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Gamasutra's Best of 2008: The 5 Most Significant MMO Trends
Gamasutra's Best of 2008: The 5 Most Significant MMO Trends Exclusive
December 24, 2008 | By Michael Zenke

December 24, 2008 | By Michael Zenke
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Throughout December, Gamasutra presented a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

Previously: 2008's top disappointments, downloadable titles, overlooked games, gameplay mechanics, indie games, surprises, PC games, trends, handheld games, developers, controversies, and games of the year.

For one more special bonus, guest MMO expert Michael Zenke takes a look at the year's five most compelling trends in online gaming.

The world of MMOs is an enormous business, and a huge opportunity for the game development community at large, from World Of Warcraft's $1 billion yearly haul to microtransaction-based firms like Nexon that make tens of millions yearly in the West.

Here are the biggest stories of 2008 in online gaming - and just maybe some hints as to next year's top titles and trends:

The AAA Fantasy Game Is A Solved Problem

Two multi-million dollar epic fantasy MMOs launched this year, and by the standards of both of the companies that made them they are simply not successful.

Funcom, the developer of Age of Conan, has admitted as much in interviews. Game director Gaute Godager stepped down as a result of the game's post-launch failure, and the company is now focused entirely on restoring good will with the title's diminished playerbase.

Warhammer Online developer Mythic Entertainment hasn't admitted anything, but by the standard of comments made by company head Mark Jacobs they haven't achieved the success they were looking for. Pre-launch statements had him saying that if a company is closing or merging servers within a few months of a game's launch, there are problems. Warhammer has merged several servers in the days since its release.

Meanwhile, Blizzard's launch of Wrath of the Lich King has completely reinvigorated the World of Warcraft community. More than simply 'ten more levels', Blizzard has made significant improvements on the game's basic design. A more casual-friendly leveling experience and technology-rooted storytelling advances have made WoW players completely reassess what the IP giant is capable of.

Burning Crusade may have offered entry-level content more appropriate for a new player, but Wrath of the Lich King has given new players an actual reason to play: high-end content of a quality previously unseen in the MMO space.

Successful expansions for both Lord of the Rings Online and EverQuest II are also well worth noting, as these high-quality games reinvigorate their own dedicated playerbases. Their internal success only serves to highlight the stark reality 2008 has borne out: the AAA fantasy MMO is a solved problem.

The inn is full, there are no seats left at the table, the plane door is closing... whatever metaphor you want to use, AAA fantasy games are a niche in the games industry that is now nearly impossible to enter. Existing market players (Blizzard or otherwise) are going to continue to have a high rate of success with retaining and pleasing their users, while new entrants onto the scene are going to face nigh-onto insurmountable odds.

The half-dozen or more Western developers currently working on their own fantasy games are well-advised to note the challenges of 2008.

The Microtransactional March To Victory

More than anything, 2008 signaled a death-knell for the future of subscription-based online gaming. In ten, maybe even five years, paying a monthly subscription for an online game will sound as archaic as paying a play-by-the-hour fee does now.

The microtransaction model has been gaining in popularity here in the West for years now, but 2008 truly highlighted the waning power of the subscription model. From the rollout of Sony Online Entertainment's Station Cash program to the blockbuster success of companies like Three Rings and Nexon, Western players have made it abundantly clear that they're very comfortable paying smaller amounts of money over time to get the services they want.

Compound that with news of MT plans for upcoming products and the growing popularity of even formerly-reviled Eastern online imports, and it's clear that there's been a substantive shift in consumer thinking about online content.

At GDC this year, Rob Pardo of Blizzard described the microtransaction question as an East vs. West issue, but increasingly, commentators have noted that's simply not the case. Microtransactions may have taken off as the business model in Eastern markets, but Western consumers are quickly adopting the free-to-play pay as you go mindset.

The gains in popularity and mass-market appeal online gaming have achieved in recent years are almost certainly the root of this transition. Shifting demographics have helped this along as well, as younger players will eventually force this kind of change through to 'older' games. It's all about perspective: most of the kids playing Runescape right now aren't going to want to pay a monthly fee when they graduate to a different game.

The tantalizing hint Jon Riccitello offered about the future business strategy for BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic may be the strongest indicator of Western microtransaction adoption yet. Though EA tried to take back the comment, though they may not have 100 percent solid plans for the title yet, even the indication that one of the West's biggest publishers is considering that kind of market strategy is a sea-change in MMOs.

To see the front-lines of this change, you need look no further than your local Target. The gaming section of the electronics department is dominated by a display of 'cash cards' for everything from Eastern games-gone-Western to Blizzard's World of Warcraft.

The vast majority of the world's population not only doesn't have a credit card, they don't even have a bank account. Addressing that market, be they 6 or 60 years old, is a big change – perhaps the biggest change - for online gaming.

