Without doubt 2008 will be a year long remembered in MMO circles. New MMOs launched, new MMOs flopped, numerous planned and existing MMOs died. It certainly wasn't a boring year for MMOs - a big change from 2007 - and revealed to anyone who cared to look that the MMO audience today isn't following the same rules they did in the past. It isn't "build it and they will come" anymore, it's "build it and they will come for the first 30 days and then god help you if you aren't up to scratch", meaning the MMO industry right now is kind of like a version of Field of Dreams
where Kevin Costner's farmer goes bankrupt and has to sell the farm because he'd cleared valuable cropping land and built an expensive baseball diamond following a whimsical voice when he should have just harvested corn. Or maybe that's stretching an analogy.
Regardless, let's look at the "highlights" of MMOs across 2008, month by month. January:
Things got off to an early start with P2 aka Perpetual Entertainment cancelling their Star Trek Online MMO and laying off their entire development staff
. Following this news, P2's old PR company stopped suing them
, probably out of pity for not being able to get STO off the ground. Pirates of the Burning Sea (POTBS) launched
, capitalising on the pirate-related enthusiasm everyone had in those heady days, while Shadowbane reset its servers and wiped all character information
in a move that is pretty interesting for a supposedly persistent game. Fury releases an email calling all the people who no longer play their game LOSERS!
. NCsoft drops Blackstar
from its development list. February: P2 closes
, as only seems right for a MMO studio with no MMOs and no developers. Cyan announces that Myst Online is "discontinued" by GameTap
, just like it was "discontinued" at Ubisoft in 2004, meaning that Myst Online has died twice.
There was a complete storm in a tea cup over whether or not your local version of Age of Conan would let you see breasts and / or blood
. Turns out it was yes to both
EA resurrected The Sims Online as free-to-play title EA-Land
. Microsoft formally announced that the Marvel Universe Online MMO had been canned
, making it the third time this particular IP had gone into pre-production before being killed off. Saga of Ryzom finally shuts down its game servers
after months of threats that such a shut down could occur due to lack of revenue.March:
The Shadowbane server is rebooted
. Funnily enough, it didn't appear to bring back players past a short launch bump.
Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR) had its launch date officially delayed until later in 2008
.April: POTBS cuts their number of servers from 11 to 4
(with an Australian and Russian server planned to launch) despite player numbers "being [mostly] in line with their projections". EA kills EA-Land.
The Sims Online had limped along since launch in 2002, but it really seemed odd to rebrand a game and get people excited (and paying for in-game items) only to shut it down. But hey, it was EA-Land shutting down, not The Sims Online, right?May: Age of Conan (AoC) launched.
It got mostly positive reviews from professional reviewers, who apparently played up to level 20 on high-end machines. Those who got past level 20 (on the way to level 80) found a game that was full of problems
, such as female characters doing 25% less damage than male characters because they had slower animations in their attacks.June: AoC shifts 1 million units
despite these problems.
Richard Bartle reveals himself to be both prescient and unaware of fanbois when stating "I've already played Warhammer. It was called World of Warcraft."
Face of Mankind: Rebirth, which aimed to bring a zombie MMO back to life, was aborted
Purely and simply, July belonged to Flagship Studios and Hellgate: London. HG:L launched in late 2007 to a fairly weak reception
and failed to retain players. The news that Flagship was being shut down and that HG:L was going to be canned still came as a surprise to most though.
What was most interesting (and what appears to have hastened the demise of HG:L) is that Flagship had basically hocked everything, including the HG:L IP, in order to try to keep going. This let the creditors move in to take control
, which appeared to be a surprise to Flagship. Despite some legal claims being thrown around, the end result was Flagship closing
, HG:L being taken over by its Korean distributor and the announcement that the North American version of the title would be shut down in January 2009
Biggest kick in the teeth to players? If you'd bought a lifetime subscription to HG:L (at $150), you would have actually paid more to play the game over its lifetime than a player who paid the basic $10 a month subscription fee and got nearly the same amount of extra features (especially since a lot of the promised subscriber features weren't delivered or were opened up to non-subscribing players to try to keep them playing
Of those 1 million boxes that AoC shipped, 800 000 were turned into subscribing players during launch. By August, this number had dwindled to 415 000
, meaning that AoC, a game costing an estimated US $60 million and supposedly designed to keep players occupied for years couldn't retain more than 1 in 2 players over a three month period. A lot of the reasons for this were visible during the launch period.
Turns out no-one cares about boobs and blood after launch day.
NCsoft dropped the axe in North America, eliminating 21 positions and cancelling a title or two
. Bye bye Blighted Empire, we barely knew ye. It is likely these cuts came due to Tabula Rasa still failing to attract players... but the TR team was left untouched...Fury shuts down.
It only lasted a bit less than 10 months as a launched title. Losers.
