Home > PC, Video Games > Blizzard’s MMOnopoly: Why is there no real competition?

Blizzard’s MMOnopoly: Why is there no real competition?

Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is an absolute juggernaut in the PC gaming world.  Official numbers released by the company pegged the number of currently active subscriptions at a staggering 11.5 million spurred by the release of the latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, which became the fastest selling PC game ever with four million copies in players’ hands within a month of release.  To give some perspective:

  • Everquest and Ultima Online, the two most successful pre-WoW MMORPGs, both peaked at around 400,000 and 250,000 subscribers, respectively.
  • Lifetime sales of The Sims (excluding expansion packs) is over 16 million.

With the kind of success that Blizzard has seen expanding the MMORPG genre, many companies have tried to enter the market and carve out a healthy subscriber base.  After all, if a company can get 15 dollars a month from a few million people, then that’s a healthy amount of profit even including server upkeep and content creation.

Yet few have ended up with anything resembling WoW‘s sustained growth despite a great deal of effort.  Why?

If you even make a cursory examination of the past year or so’s biggest MMORPGs, it becomes evident that none of them make any effort to reinvent the genre.  Games like Lord of the Rings Online, Vanguard, Warhammer Online, and Age of Conan try to emulate WoW to their detriment.   The games tend to appear rushed and lacking in content while the biggest competition has four years worth of rich content updates providing thousands of hours of gameplay.  Developers may hype up features, like better player-versus-player combat or higher difficulty, but the gameplay is essentially unchanged from the WoW model.  MMORPG developers need to find reasons for people to play a comparitively unpolished game.  So far, the reasons haven’t amounted to anything much more than “because it isn’t WoW.”

If people want to play a game like WoW, then they are going to play WoW.

A good example for developers to learn from and improve on would be CCP Games’ EVE Online.  It’s not horribly successful and certainly is only for those with both a lot of free time and patience, but it exemplifies an evolution of the MMORPG genre that has been slow to catch on.  The game revolves around a virtual player-driven economy and guild battles rather than questing and grinding mobs like most MMOs.  It offers something that WoW, and most other games, fail to come close to offering. Unfortunately the game is about as player-friendly as a hammer to the face.

Another option for a company to carve out some marketshare would be to actively pursue consoles as a viable platform for the genre.  Consoles haven’t seen a great deal of these games outside of  Final Fantasy XI and quasi-MMORPG Phantasy Star Online. Both of these games managed to be quite successful and with the skyrocketing interest in online console gaming, I really believe there is an untapped market to explore.  Sony has a few MMORPGs coming out soon for the PlayStation 3, but the install base is so small that they won’t have a chance to reach the success of WoW on the PC.

Eventually World of Warcraft will be dethroned. The kind of growth Blizzard has seen just cannot sustain itself indefinitely.  Looking at the list of upcoming MMORPGs, I don’t see anything that will have much more than modest success.  With the news that Blizzard is working on a “next-gen” MMO to followup on WoW, developers will need to act fast to prevent, or at least contain, Blizzard’s domination of the genre.

  1. rocwieler
    January 21, 2009 at 12:03 PM

    Very good article. As an EVE player, there are a couple of other key aspects I would like to touch on.

    As a longtime gamer of various MMOs, one of the greatest appeals of EVE is its skill learning system. Skills are not grinded, as you alluded to, rather, skillbooks are purchased through ingame currency, and training is real time. That means that when you log out of EVE Online, your character is still learning a new skill. If that skill takes 6 days, it’s going to take you six days to learn. This is certainly more appealing to the casual gamer than grinding out endless nights to acquire skill, and also provides a mechanism to ensure longtime subscriptions.

    EVE Online does possess a very steep learning curve as you also mentioned, but once you are familiar with it, it is perhaps the most rewarding MMO on the market, not only in part to the topics you covered, but also to the sheer magnitude of the open concept sandbox.

    Something else to excite you regarding EVE: NPC AI and Ambulation. Shortly, NPCs will no longer have pre-programmed commands where they react and act the same way everytime. They will be free thinking, adding previous encounters to their databases, and reacting accordingly to new engagements. This should prove most interesting to say the least.

    The other is Ambulation, AKA Walking in Stations. Soon capsuleers will be freed from their pods, and be able to walk about in stations, converse, but clothing, setup shops, the whole bit. While there will be no PVP in this capacity, it is a significant step towards appealing to the broader market.

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