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.
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.