Tobold's Blog
Monday, December 20, 2004
2004 – A MMORPG year in subjective review

The year 2004 is drawing to an end, and looking back I can say it has been a good year for MMORPGs. So from my personal perspective as player and blogger, I would like to give a review of 2004 how I experienced it. What did I play, and what were the major themes of the year?

I started the year playing the game I had started in late 2003, Final Fantasy XI, which I stopped in early April. I tried a free trial of Horizons, and the betas of Lineage II and City of Heroes, ending up subscribing to CoH until August. In May there was the first GuildWars preview; in June I started playing Puzzle Pirates, and in July I played Real Life, going on a three-week holiday without broadband access.

In August, I tried out Ragnarok Online and A Tale in the Desert 2. In September, I was in the Saga of Ryzom beta and the World of Warcraft stress test. In October, I was in the Everquest 2 beta, and also played the second GuildWars preview event. November brought the World of Warcraft open beta, and the EQ2 launch. I ended the year being subscribed to both EQ2 and WoW, although getting into WoW as European was complicated, due to stupid anti-European restrictions from Blizzard.

I have never played so many different MMORPGs in one year before. This is one of the defining features of 2004: an abundance of choice in the MMORPG market like never before. While a few games, like Earth and Beyond and minor independent ones, closed their servers, most games from previous years are still available. With more and more people now having broadband internet access, the total number of MMORPG players is rising as well. But not as quickly as the number of games is rising, thus there is a tendency of players hopping from game to game, with what appears to be ever shorter subscription periods on average. That is visible for example in the CoH subscription numbers on Sir Bruce's famous MMORPG subscription charts.

While SOE dominated the western MMORPG market from 1999 until last year, with Everquest and then Star Wars: Galaxies, 2004 was the year where this domination was seriously shaken. Korean company NCSoft used the capital and experience acquired with Lineage 1 in Korea to push mightily into the world market. While Lineage 2 was a bit of a dud outside Asia, City of Heroes was a great success with both the critics and the players, and achieved surprisingly good sales for a game with an unknown brand from an unknown company. And with GuildWars, Tabula Rasa, and Auto Assault, NCSoft has a strong line-up for the coming year(s).

The big showdown on the MMORPG market came in November, where the two biggest games of the years were released just two weeks apart. Both Everquest 2 and World of Warcraft had reasonably good launches, despite some problems due to server overload. But in direct comparison World of Warcraft was far more successful than Everquest 2, selling more than 240,000 boxes on launch day, making it the most successful PC game release ever. SOE is keeping mum on Everquest 2 sales, but anecdotal evidence, and the much lower number of servers, suggests that it wasn't selling half as well. Reviews on sites like GameSpot or also come out strongly in favor of WoW over EQ2. Everquest 2 was further hampered by technical problems, with up to two days of server outage, and daily server downtime for patches.

The question why WoW is more popular than EQ2 smoothly brings us to the next big trend of 2004: massively multiplayer online role-playing games have become more friendly to the average gamer, the casual player. Even Everquest has made a huge step forward towards user-friendliness from EQ1 to EQ2, but where SOE made one step, the competition made two, three, or half a dozen. Games like City of Heroes or World of Warcraft are instantly accessible to the average gamer, and provide instant fun right out of the box, without hundreds of hours of grind required before reaching the fun part. This pushes a game like Everquest 2 into a market niche for the more seriously dedicated power-gamers and fans of the more complicated game mechanisms.

Another trend of 2004 is instancing, having several copies of one zone on the same server to avoid overcrowding problems. City of Heroes has instanced city zones, plus instanced random dungeons for a single player or group. Everquest 2 instances all zones, except the city zones, with the number of players per zone ranging from 40 to 400, depending on the size of the zone. Only World of Warcraft uses instancing sparingly, applied to some hand-crafted elite dungeons for one adventuring group. It is not quite clear what method works best, but hand-crafted dungeons, instanced or not, seem to be more popular than random instanced dungeons. Especially when there is only a small number of different "tile sets", the building blocks from which the random dungeons are created..

A final trend of 2004 I would like to mention is the game speed. The games of 2004 are generally faster than previous games, with City of Heroes holding the "fast and furious" crown. Downtime between combats has become very short in many of today's games. In-game public transport either appears instantly on demand or has a much reduced waiting time. And the times when some spawns only appeared every X hours on a server seem to be over as well. As nobody is mourning the demise of downtime, this is good news indeed.

So what will 2005 bring? Several new games are expected for 2005: GuildWars, Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault and the CoH expansion City of Villains are all going to published by NCSoft. Turbine, the makers of the two not-quite-so-successful Asheron's Call games, are developing Dungeon and Dragons Online and Middle Earth Online, counting on strong brands bringing them more success. Other games in development are Dark and Light, and The Matrix Online, plus undoubtedly a number of expansion sets for different games.

It is impossible to say what the trends of 2005 will be. There is a smell of licensed games in the air, bringing brands like D&D, the Lord of the Rings and the Matrix to the MMORPG world. With SWG kept alive more by its Star Wars brand than by the game itself, and with the success of WoW partially built on the Warcraft brand, this isn't really surprising. The trend of games getting faster and more accessible to the average gamer will probably continue, driven by technology and market forces. Looks like another year to look forward to for MMORPGs.

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