Electronic Arts is confident that "Star Wars: The Old Republic" is a massively multiplayer online game that people will be playing in a decade. As they told GamesIndustry International, EA is also considering variations on a free-to-play model, surely in part to the 400,000 player dropoff in subscribers the game has seen.
MMOs are in a tricky spot. Their development certainly isn't stagnant, but what "EverQuest," "World of Warcraft" and "The Old Republic" have done may just be the tip of the iceberg. What do we really want in an MMO, and what can we realistically expect in the coming years?
Nobody does it better
Let's face it, the gold standard for MMOs is "World of Warcraft." However, it's also a game that has been around for quite a while and isn't representative of what new games are going to be capable of in the coming years. The question is, how do game makers — and players, learn from the things that work so well in "World of Warcraft" and apply them to other properties? What is it about that game that makes it so accessible and yet so deep?
Other than its gameplay and mechanics setting it apart in the marketplace, "WoW" is the only MMO that people want to consistently pay for. In the end, sustainability matters most in the MMO market, and nobody besides Blizzard has figured out how to galvanize large scale subscriber loyalty over a sustained period of time. Perhaps we may not have another sure-fire high grade MMO until Blizzard unveils its next project, codenamed "Titan."
There is a great risk-reward proposition for anyone wanting to develop a known commodity into an MMO. As the makers of "Star Wars Galaxies" and "The Matrix Online" discovered, it's not enough to simply have huge intellectual property in your corner. In some ways, dealing with a known universe can be a real creative challenge. You're dealing with beloved characters and places but you have to use them in such a way that fans are simultaneously excited to explore their favorite stories, but also getting something new from the game. This is no easy task.
On the other hand, it allows a leg up in getting people interested in the game during its development and beta cycle, which is key to hitting the number of players (and paying subscribers) needed to survive.
Financially, acquiring the rights to make the MMO version of a popular movie, television show, or comic book, might not be worth the risk if even hardcore "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" fans aren't automatic subscribers (as we saw with "Galaxies," and "Star Trek Online," respectively).
While aping what works in "WoW" and capitalizing on known properties may work in the short-term, ultimately the fabric of MMOs will probably need to adapt to survive. Role-playing games have been the dominant choice for MMO developers, but there is a lot of room to expand how other genres are ported into a connected social realm. Similarly, MMOs can also learn a lot from what has happened in just the last three years in social gaming. The answer may not necessarily lie in linking your gaming account to your Facebook page and your Twitter feed, but perhaps studying some of the behaviors that make people interact and stay with games like "Farmville" and "Mafia Wars" will be the key to making better, more sustainable MMOs.
Gamers will always be hungry for interesting new creative, even if it's not something they're familiar with. "Eve Online," a massive space-based science fiction MMO, has captured the imaginations of a fervent legion of gamers. It borrows a lot of principals from decades of space strategy and role-playing games, but there is something to it that's uniquely its own.
If a new intellectual property like "Eve" that charges subscribers for game time can thrive, MMOs are certainly not dead, but our expectations for the next "WoW" may be.