In the quest to dethrone World of Warcraft as king of the MMO nerdpile, many formerly ascendant MMO companies have released ambitious, exciting games like Warhammer or Age of Conan.
After an initial furious burst of physical box purchases and one-month subscriptions, however, these games died out. With die-hard subscribers trying to inject life into their flagging hopes, these games slowly dried up and died from a lack of interest, a lack of content, and a lack of money coming in, as the Blizzard juggernaut continued thundering down the Intertubes into our homes.
Now, like the death of Alexander the Great, the slowly-dying World of Warcraft is leaving behind a vacuum that cries out to be filled. But are there any worthy competitors for a monthly-subscription-based MMO in the Everquest model?
Sadly, the answer is no. Rift attempted to gather too much of that “old school” feel, forgetting that only a vocal minority of players want the old-school feel. I am sure that, eventually, when Rift adds in the convenience features that modern MMO players want (moddable UIs, cross-server group matching services, easier gear grinds, accessible raiding content) there will be the inevitable complaints of, “this game is for nothing but noob carebears now! I am quitting! Rawr!” And at that point, Rift may become the next big AAA online game if later releases like Guild Wars 2 or Star Wars do not fill that niche first.
So where does that leave the older games of yesteryear: the Age of Conans and the World of Warcrafts?
The answer is found in another model of online game: the “freemium” model, perfected by Turbine in Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons. Already we see hints of what is to come with Funcom’s flagship MMO and, I project, Blizzard will not be far behind in copying this model.
The carrot that keeps people on the MMO treadmill is reward, which, as a concept, takes different forms. But they must be immediately visible; Blizzard’s “achievement” system is the right idea, but there are too few visible rewards from the system. Mounts, gear, and titles are the most common, but other types of reward are also possible, such as a player/guild housing, vanity items, and world event rewards. Mark my words: in a year, World of Warcraft will be free-to-play with a cash shop that offers experience/reputation boosting potions, leveling gear, and crafting materials, with new raids and tiers of dungeons being purchasable as one-time-fees. Funcom is going that way; EA-Mythic will go that way soon, and, if I am being totally honest, eventually so will Rift, because the changing habits of gamers simply do not support the hardcore, grind-intensive gameplay that MMOs used to require. Gamers will not continue to keep paying $15 a month (or the equivalent thereof) for the “same-old-same-old” gameplay. That is the beauty of the freemium model: it allows players to pay for the privilege of lessening the grindy, not-fun aspects of the game (which they all will, and gladly) without having to commit to a subscription.
There will be those that feel this is in error–that without the added emotional and financial incentive that comes from having (literally) invested in a game’s future, players will not feel compelled to improve the local community. But this type of thinking is also outdated. It comes from the MUD/MUSH days when communities were small and built of hobbyists. It had little to do with the idea that, “Oh, I have paid so much to play this game, I had better make it an interesting world,” and more to do with the mindset of the player. Today’s gamers might lack that sense of community because online gaming is not a novelty to them but, instead, something that is to be expected and taken for granted. Bemoan this all we wish, it will not change it.