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MMORPGs: Time to level up

Steve Peterson looks at the current MMORPG landscape, the marketing challenges, and what lies ahead

The massively multiplayer roleplaying game (MMORPG) has been an extremely successful part of the gaming industry since the early days of Island of Kesmai back in the 1980s, through Don Daglow's Neverwinter Nights on AOL in the early 1990s, Richard Garriott's Ultima Online, and finally the smashing success that is Blizzard's World of Warcraft. The MMORPG is extremely popular across Asia as well, from MapleStory in Korea to countless MMORPGs in China. All told, this genre of games has generated billions of dollars in revenue, and continues to engage millions of players every day.

Yet there are signs of trouble in the MMORPG market. World of Warcraft once had 12 million subscribers back in 2010, but that number has diminished to 7.8 million. Development budgets for some MMORPGs have become so immense that they have become dangerous, as 38 Studios can attest after it crashed and burned while trying to create Project Copernicus, an immense MMORPG. Trion Worlds created both Rift and Defiance in recent years with interesting design ideas, but neither has been able to make a huge impact in the market. Most notably, Electronic Arts' long, expensive development of Star Wars: The Old Republic tried to go the subscription route, but ultimately had to admit subscriptions weren't viable and became free-to-play.

A big challenge for MMORPGs is in marketing's court. While making gamers aware of an MMORPG is not really a different problem than any other game, the job doesn't stop when you've convinced one person to try out the game. MMORPG players tend to travel in packs, and a successful MMORPG is one that can convince a player and all his roleplaying friends to switch. Because, for the most part, the potential audience for an MMORPG is already playing one. While members of a group may try out a new MMORPG from time to time, the group as a whole is difficult to shift to a new game. That requires not only a compelling game, but the right marketing strategy and tactics to get a group to move over.

"Bethesda may not be as crazy as you might think, if you take a close look at the numbers"

While many huge MMORPG projects tried to become the next World of Warcraft and failed, there have been other paths to MMORPG success. Guild Wars 2 has you pay up-front for the game and then makes money from virtual items for sale, releasing new content on a regular basis. The game has garnered a substantial audience and continues successfully with this hybrid business model.

EVE Online continues to go its own way, with a steady base of dedicated fans subscribing. Few have tried to emulate this model, but Goblinworks is readying Pathfinder Online, which has been described by some as "EVE Online in a fantasy setting." Sony is looking for user-generated content to become a key to widespread adoption of Everquest Next. These MMORPGs are taking a different design path than the classic game, making them very different from World of Warcraft.

The latest entry in the now-classic MMORPG subscription model is The Elder Scrolls Online, which is looking to get players to pay a monthly subscription fee. Many observers think this is a wild hope, that players just won't put up with a monthly subscription fee any longer. Bethesda may not be as crazy as you might think, if you take a close look at the numbers. The key fact, recently revealed, is that Skyrim (the last game in the Elder Scrolls series) has sold more than 20 million copies. That's an immense number, and it makes The Elder Scrolls Online a much more viable proposition. If only 25 percent of Skyrim buyers pick up The Elder Scrolls Online at $60 (which seems like a conservative estimate), that represents somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million, which should be more than enough to cover the costs of The Elder Scrolls Online development even if no one ever buys a subscription.

What does the future hold for the MMORPG? We will continue to see players engaged with roleplaying online, as the computer offers the richest array of tools. Console MMORPGs are growing, though, and Sony Online Entertainment is pressing forward to make the PlayStation a popular platform for MMORPG fans. Innovations like emergent story lines and user-generated content will continue to keep players interested. New games will continue to come from Asia and attempt to find a foothold in the western world. Blizzard hopes to create new excitement in World of Warcraft with its massive Warlords of Draenor expansion this year.

"The potential rewards are huge for a publisher that can crack the MMORPG code for mobile"

The largest potential market of the future is, of course, mobile. Tablets are in the hundreds of millions of units already, and smartphones are over a billion and still climbing. What's obvious, though, is that the MMORPG will have to fundamentally change in a number of ways to become viable on mobile devices. If you've ever looked at a World of Warcraft player's computer screen in mid-raid, you'll see that interface will never translate to a smartphone. Complicated controls and interfaces certainly aren't suited to smartphones. Tablets offer a larger area, but without physical keys really complex layouts are still problematic.

Another issue for mobile MMORPGs is one of engagement time. A typical smartphone gamer plays for a few minutes at a time. A tablet gamer may play for tens of minutes. A typical MMORPG player online can easily play for hours at a time. Hours-long play sessions are not going to work well on a mobile device, so MMORPG design for mobile will have to take that into account.

There are, of course, already mobile games that lay claim to the mantle of MMORPG, but none have yet had anywhere near the impact of a World of Warcraft. The very nature of the genre is an issue, as there's no general agreement on what features are really necessary in order to call a game an MMORPG. Must players all be in the same virtual environment? How many? How important is the story content, and what form does it take? What is combat like, and experience, and items? Is it always realtime, or can it be asynchronous? All of these areas are being explored, with the final answers as yet undetermined.

Still, the potential rewards are huge for a publisher that can crack the MMORPG code for mobile. The market, purely from the number of devices available, could be an order of magnitude larger than the online MMORPG market. There's no doubt we will see plenty of competition in that space in the years ahead.

MMORPGs have had a long history, and it seems safe to say the genre has yet to reach its level cap. There's much more experience to be gained, and plenty of gold left to acquire. Publishers will continue to create new MMORPGs in their quest for profits.

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Steve Peterson: Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.
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