Is the MMO genre back to being a niche market?

Anyone else seeing the irony of SOE making their next EQ game a WoW clone? My my how quickly things change, and am I the only one thinking SOE is going to find a new and creative way to screw this one up as well?

But warm SOE thoughts aside, the EQ franchise going in a straight-up WoW-clone direction does bring up an interesting point; can you make a ‘mass market’ MMO in the post-WoW age without just trying to remake WoW? Or rather, WILL anyone try to make a ‘mass market’ MMO that’s not “here is how we plan to recreate WoW” in 2010, 2011, or 2012?

One would think that with so many titles having already tried that strategy in vain, someone at a big company would take a quick look around and say “hey, let’s not try to re-create what happened with WAR/Aion/LotRO/insert-failed-WoW-clone-here”. That perhaps they would look at the successful smaller titles that have been around for years and instead say “hey, if we throw X millions of dollars at this idea, I think we can expand the concept beyond the 10s or low 100 thousands of users”.

Now I’m not saying that if you throw 100 million dollars to make a AAA version of something like A Tale in the Desert or Darkfall it’s going to result in 1 million+ subscribers. Actually I’m fairly sure it won’t, but then again I’m also fairly sure cloning WoW using $100m and a famous IP gets you WAR, so…

This brings up two related questions: is ANY game capable of WoW-level success, and if so, is the WoW approach (easy, overly accessible, MMORPG-lite) the only way to go? My answer to the first question is no, as I’ve always believed that WoW is an outlier in the genre, a product that came along at just the right time and, due to a social snowball effect rather than any design decision, reached the heights that it reached. But assuming a title could reach WoW-levels of success, it’s interesting to think about the second question.

On the one hand, WoW has shown (reasons aside) that it IS possible for an MMO to attract 10m+ users. On the other hand we have the countless examples of why trying to re-create WoW is a good way to blow a ton of cash, and we also have a title like EVE, which is completely different in almost every way from WoW and yet is arguably the second most successful MMO ever (at least in the US/EU), considering it’s still growing after 6+ years and shows no signs of slowing down.

So if I’m an exec looking at the MMO market, I see two very different things. I see a huge game whose community loves an easy, accessibly, low graphics, solo-based MMO. I then look at the other big success story and I see a game that over the years has slowly built up its user base without sacrificing the original design core but has massively upgraded its graphics and the requirements to run them. A complex and at times arcane game as famous for its terrible lows as it is for its amazing highs (and one that many see as a giant spreadsheet-based bore), and one that has had more ‘famous’ controversies than perhaps all other games combined.

Is there a middle ground? Is there a way to make a broader-reaching EVE, or a WoW-like game that lives up to expectations? And perhaps most importantly, is that what TODAY’S gamer wants? Back in 2005-06 everyone and their mother wanted what WoW was selling, just like back in 2000 everyone wanted what EQ1 was selling. What if that something is not more WoW today, like it was not more EQ in 2004? Is the demand for something today more MMORPG-like, or something even LESS MMORPG-like than even WoW? And if it’s the latter, has the MMO genre’s time come and gone like beat-em-up games, fighting games, and recently music games? Have we come full circle and are back to being a niche genre again, like the ‘good old days’?

Chuck-o-the-day: All of the actions performed by a Chuck Norris action figure are hate crimes.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Aion, Darkfall Online, EQ2, EVE Online, MMO design, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Is the MMO genre back to being a niche market?

  1. Twan says:

    I dont think there is a middle ground, no.

  2. sid67 says:

    but then again I’m also fairly sure cloning WoW using $100m and a famous IP gets you WAR, so…

    This is where you lose me. Because WAR didn’t “fail” because it was a WoW clone. WAR failed because Tier 3 and Tier 4 weren’t as much fun. WAR failed because it couldn’t support the whole server converging on one hotspot for PvP action. WAR failed because a two-faction system allowed one side to grossly outnumber the other.

    Those are all design decisions that have nothing to do with WoW. There are certainly a whole slew of other failures as well but those I listed above are the big ones.

    ANYWAYS– We’ve had this debate several times and I still maintain the idea that the reason these games fail is that, at the end of the day, they just aren’t as good a game as Warcraft.

