Like all industries, the MMO game industry follows the business
cycle of innovation, saturation and maturation. There was a grand
period from about 1997 until 2004 when new MMOs were released with
consistent improvement and innovation driving the industry growth. This
innovation peaked with World of Warcraft in 2004. As WoW made ever more
money, many other games (too many to count) were released as
essentially WoW clones with a slightly different story, marginally
different graphics, and slight twists in the gameplay.
Many of these newer games did make money, but it was as a result of
the growth of the MMO gaming audience, characteristic of a new industry.
This changed in 2008, as it became obvious that the innovation saturation
point has been definitively reached. Games started collapsing on
themselves as they lost (or failed to reach) the required critical mass
for success. The much-hyped Tabula Rasa was shutdown after a very short
life. Other games like The Matrix Online and Shadowbane are also
belly-up and formerly subscription-based games like Dungeons and
Dragons Online are changing to a Free-to-Play revenue model.
As 2009 progresses, I expect to see a number of other shutdowns of large games along with even more smaller games.
So what is the future of online gaming?
Here is what I as the future of successful MMO games:
- Focus on the casual gamer. Many people are
completely engrossed in their games, playing many hours each day on
them. But there are many times more people who would prefer to play a
game for a short time when they get a chance. The potential audience is
much larger when a game can be enjoyed for as little as 15-30 minutes
and does not require daily play.
- Free-to-Play. Casual gamers are not willing to pay
a monthly subscription fee. Many of them may go for a month or two
playing very little or without playing at all. Additionally, people are
reducing their monthly expenses and game subscriptions are one of the
first to go. When a game can be enjoyed for free with in-game
enhancements purchased when they feel the need (or have the cash), it
opens itself to a much larger audience. MMO games require a critical
mass of people. People have more fun in an MMO game when it has a lot
of people playing and will be more interested in purchasing from the
cash shop when they are having fun. This means that even players who
never pay a dime for an MMO still bring value to the game by attracting
and retaining paying players.
- Niche games with unique gameplay. Not everyone
wants to play WoW. Not everyone wants to play an MMO that features
characters of different races and standard classes running around a
fantasy (or sci-fi) world killing beasts for loot. Many people love
this type of game, but not everyone. I see games with unique gameplay
coming out of this industry shake-down. After playing games for 10
years, they all start to look and act the same. It is time that
different ways to play are developed.
These changes will lead to a time of new innovation and a new
business cycle. It will cause a lot of new startup companies to be
created, as true innovation is very rare in large established companies
due to shareholder demands of consistent profits. Many of these will
fail, but there will be a couple that will rise above the ranks and be
able to produce free-to-play niche MMO games. Look at the Facebook and
MySpace games that have come out in the last year.
I see successful MMOs being produced by companies that create a game
development platform allowing them to produce many smaller games that
will, together, make the companies successful (Zynga is a good example).
It will be very interesting to see and play these new games.