MMOs are a niche genre in gaming. They are games that require additional ‘work’ beyond just loading something up, and to really get the most out of them you have to put in that ‘work’ consistently. They can also be very expensive or absurdly cheap depending on how much you play, and overall the barrier of entry and when the game ‘clicks’ is far longer than most other genres.
In 1997 Ultima Online came out and did far better than anyone expected. Stronger than expected sales, plus the ability to collect money after the initial sale in the form of a subscription, meant a LOT of money was being made from an unexpected source. Those with the ability jumped in as soon as they could, and most games did well if not very well (EQ1) in the MMO niche. You had to try really hard (AO) to screw up an MMO, and even if you did you still survived.
Then in 2004 WoW came out and suddenly a niche genre was flooded. Some called them tourists, others believed the genre had finally ‘made it’. Most importantly, Blizzard was printing money faster than anyone else, regardless of the genre. No matter how awesome Madden X was, after EA got your $60, that was it, and that always somewhat limited the earning potential of games. Not so for MMOs, and with WoW subscriptions toping 10m, the market was no longer collecting $15 a month from a niche crowd.
If UO encouraged others to give the genre a shot, WoW basically forced companies to do it. WoW’s profits made all other genres of gaming seem inept, and hey, how hard could this MMO thing be anyway? Grab an IP, toss a bunch of cash at it, and bam, 10m people throwing $15 a month at you forever!
A few problems.
The first being that 2004 WoW is not the version of WoW being cloned. WoW 04-06 built the foundation for the juggernaut, and the mistakes of WotLK and especially Cata were not realized until recently. The reason? MMOs snowball. Once you have a certain number of people playing, it’s difficult to piss them all off fast enough to boot them all out instantly. Even when you try (NGE), it still might not work.
The second issue is that for most, WoW was their first MMO. You always like your first MMO more because hey, it’s all new to you. That newness only happens once, and even if you perfectly clone the correct version of WoW, you can’t replicate your game being someone’s first MMO. This aspect can’t be underestimated, both for initial impressions and retention.
So you have MMO ‘noob devs’ cloning the wrong version of WoW, and not only that, but you have a fan base that is rather confused. True MMO players hate casual themepark games because they are MMO-lite, while the millions that made WoW such a huge hit say they are looking for more WoW, but time and time again they move on much faster than the previous title; and in a space where retention and collecting $15 a month is king, that’s an issue.
Is it really that surprising that AAA themeparks have sold well and retained so poorly?
The reason I take such pleasure in watching SW:TOR fail is because that game is the very definition of the above, only magnified to such an extreme that even the most casual observers are coming to the correct conclusions (mostly). And if the casuals get it, at some point devs and publishers will as well.
The truth is that the MMO genre is not dying. Not even close. MMOs like EVE or Rift are doing well. MMO-lite titles like SW:TOR and current-day WoW are not. This is very good news for MMO players, who for years have seen the vast majority of resources wasted on AAA themepark failures. Yes, not all of the money will flow into real MMOs, but we don’t need all of it. Just some, and some will most definitely find the right people due to the fact that real MMOs are making money. It’s hundreds of thousands of subs money rather than millions, but the MMO genre never contained millions of players. Just a solid core, and a whole lot of tourists mucking everything up.
In a year from now the story won’t be that the MMO genre is dead. Actually there won’t be a story because who writes about niche stuff anyway? But outside of the spotlight, we will be talking about some pretty cool upcoming games, and how EVE continues to be awesome, and how Rift is still getting content added like crazy, and how GW2 (maybe) feels so fresh and yet so familiar. That will be nice.
PS: It’s tough to judge 38 Studios in the above. If Copernicus was yet another WoW-clone (it sure looked like one), then the studio closing down was just an acceleration of the inevitable. If the game truly was an EQ1-clone, it’s a sad loss and further reason to shake an angry fist at management.