After a small bidding war between a private company and a group of fans
who wanted to buy and revive the game (SpiderWeb International Limited, the private company, are believed to have won) the Saga of Ryzom aka Ryzom relaunches
. This is the third time that Ryzom has changed owners during its operation.September:
Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR) launches, selling 1.5 million units to retailers
Mark Jacobs, the CEO of Mythic Entertainment, gets into an internet slapfight
over comments made by Blizzard's Jeff Kaplan. Isn't he aware that he has WAR fanbois available for such things? Oh, and WAR has sold 1.2 million copies and has over 800 000 subscribed players
. Exactly why 400 000 copies have been bought but not activated is anyone's guess. Merry Christmas for some people, I guess.
... or not. Despite a mostly successful launch (Europe aside
) WAR is struggling under a host of design problems
that has to be making player retention difficult. Free server transfers are announced
, which is never a good sign so early after launch.
Bioware announces Star Wars: The Old Republic
which was the worst kept secret in MMO-dom.
Exanimus, a long-promised zombie genre MMO, takes a headshot. November:
World of Warcraft (WoW) releases its latest expansion, which sells 2.8 million copies in the first 24 hours.
It's the fastest selling PC title of all time. This happens despite a lead up that contained multiple in-game problems
By the end of November, WAR has been through 7 rounds of free server transfers
. Numerous reports exist
of servers feeling empty of other players. Half the launch servers are no longer selectable to start a new character on
. Almost half of players who stated that they were leaving WoW to play WAR have returned to WoW (and the figure is 68% for ex-AoC players).
And so you're back, from outer space / I just walked in to find you here with that look upon your face - space tourist Richard Garriott announces he is leaving Tabula Rasa (TR)
, a title that bears his name (it's Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa on pretty much all the logos). NCsoft waits a week and four days in his honour, then announces that TR is closing early 2009
. So ends a MMO title with a development budget that may have exceeded US $100 million dollars.
In one of the weirdest MMO launches in history, Acclaim launches Chronicles of Spellborn (CoS) in Europe while also launching its closed beta in the US on the same day.
So you've got a MMO that is live in one region, but still in beta in another, likely using the same version of client. Confused? I am.
Funcom lays off a number of employees from AoC.
That special Australian / NZ-only POTBS server is planned to be closed
after the Australian ISP chooses not to renew the deal after about 8 months of operation (although Flying Lab do indicate they'll open up a new server for Australians looking to make the transition to US servers).December:
Someone announces that Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment hasn't paid their employees for over two weeks.
For a company made up of several studios and with a title due out early 2009 (Stargate: Worlds) this is a bad sign. CME responds with a "start-ups suffer from cash flow problems all the time, can't you give a brother a break?"
message. By the end of December, this period of non-payment
had risen to 48 days on the site.
Funcom announces rolling server merges
to try to get enough players together for AoC to keep its MMO status. Also, AoC will still - Funcom promises - be coming out on the Xbox 360
, but they don't want to spoil the surprise by listing dates or times or anything more specific than it being "in production".
Cyan does the development equivalent of sprinkling cremated ashes from the mountain top and sends Myst Online off as an open source title.
Yes, this is a biased list. It ignores a lot of new announcements, hype and general fluff that surround a lot of MMO titles. Mergers and take-over have also been ignored. It is certainly focused more on the bad news than the good, but in 2008 the news was mostly bad. Unless you work at Blizzard. In which case, feel free to chuckle about how badly your competitors performed over your platinum-and-diamond encrusted keyboard.
It isn't a list to say that MMO industry is doomed either. The next few years collectively offer up an incredibly wide set of titles to choose from - DC Universe Online, Stargate: Worlds, Champions Online, Fallen Earth, Darkfall (ha!), The Agency, Star Trek Online etc etc - while a number of interesting MMO titles popped up in 2008 from unexpected sources (Wizard 101 and Dreamlords, for instance). A number of existing titles still appear solid in terms of player numbers and developer support. But it is a list to say that MMOs no longer survive by virtue of existence. It took the MMO industry a while to cotton on to the idea that the hard part of running a MMO happens after you get the game out the door; it is apparently taking a while to learn that you need to have a fun core experience in game when it goes out the door too. The basement dwelling MMO player who used to (and still will) accept any buggy grind in their MMO exists, but there are a lot more people playing MMOs today who actually want an enjoyable escapist experience rather than a second job. These people don't hang around after a buggy launch or in a title that doesn't encourage them to play for more than 4 weeks.
I know that devs don't set out to make a crappy game, but there is something rotten here when experienced developers are given huge budgets and turn out titles that don't retain players for long. Money seems to be poisoning the MMO well, especially since huge budgets require huge returns to justify the investment. 2008 shows numerous examples of this in action.
But all of this is good for MMOs. Probably not if you are / were working in the industry, but for the health of the whole: this blood letting was necessary. WoW's success had created a meme that if only you could spend that much money, you too could create a title that would attract millions of players. Now that AoC, WAR and TR have graciously proven this wrong, hopefully developers can start thinking about turning smaller budgets into more focused titles that do a few things very well rather than lots of things half-assed.
And, if not, it'll be all aboard the Flagship once again.