When people remember 2007 in the MMORPG genre, it will be remembered as much for what didn't happen as what did and for a game launched years before. Of the four major scheduled 2007 MMO launches, two slipped into 2008. EA Mythic's Warhammer Online and Funcom's Age of Conan were delayed, while Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online - which was supposed to launch in 2006 - made its mark and NCsoft's Tabula Rasa struggled in the tail end of the year.
And so, yet again, the year-in-review looks bleak. It's been three full years since World of Warcraft redefined the subscription MMO genre, and they were still the biggest story of 2007. Blizzard launched an expansion pack, continued to pile on the subscribers and brought their game into the mainstream of popular culture.
Yet, while World of Warcraft has been celebrated as a major step forward for the genre, the game - for all its done right and all the success it has had - has become an albatross around the neck of the genre.
Since it launched, only two traditional subscription-based MMORPGs launched and found any degree of success: City of Villains and Lord of the Rings Online. The former, a glorified expansion pack to City of Heroes, reinvigorated the game and sold well. The later came into view with a massive intellectual property behind it and while the game undoubtedly found financial success, it likely didn't make nearly the dent Turbine hoped, as evidenced by the company's decision to replace CEO Jeff Anderson. Every other truly successful, "mainstream" subscription-based MMO launched before World of Warcraft and of them, only one - EVE Online - appears to have made significant strides forward since.
WoW casts a huge shadow and no one has been able to get out from under it. The evidence is in the numbers. Before WoW, EverQuest lorded over the genre with an estimated peak in the range of 500,000 subscribers. Star Wars Galaxies was at its most successful still considered a relative disappointment with over 300,000 subscribers. Games like Dark Age of Camelot once hovered well over the 200,000 mark. Then came WoW, now at 9.5 million and counting.
Other developers spouted off about how they wished Blizzard all the success in the world. It was reasoned that as Blizzard blazed new trails, other games would follow and pick up the table scraps. Everyone truly believed World of Warcraft would make the subscription-based MMO pie bigger for everyone. Three years later, the evidence says that is not true.
There is no doubt many of the old guard have suffered. The combination of time and Blizzard make the decline inevitable. For example, Dark Age of Camelot's numbers have fallen off considerably, as evidenced by their publicly available active user numbers. It is also obvious that a game like Star Wars Galaxies has suffered significantly from its missteps and is no where near its historic high. In fact, I would be shocked to see any pre-WoW AAA MMO with a Western subscriber level above 225,000.
While the decline of older games may be inevitable, the real concern is that no one has come forward to replace them. EverQuest II launched simultaneously with WoW and likely sits in the upper tier of "other" subscriber MMOs, but it never reached the same heights as the original EverQuest. City of Villains, as mentioned, likely prolonged the life of City of Heroes, but according to NCsoft financials, only had 139,313 subscribers as of September of this year. Lord of the Rings Online has only 13 servers [Editor's Note: That number is for North American only, as Codemasters administrates additional servers in Europe] (by comparison, CoH/V has 15), which translates into a minimum of 150,000 subscribers and a generous maximum of 400,000. Even at the high end, that doesn't match EverQuest in its prime. And Tabula Rasa? It has only four active North American and European servers, no doubt a huge disappointment for NCsoft.
The really scary thing for MMO investors and developers is the basic fact that Lord of the Rings Online was actually a very good game. It did everything everyone said they needed to do in a post-WoW era. It's polished, it's fun, it launched smoothly and it has a monster mainstream IP behind it. Yet, despite these things, and the supposedly expanded marketplace, LotRO has failed to capture even as many eyeballs as the original EverQuest did.
All the evidence suggests that World of Warcraft is not the harbinger of an expanded marketplace, but an aberration, a lightning strike at the right moment. Among Western audiences - as it was among Eastern audiences years ago - the subscription based MMORPG is at best on life support and more than likely on its way out the door.
The one-two punch of WoW and Guild Wars in 2004 has delivered a significant blow to the prospects of any company that has the audacity to charge their subscribers a monthly fee. Guild Wars showed that a high quality experience can be free and WoW redefined what people expect for that $14.95 a month.