The same is now true of MMOs. It used to be that there was a server that loads of people could all connect to, and that was an MMO. Now things are a lot more complicated.

World of Warcraft has so far mostly created a market for itself - and next expansion Cataclysm is looking to defend it at all costs.

The basic issue with evaluating the state of MMOs is one of breadth: the MMO moniker can now be attached to a vast array of possible experiences, from the enormous complexities of the subscription-funded epics of World Of Warcraft and EVE Online, through a host of online experiments, down to the asynchronous, essentially non-multiplayer casual games such as FarmVille. The PAX East panel didn't recognise the existence of sports MMOs - not because they'd not heard of the games, but perhaps because they didn't fit the template of what people there thought MMOs should be. They are not games built in the likeness of EverQuest or Ultima Online. They are not part of that conversation.

Nevertheless, much of what worries the MMO folks right now is the success of the quasi-MMO areas such as FarmVille, or the free-to-play or MMOs such as MapleStory which now boast millions of players. It seems as if the market is moving away from the subscription-based MMO and into a place where the model is quite different: a model of giving things away for free and then trying to persuade the player to give you any money at all, a.k.a. "micro-payments". Could it be that the internet is making everyone want everything for free? People are starting to mutter about the end of MMOs.

There's a deeper issue here, of course, which is that the big MMOs of the past few years seem to have been built on the assumption that World Of Warcraft made the MMO market a lot bigger. World Of Warcraft seems to have peaked at a colossal 11 million subscribers - almost five times the size of the previous champion, Lineage. In its wake we have seen a whole other generation of MMOs built along similar lines: Lord Of The Rings Online, Warhammer Online, Vanguard, Tabula Rasa, Star Trek Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Aion, Age Of Conan, and several more.

EVE Online's producer claims other MMOs have been a training ground for the fearsomely complex space game.

None of them have found the same kind of success as the Blizzard masterpiece, even though many of them have been accomplished iterations of the classical MMO template. They are huge projects that have aimed for massive player numbers and equally enormous returns of subscription revenue. With the exception of Tabula Rasa, they haven't exactly failed, but the millions and millions of subscribers haven't appeared. Does that mean it's the end? Has the MMO audience peaked? Or did World of Warcraft simply create an audience for World Of Warcraft, leaving the rest of the MMO world out in the cold?

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Jim Rossignol

Jim Rossignol



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