Un anno in piu’, un anno in meno

Mentre leggevo su MMOSITE del sequel di Granado Espada, mentre mi arrabbiavo su come, sempre su MMOSITE, si possa votare in maniera molto particolare per i Reader’s Choice Award 2007 (Each IP is limited to cast 10 votes on each award per day. Per la serie: la compagnia che ha il maggior numero di dipendenti che non hanno nulla da fare vince) e mentre facevo molto altro mi sono imbattuto in un interessantissimo articolo su Gamasutra:

December 27, 2007Gamasutra’s Best Of 2007: Top 5 Most Significant Moments In MMOs Gamasutra's Best Of 2007: Top 5 Most Significant Moments In MMOs[Continuing Gamasutra’s year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, developers, and industry figures of 2007, MMOG Nation’s Michael Zenke takes a look back on the biggest moments of the year in massively multiplayer online games, events that heralded the five biggest trends in a year that history may show as a turning point for the genre.]

This has been an unbelievable year for Massive games. Unfortunately, I don’t mean that in a positive sense. When I made a few back-of-the-napkin prognostications about the coming year in December of 2006, I thought I was being a huge sourpuss.

It turns out I wasn’t nearly sour enough. Closures, projects failing in their development phase, the departure of notable individuals from high-profile titles, weak launches, minor scandals, a number of games that were just plain delayed … it’s been a hell of year.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. Specifically the mainstream acceptance of World of Warcraft and the successful launch of Lord of the Rings Online speak to future successes for the genre. There have also been several ‘dark horse’ contenders showing their heads, plenty of new companies throwing their hats in the ring, and (finally) some measure of success for foreign games imported to the states.

Despite all these negative signs, I see 2007 as generally positive. The Massive game industry is still in its infancy, in many ways, and these failures are hard growing-up type lessons. I’ve tried to keep that in mind when constructing a list of the Top Five MMO Trends of 2007.

In the spirit of previous Top Five articles from other observant commentators, these points will try to sum up the most impactful events of the year for Massive gamers and the hobby they love so much… with an eye to what lessons we should draw for the future.

Let’s hope looking back on 2008 will be more about sugarplums and less about coal.

1. ‘Little’ Games Get Huge

All year long there’s been a growing swell from the ‘underbelly’ of the Massive gaming scene. While people focus a lot of attention on World of Warcraft and other AAA titles, games like Runescape and MapleStory have quietly been accruing huge numbers of players. While those numbers have been building for some time, it feels like this is the first year that commentator in and out of the industry have realized the full import of these games. WoW may be an 800-pound gorilla, but Runescape‘s million-plus player base isn’t a housepet either.

What’s especially interesting is how the success of these ‘small’ titles mirrors a warming attitude toward imports in the states. MapleStory is easily the highest profile of these, claiming over 3 million subscribers in North America since its launch here early this year.

As the concept of free-to-play games gained popularity among the web-savvy teen and ‘tween markets, 2007 saw an explosion in ‘garage-coded’ games going big-time. Maid Marian’s Sherwood Dungeon might the most noteworthy of these games, all done done on the cheap, in Flash, and hitting huge numbers of players.

This was also the year that saw virtual worlds hit the big time. Whether we’re talking about the over-hyped Second Life, the announcement of Metaplace, or the under-rated Club Penguin, social online experiences have definitely become front-page news. Killer apps like Webkinz and BarbieGirls pushed the folks who wouldn’t necessarily identify with swords and sorcery into an avatar, and primed them for future (subscription-based?) online exploits.

Lessons to learn: Graphics aren’t everything. Free is the best price. Chat is one of the most important part of MMO game design.

2. Messy MMO Failures

It’s easy to point at where this trend began in 2007: Vanguard. Every rumor you heard about Sigil kept the title alive past May. Then you have the explosion of Perpetual Entertainment, a cataclysm that killed Gods and Heroes, may have “nerfed” Star Trek Online into a casual game, and has prompted an already controversial lawsuit.

Gods and Heroes wasn’t the only high-profile failure this year; Auto Assault launched in such a lackluster fashion last year, it begged the question: “What happens if they launch an online world and nobody comes?” The answer: they shut it down.

