Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 05, 2009
Outlook into 2009

Honestly, I'm a bit surprised by the negativity I see in many places about 2009 being a much worse year for MMORPGs than 2008. I don't see it that way. Because, frankly, 2008 wasn't all that successful. Several games folded, and even AAA titles like Age of Conan or Warhammer Online did less well than expected. What I do see is an opportunity: In 2009 the MMORPG domain can make great strides towards unshackling itself from the fantasy genre.

Fantasy will continue to rule to roost for years to come. At the end of 2009 World of Warcraft will still be the biggest game around, with a majority share of the market in the western world. But the doomsayers who falsely state that 2009 will have "no new games", only mean triple A fantasy MMORPGs. 2009 in fact will have a lot of new MMORPGs, but the majority of them will not be fantasy based. Champions Online, Jumpgate Evolution, Stargate: Worlds, The Agency, Earthrise all aren't fantasy. Nor are Star Wars: The Old Republic or Star Trek Online, but those are probably after 2009. But there are still some fantasy games, like Guild Wars 2, Aion, or Darkfall, trying to offer a different kind of fantasy than WoW.

The games of 2009 will also try new things in terms of business models. Especially the SOE games Free Realms and The Agency. Guild Wars 2 will remind people that not every MMO needs a monthly fee or other continuous revenue stream beyond expansions. And I'm sure we will see a lot more microtransaction and "free-to-try" games.

In the second half of 2009, Wrath of the Lich King will start to look old to many players, and subscription numbers will stagnate. As there will be no new WoW expansion before 2010, many of the games of 2009 have a chance to actually not do so badly. I'm not talking millions of subscribers here, but enough players to recover development cost and make a profit. A game like Free Realms could actually have huge numbers of players, because not necessarily all of them have to pay a monthly fee.

So I'm quite optimistic in my outlook for 2009. If anyone would bring out another AAA fantasy game, the naysayers would be booing "WoW clone, WoW clone!" from the back rows. So having super-hero games, sci-fi games, post-apocalyptic games, and something else but monthly fees on offer can only be a good thing.
You forgot to mention Aion from NC Soft. I had the chance to play it on Games Convention for a couple of hours and it was very polished and fun to play. I couldnt test long term game play, end game etc, but what I saw I liked.
I'm definitely keeping an eye out for Stargate Worlds. I don't think it will be as "well polished" as World of Warcraft but I think it will generate strong interest from its own franchise player-base and that may in turn recruit more casual players. Will it compete with WoW? I think it will do its best to try and be different and not compete with anyone, but try and stand on its own two feet first.

Everyone I know is waiting for it to come out and that was the same way with World of Warcraft. That tells me it is going to be popular as a gaming experience rather than as a Dungeoneering game with hardcore elements.
It has nothing to do with genre and everything to do with budget, experience, and vision.

Has the developer released a quality and successful MMO before?
Does the developer have adequate time and cash flow?
Does the MMO have broad appeal?
Does the MMO seem likely to go live in 2009?

Aside from Champions Online, I can't think of a title that gets a yes on all four questions.
I must agree here Tobold, I find 2009 to potentially be a more interesting year than 2008. We will of course see some slipped dates, some might crash&burn or not do as well as some hoped - but that is really no different from 2008 or earlier years. What hopefully is seen is more diversity in titles, both in terms of content and business models - and perhaps without too much hype around each title.
Very true, Tobold. Good post!
FML had his 'softlaunch' already, but is planning on a broad mediacampaign for the next months to get it going for real. I'm having a great time already, so perhaps this one can be a hit for 2009 as well?
I'm looking forward to just about everything you've mentioned there, especially Champions, The Agency, and Jumpgate. All such very different games.

I was just talking to a guildie this weekend about how we're dying for more quality F2P MMOGs. I wouldn't even mind adds with loading screens and all that, if it meant I didn't have to pay a monthly subscription. I'm a well off guy, but not well enough to pay subs constantly for all of the quality games I want to play.

