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A Look Back at 2012: MMORPGs Then & Now

Over the past 15 years the MMORPG genre has skyrocketed to such popularity that it has become one of the most profitable avenues for games companies to make some big bucks, well that‘s if they get it right! From original titles such as Ultima Online and Everquest to newer games such as Guild Wars 2, the game (not literally) has been changed to adopt influences from the media and feedback from players and critics. Today we will look at how much this has changed and discuss what paves the future for the MMORPG genre.

I started my MMORPG career way back in 2004 with Everquest and this will stick with me as one of my favorite games of all time. The feeling of playing with my friends and connecting with people from all around the globe was something so fresh and new to me that it brought a whole new level of excitement in my gaming career and since then I have tried literally every MMORPG for the PC. Some have been great and some have been completely awful. If we look at the original business structure that came from the MMO world, then that is the subscription model. The player will buy their desired title and with that physical or virtual copy would receive a serial number in order to register the game on their newly created account that would offer a free 30 day subscription, in order to access the games servers and play with others and after that initial period could choose whether to continue to pay a monthly fee (usually around $15) to remain on the server or could choose stop playing entirely. You would usually find that the popular MMO titles would have a huge subscription dip after the 30 day period as people would either not enjoy the game and wanted to just stop completely or they would wait to see if their friends carried on playing and thus subscribe later on. I can think of a few examples where this model has worked completely successfully and where this hasn’t worked and indeed nearly crumbled some games companies. The subscription model is something that has really changed in the latter years of MMOs and brings a huge point of discussion in this article and to many people around the world.

The first example of success will be a game that I think most people from the gaming world has heard about, Blizzard's staple title World of Warcraft. The game had plenty of faults at launch and the months after just like the majority of newly started MMO games, but is now possibly the most subscribed game on the planet with active users currently around 10 million even though these numbers usually fluctuate before and after releases of expansions and game updates. The game at launch had a very small amount of press from what I remember, but word of mouth has had a huge part to play in the games success. In fact I was recommended it by a friend and initially dismissed it as I was still loving Everquest, but once I got on I didn’t look back. The game has now been advertised worldwide with a variety of commercials, has a huge internet advertisement campaign from a magnitude of website banners and has attracted people such as Mr T, Chuck Norris and Ozzy Osbourne as part of their television advertisement campaign, and helped by the fact that celebrities such as Mila Kunis and Macaulay Culkin admitting to playing the game. This game was a phenomenon going from strength to strength since 2005 and has a huge archive of game information online, (a google search of “world of warcraft” gave 173,000,000 hits) a magnitude of social media following including “The Instance” which is the most popular podcast in the gaming category on iTunes, and Wowhead which is like an inventory of everything Warcraft. Blizzard has maintained the “subscription” model from the outset and fans all over the world are happy to pay to play it. World of Warcraft has become the daddy of the genre that the child looks up to and one day hopes to be, and undoubtably every company producing a new MMO has used its successful structure as a base to work on and model its game around. 

Next we look at a game that is known as the world's 'Fastest-Growing MMO Ever' after gaining an amazing one million subscribers within the first three days of its launch, yet now struggles to maintain 500,000 subscribers. Star Wars The Old Republic by EA and BioWare will go down as one of the biggest initial MMO hits, but one year later is just about clinging on to its initial fan base and the foundations of the game appeared to be cracking. The company spent between $150-$200 million dollars developing the game among a string of television advertisements that took the world of Star Wars giving players the ability to fight in the Star Wars world and visit popular regions and characters as seen in the films. This game at launch adopted the “subscription model” yet something changed and it is now free to play. Why would a game that was so successful at launch suddenly decide to change its methods and make it free? What changed that made EA make that decision? If you think of the cost just to run the game with the customer support, server side maintenance, and constant patch development, surely this wouldn't be profitable to the company as it is free? Well it seems that it must be as the game has adopted this model pretty early on in the game's lifespan. Admittedly the move seems to have paid off as the subscriber base has risen. The cost of a retail boxed version must have made enough money so that BioWare had enough trust to rely on consumer sales for a consistent flow of profit. This means that even though the MMO business model has changed over time it shows that it can still be successful and compete in a market saturated with other competing titles.

Another game that has opted for the free to play model, in this case from launch is the Guild Wars franchise. Both titles have always been free to play for the start which has proven very successful for the brand and has millions of subscribers. I will change lane a quick second and say that great thing about a free to play model is that you don’t forget to cancel your subscription. It’s something I used to do all the time and I remember subscribing to Final Fantasy Online and after a year of not playing had been playing $15 a month! that’s over $100! Annoying! Anyways, Guild Wars built the free to play foundation from a great model and this has been hugely successful. 

