According to Esozone‘s new survey, MMORPG seems to be an endangered species, like Black Rhinos or innocent 1970s BBC presenters. Where before we had announcements every few weeks of another multi-million dollar Western MMORPG experiment, more ESO Guides and News on Esozone.org.
The focus of the announcements has changed as well. Before they were subscription-based MMOGs, with a substantial pay-up-front element, like World of Warcraft and EverQuest. These days the games are almost always free-to-play, or pay once and play forever, with no brand, whereas the few that stick to the old model come unstuck within a year. Almost every subscription MMO has gone that way: LOTRO, D&D Online, Rift, Defiance, with the relatively new Elder Scrolls Online turning down that same path in recent weeks.
Of course, the indie revolution and the improved access to free or cheap development tools has meant that many new MMORPGs launch unfinished on Steam Early Access. They’ll never be as big as Eve or EverQuest were – but their smaller dev teams, the insatiable love of the PC audience for MMOs, and the lower expectations of the indie audience, means that games like Oort Online, The Repopulation and Xyson: Prelude will occasionally succeed, and will continue to be released.
As for the new breed of MMOGs, the DayZ-alikes, such as Rust or H1Z1, the formula should be less restrictive, but they often stick even more slavishly to the DayZ model. The problem with cloning a game and claiming it’s a genre is that you get judged on how closely you clone it – deviate too far, or miss something out, and you’ll get condemned for it.
So whither the MMORPG in the near future? We’ll probably see the same few Western MMORPGs dragging out their userbases, the same way that Ultima Online has. We’ll see a new F2P AAA fantasy MMORPG funded by an Eastern publisher every six months to a year, and many more smaller generic F2P MMORPGs from the same source on a regular basis. And we’ll continue to see the indie MMORPGs with tiny teams that launch on Early Access and update their content more slowly.