Genre Focus: MMO

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There's no shortage of promising MMOs due for release over the next 12 months, but can any of them hope to cut into World of Warcraft's market share? Christopher Dring speaks to the major players to find out what the future holds for the genre…

In December 2008 Blizzard revealed that World of Warcraft had 11.5 million subscribers worldwide. It's the world's biggest MMO – certainly a far cry from the genre's humble beginnings, when only 50 players could go online at the same time in 1991's Neverwinter Nights.

The rise of the MMO has been astronomical. In just 15 years since Nights the genre has become the most potentially lucrative category in games. In China alone the market could be worth $5.5bn this year (according to Pearl Research).

Yet for all the potential, creating a world-beating MMO for the Western market is no sure thing. For every World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, there's multiple big name MMOs that just couldn't last the distance – such as The Sims Online and Star Wars Galaxies.

So what makes the MMO market so difficult to crack? And what does it mean for the plethora of MMOs due for release over the coming years?

One game that tried to break into the MMO market in 2008 was Funcom's Age of Conan. The game has been a moderate success, with 1.2 million copies of the game sold since its launch – although the number of subscribers to Conan pales in comparison to Warcraft.

Creating an MMO that convinces a player to spend hundreds of hours in that game alone is a monumental challenge,” admits Funcom's communications director Erling Ellingsen.

Creating gameplay that ties players to your game month after month is the Holy Grail of MMO development.

But it's important to remember that a MMO does not require millions of players – you can operate with tens of thousands and still be a success.”

Furthermore, MMOs require a different mindset to traditional releases. Developers need to commit significant time and money to ensure their MMO is a hit – and that includes repeatidly improving the game after release.

MMOs are about large numbers of people interacting within a world,” comments design lead on Realtime Worlds' All Points Bulletin Ej Moreland.

Being able to test systems thoroughly enough and understand the impact of design changes at that scope is extremely difficult and costly.

Convincing those who handle the purse strings to take a significant risk on an unproven formula and be patient with it is a difficult undertaking.”


The sheer popularity of World of Warcraft poses a further challenge for developers looking to break into the sector
Blizzard's RPG remains the most popular paid-for MMO on the market, and its rivals have had a challenging time enticing players away.

World of Warcraft has captured the entire monthly subscription market,” says Cryptic Studios' COO Jack Emmert.

There's little room for other games to succeed in that environment. To compound it, companies try to replicate WoW's gameplay. That's silly. If someone wants WoW, they'll play WoW.”

And Blizzard is not a developer to rest on its laurels either. This year expansion pack World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is set for release, and the firm is using the new expansion to significantly update the original game.

We're constantly striving to understand what elements of the game are working well and what aspects can be improved,” explains World of Warcraft production director J. Allen Brack.

We listen to our community to hone in on what players like and what they feel isn't fun, and we use that to help us make future design decisions.

We look at game development as an iterative process, and we're continually polishing World of Warcraft and building on what we've done in the past.”

However, is Warcraft's dominance under threat? Promising looking MMOs such as Star Trek Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, DC Universe and Final Fantasy XIV are all on the schedule. Should Blizzard be worried?

No game will topple WoW,” claims Emmert. But I expect Star Trek and Star Wars to do well. The only thing that will topple WoW is time or technology.”

Wes Platt, design lead on Icarus Studios' MMO Fallen Earth, agrees: Considering one of the major new MMO titles will be World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, I think it's unlikely that anyone will dethrone WoW except for WoW,” he says.

There are MMOs coming out that have awesome potential, but WoW's pretty safely entrenched at this point.”

However, some developers have been able to succeed without the need to go for Warcraft's super-hardcore audience. Facebook social game FarmVille has amassed 73.8 million users for instance, while Jagex' Runescape has attracted a wide audience by being browser-based, free-to-play and not quite as hardcore as Blizzard's RPG.

Jagex's COO Rob Smith comments: Unlike in previous years where publishers have aimed directly for Warcraft's audience, the outlook for 2010 looks remarkably different.

A game to topple WoW doesn't have to come from the fantasy genre. Just look at the success of FarmVille to see how popular casual MMOs can be.”


So what's next for the MMO? If Blizzard has the PC market so sown up, is it about time the MMO moves over to the home console?

Development of MMOs on consoles is a hot topic, but for developers I think the real question should be whether they need to break on to consoles at present,” says Jagex's Smith.

While consoles have become more popular, their user bases remain far outstripped by the number of PCs and other internet enabled devises.

This isn't to say that MMOs do not have a future on consoles, both Xbox and PS3 have good online networks that could support an MMO.

In the medium term the accessibility, usability and connectivity of the PC still remains better suited for MMOs so I don't think MMO development on consoles will be a priority in 2010.”

NCsoft West CEO Jaeho Lee adds: There have been very few genuine MMOs launched for consoles.

It's less of an issue about controls and more about hardware and approach. The current generation is the first time we've seen the business models and technical capabilities in place to do the genre justice.”

There's a few console MMOs due over the next two years, not least Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIV and CCP's Dust 514.

But although the likes of 360 and PS3 have the internet capabilities to support an MMO, there are still challenges for the genre on consoles.

For starters, MMO players need to interact with each other, which makes a microphone or keyboard a requirement.

The submission process can also make things difficult. Some developers update their MMOs on a weekly basis, and these updates need to be cleared through the platform holder first.

So perhaps the future of the MMO isn't in new platforms but new genres. Some studios are looking to grow the MMO by exploring new territories – such as with team-based action game APB, CCP's FPS Dust 514 and the rumoured Call of Duty MMO.

Emmert concludes: What's happened is that the perfect MMORPG was made in World of Warcraft. Now we need to look in new directions – FPS and so forth, in order to succeed.”


All Points Bulletin
Due: Spring
Realtime Worlds' upcoming blaster is one of the more unique MMOs due for release this year. The game is a team-based affair and pits law enforcement against organised crime in a Grand Theft Aut