By the middle of the Two Thousands, the Massively Multiplayer Online genre had reached heights nearly unheard of in entertainment. After years of steady growth, the MMO scene exploded with the runaway success of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. Eventually gaining twelve million subscribers, WOW was both a social and business phenomenon all rolled into one. Such was its power, that it practically became a byword for the genre as a whole. No other MMO came close to breaking WOW’s stranglehold on the marketplace, as casual players and hardcore fans alike went to the juggernaut. In the face of the seemingly invincible WOW, publishers had to try and find new ways of attracting audiences. The result has been a brand new direction for the genre, as a number of developers have experimented with changing their fee into free.
End Game Content
RuneScape, of course, had developed the free-to-play model early in the decade, but its impact was slow to be felt. Still, the steep cost of being an MMO subscriber was a barrier to entry for many potential players. Typically, a game would cost fifty dollars to buy, and then ten to fifteen dollars per month to play. Between the full subscription service of WOW and the free service of RuneScape came Guild Wars in Two Thousand Five. Made by ArenaNet, a subsidiary of NCsoft founded by ex-Blizzard employees, Guild Wars chose to charge its customers for the game itself, but not an ongoing subscription. This put it in line with other gaming genres.
Of course, the lack of a subscription meant less revenues of ArenaNet, and this could be felt in the game itself. The world was smaller than in competing titles. That said, what it did feature was considered top notch, and the game quickly gained strong fan support. Guild Wars has sold over six million copies to date, a fantastic achievement for a PC-only game.
Still, the game was very much a conventional RPG in its setting: a medieval fantasy world of swords and sorcery. The basic tenets of gaining a host of abilities, leveling up, and then gaining more abilities, hadn’t changed much. Despite the age of the genre, and the massive amount of money it made, in many ways it was a more conservative form than other areas of gaming. Games like Two Thousand Six’ Dungeons and Dragons Online and Two Thousand Seven’s Lord of the Rings Online, both from developer Turbine, continued this trend. While this style was obviously popular, flooding the market with so many titles that were so similar soon diluted each one’s chances of breaking out. And besides, why would a gamer try one of these new fantasy online games when there was already a bigger one out there in the form of WOW?
Interestingly, developers working in other genres started to look at the MMO space and abstract out what made it so popular. It seemed clear that logging in again and again just to level up and gain more loot was a winning formula. Famously, in Two Thousand Seven developer Infinity Ward took that formula and put it into the modern-day shooter setting. And while Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a mammoth success for many reasons, its persistent unlock system is considered one of the biggest. And what is COD’s persistent unlock system if not leveling up and gaining loot? Using this formula, Call of Duty has gone on to become the single biggest franchise in gaming history.
But while this system remade the first-person shooter genre, it couldn’t help newcomers to the MMO space. New MMO games, such as Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning from Mythic Entertainment, simply couldn’t break the WOW monopoly. Famously, Funcom released Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures in Two Thousand Eight to a fantastic initial response that evaporated quickly. It sold five hundred thousand copies in two weeks, a staggeringly successful launch.
But after peaking at seven hundred thousand, subscription rates dropped to under one hundred thousand after only a year. Even Conan the Barbarian couldn’t beat off the competition.
Something had to give. With subscription rates continuing to fall in all but a few stalwart games, such as Eve Online and of course WOW, publishers had to find a new way to attract interest and dollars. So in Two Thousand Nine, Dungeons and Dragons Online made the bold decision to switch from a paid-subscription model to a free-to-play model, along the lines of the still-growing RuneScape. Revenue would come from microtransactions, in which players could choose to buy better items or features on an a la carte basis. They could also choose to buy a subscription for even more features. It was a risk, because if gamers chose not to buy anything, the game would have to be closed.
Instead, D&DO suddenly became the talk of the industry, and as gamers flocked back to try the free game, they ironically started spending far more money. The game’s developer, Turbine, quickly tried out the same model on their other game, Lord of the Rings Online, in Twenty Ten. The switch to the free model led to a three times increase in revenue for the game. In Twenty Eleven, Age of Conan followed suit, and saw a similar increase in interest and revenue.
The lessons from these games are still being absorbed by the industry. Clearly, games like WOW can make a fortune off of the paid model. But if hardcore gamers are willing to embrace a free game, and pay for microtransactions, what does that say about broader buying behavior? Can it be used to draw in audiences who watch their wallet more closely? Expect to see more experiments as time goes on. Even Blizzard has turned World of Warcraft’s free ten-day demo into an ongoing free-to-play experience.
The only subscription-based MMO to achieve true success in recent years is Aion from NCsoft. The same Korean studio that had dominated the Asian market with Lineage did it again as Aion reached four million subscribers after its Two Thousand Nine release. That being said, Aion remains largely an Asian phenomenon, since its Western response was considerably weaker. Of course, over half of World of Warcraft’s subscribers are in Asia as well. For whatever reason, the Eastern market remains the MMO genre’s most loyal following. The lessons of this, too, are still being absorbed by the industry.
Twenty Eleven has seen the release of DC Universe Online from Sony Entertainment Online, and Rift from Trion Worlds. DCUO has had the fastest turnaround to date on its business model, switching from subscription to free-to-play in only ten months. Rift had a strong launch, quickly reaching six hundred thousand subscribers, although this is already starting to taper off.
In the meantime, even the juggernaut itself is starting to show its age. After seven years of being the unquestioned champion of the genre, World of Warcraft has fallen to ten million subscribers from its peak at twelve million. It is possible that this is only a temporary blip, as subscription rates have always waxed and waned. But this is by far the biggest drop WOW has ever had, and seven years on, gamers may finally be moving on for good. Still, even at ten million, WOW is still by far the biggest game in the genre; it has literally lost more subscribers than most other games have ever had.
But it has strong competition on the horizon. The largest and most visible of these is Star Wars: The Old Republic, from developer BioWare. Of course, Star Wars is one of the most dependable IPs in the history of entertainment.
In addition, BioWare is a highly respected developer, and their single-player Knights of the Old Republic is one of the highest-rated RPGs of all time. However, BioWare has never made a multiplayer game before, and their desire to create a fully-voiced world with millions of lines of dialogue has never been attempted before. Whether or not it will work remains to be seen, but the hype so far has been mostly positive. Beyond this, BioWare is owned by Electronic Arts, and EA has always wanted a competitor to Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft franchise.
A number of other games are also in various stages of development, including Secret World from Funcom, Warhammer 40,000: Dark Millennium Online from Vigil Games, Guild Wars 2 from ArenaNet, and PlanetSide 2 from SOE, as well as the next EverQuest — currently called… EverQuest Next. NCsoft is also working on a new Lineage, called Lineage Eternal: Twilight Resistance, which promises to be a more directed and action-heavy experience. Meanwhile, Blizzard is also hard at work on their next MMO, codenamed Titan, about which nothing is currently known, other than that it is a brand-new IP.
As it stands, the Massively Multiplayer Online genre is in the midst of a seachange. The dominance of the subscription model is under threat as more and more games find success in the free model. Even WOW is starting to fall. Still, if games like The Old Republic can steal even a fraction of WOW’s base, it will prove that the monthly subscription still has life left in it. Whether the genre can continue to innovate creatively is another question, as there still seems to be little challenge to the aging gameplay mechanics that have been around, in one form or another, since Meridian 59.
But when all is said and done, few games can compete with the sheer profitability of a hit MMO. Its style is so engaging, it has already helped other games in other genres reach their peak. Even if it is changing, the market for MMOs is anything but shrinking. On the contrary, the genre looks set to become more massive than ever before.
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