The Road Ahead: 2012 in MMOs

An end is come to 2011, and it was, shall we say, not a banner year for MMOs. The year saw two successful launches of games mired in their lack of ambition, and the rest of the year was older games doing interesting things like going free to play or launching nostalgia servers. Still, as we say in Cleveland, “there’s always next year.” Which is now. So what’s on the horizon for the next twelve months (minus a couple of weeks,) and how will current market entries evolve? Here are my (only slightly late) predictions.

As far as I can see, the only “triple-A” title with a real chance to shake things up in a big way is Guild Wars 2. Even if it doesn’t come through with everything it’s promised, it’s going to make the year’s big splash, with top-notch production quality and a stated desire to abandon some of the hobby’s most pernicious leftovers from the EverQuest days. Holy Trinity, this means you. The move toward dynamic world events rather than static quests may provide a sense of non-linearity. On the other hand, I worry about the cohesion of its world and the side systems that are so important to fleshing out an MMO, like crafting. And the semi-static cutscenes, while artfully done from what I’ve seen, may subtract from immersion and sense of place. There’s also the technological element that I tend not to favor in a fantasy game, and the inevitable cutsey race, but I intend to do my best to live with those.

A game that will have less impact but which may be just as innovative is Funcom’s The Secret World. It ought to be graphically top-notch, if system-crushing. It’s going to fill the modern supernatural niche that’s been underserved by MMOs up to this point, and also promises to depart significantly from established tropes. It’s scheduled to launch in April, but my guess is that it’ll be pushed back to July. The big fear with this one is that, as they did with Age of Conan, Funcom will mis-target the game and end up courting the wrong bunch of players. But hopefully they’ll have learned a lesson from AoC’s troubled evolution and the marketing and community folks will be rowing the same boat as the developers this time.

Not likely to shake things up at all is Mists of Pandaria. More of the same, yawn. Blizzard has unquestionably left the era in which they can do no wrong, and their Big Dog will continue to shed subscribers, but by late in the year — November or December — Mists will cast off, and WoW will still be on the top of the heap. Expect a formal announcement of whatever Titan turns out to be at Blizzcon.

I’m now thinking that my earlier prediction for Star Wars: The Old Rebublic — 2-3 million subscribers at peak and 500K six months later — is going to bust. I now think it will peak substantially lower — say a million and a half — but that it will hold on to the players it has much better than recent history would suggest. Whether it’s actually a profitable enterprise for EA is likely to remain murky, no matter how many people are playing it. Don’t be shocked to see it holding on to a million subs by the end of the year… but we’d better see some substantive update/expansion news by then, too, or we’ll see it start to peter out after that. The slow rollout of new content is poised to hurt SWTOR more than other titles because it’s likely to be even slower than usual.

I predict that TERA will be the next Mortal Online – mildly hyped before launch and sinking like a stone after. But I could be wrong, and if the game pulls off the action-style combat at its heart it could do better than I expect. TERA is going to live or die by two things: how well the combat plays, and how well the combat plays one-handed, if you catch my drift.

WildStar looks promising, if conventional, but I don’t think we know enough about it to dismiss it just yet. It’s coming out of the NCSoft House of Winners, so my expectations are low, but it’s not being developed by NCSoft, so there’s a chance it will turn into something palatable. Its visual style, though, sings “WoW Clone,” and many might not be able to get past that even if it varies from bog-standard more than expected. I think it will release in Q4 of 2012.

Dust 514, the ground-based counterpart of EVE Online should finally launch in 2012. It had better — Microsoft and Sony are gearing up for the debut of the next generation of consoles, and this year is likely to be the last chance for titles to make a big splash before people start looking more at the new round of hardware than the current one. I predict modest — very modest — success on this one; it’ll be hobbled both by CCP’s lack of cred in the shooter marketplace and by its exclusivity on the lagging PS3. God only knows how clean it will launch, but nobody is better than CCP at shepherding a title through a modest debut and into long-term growth. Expect to start hearing about a PC port around the end of the year.

Speaking of CCP, we may or may not hear anything new on World of Darkness Online. It’s not shelved, exactly, but expect the focus for the year to be on EVE and Dust. Next year I think we’ll start to hear some serious noise about this title.

Warhammer 40K: Dark Millennium will not launch in 2012.

Neverwinter is a wildcard. Like TERA, it’s supposed to be action-oriented, but my hopes are not high for it in this department. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to seeing it. I’m predicting a Q3 launch.

Korean entry ArcheAge has all the hallmarks of a Vanguard — big promises, low quality control and a lead developer past his prime. No other game manages to look so promising yet elicit so many utterances of “really?” Open world, super-detailed crafting and construction, mass battles on land and sea… and player run jails and other harebrained-sounding stuff make me excited yet extremely leery. It may release in 2012 — I think it will — but my guess is that a North American release is months behind the Korean launch, maybe into 2013.

Less worrying is The Repopulation, despite its awful title. With early talk centering around the influence of Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, it’s not likely to be a massive hit, but it’s got a chance to shake the hobby out of its torpor. I expect a launch in 2013 at the earliest. It’s one to keep an eye on.

Planetside 2 will launch in 2012 with major problems and withering scorn in the blogosphere, but will be a modest success for all that. “Modest success” is the best SOE is going to manage for the moment… but they have a big opportunity to do something special with EverQuest Next. Let’s hope they don’t blow it, but in any event I expect to hear only token news about it in 2012.

Vanguard will still be running as of the end of the year. I hope to see a freemium move, but SOE appears to not be considering that for the moment. I should finally see some long-awaiting development and new content, which may boost its (currently dire) numbers.