It came down to the simple reality that neither NetDevil nor NCsoft had enough interest to keep it running, and so the players who liked that game lost out. An unsuccessful product shutting down may not seem surprising, but the last AAA online world to shut down was Asheron’s Call 2 in 2005. Before that, I can only think of a handful of other titles that were in active operation which were closed down.

And there are a few games that are now the online equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat. Is Marvel Universe Online still in production, or has no one yet formally informed the public of that the project didn’t make it? The shakeout is not, I think, unexpected by industry onlookers. Just the same, they’re sobering signs of the stakes in 2008.

Lessons to learn: High profile doesn’t mean low risk. You need more than Vision(tm) to make a game. Silence is not golden.

3. Warcraft‘s Mainstream Success

That World of Warcraft is still doing well, some three years after the game’s launch, would be a gross understatement. The almost flawless launch of The Burning Crusade expansion in January kicked off a year of amazing in-roads to mainstream culture. The South Park episode, the Toyota commercial, the Mr. T/Shatner spots… any Massive gamer that still wants to sit in a corner and feel misunderstood is missing the point. Once the Shat has done a Shaman impression for your game on national television, you’re a permanent part of popular culture. It’s that simple.

The question becomes, was this year’s in-roads into mainstream consciousness WoW-specific, or something that the genre as a whole has accomplished? Do parents see the connection between their kids playing Webkinz and this sword-and-sorcery thing that Mini-Me is pimping? 2008 is primed to be an even better year for World of Warcraft with a noticeably faster 1-60 experience, a finely tuned set of 60-70 zones, and the promise of a brand-new expansion to draw even more players into the world of Azeroth. If Activision Blizzard doesn’t announce 10 million players sometime next year I’ll be awfully surprised.

Lessons to learn: Polish is king. Mr. T is funny. I am the law-giver.

4. Big Companies Fight MMO-Style

Activison Blizzard is, of course, a company that didn’t exist as of two months ago. The merger of the publisher and Vivendi’s best-known subsidiary was not only surprising, it offers up another insight into what it takes to compete in this marketplace. Facing off against the new titan is the old one: EA. Electronic Arts has its own MMO designs as well, with BioWare’s title waiting in the wings and Warhammer Online garnering more fan enthusiasm with every month that passes.

Warhammer’s delay, rather than being a negative sign, is in my view a very good thing. It shows that EA understands the commitment it’s made. Giving Marc Jacobs and his team the chance to get things right before the game sees retail launch is a sure sign of maturity in the EA managers handling the game.

From the content we’re now being shown, it’s fairly clear that only two thirds of the game was “ready” at the time the game was due to launch… and even that is giving them the benefit of the doubt. Even just the couple of months since the launch date went past has seen leaps and bounds in new content. By mid-year, they should have quite a product on their hands.

Which makes Mythic and Blizzard even more directly in competition. Warhammer‘s release will be the first real attempt to imitate World of Warcraft‘s success in western markets. The producers may talk about WAR being Led Zeppelin to WoW‘s Beatles, but I’m sure the hope at EA is that this game will be another multi-million player juggernaut. Blizzard’s unnamed in-development MMO may well be a direct competitor for BioWare’s game, as well, giving the two giants even more to skirmish over.

In one short year we’ve seen the creation of epic competition for EA in the single-player realm, and the beginnings of a worthy adversary for Blizzard. It’s going to be a heck of a fight.

Lessons to learn: Getting it right is worth any price. These things print money. The unstoppable force, meet the immovable object.

5. The Question of How To Pay

At Austin GDC there was a panel on the last day of the event ostensibly intended to discuss the ‘biggest opportunities’ in online games. The reality of it was that the table was stacked with Marc Jacobs (a staunch opponent of Real Money Transfer) and two big proponents of microtransactions: Raph Koster and Eric Bethke. What resulted is described on Gamasutra as “a tussle for the future of online games“. That one moment nicely summed up possibly the most important trend of this year, and speaks volumes about what we’re going to be talking about in 2008.

The fight that day was about the value of paying a flat subscription fee versus microtransactions, as seen in games published by Nexon. Blizzard’s well known acceptance of both models is an exception, as most companies choose one or the other as their business model. Ultimately, this may be a question that’s out of the hands of the designers: American players are already indicating their love of micropayments and RMT by heavily playing newly arrived games of this type. Despite lawsuits and crackdowns, people are still paying real money for gold and other online currencies.

