Niche and Mass Market: One big happy MMO genre

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)

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Aion, Darkfall Online, EVE Online, MMO design, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Rant, SW:TOR, Ultima Online, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Niche and Mass Market: One big happy MMO genre

  1. Der_Nachbar says:

    Basically I fully agree with your opinions in this one, a niche can only exist if the segment, in which it struggles, is huge enough. WoW blew the genre to these kinda proportions.
    The problem i see is the investors. No sane capitalist is investing his money in a high risk / low reward projekt for the sake of gamedesign ;) Instead the money-givers jump up the next bandwagon.
    But given some time and more succesful niche titles, these niche-products will survive and flourish like their predecessors in other branches of the modern world do.

    My hopes are with MO this time =)

    • syncaine says:

      About investing: no investor puts money into an indie movie hoping 10 people think it’s cool. They are hoping for Blair Witch-like ROI. If some venture capitalist is putting money into a small MMO, they are not doing it to cater to some small subset of players, they are hoping to be part of the next UO or EVE.

      And just like 100m bugget movies fail (Waterworld), huge budget MMOs fail as well (Tabula Rasa).

  2. Scrung says:

    I feel dirty because I quit Darkfall, went to FE, and went back to WoW. Yes I want the idea of Darkfall, but the execution is “Darkmeh.”

    I hope the niche area of the MMORPG market keeps expanding and is shown that sandbox like games can succeed and grow. I think it all really rests on Darkfall’s shoulders and how their expansion changes the game in October and future changes. I know a lot of people (including me) are waiting to see if we should resub. It is the “big” niche MMORPG and I hope it keeps growing so other companies will create a sandbox too.

  3. Zensun says:

    It’s posts like this that keep me reading your blog – well done!

  4. Dblade says:

    Eh just because a product is “niche” doesnt mean its innovative, or even good. You cant get more niche than Dynasty Warriors games, and Koei churns them out by the truckload. Same with NIS and its 5 million Disgaea clones.

    Truth is you can make a game which is a lot of crap, and it can manage to be profitable if costs are low enough and you can find a modest subscriber base. That’s how 90% of f2p titles survive, and that genre started out niche.

    People still make text adventures and MUD’s after all.

  5. n0th says:

    I’ll ninja offtopic once more:
    Any updates on Fallen Earth?
    From what i read its not really a sandbox.
    There is no real PvE to keep players interested long time (apart from quest chains).
    No meaningful PvP either.
    Very solo-friendly.
    Why would people pick this up over some single-player post-apocalyptic RPG (Fallout, The Fall, S.T.A.L.K.E.R)?

    • syncaine says:

      I don’t play it myself right now, so I can’t give you any first-hand updates. But from various sources I trust, it sounds like they are enjoying it beyond the usual solo-hero PvE grind that many AAA titles are today. It’s very crafting-focused, and character development offers more choices than just ‘where to put in some talent points you can respec later’.

  6. Wintersdark says:

    I didn’t go far in FE, but it REALLY seemed highly kill-ten-rats oriented at the core, dispute quasi fps mechanics etc. To each thier own though.

    The investment comment, though, is really key. It’s complicated though. WoW clones are risky at a fundamental level – particularly sub based ones because they are in direct competition with wow. Blizzard has an established customer base now with millions who won’t change games because of thier time invested. Even if, say, SWTOR is better in every concievable way, it’s unlikely to ever get half of wow’s subscribers(though it’ll probably do the best of the themepark pve games).

    So, niche games have a good chance to stand up and present good investment options. After all, a game can be very successful with comparatively tiny sub numbers, and niche games do not compete so directly with the big box games, or even each other really.

    All they need to do, really, is to look into more flexible pricing options in addition to monthly subs. I know personally there are LOTS of niche MMO’s I’d love to play, but can’t justify all those subs when my play time is so limited.

  7. victorstillwater says:

    Strangely enough, what has me excited for the MMO world is that, even with Aion and Fallen Earth out, along with tons of other MMORPGs, there’s still room to grow and develop new things.

    The only disappointing thing, I suppose, is that we have to wait for someone to uncover that next innovation that will capture our fancy. Hopefully, the current amount of money going into the coffers of the MMO industry is paving the way for that.

  8. The Claw says:

    Where it all goes horribly wrong is when you launch an indie title, which doesn’t try to do anything different to appeal to an unsatisfied niche, but rather tries to clone mass-market gameplay, but fails horribly due to its low budget. And then tries to sell the resulting mess for AAA prices, complete with big incentives for anyone silly enough to pay for a full year’s subscription sight-unseen.

    Yes, Alganon, I’m talking to YOU.

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