The Heroic Position Of Middleware

Though it went largely unnoticed by the gaming public, ongoing advances in MMO middleware have quietly been working to change the face of online game development. There are now four different competing products all working to capture the title of "MMO in a box". BigWorld, the Icarus Platform, Multiverse, and HeroEngine are all directly targeting companies looking to make massively multiplayer games, and each has their claim to fame.

The 'browser approach' used by Multiverse combined with high-profile connections to properties like Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has made that company quite noteworthy in certain circles. The Icarus platform showed off an iPhone in-world browser at AGDC this year, and their post-apocalyptic MMO Fallen Earth looks to capitalize on the no-show status of the Fallout online game sometime soon. BigWorld, too, has had some quiet successes connecting with in-development titles like StarGate Worlds.

And then, of course, there's the folks at HeroEngine. Two years ago they quietly made the announcement that they were collaborating with BioWare on an unannounced title. Today, they're the drivers behind one of the most highly-anticipated MMOs in development. As if backing Star Wars: The Old Republic wasn't enough, they're also connected with the developers at Stray Bullet games, Colony Studios, and Zenimax Online.

Whether the average online player has heard of these companies or not, their successes in 2008 may very well shape the future of Western MMO development.

The MMO Gold Rush Takes A Left Turn

Despite the economic slowdown affecting most of the industry, more companies and intellectual properties than ever seem to be interested in jumping onto the online gaming bandwagon.

Even as existing MMO developers make cutbacks and layoffs, new developers are continually seeking to enter the space and additional projects are announced. Despite the dangers inherent in the space, despite the ‘lessons learned’ from the fantasy genre, most of the year was spent in a mad rush towards online gaming.

Most compelling (or appalling, depending on your point of view) was the notion of connecting the unique offering of gaming in an MMO space with the very traditional medium of television. The announcement of a Sci-Fi channel television show somehow ‘hooked into’ a massively multiplayer game is almost certainly the most ambitious of these online space gold rush projects.

Trion World Network is the harbinger of many gold rush elements, not only heading up the Sci-Fi channel project but an MMO capitalizing on the Heroes of Might and Magic series as well. Many such games were announced in 2008, with perhaps-wisely cancelled projects like the Halo MMO further highlighting the appeal of this space.

The desperate downturn the online games industry has seen in the last few months may have finally curtailed that charge, but online gaming continues to be seen as one of the most lucrative elements of the industry. As soon as venture capital money begins to flow again, expect a return to the mad rush towards online gaming.

User-Made Content Marches On

The developers say ‘why not make your own content?’
While -– just yet -– the user-made content movement isn’t quite as big a deal as microtransactions, it’s getting there. Several different initiatives came to the foreground this year offering users the chance to not only play games but make their own, customize an online space, even roll their own MMO entirely.

The two most important are undoubtedly Metaplace, which is now in Beta testing, and the now-commercially launched Whirled from Three Rings. Both are abandoning the field of AAA games, multi-million dollar dev cycles and incredibly costly content to embrace the quick-and-dirty ethos of Web 2.0.

As Metaplace co-founder Raph Koster puts it, people just don’t care about high-rez 3D images if the fun is there. Metaplace is banking on this by providing the tools to create seriously tricked out MMOs in a 2D space.

Participants only need to know how to make use of the LUA scripting language to make full use of the project, and even participants that can only make use of a GUI will be able to pick-and-choose from pre-built components.

Meanwhile, Whirled, from the makers of Puzzle Pirates, brought the flash gaming craze to a persistent online peak. A disjointed world of player-made rooms and games, Whirled actually allows users to upload their own content for resale using a meta-currency.

Offering a business model that supports not only the company but content contributors, Whirled looks to capitalize on the creativity of its users much as Metaplace does, but with even less up-front preparation required.

The modest successes of these projects in 2008 will give way to their real potential in 2009. Their success or failure will most likely pave the way for the integration of user-generated content and online gaming in the Western world.

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Seth Burnette
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I hope that venture capital begins to flow again, but not toward MMOs. I am so sick of every new studio working on an MMO as their first project (that's what it seems like at least).

My reasons are both altruistic and personal. On the one hand I don't want to see another enthusiastic start-up fold after months or years of essentially pointless work and on the other hand I personally find that genre horribly boring. I think I must be missing the gene that makes WoW and company addictive.

Anthony Charles
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I don't buy that microtransactional is going to replace subscription. Microtransactional is inherently less fair. I am not in favor of a game that gives advantage to those that are willing to spend the most money. Perhaps an overlap of the two models would be ideal.

Aaron Harris
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The overflow of WoW copycats is great news, perhaps now we'll start seeing some MMO FPS games along the lines of Planetside.

