If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Why Keep Trying?
By Neil Kewn (Murxidon), OnRPG Journalist
A year doesn’t go by without several MMORPGs being released for public consumption. Ever since the phenomenal success of World of Warcraft, developers have become increasingly aware of the MMO genre and how easily consumers will part with their cash just to experience fantastical new worlds. With Warcraft celebrating its five-year anniversary, the persistent world juggernaut has obliterated everything that tried to reduce its subscription numbers. Most of the time, Blizzard hasn’t had to lift a finger. New MMOs are announced, hyped and acclaimed. Yet, players prised away from their beloved Azeroth seem to always find a way back. Why are developers throwing millions of dollars at their own MMO ventures in an effort to compete with World of Warcraft, and how is it affecting their business?
A common sight for eleven million of us
Fighting a losing battle
Warhammer Online was deemed by many to be the WoW killer. The game that will finally topple Blizzard’s cash cow. It didn’t, and as player numbers crashed through the floor, World of Warcraft’s subscription numbers continued to climb. There have been a number of high profile releases that have failed to set the virtual world alight (Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, The Lord of the Rings Online, Tabula Rasa, AION). What happened? The games aren’t necessarily bad, and usually sell a truck load of copies upon release. More often than not, player numbers just begin to dwindle several months after launch, which is bad news for consumers and investors.
Case in point would be Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. AoC is flat lining after it was revealed to have a surprisingly low number of monthly subscriptions, with several gaming outlets reporting that the user base had fallen below 100,000. The game, released in 2007, was highly anticipated by many and had a relatively successful launch, with over 400,000 subscribers after the first week of release. Developers Funcom have taken drastic measures to try and boost the player base. One of which was practically giving the game away. I was one of 1000 people to grab a free copy of the game with one month’s subscription by just visiting Eurogamer. Slightly less desperate tactics included the slashing of subscription costs, and December saw the introduction of a “free forever” trial feature which gave new players unlimited access to game content up to level twenty.
Funcom ended 2008 by recording the worst quarterly losses in the company’s history, and although profits rose last year, it is rather unlikely that the Hyborian Kindoms will topple Azeroth as the fantasy world players wish to populate. Later this year will hopefully see the release of Age of Conan’s first expansion pack, which Funcom hope will bring some much needed publicity to the game.
Age of Conan – On a downward slope
When living up to the hype isn’t enough
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is in the same boat as AoC, struggling with fewer than 300,000 active subscriptions. Mythic Entertainment enjoyed the positive reception Warhammer received upon release back in 2008. Players and critics alike praised its player-vs-player combat, with many labelling the game as the MMO to jump ship to. Publisher Electronic Arts has culled most of the game’s servers in response to the game’s declining popularity. Like its shipmate, WAR’s creators have heavily promoted an “endless trial” scheme to try and interest players in coughing up the monthly fee. It is a disappointing fall from grace two years on.
To some, 300,000 payments of $14.99 may seem like a lot, and it could appear that the project is still worthwhile for EA. But it hasn’t done much to lessen the company’s financial woes, with losses totalling almost 1.1 billion dollars last year. Electronic Arts has already canned a number of projects and axed over fifteen hundred jobs. Could the development of Warhammer suffer as Frank Gibeau strives to cut back on spending?
Blizzard enjoys eleven and a half million active subscribers, and currently has over sixty per cent of the P2P MMORPG market share. It is virtually unrivalled in the West, but companies continue to see this genre of gaming as a lucrative money spinner and a sound investment. Unfortunately, it is usually the player that gets the short end of the stick when subscriptions slide. Content updates become a rarity, servers merge or disappear, and in extreme cases the game closes down altogether.
A huge licence, but little growth
World of Warcraft subscriptions have never dropped in its half decade existence
Only one of the proposed “WoW Killers” of the last three years has a shown a constant growth in the number of active subscriptions. That being The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadow of Angmar. LOTRO is a curious case. Its launch wasn’t as successful as AoC or WAR, but gradually a stable player base has formed and its two expansions have been well received. Having a license as huge as Lord of the Rings has been of great benefit to developers Turbine Inc., and a game based in a fully realised, living, breathing Middle Earth is a dream for many. Fortunately for non-fans, LOTRO is an excellent game in its own right. A polished, balanced multiplayer experience with a breadth of constantly updated content set in a hugely detailed world.
Breaking the cycle
It is unlikely that the number of MMO releases will decrease anytime soon. Although the popularity of World of Warcraft is at an all-time high, players are constantly seeking alternatives, and companies like BioWare hope their AAA title will be the one to entice players. The hype for Star Wars: The Old Republic is certainly there, and it has already been labelled the WoW Killer by many, but I personally can’t help but feel that we are merely going through the new MMO cycle we’ve seen many times before. Developing, updating and sustaining a massively multiplayer game is not cheap, so it is surprising that so many MMOs come to fruition when countless before them practically evaporate within a year. If Star Wars falls flat on its face, and Cataclysm breathes new life into a drastically redesigned Azeroth, would it be so bad if the stream of MMO releases dried up? It would seem wise to wait until WoWs inevitable stagnation, before trying to grab jaded players with a completely new world to invest their time and money in. After all, Blizzard’s marketing gurus can’t keep eleven million players interested for another five years, can they?