The great thing about free to play is you can dive straight back into the game five months after stopping playing and pick it straight back up without feeling guilty about not playing it. Normally, things will have changed making the game more exciting and different. This also means that casual gamers who may lead a full time job on top of a family and may not have time in their lives to be raiding every week can still get the great benefits and features from a decent MMO and will not incur any charges for it. Also, some people may not be able to afford a monthly subscription, so the free to play game is perfect as they can receive the game as a gift or save for it. The social aspects of an MMO and the gaming environment are unparalleled and the feeling you get from downing that high level raid boss whilst playing with friends is unrivaled in gaming for me. This model makes it even better for people under 18 who may not have a job and can’t pay per month. Many MMORPGs today have adopted the free to play model with Everquest, Vanguard, Saga of Heroes, etc. going down the same route as Star Wars and Guild Wars and this seems likely to continue with MMOs in the future. 

What's great about the current MMO market is that different games' companies are trying to do that one thing different to make their MMO stand out from the rest. Rift had their amazing world events that would crop up consistently during gameplay, Star Wars has lightsabers (who wouldn’t want a light saber), and World of Warcraft has its depth of content, consistent patching, large player base as the list could go on. Every time a new MMO comes out it is trying to do something different which is great because companies can learn ideas from other games and implement them in their own games, in their own way to make them better. A great example is AOE (area of effect) looting which came recently with World of Warcraft and was learnt from previous MMO games. The niche ideas that may seem small really make a difference in MMORPG’s and it’s great that all the companies are competing to make something original that will change the scene. Examples where this doesn’t work are games like Aion which seemed to clone World of Warcraft and Lord of The Rings Online and apart from some in my opinion smoother visuals and didn’t offer anything different from the norm and is an example where it didn’t work and indeed went free to play some months after release. 
 gaming lan party

Lastly, with the free to play model it isn’t always exactly “free”. With many games, you can actually pay a subscription if you want to unlock extra benefits and features of the game. Often the subscription will pay for virtual entities such as extra bag space, the ability to access higher levels or raid content, and the unlocking of different classes and races in the game which many players may find beneficial. Also, games like Guild Wars among others will offer items in game for real money. This was a large issue in other MMOs where people could buy characters, items and gold for real money online which violated most games terms of service, but in a lot of games they have implemented the “micro transaction” model so that you can use you account like a wallet and buy in game items that will either offer cosmetic changes or power features such as better stats. This I feel is a better system as the player will not mind spending 99 cents every now and then but as they play the game this will often add up over time bringing more profits to the company. This is something that has drastically changed in this world and the price to buy gold on certain games has plummeted as more people play other games now. 

gold for MMORPG 

What we the players want is that one epic game that combines all the best parts of every MMORPG and has a substantial player base, great customer services and technical support and awesome visuals to boot. There have been hints that World of Warcraft creators Blizzard will be releasing a new game codenamed by gamers as “Titan” and The Elder Scrolls have a MMORPG penned for release next year so there are titles that are coming out that could again be game changers. The market is filled with smaller web based free to play titles which have really lasted a long time such as Runescape, but the big money earners are the staple titles that are the real earners for games companies. These companies push millions of dollars into development to make their games stand out from the rest and as we look forward you can see the free to play model is the main thing that has changed in this genre over the past few years and I’m certain this will continue with new releases. 

Only games such as World of Warcraft in my opinion can still charge a premium for their service as there are 10 million people playing and this requires immense IT, server, and technical support. This is not to say the other games don’t need this also, but they are relying on bulk sales of the game to bring in the revenue for that support as they know they won’t be getting anywhere near that amount of subscribers. The ability to be different and do that one outstanding thing can set you apart from the mediocrity of other titles and games companies will be progressively looking to implement these bright new ideas into their games into the future to try and gain more of a market share. Since 1999, the basis has been the same with this genre of games and that is playing with other people from over the world and more importantly having fun. It iss just the environment that changes between the games and all these companies are in competition to make their world the most exciting and filled with fun. The main changes I can see over the past five years are the free to play model becoming more progressive and the companies doing that one thing different. Heres to the next five years where we will probably see many new titles and maybe one could destroy the competition and become “that” game.


Meet the Author

About / Bio
I'm a lifelong gamer and share my passion with the world in the form of streaming my games on twitch.tv - www.twitch.tv/terrorhertz and making YouTube videos about all the games I enjoy. I'm also a budding games journalist here :)

My gaming journey began in the Christmas 1992 when aged 6, I got my Sega Mega Drive with Sonic One and World Cup Italia 90. Since then I have played and own pretty much every console since then, just check my collection video on my YouTube channel.

Now days I mainly play PC games and got into the PC side of things when I started playing Everquest in 2005. This game opened my eyes to the mmorpg genre and since then have played most MMO's of which World of Warcraft was my most played. Right now I'm playing and streaming DayZ and FIFA with a few other games thrown in here and there. I'm a games journalist and write weekly articles and monthly reviews and previews whilst also uploading 3+ videos weekly to my YouTube channel where you can find loads of awesome HD gaming videos - www.youtube.com/terrorhertzhd

I've worked as a hardware/software technician for Apple the past 4 years and really enjoy working with computers. I have built/modded/overclocked PC's since around 2007 and it's a massive interest of mine. My other hobbies include video editing, carp fishing, golf and playing guitar.

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