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Massively Money-making

Could a new contender be about to dip into the MMOG treasure-chest at last?

Talk to just about any executive at a videogame publisher and you'll find that they're very, very interested in massively multiplayer gaming. Fascinated, in fact. Not that they're actually thinking of spending any money or taking any risks on it - not right at the moment - but boy, is massively multiplayer gaming interesting or what!

It's best not to press this point in the conversation, I should add. Asking what aspect of massively multiplayer gaming it is that interests the industry's business top dogs is a hopeless venture - follow-up questions about emergent gameplay, unique social structures or the sociological significance of interactions in virtual worlds will be met with a blank stare at best, and one of those excruciatingly shambolic "I genuinely care about videogames, honest" executive speeches at worst.

The reality, of course, is that the thing which makes executives fascinated and interested in massively multiplayer games has nothing to do with the design and evolution of these fascinating creations. Rather, it has everything to do with the fact that Blizzard seemingly invented a machine that prints money a few years ago, and there's not an executive on the planet who doesn't fancy having one of those in his stable.

It helps that in the money-printing stakes, World of Warcraft turns out those fragrant greenbacks at a pretty sharp rate. If you'll permit me to make a rough restaurant napkin calculation, factoring in the lower average revenue from Chinese accounts still suggests an average monthly revenue per player of around USD 10. With ten million active accounts, that's USD 100 million - a lot of dollar bills being churned out by that printer every month.

That's why massively multiplayer games are fascinating, and that's why Blizzard attracts so many envious eyes from across the industry. Nobody else has a game product that delivers revenues like that - especially not once you factor in sales of the game and its expansion packs. The next expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, will probably be one of the year's best selling games when it launches this winter - and every copy will be sold to an audience already paying over USD 10 a month to the company.

Yes, the industry's executives salivate over the success of World of Warcraft. There's just one small problem - one little thing which holds back every publisher on the planet from leaping right into the breach and launching their own MMOG competitor.

Like every good role-playing game dungeon, there's fabulous treasure to be had here - untold riches and piles of gold. Unfortunately, and equally like every good role-playing game dungeon, none of the brave souls who go off in search of that treasure are ever seen alive again.

Some of the massively multiplayer market's legends have done their level best, and their corpses are now mounted on stakes outside the dungeon's maw as a dire warning to other would-be competitors. EverQuest's creators made a brave stab with Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, but it collapsed under the weight of a rushed launch, shockingly poor execution and over-ambitious design. Ultima Online's godfather, Richard Garriott, launched his own new effort before Christmas - but Tabula Rasa has barely limped over the three-month mark, after a botched launch earned widespread apathy from players.

Whenever you question the developers working on upcoming MMOGs about World of Warcraft - and it's a question you have to ask, because it's a pretty enormous elephant to leave sitting on the table - they always respond effusively. World of Warcraft is brilliant, they say. It's opened up the market, brought in new audiences, created brand new opportunities. We're sure we can offer something different and co-exist happily with WoW, runs the MMO developer party line.

There's no question but that WoW has brought in a whole new audience. Previously, the biggest massively multiplayer game in the western world was EverQuest, which hit an absolute peak of around 450,000 subscriptions. At the time, conventional industry wisdom was that this was the maximum possible audience for MMOG titles - that they were a curious niche, and destined to remain a curious niche for a very long time.

Obviously, World of Warcraft has blown apart that world view rather effectively. Suddenly, it became clear that the maximum audience for MMOGs is vast - present estimates suggest that once you add up everything in the market, there are about 16 million people playing massively multiplayer games, of whom, of course, 10 million are playing WoW. The enthusiasm of developers who have suddenly seen their potential audience grow from half a million to 16 million is understandable.

The problem, however, is that so far that audience has been guarded jealously by World of Warcraft. It's not that Blizzard acts in a remotely anti-competitive way - on the contrary, the team is always polite and gracious about its competition. It's just that WoW's audience doesn't really show any inclination to go off and play other games, at least not for longer than a month or so. For the vast number of WoW players for whom this is their first MMOG, it's not hard to see why - Blizzard has set a high water mark for user interface design, game balance, polish and performance that few other MMOGs have even approached.

Thus, the conventional wisdom regarding massively multiplayer games has changed. No longer is the genre seen as being a curious niche - now it is perceived as being a money-printing machine, but one that only works if your name happens to be Blizzard Entertainment. For everyone else, it's a money pit, a black hole into which endless funds can be poured to little avail.

This month, however, has seen preconceptions challenged and eyebrows raised, thanks to the release of the genre's latest contender - Age of Conan. Sales of this game bypassed Everquest's peak subscriptions in its first week, and a couple of weeks later, it's managed to shift a million copies. It's officially the most successful launch of a massively multiplayer game since WoW hit the shelves.

Developer Funcom has pedigree in MMOG titles, but it's not pedigree anyone would envy. Its previous title, Anarchy Online, was a little-loved mess of a game - but one which the tenacious Norwegian developer managed to turn into a cult classic with a small but devoted audience thanks to years of overhauls, updates and additions. Perhaps this very experience, having found every pitfall possible and learned the hard way how to climb out of them, is a better grounding for MMOG success than any other?

We'll soon find out. Next week, Age of Conan's subscribers start hitting the end of their 30 day trial periods - and having to decide whether to stay in the game, or head back to the welcoming shores of World of Warcraft. For Funcom, the hugely successful launch of Age of Conan is reason enough to celebrate. However, if they can start holding on to those subscribers - especially past the launch of the next WoW expansion, which will inevitably call many players back to Blizzard's game - then the conventional wisdom regarding MMOGs may have to be changed once again. The money-printing machines might not be an invention exclusive to Blizzard after all, and the potential market for MMOGs could be even bigger than we're now giving it credit for.

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