Looking strictly at the dollars per day it’s taken in so far, the Kickstarter for the new Brad McQuaid project Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen isn’t going to reach its funding goal of $800K. Which wouldn’t neccessarily mean the end of the project, but it would surely be a setback. On the other hand, pledging tends to increase as the end of a well-managed campaign approaches, and Pantheon’s at least pushing out lots of information. Whether the Kickstarter succeeds or not I expect that crowdfunding for the project will continue after it’s over, as is being done with Star Citizen and Shroud of the Avatar. The latter recently hit $3 million in crowdfunding, which seems like chump change compared to many MMO budgets. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that Pantheon might pull in a similar amount.

This is the sound of the drum I (and others) have been beating for a long time: nobody needs $100 million to develop a virtual world. All of the classic pre-WoW MMORPGs were developed on budgets at least an order of magnitude less than that, and they brought more innovation and novelty and immersion to the table than any of the sterile commercial properties of the last few years. Developing on $3 million is damned tight, but today there are middleware tools that a team can leverage to vastly streamline the creative process. The big one is the Unity engine: Pantheon, Shroud of the Avatar, Pathfinder Online and Project: Gorgon are all being developed on that platform.

All four are interesting projects and all are MMOs at least by the current overbroad definition. Shroud of the Avatar is the one with the closest kinship with Pantheon and is relatively far along. It and Star Citizen (also fairly far along) are promising something interesting: the ability to host the game yourself. Pantheon is also making noise in this direction; its final stretch goal, which it seems unlikely to hit even if the Kickstarter funds, includes this capability. I’d expect this kind of feature to be rather less functional than running a full-fledged MMO server from your basement workbench. But even if it has limitations more severe than I expect, something very important is brought to the table. Or perhaps more accurately taken off the table: the ability of some faceless suit to take those worlds away, forever, with the flip of a switch. The willingness of these three projects to offer that, even potentially, is very brave.

This isn’t something Pathfinder Online is promising. Which is interesting, because one of the people behind it is Ryan Dancey. In addition to a stint with CCP Dancey was the guy behind the Open Game License, which did something similar to D&D: it insulated the game from the decisions of any one corporate entity. The fruits of that are evident now; in most areas D&D’s 4th edition is considered a misfire by most and Pathfinder, essentially a refitted D&D3.5, has surpassed it in sales and visibility. Once released into the wild, the game mechanics can never be caged again, and some have taken advatage of that to use the tools provided under the PGL to build emulators of older versions of D&D. In a very real way the D&D rules are now the property of the community rather than of the company the published them.

Of course, if D&D were to go away as a living product line it would be harmful to the hobby but the immediate impact might not be much felt by individual gaming groups. Their adventures and manuals would not suddenly dissolve into dust beucaes the publisher went under or decided to cancel the line. Their campaigns might go on for years, even decades, with no new official materials. There are examples of RPGs whose communities have done exactly that.

MMORPGs are not like that. Once the provider shuts them down, that’s it — barring a laborious player effort to reverse engineer enough serverside code to run a private server of questionable legality. This has occasionally yielded something playable, but in the case of Vanguard I doubt it will happen (I’d be delighted to be proven wrong.)

Rooting For Brad

The Kickstarter for Brad McQuaid’s new game Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen is now live. There’s a great deal we don’t know about Pantheon. If the Kickstarter is managed intelligently many of those questions will get answered over the next few weeks, as more information is forced out into the traditional MMO news channels to keep the project’s visibility up. We’ll see what happens.

I backed it, modestly for now with an eye toward possibly increasing my support later on in the campaign. As far as I’m concerned the McQuaid name doesn’t have any special allure for being attached to EverQuest, a game I didn’t play until well after its heyday. But it does for Vanguard, which likely puts me in a small minority. I backed it not becuase I am convinced it will be awesome, but because McQuaid’s involvement suggests a certain amount of ambition. I think ambition is to be encouraged, especially many years of spineless copycat titles. A status quo that’s only now beginning to be challenged.

On a personal level, I’m rooting for Brad. He is now, after all, an underdog. Pantheon might succeed, if it has goals it can manage and a budget proportonal to its potential audience. I hope it does. It might fail, as many would say Vanguard did. But I’ll take an ambitious failure over a soulless hit any day. I hope, over the course of the kickstarter, to learn just how ambitious Pantheon is going to be, and to get an impression of how reasonable its design goals seem. And to learn more about the technical underpinnings of the game; Vanguard was built on the Unreal engine but modified it very heavily. Will Pantheon also be built on some kind of middleware foundation? Other indie projects with ambitious goals and modest budgets like Project: Gorgon, Pathfinder Online and Shroud of the Avatar seem, at least tenatively, to be getting good results buidling on Unity.

On the other hand, the title is terrible.

38 Studios’ Money Trouble and the Price of an MMO

The MMO Blogosphere is abuzz with news about 38 Studios and their recent financial difficulties. I myself tried to write a different post about it but it came out way too political for this blog. Regardless of what one may think of Curt personally, there’s no doubt that he is one of us and is following the dream of making his own game, something many of us would like to do if we had the spare capital lying around. Their proposed MMO, Copernicus, whatever it turns out to be actually called, has potential, and it’s a game I’d like to get to play someday.

Yesterday they released a flythrough for Copernicus that shows off some nice graphics and solid music and, they hope, shows everyone that they’re serious and not just a money pit.

Their situation brings to mind a question I’ve asked before: how much money does it take to make an MMO. Conventional widsom in the industry says an awful lot, but at the same time all of the long term successes in the hobby were made for a lot less than SWTOR’s $200+ million. Why couldn’t 38 Studios build thier MMO plus a single-player standalone that the MMO could borrow assets from for $100+ million? I just don’t see why it has to cost that much unless we’re defining “make an MMO” as “copy WoW.”

This is why I think the Pathfinder Online people Have their heads on straight; one of their stated goals is to make an MMO without running the bill close to eight figures, by starting small and building a game and its audience from there. Their effort, too, might fail, as so many MMOs do in development, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Meanwhile, I wish all the people at 38 Studios the best, and I hope this is a temporary cash flow problem. It would be nice to get to see their game get a release.

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.

Pathfinder Online Announced

Yesterday Paizo Publishing and the heretofore unknown by me Goblinworks announced an MMO based on the Pathfinder tabletop roleplaying property. Pathfinder has in recent years grown to be a serious threat to the hegemony of a Dungeons & Dragons saddled with its blasphemous fourth edition, even surpassing its popularity in some areas.

Ignoring any reservations on how such a project might actually turn out, this sounds on the surface to be very much in keeping with what I’ve been talking about for several weeks: crafting-driven economies and skill-based characters, player-created nations… it sounds rather promising and worth keeping an eye on, although it certainly sounds like it’s very early in the development process.

Judging from the people involved, Goblinworks appears to be an outgrowth of Paizo, and I find that encouraging. MMOs need fresh ideas and bold leadership and a willingness to make games for less than $100 million, and a comparatively tiny but vigorously creative tabletop RPG scene fully aware of the true potential of RPGs might just be able to provide that. Tabletop RPGs have a far stronger record at allowing players to find their own paths (har, har) by their nature, and an attempt to create an MMO to at least somewhat simulate that would represent a general step forward for MMOs.

As always, remember Sturgeon’s Law. But I’ll be keeping my ear to the ground on this one.