Tom Newman
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One new thing WAR got right is the public quest system. For those unfamiliar, if you are traveling in the world and see an environmental event with a group of players already participating, you can join in and get official credit without formally joining the group or having to interact with the other players in the same way you need to in other MMOs. It is great for more independant players.

Personally I agree that WoW, WAR, and AoC are kind of like Coke, Pepsi, and RC Cola. The reason these titles aren't doing well is that they are not different enough from the status quo, and the status quo is doing quite well. There needs to be a new "flavor" that will create it's own market.

The initial Death Knight quests in WoW are the best content since the game's release. The way in which the environment dynamically changes based on where you are in the quest chain brought solo questing to a new level of player immersion I hope to see more of in the future.

The best trend in 2008 is the emergence of M rated MMOs. AoC and Requiem:Bloodymare were released to adult gamers this year.

Neil Sorens
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The first item on the list is absolutely, 100% wrong. Why do you think Age of Conan sold a million copies simply on the promise of being a little different? Why did so many people drop everything and rush to try out Warhammer Online? And why did people quit in droves when those games turned out to be the same old thing, just with more bugs and less content? It's because the game that a lot of people really want to play hasn't been made yet, but hope springs eternal.

Joshua McDonald
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I agree with both Anthony and Neil and would like to add to their comments:

As far as subscription vs. Microtransaction, sure microtransactions are gaining popularity, but the biggest player in the field (and still growing) is still using subscriptions. The author has really jumped the gun on this one.

In addition, Americans are very much an "All you can eat" society. We like to pay some cash up front for our entertainment then completely forget about it as we simply enjoy ourselves. That's why things like cable TV and Internet use a subscription-based profit model (with a few exceptions such as PPV). We like to focus on our entertainment instead of counting nickels every time we want to have a little more fun.

As for Warhammer Online, I think it's too early to say that the game was a failure. It certainly didn't meet expectations, but part of that was the fact that it launched while Wrath of the Lich King hype was near its peak, and a new patch had just barely added a ton of new stuff to do.

Unlike other games, MMOs make their money by keeping a fan base that continues to play and pay over a long period of time. WAR had an immediate surge, followed by an immediate fall-off, but I think that's true of basically all games. It's just more visible with MMO's because the people are still paying. A heavily hyped game (even if the game lives up to its hype) will still have a ton of people who buy it, play it for a short time, and quickly lose interest.

WAR will succeed or fail, not based on what we saw in its opening months, but on whether the core people who stuck around continue to enjoy the game (paying several hundred dollars each over the course of time) and bring their friends in.

Anthony Charles
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yea, lets not lose our bearings here. MMORPG's began as a niche catering to a very small segment of the population. Just because WoW and EQ, and to a lesser extent maybe City of Heroes, reached a mainstream audience, does not mean the measure of success of these games should be the cover of TV Guide and South Park parody. the creators of a game can grasp for the golden ring like Sony & Blizzard or they can have smaller aspirations. the game's ability to meet or exceed those aspirations is a more realistic measure of success than how many times platinum it went. but i'm sure its true that the currency printing machine's in Blizzards offices have led many would-be MMO's astray.

David Carson
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Seems that a lot of people are being awfully hasty jumping on the microtransaction bandwagon, based on a few announcements and not much else.

I'd like to see some tangible success from a microtransaction based game in the West before making bold statements like "2008 signaled a death-knell for the future of subscription-based online gaming."

Heather Decker-Davis
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I find microtransaction-based games to be discouraging, namely because whoever is willing to sink the most money into the game ends up the most glamorous and successful. It's no longer about who's more skilled at the game or who figured out some great strategy. It's all about who bought the most crap at the online store. It's really great for the company that's running it (for now) but I can see player interest waning as the big spenders rocket ahead of the average players.

If carefully balanced with gameplay in mind, micro-transactions could work out just fine. But unfortunately most of the items or services companies have come up with so far give players weird in-game advantages, rather than simple cosmetic alterations or non-combat doodads.

Now let's put on our businessman goggles for a second. Looking at a free-to-play game with microtransactions, how many players would you suppose opt to never pay at all? Refer to the piracy rate on games at large. There are clearly plenty of people out there who are content to play but never pay for games. So how do you keep quality servers paid for when there's all that dead weight running around?

As a player, I like the subscription model because everyone is on a level playing field. Some guy can't be better at the game than me because he unloaded his wallet at it!

I'd also like to point out that you can still reach people who don't have credit cards or bank accounts using pre-paid time cards. World of Warcraft has been doing that for years. Selling cards worth in-game cash is not the only answer here!

