InterviewsState of the MMO: Industry Luminaries On The Genre, Its FutureInterviews - RSS 2.0
And perhaps these quiet giants of the MMO-space, the free-to-play, generally browser-based and microtransaction-supported games that already dominate the market, will become the next big thing simply by being recognized as such.
It has begun. "Free-to-play games are getting more and more sophisticated, and are starting to compete (especially in mindshare) with the more traditional sub-based MMOs," added Firor.
But the question remains open: Who drives innovation?
Smedley sees the responsibility for innovation shared between the big, traditional companies and the upstarts. "Some of it will come from the smaller ones and some of it the bigger ones."
His company is hard at work on FreeRealms, for example, which he insists will have a global appeal, but it's definitely not a traditional MMO. FreeRealms targets a much younger audience; it's free to play, free to download and definitely not swords and sorcery. However, SOE is one of the few big companies to make a move like this and are simultaneously developing a host of more traditional games aimed at the core market.
Generally, most agreed that there is a coming gulf between the big and small developers. The big boys are going to make bigger, fancier and more expensive MMOs based on huge IP and carrying huge expectations. The smaller, more independent developers will be forced by spiraling costs to innovate in a few specific areas to carve out a niche.
"Smaller developers have to niche," Macris said bluntly.
It All Comes Down To Money
The basic fact is that all these trends are being driven by exponentially growing development costs. MMOs were once merely expensive; now they're multi-million dollar endeavors that dwarf some movie productions. The risk is huge at this price point, and investors need to take whatever precautions they can against failure. That means big budget games are less likely to try anything unproven.
"It's that the stakes are getting bigger in this space," said Smedley. "My personal belief is that the quality bar is going to get raised and that does necessarily mean that the cost of development goes up."
While quality goes up, risk also goes down.
"Sure, spiraling costs have an impact to innovation. But that's nothing new," said Stinnett. "Costs have been spiraling in the games industry for decades and I don't see MMO development costs as out of line given the additional complexity of creating online games."
But for his part, Smedley doesn't think the independents will actually be frozen out. "EVE is a classic example of something that came out of nowhere and turned into a real powerful brand."
CCP's Zuurmond believes part of the success of EVE is their agility as a company. "We need more MMOs like EVE, where we do try to add completely new content that doesn't use already established game systems"
EVE Online has organically grown from a game even its creators admit lacked content at launch into a virtual universe. In the coming years, they hope to add avatars to supplement the space flight and truly round out the experience. Their success at producing new content and consistently growing their product has turned them from an obscure Icelandic start-up into a leader in this genre.
They are not alone. "The French guys that made Dofus show what a small shop can do - it's a great game, but not one that required lots of money or tons of developers," noted Firor.
Stinnett argued that the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of innovation, at least among the big guns, is the sheer size of World of Warcraft's lead. "There would be still plenty of investment and innovation if anyone believed they could get more than a tiny fraction of the pie, but so far, no one has proven that it is possible."
Thought it may seem impossible, there was a time when no one believed EverQuest's roughly 500,000 subscribers would be topped. Something will inevitably come along.
"I think the space is about to explode with a large number of very high quality name brands getting into the space," argued Smedley, formerly the Director of Development for Everquest who knows all too well that any game can eventually be topped. "Players like Ubisoft getting in with their Clancy series. That's a huge thing."