I'm very glad, to that end, that The Agency, Free Realms, and Guild Wars 2 will at least be F2P, even if I have to pay for the others.
Lets also not forget that in 2008, certain games like LotRO improved greatly, and hopefully 2009 will continue that trend. Games like AoC, WAR, PotBS could all shape up (or shut down) and become very enjoyable. One great thing about the MMO space, just because a new title is not launching, does not mean new content is not being delivered.
I do disagree on 2009 being a better year. Even though 2008 had so many fails, the fact is that 2009 also has no "high profile" game, except maybe Champions. But, so far the Super Hero genre has not been a major success. So, what makes anyone think Champions will change that?
Also, we must keep in mind, any genre besides Fantasy really does not succeed (it can be ok sales or profits wise, i.e: EvE, but not worth anything beyond a niche crowd..)
If Guild Wars 2 was being discussed for 2009, then I could see a major release on the horizon. It is not, thus, besides Aion (which thanks to it's Anime stylings will be niche moreso than a hit), nothing else tantalizes...

I call 2009 the year of the Single Player Game!
We keep saying the game publishers will learn from each others' mistakes and not release MMOs before they are polished and done and yet history teaches us otherwise. I am sure if you go back to 2005 and 2006 blogs and read you will see people making predictions that publishers will now stop pushing out broken content at release.

I for one, hope that developers will stop being afraid to try new things and to stop looking at McWarcraft for inspiration.
"Has the developer released a quality and successful MMO before?
Does the developer have adequate time and cash flow?
Does the MMO have broad appeal?
Does the MMO seem likely to go live in 2009?"

1. Which developer has ever had a second successful MMO? Most have been flops and some have been rescued by other people.
2. I agree that this helps, but it is neither a requirement nor is it not a guarantee. The more money that you have to develop the game means that you have more people asking you how soon you are going to be releasing it so that they can see their return on investment.
3. Why not go for a niche market that you know you are going to be guaranteed (assuming you do it right) subscriber base? Not everyone has to have a 10+ million subscriber base. You can easily be "successful" (profitable) with 100,000 subscribers.
4. You may not like any of the MMOs that come out in 2009, but that does not mean that there won't be great MMOs that come out in 2009.
I was quite negative towards 2009, but I think I was frustrated by being bored by Guild Wars and WotLK alike. And Aoc/WAR did not fulfill the promise to be an alternative, though for WAR there is still hope... unfortunately it does not seem to be to my liking nevertheless.

But I see little hope for the games you mentioned for 2009. I am very sceptical regarding Aion and worried about Guild Wars 2. I really love(d) Guild Wars, and a so-so successor would really make 2009 the "YEAR OF THE SINGLEPLAYER GAME" for me.

I am with Openedge1 in this regard. I am stranded without a MMO in late 2008, and I doubt 2009 will change that. Guild Wars 2 is still my favorite if there is a game out there that can bring me back to MMO-style gaming at all.
Guild wars 2 probably won't release in 2009, there is very little information being released about it at the moment. I'd guess middle of 2010 (Though when information does come out it will be interesting ot talk about at least.)

(I don't really have much else serious to say, so here are some silly predictions.)

World of warcraft's numbers will start to shrink as people make their way through wrath of the Lich King, but a new series of innovative T.V. ads involving 2 or even 3 celebrities chopped with images from World of Warcraft will bring the numbers back up.

Star Wars: The old republic may announce plans for a beta, and announce plans to, by the middle of the year, release it's rabidly loyal to the point of religious worship fanbase onto the PC and internet platforms in preparation for a beta.

Guild wars (original) will continue to be mentioned in blog comments, and possibly in actual blogs if more guild wars 2 information comes out. (It is interesting how much more often Guild Wars seems to appear (proportionally to the amount of writing) in comments than blogs, though it may just be the tobold linked blogs that do this.)
If you are interested in Stargate: Worlds you might want to watch this site:
Hard to release a quality product with unpaid employees.
No MMO released in 2009 will be the next big thing. Book it. At best, we will see niche titles that will be lucky to break the 100-200 thousand subscription mark. By contrast, AOC, WAR, and LOTRO all had the potential to be huge hits. For various reasons, none of them were, though. Now, there's nothing wrong with niche games, but they don't generate the buzz or excitement that higher profile titles do.
Has the developer released a quality and successful MMO before? Is this a valid question now, I ask because Blizzard did not have any MMO experience. Just because someone made osmething good in the past does not mean the follow up will be even as good as the original let alone better. This is in part due to turnover in the industry. Just about everytime someone takes part in something really successful they split off to form their own little ocmpanies and get funding based on what they did in the past. For the most part most of these "splinter" groups have failed ot live up to the hype. Shining example..taken a look at Hellgate recently?

