What's it going to take to take on World of Warcraft? Six months ago, Gaute Godager looked like he might be the man with the answer. At launch, Funcom's Age of Conan had the most successful opening week we've seen for an MMOG in years. Huge figures were bandied about - 800,000 copies shifted, by one somewhat tall estimate.
This week, Gaute Godager left Funcom. He says he was "dissatisfied" with some aspects of the game. With vast swathes of those boxed copy sales failing to translate into ongoing subscriptions, server populations falling and enormous negativity surrounding online discussions about the game, it's probably fair to characterise Godager's departure as a head being rolled.
Godager, it seemed, didn't have the answer after all - or at least, not the full answer. While there's some hope that Funcom's new game director, Craig Morrison, will improve the game's fortunes (he's widely credited with turning around a disastrous launch for Anarchy Online, which eventually built a niche but dedicated fan following), the heady days when we all wondered if WoW's reign finally had a pretender are over.
Next up to bat, however, is a real heavyweight. Warhammer Online (or WAR to its friends) is developed by Mythic, a studio with a solid MMOG track record, and is based on a fantasy world whose depth (and fanbase) rivals Blizzard's Warcraft. Moreover, it's supported by all of EA's muscle, which certainly guarantees great marketing and retail presence. It looks a bit like WoW. It even plays rather a lot like WoW, albeit with its own unique features to bring to the table.
So is this, at last, the game to take on World of Warcraft? Has the answer, all along, been to emulate World of Warcraft, building in your own unique systems along the way (Mythic's real focus here, it's obvious, is on pitting players against one another in massive battles, which WoW doesn't really do)?
Time will tell, but I'll pin my colours to the mast here and say that while Warhammer Online is going to enjoy some success, it isn't going to signal any kind of mass-exodus from Blizzard's fantasy world. In fact, unless Blizzard seriously mess up their forthcoming expansion pack, Wrath of the Lich King - and there's nothing to suggest that they will - it seems eminently likely that WoW will continue to grow, largely unaffected by Mythic's newcomer to the market.
Why? Because, simply, this game remains Blizzard's to lose - and until they set a foot wrong, it's going to be extremely hard for anyone else to challenge them. Given the terrible post-launch problems experienced by games like Tabula Rasa and Age of Conan, WoW hasn't exactly seen much in the way of serious challenge so far, but even if Warhammer continues to live up to expectations, it's hard to see many players dropping out of WoW to engage with the newcomer.
WoW players, after all, have made an investment. They've invested countless hours into the game, accrued significant knowledge of its mechanisms, built up an armoury of impressive in-game items and a network of friends and rivals on their game server. Playing Warhammer would involve starting from scratch - an experience they're likely to try out for a few weeks, but unless their entire network of friends and guild-mates agrees to move to the new game en masse, they're most likely to return to the comfortable bosom of WoW in short order.
In other words, WoW has momentum. All Blizzard needs to do in order to maintain that inertia is pump out content and game changes regularly enough to keep things interesting. Major changes come once every year or so, in the form of expansion packs which wipe the slate clean and introduce a vast swathe of new content and new game mechanics. Every couple of months in the interim, Blizzard shakes up the status quo a little by introducing smaller patches - a new area here, a few new sets of armour there, some changes to the class balance along the way.
It doesn't seem like much, but for the vast majority of players, it's enough to keep them interested. As long as they're interested, and all their friends are there, inertia alone will keep them part of Blizzard's world. It doesn't seem like much, but when you consider how many hours players invest into these worlds, and how many hours of entertainment each of those changes must provide, the sheer talent of Blizzard's development team becomes more and more astonishing.
So any company that wants to take on WoW isn't just taking on that talent - it's also taking on all that inertia. Several years, eleven million players, and billions of hours played - that's the challenge that has to be surmounted, and that's even after you've built a game that's more entertaining, more accessible, more challenging and more polished than World of Warcraft.
Robert Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, has his own answer to the question of how you take on World of Warcraft. With all apologies to Mr Kotick, it's a somewhat charmless answer that's rather typical of a CEO - his answer is "USD 1 billion". Or rather, as he told a Goldman Sachs conference back in February, "we don't think that even if we made the USD 500 million or USD 1 billion-dollar investment to get a product out [to compete with WoW] that we would be successful in doing it."
Given that his company now owns WoW, he would say that - but that doesn't make it any less true. It wouldn't cost a billion dollars to develop a competitor to WoW, but to overcome all of that inertia? A billion dollars would be a knock-down, bargain basement price.
So what's a company to do, if it wants a slice of that MMOG pie? A bite of those delicious, monthly-revenue-stream cherries, hanging tantalisingly close and yet far out of reach?
Simple - don't compete with WoW. In fact, do everything in your power to avoid competing with WoW. Certainly, by all means, learn lessons from the game - after all, it's the most polished and perfectly balanced MMOG ever created, regardless of what a small but vocal band of snooty naysayers may argue. But any MMOG which actually wants to succeed should be avoiding WoW's market like the plague, and seeking to explore virgin territory instead.
Of course, that's harder than copying WoW. It's riskier, creatively, and it might even be more expensive, depending on how you approach it. But if you're going to copy WoW, you'd better have a strategy for tackling WoW's inertia - and if you've got one of those, you're a better businessperson than anyone else in the videogames industry has proved to be thus far.
Besides, there are already proven successes in this field. Look at CCP Games, whose EVE Online massively multiplayer title continues to enjoy massive success with a niche but utterly dedicated market. Or how about Jagex, a British firm whose simple, accessible title Runescape continues to attract huge audiences? At the fringes of the MMOG market, there's a thriving economy built up of smaller games, developed on smaller budgets, which simply don't cross over with WoW at all - but have created successful, thriving business models and healthy revenue streams all by themselves.
It's natural to be jealous when the farmer next door has acquired a goose that lays golden eggs. However, throwing all your efforts into trying to breed your own golden-egg laying goose is likely to be futile and self-destructive. Forget trying to emulate WoW; the time will come naturally when that throne is vacated, but it won't happen because of a worthy contender. Instead, find the niches yet to be filled, and the niches still waiting to be created. Five years ago, online fantasy role-playing was a niche, so who knows - perhaps one of the ones you uncover could turn out to be an 11-million player niche, too.