The future of MMOs, post-Warcraft

So what comes after World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online game (or MMO) that became so, well, massive, that it turned into a category killer that rumbled the industry? That was the subject of much discussion last week at the Austin Game Conference, as was the future of the game industry in general. Seasoned game designer Raph Koster (Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies) gave a fascinating talk that invoked dinosaurs (that’s the industry as it exists now) and Chris Anderson’s Long Tail (that’s what the industry needs to read and learn from, to survive.)

“In many ways World of Warcraft, the genre king, is the last gasp of the dinosaurs,” Koster argued. “How do you trump WoW? Can you follow WoW? Sure. Can you do to WoW what WoW did to Everquest [the previous MMO champion, crushed by Warcraft]? No. Not unless you spend $150 million.”

Instead, Koster argues, developers need to move toward digital distribution and a long tail play based on a wide library of niche game which operate on different revenue models besides monthly subscription. Just as key, the industry needs to focus more on developing MMOs for the Web. (Web-based online worlds like Habbo Hotel and NeoPets, as he points out, have far larger audiences than Wow.)

Another Austin talk with Koster brought more nuggets of insight on the future of online games, this time in a panel alongside Cory Ondrejka, CTO of Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, and Cory Bridges of Multiverse, a new open development MMO platform. Mark Wallace of 3pointD was also on the panel, and did double duty by also live-blogging it. Some highlight takeaways:

– Bridges forsees the imminent rise of independent virtual worlds (i.e., not financed by major game publishers), but also envisions a collision between them and government regulators who will express concern for their internal economies.

– Regarding World of Warcraft, the panel largely sees its era as coming to a close, with Ondrejka reiterating his confidence that Second Life will likely overtake WoW’s numbers by 2008, with the rest of the panel agreeing that WoW is unlikely to build or maintain its existing subscriber base.

– Continuing themes from his solo talk, Koster pointed out the rise of Flash and Java-based Web worlds like Runescape, which are generating audiences larger than generally appreciated by the game industry.

Lots of great reading here and here, if you want to think about where the smart money for this space is going in the next few years.


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