A few days ago over at Kill Ten Rats, Suzina put up a post about Niche MMOs. It sparked a bit of discussion, and I even threw in a comment, and I just felt it was an idea I wanted to put here and maybe expand on a little.
The fact is, everything starts as a niche. The first MUD was a niche to the uses of the Internet that existed at the time (hell, MMOs today are still a niche of the overall gaming market, and games are a niche of the entertainment industry, I’m pretty sure books and movies outsell games – for now). Every iteration of what we would come to call MMOs evolved, taking what came before and tried to improve it. From MUDs to UO to EQ to WoW (and before anyone gets angry that I left out their favorite game in there, I’m being short on purpose, I realize there are tons of games that fit), each game wanted to be better than the last, and with a few exceptions the one thing most MMOs had in common was a fantasy setting. There are lots of companies out there that have seen WoW, seen WoW’s numbers, and decided they’d like to be WoW. But trying to out-WoW WoW is a losing proposition. If you spend $100 million on a fantasy game and expect to get millions of subscribers, you are going to be disappointed (and probably broke). In the post WoW fantasy genre, the best you can really hope for is a niche game that fills a need that WoW doesn’t and hold enough players to make a profit. If you take a look at Lord of the Rings Online, they aren’t trying to beat WoW, but they did take a number of lessons from WoW and then said “What if we built a fantasy game on a well known intellectual property and kept the story content high?” If you’d like to play a fantasy MMO with heavy story, LotRO is your game. EQ2 is over in their corner nurturing their niche too. Even EQ is holding on. WAR is in the process of recovering, slapped with the realization they didn’t out-WoW WoW on launch. AoC is in the same boat with WAR. And since WoW is still climbing, still putting out expansions that expand the player base, its not yet time for someone to take over the crown yet. WoW, being as successful as it is, needs to falter before that. In the meantime, the fantasy genre is dead except in the niches.
But fantasy isn’t the only game in town. EVE Online has been trucking along in the Science Fiction arena for a while, growing slowly and steadily. If I had to define EVE I’d classify it as the “UO of the Ship-based Sci-Fi genre”. Right now there are a few new Ship-based Sci-Fi games set to hit the market. Black Prophecy and Jumpgate Evolution are the two big ones, with Star Trek Online taking a middle ground with both ships and ground game (hopefully they won’t fall into the same pit that Pirates of the Burning Sea did), and I suspect Star Wars: The Old Republic might have some space ships in it (but I also suspect the game will heavily favor the ground based side). Assuming none of these games screw up too badly, one of them might be the EQ of the genre, breaking open the market. If that happens, in about five years we’ll probably have a WoW-sized success in the Sci-Fi MMO market (maybe Stargate Worlds will recover enough to make a showing, but I think that might be just wishful thinking on my part), at which point Sci-Fi will be in the same boat that fantasy is currently: one clear “winner” with everyone else either failing or nurturing their niche of the genre.
My thoughts on this aren’t completely pulled out of thin air… just look at other entertainment sectors. In movies, the out of left field blockbuster doesn’t really happen often. Usually a blockbluster is preceded by several failed attempts, minor and moderate successes before landing the perfect storm of funding, story, directing and acting to blow the lid off. After a blockbuster explodes, movies and games experience the same effect: attraction. Once the market showed that people would pay to see a well done movie about comic book superheroes, all the sudden you had all the big name directors, writers, actors and movie producers looking to cash in. The difference is that movies leave the theater, they last anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours, and its easy to watch a bunch of movies, a different one every weekend. In MMOs, every game is like an extended run film of 50 or 60 years ago. Nowadays, new movies open at the multiplex every weekend, and there are 24 screens, but “back in the day” people went to see Gone With The Wind over and over, and the theaters (which often had only 1 screen, maybe 2) kept it because it made money. A new movie had to prove it was worth getting rid of a money maker. That’s what the MMO market is like. You can’t just release a game and expect people to come running. The majority of people will only subscribe to one game at a time over the long term, with two subscriptions overlapping as they decide which one to keep. They might buy your box and use your first “free” month, but you have 30 days to convince them not to go back to their other game, the one they’ve already invested time into, the one they’ve already had fun playing. In 30 days you have to prove to them that they need to subscribe to your game, and you need to prove to them that if it comes down to a choice they should cancel their other accounts and not your game.
The Free-to-Play model is working to change this. With a F2P MMO, you only need to convince people to keep your game installed and come back from time to time, and maybe throw a few bucks your way every now and then. Sure, you’d like for them to dump money in, but (hopefully) your budget and business model is actually designed around a minority of players doing that, with the majority spending nothing or spending rarely. It remains to be seen if this model with be a success and if it will have a profound effect on the subscription based gaming sector, or just another niche outside of tween-based casual game social spaces.
Anyway, at this point I’m just rambling, so I’ll stop.