The MMO market is a mess of contradictions. Is its future bleak, or bright? Is it a huge growth area, or in stasis? Is it taking over the gaming industry from within, or simply excavating an ever-larger niche for itself? The answers to these depend on your perspective on a number of key issues, especially the dominion that World of Warcraft holds over the genre. But even then, those answers are seldom clear-cut.
The MMO market's war with itself seems best expressed when you look at the 2008 release schedule. Funcom's Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventure - now a matter of weeks away from release - and EA Mythic's Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning are the year's great hopes. And despite the despairing cries of many that you can't attempt to take Blizzard's behemoth head on - that WoW has captured every last player who's ever going to try a subscription-based massively multiplayer game - that's exactly what they seem to be doing.
Age of Conan and WAR are both fantasy RPGs. They're very far from being copycats; each comes loaded with its fair share of innovations, grand designs and unique selling points, Conan with its more down-to-earth setting and dynamic combat, WAR with its clever structure for interracial warfare on a massive scale. Neither should they be accused of jumping on WoW's thematic bandwagon; that game, after all, is merely a perfection of the dominant paradigm in MMO gaming going back to the Ultima days, and a reflection of the genre's roots in pen-and-paper roleplaying.
But the fact remains that they're both going to be perceived as extremely similar to WoW by the mass-market. Many in the industry are decrying this, saying that MMOs must broaden their appeal if they're to survive WoW's reign and capitalise on it. The trouble is, experience doesn't bear them out. Looking at last year's pair of MMO contenders, Turbine's polished fantasy stalwart Lord of the Rings Online has performed respectably, while NCsoft's much more innovative science fiction game, Tabula Rasa, is locked in a desperate struggle to retain its audience, never mind grow it.
Gamers themselves don't seem to be encouraging a move away from MMOs' comfort zone. The buzz of anticipation is much more pronounced around Age of Conan and Warhammer Online than the likes of Pirates of the Burning Sea, or Stargate Worlds. Looking even further afield, the nascent world of sports MMOs - which, it has been assumed, will be the next big thing for years now - is struggling to get off the starting blocks. It's fallen to companies from outside gaming to bankroll this year's experiments in the genre - Football Superstars and Empire of Sports. Although both have the potential to reach a broad spread of casual players, both are struggling to stir much interest among the opinion-forming gaming hardcore, which would be a vital boost on the way to success.
It seems it's not just the developers and publishers who are risk-averse - it's MMO players themselves. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising; after all, it's not just game makers who are looking at making a larger-than-usual investment of time and money when it comes to an MMO - it's the players too.
But something needs to be done to break this cycle, to encourage both first-timers and veterans to try something new in massively multiplayer gaming, or the state of hegemony in the MMO marketplace will never be broken - whether it's Blizzard that repeats its own success, or someone else. Although WAR and Conan are both likely to find decent audiences, as LotRO has done before them, neither can realistically hope to do more than chip away at WoW's foundations. And surely, the desire is there for players to spend time in worlds rooted in something other than Norse myth.
There are a number of very interesting prospects, expected in 2009 and beyond, that stand a chance of helping massive social gaming to outgrow its roots. Realtime Worlds' crime-themed action MMO, All Points Bulletin, wowed GDC attendees this year, and Sony Online Entertainment's spy shooter The Agency has looked like a very solid prospect for some time now.
Cryptic will struggle a little harder without Microsoft backing or Marvel branding for its superhero game Champions Online, but should still find a niche for it. It's certainly no coincidence - and a massive boost to their prospective fortunes - that all three of these games are slated for console releases, with fresh audiences and simplified interfaces to suit.
But all of these games have a serious pitfall to avoid - that is to say, making the same mistakes that Tabula Rasa did: innovating too much, and not enough. Tabula Rasa changed the setting and half the gameplay, but clung to a number of other MMO tropes - redundant in its brave new world - and ended up confusing players. APB and The Agency will do better by applying MMO structure, technology and social features to gameplay that belongs solidly in a different genre.
But perhaps the true path to a broader MMO market - in the medium term - is to use tried and tested MMO design and simply take it somewhere else. It's scarcely believable, but no-one has yet attempted to transport the classic MMORPG - as developed and perfected by Origin, SOE and Blizzard - into a different setting.
Could Blizzard be the first to do it, with a World of StarCraft? Maybe, but it seems unlikely the company would be entirely happy to simply clone its greatest achievement. And in any event, maybe it's an even bigger step away from fantasy, from traditional core gaming themes, that's needed to make this conservative strategy work.
There is one game out there, known to be in development, that fits the bill perfectly. That uses the established foundations of MMO design to build something that sounds radical and also makes perfect sense, and that is guaranteed to bring the pleasure of massive social gaming to entire new demographics. Step forward Lego Universe: the saviour of MMOs?
Oli Welsh is the MMO editor for Eurogamer.net.