Simon Carless
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David - Nexon made $29.3 million in 2007 in the U.S. from their microtransaction-based games, which mainly included MapleStory and Audition at that time, I think. While it's not a slamdunk, and I think Nexon is way ahead of the pack in the West, it's enough to make one pause for thought.

Of course, another problem I've run into is that some people will talk up microtransactions to hide the fact that they haven't managed to make the subscription model work because their games aren't strong enough in the West - most annoying.

I do agree, however, that there's still a place for the subscription. I think there's more stability in the hardcore niches like EVE Online than going after Warcraft, but that's just my 2c.

Ken Nakai
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I love these kinds of proclamations. It's like saying "Subscriptions are dead". I wish authors of articles like this would actually analyze what they're talking about rather than just stitching quotes and someone else's ideas together. This was a topic at the GDC in March with a number of talks on it (Nexon's Kim was the star in a lot of them...probably got tired of talking about the same thing over and over).

The point is, free-to-play is popular because...wait for's FREE. If anyone puts out a half-way decent game that's free, of course you're going to get people signing up left and right. The trick with the microtransactions is do they make sense for the game? Balance issues have always been a potential problem if you use microtransactions in games that offer new weapons, armor, etc. as part of the service. But, in the end, most of the microtransactions end up being for non-essential stuff like clothes, items for your place, etc. Maple Story and the other Nexon games make sense for this because that's what they're about...they're about accessorizing.

I could give a damn about having some nice friggin cloak in WoW if it's not going to help my character. Will I spend a dollar on one? Maybe, but it's a definite maybe. The business model has to suit the business, not the other way around. Unless you REALLY want microtransactions to be part of your game in which case you build a game that supports it...create an MMO for girls 12-17 where they can dress up their toons and their homes, etc. and you've got yourself a viable microtransaction business model.

Plus, the whole thing with game cards...of course a lot of people don't have credit cards (the US is a credit economy...a lot of other countries aren't) and so they go to game cards...notice? They're getting game cards to PAY for their subscription. All it takes is using those brain cells a bit more to figure out the microtransaction-is-king argument is flimsy at best.

Aaron Murray
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@Heather Decker - I can only speak for my company (Tandem Games), but our new browser MMO (Domain of Heroes ...not a AAA WoW competitor by any stretch) uses a microtrans model. I don't know if our numbers are good/bad compared to the industry...but I'll be entirely candid for a moment...

3% of the players who sign up to play actually make a purchase. They average over $18 in purchases. Because I hate the whole "rich players have an advantage" thing myself, all game content/items ("core game") are 100% available to the free players. The paying players pay for customization and convenience features. I call that "the 3 C"s - Core, Customization, Convenience. That way rich players can get more attention/prestige/ease/etc...but there is no gameplay penalty for freely playing.

Heather, you ask: "So how do you keep quality servers paid for when there's all that dead weight running around?"

My answer is that we just build the game knowing that only a small amount will be funding the development for the rest, and adjust accordingly.

That said, having a monthly fee is very enticing because the avg revenues are higher, but it imposes a stiff barrier to entry and forces players to make "an exit decision" every time their monthly dues come up. With free-to-play, the players can come/go as they please, invite friends w/o the fear of them not joining because of the costs, etc.

Heather Decker-Davis
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If that's the case, I think your company's approach to microtransactions is great, because it doesn't offset the balance of the gameplay. That's where it becomes important that the developers are gamers themselves. In that respect, we can all understand the things that are frustrating, like imbalanced core mechanics.

Also, your point about the servers makes sense. It can definitely work as long as the company keeps a careful eye on how much they're sinking in versus how much players are spending.

Lastly, I do also agree that the monthly fee can act as a barrier to new players. I really think trial periods are crucial to subscription-based games. I myself shy away from paying $40-60 for a game, on top of monthly fees, if I can't even try it first! It's also important to be committed to excellent customer service when charging monthly. Paying players are far more likely to abandon ship if there is a devastating glitch or server outage than their free-to-play counterparts.

John Kwag
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*yawn* are all trotting out the same fair not fair based arguments....the same leading benchmark not using it arguments.

and honestly? please go on supporting subscriptions. You are not the userbase we are aiming at. That's cool. Keep muttering about how it just doesn't seem fair even when people keep noting that there hasn't been ANY game where you have outright been able to purchase any significant advantage. its mostly been convenience and glamour items.

Keep telling the unruly f2p and microtransaction kids to stay off your lawn. That's fine...they are welcome to buy lemonade, play in our pool, and frolic among our lawns. While you stay in your creaking house. Its a nice fine big house and we won't bother YOU.

Tawna Evans
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Hmm... why no mention of social networking games, such as the kind people can play on Facebook? I probably biased about this because I became totally absorbed with these sorts of games, this year. Could the rapid increase in these games possibly be considered a significant MMO trend?