    If they were, then more players would stick with the new game. Not everyone, mind you, but certainly far more than the desolate wasteland that these games become after 3 months.

    • SynCaine says:

      I don’t disagree that the reasons above helped WAR fail, but my point is that had Mythic spent less time WoW-ing WAR, they might have had some time to add a 3rd faction, come up with a way to not have the server deadlock, and flesh out the end-game. You know, release DAoC 2.0 rather than some WoW/DAoC marketing genius mixture of fail.

      I’m sure the same could be argued for a few other titles as well.

      • sid67 says:

        I can agree with the idea that some of their time could have been better spent elsewhere.

        But I disagree that the things they worked on were about WoW-ing WAR.

        For example, they should have thrown out the whole standard solo questing part of the game, increased the size of the RvR lakes and had more PvP oriented quests.

        So I guess if you buy into the idea that “solo questing” = WoW-ing than I agree. BUT — I tend to think of PvE questing as more of a staple in the genre now.

        Even Darkfall has them and they have been talking about adding more. Are they WoW-ing the game?

        As for the other WoW-like elements (hotbar, characters, levels, and so on), I can’t point to any of those things as reasons WAR failed.

        • Mala says:

          Its not merely quests, but quests designed to lead you from 1 to max level by the nose through the game. That very much is “WoWing” in my opinion, and WAR definitely did that.

        • sid67 says:

          Again. Questing is not the reason why they failed.

          They failed because they didn’t deliver the other aspects of the game that were needed to make it successful as a PVP MMO.

          WAR is my great disappointment because it’s a great scapegoat for many people.

          Those who dislike PVP can point to it as to why PVP can’t work in an MMO.

          Those who hate WoW can point to it as the reason why MMOs should stay away from anything remotely WoW-like.

          But the REAL reason WAR failed has nothing to do with either of those things.

  3. Sean says:

    “What if that something is not more WoW today, like it was not more EQ in 2004? Is the demand for something today more MMORPG-like, or something even LESS MMORPG-like than even WoW?”

    The prevailing trends seem to point towards “less MMORPG-like” games if what you mean by MMORPG-like is something like EQ/UO or even WoW. I’m a huge fan of the Civilization series, and eagerly awaiting the 5th entry, but Sid Meier isn’t at the helm this time. And he’s not there because he and hundreds of others are creating what are and will be “MMOs” for the mainstream: facebook/social network based games. These games are certainly less like MMOs and at least now less games yet they capture the intermittent boredom of millions of people every day.

    So what of the traditional MMO? I agree with your suggestion that it is a niche market though outside of WoW, it always has been. As much as you detest it, even WoW is inaccessible to a lot of people who are immediately turned off at the thought of subscription fees, or skillbars with 10s of skills, or the prospect of 13 year olds fresh from Xbox live making homophobic remarks in world chat channels. So much of a traditional MMO is the metagame, constructed and maintained by a community into which one must enter to participate in any of the game’s more compelling activities. Failing that, MMOs by and large feel shallow, grinding mobs or making things with or without the illusion of purpose. That’s a lot to take in for a new player coming to the genre fresh, and a lot of a commitment for someone to make who only wants to try the game out. It’s a bit of a catch-22 unfortunately that one has to really dive into an MMO, particularly those of the sandbox variety, to get anything from it but do it first without any of the justification the game’s compelling moments provide. WoW was the exception for a number of reasons, chief among which seem to be that a lot of people had already bought into the Warcraft IP and Blizzard generally, and the game’s chief gameplay innovation – quests – at least gave the illusion of a purpose and narrative than camping Rare Monster Spawn X in EQ for 36 hours.

    I hope being “niche” doesn’t also mean declining or dying out. I hope that companies realize there won’t be another traditional MMO with WoW like success and budget accordingly. I hope for my own sake that someone makes a MMO with raid content as finely tuned as some of WoW’s is. SWTOR will be something to watch if only to see if the community three months after launch will be anywhere close enough to justify its huge development price tag. I highly doubt it; MMOs are niche after all.

