We are at an interesting point in history with MMOs, highlighted beautifully with the recent re-release of the Asian answer to WoW in Aion and the uber-niche Fallen Earth. One is benefiting from a year of full release under its belt, a huge budget, and a tried-and-tested game style wrapped in pretty fairy wings. The other is a more traditional MMO in almost every sense of the word. It’s a little buggy, it’s somewhat unpolished, it does things in odd or ‘unique’ ways, and its main appeal is aimed at a small subset of the overall gaming crowd. One is clearly trying to be the next big thing; the other is just hoping to do its own thing.
And from my viewpoint, having been heavily involved with MMOs since 1997 and UO, the genre is now very clearly going in two directions. One is the ‘Hollywood’ or ‘bigmac’ path, the path of blockbuster or bust, the path of Madden (insert year), the path that if it worked before, re-release it with new box art and call it a sequel. It’s amazing that a genre like MMOs could reach such a point, but clearly we are at it now thanks to 11m WoW players and a billion dollars in revenue. The genre as a whole is no longer a niche dominated by nerds in basements like RPG’s themselves were prior to Final Fantasy 7. There is big money to be made with MMOs, and the safest bet on reaching the mass market is to over-spend on flash and follow a trusted formula. The louder Paul Barnett yells the more initial boxes get sold, fundamentally broken game design (two faction PvP) be damned. Every summer we see the same mindless yet entertaining Hollywood blockbusters show up in theaters, and now every Oct/Nov we are likely to see ‘the next big one’ appear on store shelves and on Steam/D2D. 2008 we had WAR, 2009 it was Aion’s turn, 2010 will be SW:TOR, and 2011 it will likely be Blizzard’s next MMO. And like those summer blockbusters, they are fun to show up to, let your brain go to sleep, and just enjoy the pretty colors flashing before you eyes as a few hours pass by.
At the other end we have the niche titles like Fallen Earth and DarkFall (among countless others). No one working on such titles ever thinks their game will contend with WoW for top subscriber numbers, or see their commercials feature Mr. T. What they did know is they were developing something for a specific group of players (one they hope is large enough to sustain them), and knowing that if they deliver on the expectations of that group they will be rewarded with player loyalty and a unique spot in a genre overrun with me-too titles. And like most indie films, most people won’t ‘get’ the appeal of such titles. How could losing all your loot possibly be fun? How is wandering around a drab wasteland better than gliding through a shiny magic forest? This can’t possibly be entertainment; I don’t see any big explosions or famous faces.
At one point, when niche titles like Auto Assault, Shadowbane, and Pirates of the Burning Sea were being closed down or in jeopardy, it seemed like the ONLY viable option in the MMO genre was to go clone or stay home (ba-zing!). For a while the only successful niche title was EVE Online, being the one example of how to pull off niche and still grow and make real profits. Yet Fallen Earth is getting a lot of positive buzz despite the fact that it’s rough around the edges, with much of it coming from people who are MMO vets and truly are tired of the WoW-clone gameplay. People are genuinely excited about its unique aspects and are just enjoying being noobs in a truly new environment (and not just new in terms of setting, but game mechanics as well).
Aventurine not only delivered a stable and solid product with DarkFall, but they have established a niche of players who are now excited about the games future and the direction its taking. The word ‘potential’ is often seen, and the boards are active with players debating and wondering how new features might work. It’s refreshing to see “how will navel combat effect politics, what will caravans do for the economy?” debated rather than reading “Anyone know the stats of the next raid set?”.
Just like ‘real’ movie fans applaud and support indie films while still checking out a blockbuster (but shhh about that), I’m overall very happy with the current MMO genre and how things are playing out. Whether I’m in the mood to kill another ten rats in whatever flashy and ‘polished’ setting is currently the ‘it’ thing, or to experience something new through the graphic engine lens of an indie studio, both options are healthy and readily available in 2009, and that’s win/win for gaming fans all around; be they the highly sophisticated and attractive people playing niche games or the subhuman mouth-breathing virgins that play WoW. (Had to add that last part in, just in case anyone though I might be remotely talking positive about WoW and ruining my e-cred, yo)