Predicting what is going to happen to the Western MMO market in 2013 seems a lot harder than doing the same for 2012. But when it comes to
random guessing about stuff I only half understand forecasting, I’m going to give it my best shot.
EA-ch To Their Own
I’ve seen this point glossed over elsewhere, but I think the following is the second-most important statement when thinking about the Western MMO industry in 2013:
Ponder that for a second. EA’s most expensive project EVER. Something over US$200m was spent in developing the title. If you factor in things like the purchase of BioWare, EA spent over US$1 billion to get SWOR to launch. That’s an insane wad of cash. With that in mind, can you guess what the most important statement in Western MMOs would be? If you thought:
congratulations, you thought right.
SWOR has, in all likelihood, poisoned the MMO well for the development of new AAA titles in the West (i.e North America and Europe). If EA + BioWare + Star Wars + enough cash to buy a small European country can’t create an enduring hit MMO, then investors are going to look elsewhere.
There was once a theory that in order to catch up with the dominance of World of Warcraft (WoW), you’d have to spend up big. EA has tried that twice (SWOR and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning aka WAR) and failed twice. Even where it has just taken on some distribution duties, as it did with The Secret World, EA has been burned by MMOs underperforming in 2012.
So here’s the key outcome: I see EA as getting out of the new MMO development business. It’s cost too much for too little return in recent years. Existing titles like Ultima Online and SWOR will continue to tick along, but any EA executive who brings up developing a new MMORPG title at a board meeting probably has a very limited future within the company. That Mass Effect MMO that game sites were so happy to wave around as click bait isn’t going to happen. Regarding new Ultima titles, Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar (which isn’t a MMO, but a ‘cross-platform action RPG’) is as good as it gets.
Some people might clap and cheer at the idea of EA leaving their MMO precious sphere, but when a large publisher declares a genre as unworkable by not creating new titles in it, a lot of people take notice. (Cases like Schilling and 38 Studios collapsing so spectacularly despite having ‘only’ US$135m+ backing them up doesn’t help things either.)
On this point: I’m not seeing all work on new Western MMOs stopping overnight at any point. Titles that have already been announced like Blizzard Activision’s Titan and Bungie’s Destiny will still come out. It’s just that the number of announcements about new Western MMOs will dwindle.
Prediction: EA doesn’t announce any new MMORPGs in 2013. Not even in pure retail box distribution deals.
On The Third Day, Look to the East
Despite what happened with SWOR, there are still a number of new MMOs planned for release in the Western market. But without companies like EA investing the big bucks, a high proportion of releases will come from local conversions of Eastern titles. This is already happening, but it is a trend that becomes more apparent when the release of new Western MMOs slows to a trickle.
Think of it this way: it costs at least somewhere in the range of US$10m to even start creating a MMO (and that would be a very low end estimate) for a process that will take at least 3 years… or you can spend 6 months and maybe up to US$1m on converting an existing, successful Eastern-developed MMO.
Look at some of the Eastern titles announced for a Western launch in 2013: Wizardry Online (launching January 30 through Sony Online Entertainment), Age of Wushu, Final Fantasy XIV relaunch, Phantasy Star Online 2, Black Desert, perhaps Blade & Souls, Arche Age and others. It’s a notable list that contains a number of quirky titles with recognisable IPs. Those titles have a good chance of grabbing existing MMO players for at least a look-see, which will put pressure on existing MMO titles to try to draw those players back.
Prediction: MMOs that have been localised / converted from Eastern markets will dominate the MMO releases of 2013 in quantity (and maybe even quality in one or two cases).
That’s Just The Way I Scroll
When Bethseda announced The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO), I’m guessing they didn’t expect the wave of shoulder-shrugging that came from the fan base. “Why would you go and ruin a perfectly good RPG series by turning it into a MMO?” seemed to be a common concern, and Bethseda had to come out and explain itself. That’s not exactly the reaction you want when you are relying on an existing franchise to engage players.
Allegedly TESO is due out in 2013. Allegedly. So I’m going to double-barrel this prediction.
Prediction: TESO won’t launch in 2013. But if it does launch, it will be 2013’s SWOR – the big launch and initial hype will bring in players, but it won’t keep them and will see large dips in player numbers. Particularly if it launches as a subscription-based title.
No-One Stays Dead Except Uncle Ben and Bucky and…
Sorry to those who still hold out the dream, but City of Heroes / Villains (CoH/V) will remain dead over 2013 and beyond. NCsoft doesn’t sell of their failures and if they do sell off CoH/V now, it will be for a fraction of the price they could have got if they’d kept the title active, which would make them look even sillier. So CoH/V is dead and will stay officially dead (although fans might get pirate servers up and running in 2013… and if they do, they can expect cease-and-desist letters from NCsoft).
(And again, my key question about NCsoft selling CoH/V is: who buys? The Western MMO market has taken body blow after body blow over the last few years and the surviving operators don’t seem to be interested in spending up big to buy dead MMOs from other studios. If CoH/V could be bought at a bargain basement price there might be some interest from the F2P portal / portfolio operators like Frogster or GamersFirst, but NCsoft won’t want to sell CoH/V off on the cheap. There’s a very short list of investors who want to pay a premium for a shut-down MMO.)
