Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The million-subscriber MMORPG

Some weeks ago Ayane from Moon over Endor posted a well-documented list of upcoming MMORPGs. I don't really keep up to date with the various announcements, as video games not always make it from announcement to release, so my interest in new games usually starts with the beta. But I must say that from what I read about upcoming games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2, or Final Fantasy XIV, I'm cautiosly optimistic that we might approach the next phase of MMORPG market development: The phase where we get more than one million-subscriber MMORPG in the western market.

While right now several games claim to have over a million "players", most of these are Free2Play, and simply count everyone, even if they just created an account once, played for 5 minutes, and then uninstalled the game. Of the monthly subscription games only a few games even sold a million copies, and only World of Warcraft managed to hang onto over a million subscribers in the West for more than a year. That has led some people to say that WoW is a special case, and no future MMORPG will reach the million-subscriber level of success. I even have a bet going with syncaine, who claims not even Blizzard's next MMORPG will retain over a million subscribers after 6 months.

I believe that the MMORPG market is quietly growing. As mentioned previously, the apparent stagnation of World of Warcraft at somewhere around 11 million subscribers (of which an unknown number, probably above 5 million outside Asia), combined with still strong sales means that there is a growing army of ex-WoW-players. That means the potential market size is probably already larger than 10 million players in the USA and Europe. Thus a "next big thing" game capturing 10% of that market isn't really that outlandish.

What I believe will be the important factor for success is not this or that feature of a new game, but rather old-fashioned execution. The phase in which MMORPGs could afford to launch half-baked and full of bugs is definitively over, and I would claim that many of the spectacular failures in the past years had more to do with quality than with features. This is one reason why I am optimistic for the future. Not just for Blizzard's next MMO, which is still far out, but also for games like SWTOR, GW2, or FFXIV.

So will that get us some radically new gameplay? Well, yes, eventually, but that is more likely to be an even later phase. We *first* need to have a couple of million-subscriber games or similar financial successes for games without monthly subscriptions. Because a game with a million subscribers and a classic cost structure brings in about $200 million a year, and only if that is a level of success which appears possible will companies be willing to spend over $100 million on the development of a new game. Which is the kind of money needed to be competitive in terms of polish and looks as AAA-game. I think at first companies will play it safe, and SWTOR will be a lot like WoW with jedis and voice-overs. Only after the market has seen several big and successful games will newcomers feel the need to differentiate and design new sorts of gameplay that aren't based on levels, and quests, and static abilities on hotkeys. But innovation might be closer than we think, Guild Wars 2 has some interesting ideas on structuring the flow of the game differently than classic quests do, although of course GW2 isn't subscription-based and thus is a bit out of my million-subscriber game competition.

So I do think that MMORPGs still have a bright future. Only it will take some time to develop. But if I look how the genre has grown in the last decade, I'm quite optimistic of seeing further growth and a lot of interesting games in the next decade. In 2020 the million-subscriber MMORPG or games with a similar financial success but different business models will appear less exotic than they are now.

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