Published on October 15th, 2012 | by Ethan
The classic MMO is dead.
South Park often makes parodies poking fun of pop culture. In 2006 they made an episode not only entirely dedicated to World of Warcraft, but also mostly made inside the game. Later South Park made an episode parodying Guitar Hero with Heroin Hero, where player’s goal was to catch the magic dragon. This hallucination of catching the magic dragon is the same as developers trying to make the next MMO to compete or capture the same glory as WoW.
MMOs take a substantial amount of time to develop. They aren’t always hits and that makes them huge risks to the developer and publisher making them. Let’s take Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) as an example. It had a ridiculous budget, loads of hype, and a sure-fire license, but it is still struggling to keep its head above water.
Like most MMOs after they have run their course and need an income boost, SWTOR decided to forgo the subscription and run with a free to play model. Although this change happened significantly sooner than most people (and presumably EA) expected.
This doesn’t mean that big budget MMOs are dead, it simply means that the tastes of gamers are changing.
WoW worked great for what it was at the time. It was a MMO that was easy to play, access and defined the carrot on the stick philosophy of grinding and leveling. It also came with 14-days for free to get new new players completely hooked, encouraging them to pay a monthly subscription after buying the game to rake in the massive bucks.
After it struck gold though, nearly every developer in the business decided it was time to shift gears and make a cookie cutter MMO using nearly the same format and mechanics that WoW used to garner its success. Lighting strikes twice, right?
No it doesn’t. While a lot of MMOs succeeded with this format early on, after a while, people grew tired of playing nearly the same game reskinned with different packaging on an almost yearly basis.
Some MMOs decided that even if the game played the same as WoW they were able to get away with it, if they gave the player the opportunity to play the game for free.
The epidemic took off. Many subscription based MMOs jumped ship and open their doors to a wider audience. Lord of the Rings Online, a well made MMO that heavily ripped off WoW in my opinion, tripled their income when they went free to play after being subscription based.
Unfortunately, SWTOR got the memo too late, and while adding many new features to the standard MMO affair, it still remained a subscription based MMO. They didn’t figure out that no matter how flashy and hyped up you make your MMO, subscription based MMOs are becoming a relic.
Of course SWTOR then switched quickly to the free to play model, but will it help resurrect the floundering Star Wars MMO?
That’s a tough call.
It seemed the Cryptic Studios’ City of Heroes, which went free to play a little more than a year ago, was doing fine from an outside perspective, but it was recently announced that the servers would be shutting their doors at the end of the year.
It seems that there really is no safe way to secure an MMO’s future. They take so long to make that sometimes it is hard to really prepare for the ever changing gaming landscape.
The Elder Scrolls Online, from what I have seen so far, looks extremely generic. When it was revealed at E3, all I heard was an enthusiastic lack of enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, The Elder Scrolls Online might be too far along in its 5 year development to change the course of what could be a disastrous ship. Hopefully Bethesda will wake up and try to put in a unique spin on the genre and free to play elements into the game.
The lack of hype of a game won’t hurt Bethesda like it hurt 38 Studios, a much smaller company, who went bankrupt while trying to make the Kingdoms of Amalur MMO, title Project Copernicus, off of Rhode Island’s dime.
An MMO like Project Copernicus, that was stuck in development for about 7 years, hemorrhaged money for the start up studio founded by MLB pitcher, Kurt Schilling. It was a major risk for 38 Studios and it sadly didn’t pay off.
38 Studios ended up closing down and having all of its assets auctioned off. You can find and bid on all of the studio’s assets here.
I don’t believe another MMO will ever reach the same success level as WoW, but they can still be profitable. Developers need to stop trying to catch the magic dragon and break away from the precedent that WoW set and innovate. The success and quality of free to play games such as Guild Wars 2, will hopefully make developers shift gears.
The genre isn’t dead, it’s just going through its midlife crisis trying to find itself.