Prediction: NCsoft keeps hold of the CoH/V IP over 2013, which means it stays closed. The only servers likely to pop are up are unauthorised pirate servers.
(Yes, I know both Bucky and Uncle Ben have been brought back. CoH/V still stays dead. Sorry.)
The Year Of The Sandbox… Where Everyone Took Their Ball And Went Home
After years of crying out for more sandbox MMOs, 2013 looks packed with them. Darkfall is relaunching. Age of Wushu allows players to kidnap and ransom each other on top of a whole heap of other systems. Arche Age (likely out this year in the West) has been called a sandbox title, as has Wizardry Online, The Repopulation and Black Desert. I’m sure there are others I’m missing, but it really looks like the cries of “We want a sandbox MMO!” (regardless that there are already a number available) will well and truly be met in 2013.
But in the same way that you wait ages for a bus, then three show up at once, you can only really catch one. Sandbox MMOs really need a large number of players to work. All those emergent systems so loved by devs and a vocal player base alike are designed around having a lot of people in them to operate effectively – you can’t have a player-driven economy without players driving it. As such, sandbox MMOs get hit really hard when the mass of players leave, or fail to show up in the first place.
Sandbox MMOs are the also among the most time-intensive MMORPG style there is for players, so they aren’t casual friendly. With possibly six new sandbox MMOs launching at what is already a niche audience, there will be a cycle of the sandbox launching, being tested out and then abandoned as the bulk of those players move onto the next new sandbox. There’ll be no time to build “a community” before the new shiny comes out.
At the end of the year there’s only going to be maybe one of these new sandbox MMOs judged a success; the rest will just be hanging on (or even sent to an early grave). And even the success won’t have comparatively high numbers for the payment method used (e.g. The Secret World launched with box and subscription fee arrangement and got ‘only’ 200k box sales; DCUO managed to pick up about 500k new PC accounts in its first month when it went free-to-play (F2P); any sandbox title is going to struggle to achieve the same kind of numbers in the same time frame).
Prediction: The number of new sandbox MMO titles launching in 2013 are going to end up stealing each others customers – at the end of the year (assuming all launch) there’s only going to be perhaps one winner / success story and a lot of empty sandpits.
It’s hard to argue against Cryptic Studios having a reputation problem since the launch of Champions Online in 2009. But over the last three years or so their work on Star Trek Online appears to have made this a very playable title and one that is quite popular. The buzz around their next title, Neverwinter, also seems to be quite good.
There will always be people who get their hate-on for Cryptic, but I think 2013 is the year they return to the level of success they achieved with City of Heroes and it will be driven by the launch of Neverwinter.
Prediction: Neverwinter attracts a lot of player attention. Cryptic Studios gets a reputation rehabilitation as a MMO studio who can make successful F2P casual MMOs.
We Who Are About To Die…
For those who don’t know their Latin (which of course we ALL DO thanks to our classical educations – amirite?) the quote in the title of this article means “we who are about to die salute you”. A lot of MMOs will be giving their final salutes in 2013.
That in itself isn’t a big prediction – anyone who says that MMOs don’t fail is clearly off their meds or has just stepped off a time machine from 2005 – so I’m going to make it harder for myself by listing out a number of titles I think won’t be around come December 31, 2013. I’m also going to hedge my bets a bit and say that if the following MMOs aren’t shut down by the end of 2013, they’ll be in maintenance mode AKA see lots of job cuts that the studio insists “won’t impact on future development of the game”.
Please note this isn’t a judgement on the quality of the games themselves, just where they are going to find themselves due to the circumstance and the market.
Prediction: The following MMO titles will be shut down or be in a publicly acknowledged maintenance mode by the end of 2013:
- Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (yeah, I say this almost every year, but it’s down to about one server and EA isn’t particularly MMO-positive right now)
- Fallen Earth (it’s been dwindling for a while now)
- Age of Empires Online (it never caught on – MMORTSs rarely do – and was on my original list… and then I saw this as well which confirms it)
- PlanetSide (when you have PlanetSide 2, you don’t need the original taking up development resources as well)
- Guild Wars (what I said about PlanetSide goes double for Guild Wars)
- Pirates of the Burning Sea (was also on my list back in December… and then I saw this)
- Darkfall (the relaunch doesn’t take, sorry)
- TERA (it doesn’t have the population or financial resources to ride out the year, even with the switch to F2P, given the range of competition)
- WarZ (it’s premature launch did it no favours and MMOFPSs are already a very hard category to keep players in)
- Gods and Heroes (already with no development team at all, I see this title shutting down completely in 2013)
I’m strongly tempted to include Defiance, which is not only a new MMO but a MMO that relies on a sci-fi TV show, but since Scott Hartsman is involved in it I’m going to give this title the benefit of the doubt.
Something Left in the Bag for 2014
I don’t believe that any Kickstarted MMOs are planned to be launched in 2013, so we’ll leave all those particular predictions until then. There will be more MMOs looking for crowdsourced cash in 2013, but that’s not a particularly risky prediction to make.
Somewhere around December 2014 – assuming the Mayans weren’t off by a year – I’ll review the above and see how I’ve gone.
Now, feel free to tell me of any mistakes and how wrong I am.