You already know all about the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) phenomenon: the GDC panels, the rants, the spectacular failures and successes, the addictions, the “Make Love, Not Warcraft” South Park episode, the ubiquitous elves, and especially the profits. Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, though, here’s a brief explanation of why MMOs are important.
World of Warcraft is a rather successful MMO. Its subscription model gives it a trump card against software pirates, and its massive subscriber base guarantees continued revenue for the next few years at least, if current trends are to be trusted. Even World of Warcraft’s older, poorer cousins, such Everquest and Ultima Online, continue to turn profits many years after their initial release.
On the other side of the PC gaming coin, non-subscription retail games face increasingly grim prospects as customers turn to pirated software and parasitic games such as the aforementioned World of Warcraft, which more than one executive has blamed for slow PC game sales. And they appear to have a valid complaint: retail sales of PC games have fallen every year since 2001, while revenue from subscription fees has skyrocketed.
Clearly, the trends show that the future of enthusiast PC gaming lies with games that can hold a player’s interest over long periods of time; at the very least, these games commute PC gaming’s death sentence for a few years, until game consoles can provide the features, depth, flexibility, and convenience that PCs allow.
The thing is…we all expected these games to evolve. We looked at Everquest and its addictiveness and reasoned that surely someone would improve on this formula, creating a breed of entertainment that the entire spectrum of gamers could enjoy. Instead, we have seen a parade of copycats that fails to appeal to a large portion of the potential market, despite far bigger development budgets than any offline games.
What’s the problem? Is it that MMO developers choose to design their games for a niche audience? Or are the designers, who often have little to no experience with traditional video game design, simply incapable of designing anything but a nerd-fest? I can’t answer that, but here are a few questions on the subject I do want to try to answer from the standpoint of a traditional game designer: What exactly is an MMO? Will the current MMO formula hold up over time? What is holding this type of game back from more universal success, and how can it be improved?
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