Does the developer have adequate time and cash flow? Cash flow and adequate time can be contrary to each other. Most first time developers or small MMO developers don't have the cash on hand to fund their own development so they go outside to get the money. That then means you have the people who control your cash calling for a definite release regardless of anything else. Blizzard had the ability to "wait until its done" simply because they were already quite successful thanks to the previous work they had done.

Does the MMO have broad appeal? What do you define as broad appeal? The story, the gameplay? If it were story I would argue that while the initial buyers of WoW were the people who already knew about Warcraft the vast majority since the initial months have little to no knowledge of that previous story and what got them in was the ease of gameplay (a number of people in my guild didn't even know there were RTS games o.0 )
It took blizzard 7 years to release WOW. Most people don't realize that, but the bar is now set that high, at least for the casual gamers that are now the goal of the game industry. If they want to take down or even share with WOW they'll have to have the same level of polish, an intuitive easy to use and very customizable UI, and the game has to have that same fun endless feeling. The first 20 levels of wow you feel powerful and the storylines are some of the best in the game. That was not mistake.

Half finished games promising a better experience down the road just aren't enough anymore.
Honestly, I'm a bit surprised by the negativity I see in many places about 2009 being a much worse year for MMORPGs than 2008.

I'm not surprised by it at all. The outlook for 2009(in the United States) shows things to be much worse financially than it was in 2008. I agree with the poster above who mentioned that WoW was in development for 7 years, and as a result we have a mega hit that any developer has yet to approach quality wise. While we could debate the merits of WoW's gameplay till the cows come home, the fact remains that any future game will have to live up to the hype and deliver a solid and relatively bug free gaming experience in order to draw in enough MMO players to cause a shift in how casual gamers choose to spend their time. There are only so many hours in the day, and there is plenty of evidence to support the notion that casual MMO players tend to play only one MMO, which means that any game in 2009 will have to establish itself through the use of heavy advertising along with a VERY strong word of mouth campaign. Budgets are very tight right now, and if the economic downturn continues I dont see publishers putting themselves in the position of trying to recoup expenditures in that regard.
On the one hand, I completely agree about the economy and that it looks like 2009 will be a bleak year for new MMO's.

However, one thing about the overall economy - how much does it cost to go to the movies for two? (Or 1 + popcorn & drink) That's roughly the same (possibly more) than a full month's subscription to one of the big MMO's. You can get a lot more hours of entertainment from that MMO vs. going to a movie. Console games are still going for $60 each, even if the game is more than a year old. My cable TV bill (including HDTV + premium movie channel) is like $100/month. My point? Sure, families will be cutting back, but the question is which portion of the entertainment budget gets cut? Cutting the MMO budget might make sense for some, but does it mean everyone?
I give up movies and do online rental for 10 to 15 dollars a month and maximize my time. If I want to play that 60 dollar console game with my family or friends thier is no more cost involved. If I want to play with my family or friends they have to buy the boxes (which will cost pretty darned close to that 60 dollar figure) and then give up time I could be advancing to help them level. Not to mention I can go to gamestop and pick up old games for 5 dollars and up. Theres no way to cut the budget on an MMO. And as someone else mentioned most players play only one MMO at a time.
I think the real problem MMO's are having right now is most of the WOW players want something just like wow with totally new and different content. For that I think a huge part of the playerbase would jump. But devs only want to work on new exciting and different ideas.
While I agree on almost everything of what you say, I don't think saying "But devs only want to work on new exciting and different ideas." is the problem. It's the huge startup costs + time that it would take to make a new MMO world with the polish of WoW as you said in an earlier comment. And the failures of the latest MMO's (such as AOC, PotBS, Tabula Rasa, etc) are likely to make business people very hesitant to throw capital/seed money at a new MMO. Especially considering that the entire world economy is in a recession.
A recession does not really stop people from playing WoW, and it would not stop them from playing a good new MMO either. The problem is that nobody seems able to pull of something that surpasses WoW's standard.

There also seems to be the firm believe that it is next to impossible to "beat" WoW. Not only among players, but also among developers and publishers, it seems. So it is no wonder that we are stuck with WoW.

WoW's core is based on the age-old game EverQuest. Polished and refined, and now it slowly becomes like EverQuest: More expansions, 10 more levels each expansions, the same stuff +10 levels and some new ideas. Unfortunately, the game still stays the same, with all the many flaws of EverQuest.

Maybe it is really up to Blizzard to deliver the "Next Generation MMO". Nobody else seems to be capable to pull that off, and all blame it on the money. What a shame and a pity.
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