  4. Snipehunter says:

    It’s funny. I’ve worked at a place now that has said, “We’re not remaking wow; we know that doesn’t work!” but as soon as folks begin to realize that doing so requires resources, intensive work and not being creatively bankrupt, the “well let’s do it like wow” suggestions start to creep in.

    They seem so innocent at first, too. I mean, why not steal the way their auction house works, right? Saves you time, don’t it? Problem is, you do that 6 times and now your core gameplay loop looks like wow. Do it 6 more times and now you are wow, with new art. Work at it long enough and the next thing you know, you’ve churned through the artists who didn’t want to make wow, too and now nothing stands between you and mediocrity but your own dedication.

    If everyone else wants to make wow now, and you don’t, how long do you think your dedication to that ideal lasts? If you’re lucky, they fire you because you’re “not on board any more” and you can leave without having succumbed, but in reality, you need the check so you throw in your lot too, and all of a sudden, you’re the guy mutilating your own baby to look more like that charming fair haired kid from down the street.

    People who think we do it on purpose don’t really get how games are made. The problem isn’t that we’re evil – it’s that humans are inherently lazy. If we’re not vigilant against it, the laziness creeps in and becomes the primary factor in decisions that get made. Call it “cascading apathy” – all things being equal, people will slack as much as they can, providing an example to their coworkers, which thus encourages further slack.

    It kills more than just games, but games it kills the most tragicly.

  5. Snafzg says:

    I heard an interesting analogy the other day about creating your own ocean (or niche in marketing terms).

    Take the circus. Competing in the traditional circus niche was a very risky endeavour in the 1980s (I’m talking ringmaster circus with elephants, clowns, and some acrobatics). There was lots of overhead. Lots of competition. People had seen it a thousand times.

    Then a guy like Guy Laliberté came along who took the circus and brought it to the theatre. This change of venue and focus on visually stunning performance arts / street performers created a completely new ocean or niche based on the circus.

    Applying this to MMOs, I guess we’ve seen a bit of a new ocean created with F2P/RMT compared to the traditional subscription titles, but to me that’s really just a change of approach in terms of business models.

    Have we really seen a new ocean created in terms of mechanics or gameplay elements? Have there really been any fundamentally huge changes in venue and focus over the years or are we simply experiencing minor iterated updates?

    I wonder what an MMO version of Circus of the Sun would look like.

  6. Yanas says:

    I don’t think titles fail because they try to be to WOW-like, they fail for a number of reasons.

    Firstly they aren’t good enough to launch when they do launch. Gamers expect a fresh MMO to be comparable in polish to titles that have been out for years (read wow). Most budgets don’t allow that, leading to new games inferior to existing ones they’re trying to replace in many important ways.

    Secondly MMOs rely on ‘players’, a group of people, to be successful. Groups of people are frighteningly stupid in general, MMO player bases among the most stupid of the lot. They hype up unreasonable expectations, then rage when they aren’t met. The ‘cloud of doom’ then comes down and no one wants to invest time in a doomed game, so the whole herd mentality lumbers off to the next new shiny thing.

    Thirdly most of the recent titles just havn’t been very good games.

    Warhammer: A game based on mass PVP and fortress/city sieges launched unable to cope with a fortress siege without a server crash. Thats not being to WOW-like, thats shipping a product with the core game play mechanic completely broken.

    Aion: Same story, mass PVP game, taking fortresses in the abyss I had to have player models turned off and got 5 FPS. Key gameplay mechanic completely non-functional.

    APB: I’m playing it now and I do enjoy it a lot, but a skill-based shooter MMO ships with poorly balanced guns, bad matchmaking and aimbots readily available.

    These aren’t complicated ‘what is the future of the genre’ issues, they are games that have huge failings right in their unique selling point.

    Its akin to every shooter since COD4 shipping with massive crashes after getting 2 kills in a row.

  7. theJexster says:

    It’s way to early to tell, but I have hopes that either Earthrise or Guild Wars 2 can pull off some middle ground and also move the MMO Genre ahead for the first time since WOW.

  8. Grimjakk says:

    I have to hear a bit more about SOE’s plans before I jump on any bandwagons, one way or the other.

    So, what have you heard about EQNext that screams “WoW-clone” to you?

