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Throughout 2008, we saw the further diversification of the MMO model in the West. While Mythic/EA's Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning made a strong debut and Blizzard's World of Warcraft somehow continued to grow, Funcom's Age of Conan slid from a strong launch into apparent problems, and NCSoft announced the closure of its ambitious and problem-plagued Tabula Rasa.
While it's tough to draw a direct trend line through these events, the sense is beginning to grow that the MMO market needs a shot in the arm to continue expanding, and one of the major possibilities that is being seriously considered is the adoption of the Korean-pioneered free-to-play, microtransaction-based model in major western-developed and western-targeted titles; EA's shooter Battlefield Heroes being an in-development, high profile example.
An ambiguous statement made by EA CEO John Riccitiello during a conference call that seemed to imply that the BioWare MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, may have some microtransaction-based content, caused excited murmurs throughout the blogosphere.
Those who have experience with the model, like Nexon VP Min Kim -- who revealed at Austin GDC that his company had pulled in $29.334m in the U.S. in 2007 on the back of free-to-play in youth-oriented titles such as MapleStory -- have plenty of faith in it.
Or as CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson (EVE Online) puts it, "If you are building a pure subscription game you have to think very hard about how you build a meta economy that cannot be turned into a free to play after the fact... you will always be a victim of people doing what they want to do, and it's a losing war... you shouldn't fight your customers."
Game education at universities isn't a new trend -- but it's interesting to see just how directly these students are transitioning into fully functioning professional teams directly from their educational careers.
Of course, the most famous example is the Narbacular Drop team, hired by Valve out of DigiPen, creating last year's breakout hit Portal. Thatgamecompany, of flOw and Flower, of course, arose from USC's interactive media program.
But these are not the only examples. Shortfuse Games, an 11-man team who recently released Colosseum to Xbox Live Community Games, transitioned directly from the game development program at Sweden's University of Skövde to professional concern with a minimal addition of staff from outside of the program. The Dream-Build-Play winner, CarneyVale: Showtime, was created at MIT's GAMBIT lab in Singapore.
Team Gambit's CarneyVale: Showtime
With IP ownership still an issue for some programs, the ability to do this may be difficult for some, but it's clear that the working relationships fostered over multi-year programs provides for a fertile ground for future collaboration -- and the refinement of ideas that may have their genesis in classroom assignments, but clearly have broader appeal.