Friday, January 7, 2011

... and while we are on the subject of building on sand ...

You might have noticed that I'm writing a lot this week. This is not a return to a multiple-post-per-day writing schedule, but me getting some writing done before the work stress start again next week. So while I currently still have time to read blogs, I couldn't help but notice two rather identical posts from Scarybooster and Darren (quoting Scott Jennings), predicting the death of the big budget, subscription MMORPG model in case that SWTOR fails. That is putting a lot of weight on exactly the wrong game: Regardless of how many copies Star Wars: The Old Republic sells, and how many subscribers it will have 6 months after release, it is already certain that a large number of news outlets will report SWTOR as being a failure. Any number that is remotely realistic will appear too small compared to the hype, and taken in the context of a completely invalid comparison with the "12 million" World of Warcraft players. WoW did not have 12 million players after 6 months, and still doesn't have that number in the market in which SWTOR is released.

Gamasutra yesterday reported that Turbine tripled their revenue from Lord of the Ring Online by going Free2Play. While Ten Ton Hammer has a point saying that the subscription model is not going to be completely replaced by Free2Play, it simply isn't true that Free2Play is the same as "shitty, low-budget game". Lord of the Rings Online certainly wasn't cheap to produce, and if it can be profitable as Free2Play, so can other big budget games. And I predict that Guild Wars 2 will be a huge commercial success as well, with yet another business model.

If Star Wars: The Old Republic is either a real or a perceived failure, that doesn't prove anything beyond suggesting that Bioware should have stuck with single-player RPGs. No investor would consider "development studio fails with their first ever MMORPG" as proof that MMORPGs can't be profitable. Of course anyone wanting to make a $100 million MMORPG these days is going to carefully consider what kind of business model would work best, instead of blindly going for a subscription model. But that spells neither the death of the subscription model, nor the death of the big budget MMORPG.

What would it take to really kill the idea of big budget, subscription MMORPG? A catastrophic failure of "Titan" to the point where the game is shut down or at least Blizzard admitting to not having recovered the development cost of that game, and stopping to develop new MMORPGs. Does anyone really believe that Blizzard is going to stop developing "Titan" just because SWTOR doesn't outsell WoW? Or that other game companies will abandon MMORPGs after Blizzard made another huge pile of money with "Titan"?

So, the general idea that a catastrophic failure of a major MMORPG could cause game companies to retrench from the MMORPG market one day is certainly possible. But that major MMORPG won't be SWTOR, and the fateful year won't be 2011. One could have written the exactly same sort of doomsaying posts three years ago, predicting the death of MMORPGs if Warhammer Online would fail. Just didn't happen. And there is nothing special about SWTOR which would make it deserve such a key position for the future of gaming either. Maybe EA is just bad at making MMORPGs.

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