  9. Regalx says:

    Nice article, but there’s some misinformation in there that needs to be cleaned up for your readers.

    Fighting games have not “come and GONE” the fighting game genre has actually never been better with the release of Super Street Fighter 4.

    New fighting games are popping up like Blazeblue: Continum Shift, Mortal Kombat 9, King of Fighters XIII, Marvel vs Capcom 3, Tekken vs Street Fighter, etc.

    not to mention older games are being remade with new online tournament features. The fighting game industry has become extremely competitive and professional players are receiving sponsors, and one Justin Wong is starring in a gaming based reality tv show.

    So yeah, fighting games, definitely not “come and gone” my friend.

    • J Dangerous says:

      Incorrect. “Come and gone” as he speaks of it is related to the market for fighting games, *not* the quality of them.

      Just because you love fighting games still does not mean everyone does. It is a fact that heyday of fighting games is passed, and they are definitely not one of the most popular types.

      I don’t have stats, but its common knowledge that fighting games are no longer anywhere close to as prominent as they once were.

  10. Ponder says:

    Its a popular misconception that WoW is a EQ clone.

    In fact, WoW is Warcraft 3 clone. Most of the features in WoW orginate in W3 (quests, lore, zones, classes, etc). I think Blizzard just used the broad structure of EQ as a way to translate W3.

    On another point, EQ is just a TorilMUD clone …

  11. It’s been a niche market for the last 5 years. People (and most of all, investors) are starting to get it now.

    It does not take 100 million dollars to make a flop. Great games can still be made for good profit margins, but the suits need to step off and let the creative nerds create (the visionaries, not the straight up retarded nerds in the box) do the thinking and design no matter what they think.

    You can’t guide a vision, and they are not created in board rooms.


  12. Ben says:

    whether you’re willing to invest $1 million or $100 million, if the product your pushing is only interesting to 20,000 people or so, that’s all you’re going to get. The problem isn’t that no one’s created a shiny-enough EVE or Darkfall, it’s that the underlying premise appeals to a small slice of the MMO/PC gaming pie.

    • John says:

      You’ve hit the nail on the head Ben. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read forum discussions on promising new mmos and seen the following unfortunate pattern.

      The hype for the game will include, say 20 exciting things. And then the comments ensue, and for each of those 20 things, there are players that love the other 19, but so hate the remaining one that they let it “ruin” the game for them.

      “Its too pvp centric — I won’t play it”

      “It wasn’t designed with pvp in mind — Screw that”

      “Its not solo-friendly — I won’t play it”

      “It doesn’t encourage grouping — Buh-bye”

      “F2P — Screw that”

      “Another asian grindfest — *runs for the hills* ”

      “Love everything except the crafting system. — I won’t play a game without a good crafting system”

      “Too instanced”

      “Won’t run on my machine”

      “Outdated graphics”

      “Not enough quests”

      “Too much focus on quests”

      “No RP servers”

      “Not enough storyline”

      “Combat is turn-based”

      “Combat is target-lock and rotation-spam”

      “Combat is more fps-oriented”


      My point being that every single feature of a new mmo seems to alienate a large section of the player base. As players, I think we’re all way too picky (myself included unfortunately).

  13. Richardus says:

    What turns me off in an MMO these days? Hmm.. lets see..

    -Being ganked in the middle of your safe town
    -Not being able to quest because everywhere you go is full open pvp now, in almost EVERY game.
    -There are a few games not full open PvP, but they are poorly programmed, and usually do not function well.

    Almost every game out now wants to open full PvP in
    all areas, allowing griefing, exploiting and cheats,
    and for some unknown reason they think the average gamer thinks that is “fun”.
    When playing wow I could quest, make friends, work on my character, forage, craft and do all sorts of fun things without getting repeatedly killed by some exploiting griefer.

    There are some certain elements in WoW that do have to be “cloned”. If you do everything the opposite you end up with a gankfesting griefer’s game like Aion. Wow had many winning elements and if you deliberatly avoid them, you will always have a loser.
    Smooth gameplay, social networking, easy navigation, large seamless world and choice of pvp/pve to name a few.

    Controlled PvP zones are the best way and nobody is doing that anymore because they are so afraid of being “like wow”.

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