Edge is gloating, with considerable justification, about calling Warhammer Online as overrated. And while he’s right to say that it hasn’t met the expectations of many of its staunchest pre-launch boosters, I’m starting to think that this might be a problem inherent to the way the MMO marketplace is currently arranged.
Let’s look at an offbeat example: Lord of the Rings Online. It launched strong and still retains what appear to be very solid numbers, and while it’s slid a great deal from its peak, it cannot be considered a failure by any reasonable measure. Yet it’s a hugely better game a year and a half after its release than it was when it launched. (Yeah, I think it’s a soulless corporate hatchet-job, but it’s still a success.) The same is true even of games that launched to much larger problems; Vanguard, EQ2 and DDO.
We could also look at World of Warcraft, but while that game has always been successful and has consistently (if slowly) improved, I happen to think that the changes of the past few months have cocked the game up pretty badly. Even if we concede that, though, those changes were made in response to pressure placed on WoW by competitors (Age of Conan and Warhammer Online) closing in on release, and the fact remains that viewed as a whole package, as of today, WoW is almost certainly a stronger, more feature-rich game than Warhammer is.
That’s the key point. AoC and WAR and everything else that’s coming up aren’t competing with WoW or EQ2 or whatever when those games launched – they’re competing with those games as they are today. In a hobby whose titles almost invariably improve greatly as they mature, that’s very significant. Because, viewed on the whole, while newer games might have features that the old ones lack, the old ones with a couple of years behind them are invariably better games with far fewer glaring problems, and the old titles typically have development teams that know their code very well and can incorporate variations on those new ideas as they surface, giving the old standards even more of an edge.
There are limits, of course. EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot have aged surprisingly well in many respects, as I myself was surprised to find, but there’s only so much you can do with ancient code without a complete overhaul – which games that old seldom have the budget to do.
But does anybody doubt that Warhammer’s best features will shortly be incorporated into a number of other games? WoW already has an achievement system – right on top of WAR’s release – which compares very favorably to the much-pimped Tome of Knowledge but which sounds like it was whipped up in Blizzard’s spare time. Public Quests in some form or another are probably going to start showing up in the coming months in more than one title. Meanwhile, Age of Conan is overcoming a lack of content and a functional PvP system, and WAR is scrambling to fill voids in its class mix – voids which do not exist in, say, EQ2 or Vanguard.
When we say that WoW and EQ2 are better and more feature-rich than AoC or WAR, we are making an unfair comparison, because the former games have years of history and development behind them, making their effective development budgets much higher in both money and man-hours. Unlike a new game, that budget is sustained and continually increased via a revenue stream. Even though the comparison is unfair, it’s the cruel marketplace that will judge them in the long run. Really, the only things these new titles have going for them are novelty and marketing, and both will inevitably falter. The first year or two of their lives thus become a race between the development teams and the short attention spans of the players. Will WAR grow its feature set and overall quality fast enough to prevent the shrinkage of its player base? They might – they have EA money behind them – but it’ll be a struggle until WAR exists in a sort of quality equilibrium with the other genre leaders.
The old games, for their part, lack marketing push. The new EQ2 expansion – and I’m guessing here, but I will almost certainly be right – will be an outstanding addition to an already outstanding game, but it won’t get talked about nearly as much as a rapidly-shriveling Warhammer. But marketing departments can only create hype, never buzz – that comes from the ground up… to be hubristic, from us. Not just bloggers, but people who contribute to forums and post YouTube videos and talk up their games at the office.
I think the market needs new games. It needs the new ideas and innovation, and lord knows the MMO genre could use more titles in something other than standard fantasy. But the nature of MMOs is that they almost always get better and better as time goes on, the only exception being the glaring one of SWG, where the natural development process was hijacked by outside forces. Some games improve quickly, others slowly, but they almost all get better. If they get so old as to be irretrievably dated (like Asheron’s Call,) or contract to the point where their audience is so small that only a token development effort can be mounted (Star Wars Galaxies,) they will atrophy, but they will continue to improve and expand as long as their numbers stay above some kind of ‘life threshold’ which is somewhere north of the viability threshold.
Just because a game is new doesn’t make it better – it doesn’t even necessarily make it better-looking. If anything, advances in hardware may make it easier to run an older game at its full potential. WAR and AoC, and soon Spellborn and Champions Online, may be fine games. They may be fresh… for a while, until the old titles take their best ideas, maybe even improving on them. When they start to feel a little stale, then it’s time to head back to Azeroth or Norrath or New Eden, and play something with more features and fewer issues.
The MMO is still a young phenomenon, still exploring new territory, and its audience is still growing. The mix of economic models within the industry has almost certainly not solidified. It’s inevitable that newcomers will continue to try to get their own little slice of very tasty-looking pie, following the siren’s song of money. More importantly, the leading lights of the genre are still growing and advancing, and the pressure is on the new games. Development costs for an MMO that seeks to be even vaguely competitive with EverQuest II and City of Heroes – let alone World of Warcraft – are soaring. How long will it be before that development burden become financially untenable, when the depth, richness and complexity of current games becoming so great that new titles either arrive looking half-baked in comparison… or never get started at all?
The examples of 2008 – Age of Conan and Warhammer Online – imply that this era may have already arrived.