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Summary:

So there’s two new fantasy MMOs with high name recongition launching now. Only three years ago, gamers and the industry would greet that announcement with at least a modicum of enthusiasm. Now the general reaction is more likely to be, “But… why bother?” Sony Online’s Vanguard: […]

LOTR Online
So there’s two new fantasy MMOs with high name recongition launching now. Only three years ago, gamers and the industry would greet that announcement with at least a modicum of enthusiasm. Now the general reaction is more likely to be, “But… why bother?”

Sony Online’s Vanguard: Saga of Heroes went on sale yesterday, and the name recognition comes from its head developer: Brad McQuaid, who was also development lead on Sony’s Everquest, once the most popular US-based MMO for nearly five years. Now out in open Beta, Lord of the Rings Online has even more name recognition for obvious reasons.

With such big guns at play, you’d think World of Warcraft finally has some serious competition. You’d probably be wrong. At least one of the games is attempting some very interesting Web 2.0 implementations which may give it some traction, but that aside, I very much doubt Vivendi/Blizzard will need to worry about the market dominance of their franchise any time soon.

Vanguard
Why? Because by now, we’ve surely reached the absolute market limit for fantasy roleplaying games. Everquest peaked in 2004 with about 550,000 subscribers— and that was back when half a million seemed like a lot. Then, of course, came World of Warcraft, surpassing that number in just a few months; it currently boasts 8 million subscribers worldwide. But there’s no reason to think that either game will gain much of an audience that’s entirely new to MMOs— more likely, they’ll just poach from that 8 million. (And conveniently, World of Warcraft just came out with an expansion that’ll keep their hardcore audience interested for at least six more months.)

On first glance, Vanguard’s only two distinguishing features (from WoW, and other MMOs that came before) is a greater emphasis on crafting and even more interesting, diplomacy. The latter bit might attract some fans of strategy games who might otherwise not play an MMO, though it’s difficult to see how that can become anything more than a niche of a niche.

Then there’s Lord of the Rings Online, but the shock there is that it doesn’t incorporate designs and imagery from the New Line Cinema films, but instead (in a wonderful IP rights entanglement), only on the original Tolkien books. That’s bound to confound fans of the Peter Jackson films— though in any case, MMOs based on successful films (Star Wars Galaxies, Matrix Online) have a poor track record. As described, LOTR Online’s gameplay seems to be an uneasy mix of traditional RPG elements (power moves, special abilities, etc.) that are just passingly related to the novels. Could end up alienating both gamers and Tolkien purists.

But Lord of the Rings Online has at least one truly innovative thing going for it, as reported on Games Radar:

A Google Maps version of Middle-earth will be accessible to subscribers. Each character you create will get his or her own page on the game’s official website, and you’ll be able to blog it. Minigames on the website will affect your real progression in (currently unspecified) ways. The site will also feature an online Wiki encyclopedia of info about the LOTR Online universe.

In other words, MMO meets Web 2.0. (Hat tip: Raph Koster, who has some thoughts on this daring move on his blog.)

Of course, this is just a very early appraisal, and GigaGamez hopes to speak with the teams behind Vanguard and LOTR Online soon, to get their take. But the cruel irony is that even if these games gained a paying audience of a million each, and became profitable in the process, many would still judge them as a failure, held against WoW’s mercilessly high standards.

  1. The first MMO to go Web 2.0

    One very surprising thing to note is that these Web 2.0 innovations did not come from the current crop of “casual MMO” folks. For the most part Habbo Hotel, Runescape, and even the recently launched Nicktropolis are still Web 1.0 endeavors — largely…

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  2. Surely one criteria for success is profit and not overall revenue, right? I ask that because I never see anyone ever mention anything about Blizzard’s costs. Yes, they have a river of money. But outside of some private discussions and things overheard at the AGC, no one ever seems to ask how much WoW is actually costing Vivendi per month domestically and overseas. Particularly in China. And is that sustainable? (Some people who saw their China co-lo datacenter didn’t think so.)

    My point is that you seem to be dismissing VG and LotRO and really any other MMO title compared to WoW because of their sub count. Doesn’t that interpretation only makes sense if you are going for a monopoly? Winner-takes-all as a success criteria doesn’t seem to make sense for online businesses who can succeed in a niche. Plenty of providers are succeeding with

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  3. Oh good. A link to an open reply. In the comments.

    Fucking bloggers.

    And the thing about MMOs, so far, is that you can be incredibly half-assed with the infrstructure and even the server code and still make enough to at least stay alive. The deal with Ragnarok Online was the first real indication of this, with the private servers ultimately being more capable than the actual code used for the official servers. Yet Gravity is going on to make Ragnarok Online 2.

    I find it utterly baffling that anyone would wonder if it were sustainable at this point. WoW is probably the biggest developmental trainwreck the genre has ever seen, yet it’s apparently capable of supporting (for a great lack of a better term) the largest playerbase of all MMOs for two years, and allowed for an expansion.

    Is it sustainable? APPARENTLY SO, NIMROD. Not only are people paying the highest subscription fee yet, people are evidently willing to pay an even more ridiculous fee for problems that WoW’s fucked architecture itself creates, like character transfers.

    I don’t even know what factors would lead to the question. Millions of players, $15 dollars a month. None of which can be seen as going into hiring those moneysinks we call “competent developers”. And none of the players seem to mind that one bit.

    By the by, i love that Au’s example of what LotR:O has going for it is a feature that apparently has not at all materialized.

    “Minigames on the website will affect your real progression in (currently unspecified) ways.”

    Yep! Sounds promising! That’ll make it in!

    The fact is that the only thing we’ve learned so far is that we’ve reached the absolute market limit of games made by Brad McQuaid. WoW, grievous infrastructure issues notwithstanding, is the only game to really break away from his brand of grindy, soul-sucking proto-games.

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  4. [...] Can anyone compete with World of Warcraft, now with 8 million worldwide subscribers? Two new online fantasy games with high name recognition are trying to do just that– and one of them’s even using Web 2.0 apps like Google Maps and wiki software to try and gain an edge. GigaGamez considers their prospects against the Vivendi/Blizzard behemoth. Continue Reading. No comments Share/Send Sphere Topic: Asides Tags: none [...]

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  5. Minigames on a website affecting your character is a tremendous assault on the very idea of a roleplaying game. Even if all or most players do not stay in character, the game itself should ALWAYS maintain the integrity of the game world.

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