InterviewsState of the MMO: Industry Luminaries On The Genre, Its FutureInterviews - RSS 2.0
The MMO industry has grown from a two-horse race at the turn of the century to one of the largest segments of the gaming industry and perhaps the last true foothold games have on the PC. Yet, during this same period, there have been innumerable failures, and many questions remain wide open. Can MMOs truly be global? Is the subscription model in decline? To what extent should developers innovate or evolve gameplay? What role should established IP play? Have these games gotten too expensive to make?
To answer these questions, we spoke to cross section of people from around the industry to get a handle on the true "State of the MMO". We spoke to SOE President John Smedley, ZeniMax Online Studios General Manager Matt Firor, Themis Group CEO Alexander Macris, GamerDNA.com Director of Community Sanya Weathers, EVE Online Game Designer Chantel Zuurmond, IGN PC Executive Editor Steve Butts and the former Executive Producer of Star Trek Online Daron Stinnett to get their thoughts on all these issues and much more.
State of the Genre Today
"It's pretty bleak right now!" explained Daron Stinnett, formerly Executive Producer of the ill-fated Star Trek Online. "If you take a look at the games in the shadow of WoW, you'll find a pack of MMOs that have managed to hold onto one or two hundred thousand subscribers."
It was a sentiment shared by most of those we spoke to. It's obvious that World of Warcraft has the market by the throat and have become perhaps the only truly global game in the MMO-space. That means some tough realities for the games in the next tier.
"[MMOs are in a] state of unrest, right now," said Matt Firor, General Manager of ZeniMax Online Studios, a sister company of Bethesda. "World of Warcraft is ruling the subscription game market, and no one wants to compete with them directly, so they go off for niche markets."
Chantel Zuurmond, Game Designer for CCP Game's EVE Online, agreed: "I think any game that wants to coexist with WoW and do well should try to cater to a niche."
This leaves developers and investors with a choice. They either run at the colossus that is WoW head-on, or they do as Zuurmond suggests and try and carve out a unique - but smaller - niche.
"Publishers and developers look at the 10 million-plus subscribers and can't help but want a piece of the action," noted Steve Butts, IGN PC's Executive Editor.
Over the last two years, a slew of MMOs have hit the shelves and failed utterly. Games like Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault, Vanguard and many more were all big budget, retail subscription MMOs with loads of marketing dollars behind them that have either fallen off the face of the Earth or settled into a small niche. Clearly, the most recent generation of MMOs hasn't been doing enough to fire the imagination of gamers.
"It seems like many people learned the wrong lessons from WoW," commented Sanya Weathers, formerly of Mythic and now Director of Community Relations at GamerDNA.com. "[They] are busy spending ungodly amounts of money on what amounts to feature creep with bonus graphic bloat."
Her deadpan delivery aside, it's become a valid point that many in the industry agree with. The simple fact is that World of Warcraft is an accessible game, both in gameplay and system requirements, and most of the forgotten MMOs of yesteryear failed at one or both of those things.
"What's happened in the MMO-space parallels what's happened in the game industry as a whole," noted Themis Group CEO Alexander Macris. "The cost to create a AAA title is now greater than the expected return from selling the game to the core gamer audience."
As such, developers and publishers have had to expand their horizons and appeal to more than just core games. When you release a game with system requirements that outstrip the average consumer's machine, you're definitely in trouble.
"That's one of the biggest places we made a mistake with EverQuest II is the system requirements," admitted SOE President John Smedley. His title, a sequel to the most successful MMO on the planet at the time, did well enough, but was completely overshadowed by World of Warcraft when both launched in late 2004. Later, they published - and then absorbed - Vanguard, which Smedley noted sold 250,000 copies, but had no chance to retain a good percentage of those players given the number of people who simply couldn't run the game on their PC.
So what can be done? Where should development companies be spending those resources?
"The 'me too' approach to development won't work," added Butts. "Any game that hopes to compete with WoW has to do so by offering a substantially different setting or game design."
Weathers agreed. "The Next Big Thing will come out of a studio that tries to build a wind powered car."