The most promising-sounding thing in development is Pathfinder Online. Goblinworks seems to be telling me all the right things… start small, don’t spend a gazillion dollars, don’t plan for more players than you have even the remotest chance to get or keep, and create a realistically-scaled sandbox world. But it’s really early, and I’m not even convinced that the project will materialize at all. These guys are really new and untested, so I think they’ll either bring a number of fresh ideas to the table and actually advance the state of the art, or evaporate before accomplishing much of anything. I’m rooting for them.

Among older games, EverQuest II, LotRO and City of Heroes will keep on trucking under their new freemium models. EverQuest will continue to endure, but I think we’ll see another historic sunset some time during the year. My guess would be Dark Age of Camelot, but Warhammer Online is very, very vulnerable, especially with a companion game (Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes) that takes the fun(ish) part from WAR and makes it a game of its own. Bioware/Mythic may also decide to tighten their business up if they’re taking to big a bath on SWTOR, the basket all their eggs are laid in, so Ultima Online could fall here as well.

We’re going to start to see the many entries in the freemium MMO marketplace shake out into tiers. This has already started, but it’ll become more apparent in 2012. The biggest player in the freemium market is going to continue to be LotRO unless something very dramatic happens, but APB is giving it a good run for its money right now, and Star Trek Online has a shot at landing in the top bunch if it can hold together.

We’ll see in a year how I did.

6 responses to “The Road Ahead: 2012 in MMOs

  1. Everyone seems to have forgotten about Copernicus. No-one but me seems to have noticed Otherlands in the first place.

    I wonder how LotRO’s subs are holding up these days? Is it really still the leader in the Freemium pack? What about Free Realms, another title no-one ever mentions any more, or Wizard 101? From my experience of the Freeport server in EQ2 (bursting at the seams and has been for a year and a half) I wonder how far EQ2 is behind now. Not so far as it was, I’d bet.

    I still think there’s a lot of wishful-thinking going on in the blogosphere about sandbox MMOs. It’s blindingly obvious that there is vast audience out there for sandbox games, far bigger than the audience for MMORPGs ever was or will be. The thing is, that audience has been more than adequately served for decades by single-player games. Where’s the evidence that players who like to build imaginary stuff want to do it in public where other people can get in their way/laugh at what they’ve done/tell them they’re doing it wrong, or where they have to jump through a lot of extra log-in hoops and/or pay a monthly fee to get into their game of choice? Equally, isn’t most of the potential sandbox-pvp market already being more than adequately served by a plethora of FPS games, some of which already incorporate a degree of persistence?.

  2. I left off Copernicus becuase it won’t release in 2012 and therefore i did not feel compelled to have an opinion on it.

    I did look at Xfire and Raptr number while writing the article but EQ2 has always been under-reported on those. I think it’s doing better than is often assumed.

    Far as the sandbox thing goes, we have a disappointing habit in MMOs to assume that sandbox must equate to PvP. It ain’t so, and we’re starting to realize it. More correctly, I think we need to find new ways to enable competitive play in multiplayer games beside shooting at one another. EVE is really the only title now that’s doing this. Evidence: the thriving multiplayer servers of Minecraft.

  3. @bhagpuss

    Minecraft players post Youtube videos and host persistent servers. Model train enthusiasts go to big, expensive model train conventions. A 6 year old cousin pesters you incessantly to ‘come and see’ his newest Lego creation. People want to build, and people want to show off what they build. I think it’s pretty evident that there is a market for MMO sandbox games. In my opinion, the problem isn’t that the appeal isn’t there – the problem is that sandbox MMOs have been bad sandboxes.

    As an MMO player, I consider EVE to be a pretty damn awesome sandbox. As a Minecraft player, I consider EVE a pretty shit one. Skyrim makes WoW look like it was built by brain damaged trauma patients. Largely, MMOs to date have been *bad games*, redeemed by the merits of the MMO aspects rather than on being ‘a great rpg’ or similar. There’s never exactly been a big clamour for EQ Offline.

    MMOs have a long way to go to catch up to their single player counterparts. But I think the market is there already, and it’s only going to get stronger with generations of kids growing up ‘plugged in’ to things like Facebook. Login hoops will be expected or streamlined out – like with Steam or Facebook games, and sub fees aren’t necessarily the rule – particularly as bandwidth and such gets cheaper.

  4. Free Realms seems to have a pretty steady number of players most of the time and is often packed during school holidays, which isn’t a surprise considering the target age group. The thing that does surprise me is the number of players with memberships (you can see which is which since members now have gold names instead of blue). I would have thought free players would vastly outnumber paying members but it is usually the other way around. Having a lifetime membership that only costs $35 certainly helps.

    Aion, in spite of NCWest/NCSoft’s best attempts to drive western players away with stupid decision after decision, will easily move into first place of F2P games once they have both Europe and North Amercia servers converted over. Just about everyone I know is asking me about class info, crafting, and what areas don’t have open PvP; aside from all the outright lies NCWest told, the lack of PvE only servers was one of their biggest mistakes because so many people simply don’t want any open world PvP, even though they are missing out on the fun of massive group vs group fights.

    STO F2P seems to be doing well. I liked the game last year when I was subbed for several months, but it just wasn’t worth a monthly sub IMO. Now I’m playing every day and having a good time, although still not very thrilled with the ground portion of it and the fact it is so totally combat oriented.

    Now if Vanguard and Ultima Online would go F2P, I’d have just about every game I want to play available to me without the hassle of subs and wasted money when I can only play a week out of each month.