While I think it’s unlikely we’ll see many companies openly accepting gold sellers in their games, there are a few who have already begun to walk that path. The nebulous acceptance of the newly announced Live Gamer service by Sony Online Entertainment and Funcom speaks to the kinds of arrangements we might see in the future.

Lessons to learn: The only thing better than free is micro-payments. Players secretly like paying for gold. Celebrity game designer deathmatch would make an awesome show.

Despite the mixed news, 2007 was a big year for the Massive gaming genre. Even if it remains to be seen whether mainstream acceptance of MMO games is all that we could hope for, gamers are definitely starting to get on board.

The ranks of online gamers grows every year. From all accounts World of Warcraft‘s success is not coming at the price of market viability for other games the way it was once feared. The only explanation for this is that ever more gamers are turning to online entertainment as a way to connect with their fellows. Barring any huge or unexpected events, 2008 is going to be another amazing year for Massively Multiplayer Online Games.

and its founders was probably true, and only the largesse of SOE

E’ una disamina decisamente interessante ed approfondita del mondo dei MMORPG, che prende in seria considerazione sia il fenomeno F2P che i “hardly massive wannabe” (ovvero quelli che vogliono levare il primato di “Carebear Game of the Century” a World of Warcraft.
Per esaminare l’articolo parto dalla risposta di Porter Woodward:

Interesting year in review for MMOs.On #1 – one of the things I find interesting is the blurring between game and social networking site with MMOs. I’ve argued for some time that for many “players” of WoW it’s little more than an IRC channel with cool graphics.

On #2 – failures. Failures of MMOs really underscore the predicament that players are in. Without the subscription they have nothing. It is essentially a wasted disc storing useless bits – worse than an empty box. MMOs may be good for the companies when they’re successful – but the damage failures cause goes beyond the company to individuals.

On #3 – critical mass. It’s a blessing and a curse. It also creates a lot of inertia. WoW has a gravitational force around it – it’s really the same as a site like MySpace in terms of it’s attraction. I suppose it’s true that polish is king – polish rock-paper-scissors to a diamond gleam and most anyone will look twice.

On #4 – it ought to be interesting to see what comes out. But I don’t have particularly high hopes for the MMO industry to really innovate. Static large worlds with a social networking element are no longer innovation. But, they are a handy way to make money.

#5 is the meat and potatoes. Micropayments, User Generated Content? I’m not sure either of those are the answers either. Not everyone has or wants the skills to do 3D modeling, Texture mapping, etc. Second Life is a nice outlet for those sorts of things – but after a bit how is it any different than a 3D ecommerce site with some minor role playing thrown in? I’m not sure that paying for in-game gold or character leveling is really micropayments (last I heard it was $160 to powerlevel a character to 60 for WoW). I don’t think anyone likes paying for gold – I think they just see it as an easy way to get an advantage. Pretty much like HGH.

1) Parodiando una vecchia pubblicita’ dei pennelli Cinghiale: non bastano i grandi numeri per fare un grande gioco. Serve un grande team di progettisti, una grande idea e, soprattutto, un grande cuore. Per esempio, la Blizzard riuscira’ a colmare la lacuna lasciata dall’addio di Bill Roper? (oddio, essendo quello che dopo aver creato i maggiori successi Blizzard – Diablo, Warcraft e Starcraft, seguiti inclusi; e World of Warcraft – ha pensato bene di realizzare quella cavolata di Hellgate: London la risposta non puo’ che essere si).
2) Creare un titolo P2P (Pay to Play) di successo non e’ facile. I disastri passati (Dark and Light) e quelli di inizio anno (Vanguard) sono un monito per tutti. Eppure il fenomeno dei titoli F2P (Free to Play) e’ in continua ed esponenziale crescita. Perche’? Semplice: se non ti piace smetti senza aver buttato via i tuoi soldi tra scatola, abbonamenti ed altro. E’ vero che alla fine si spende di piu’ nei F2P (le armi e le armature costano fior di quattrini), ma solo se lo si vuole e se il gioco piace veramente.
3) Il successo di World of Warcraft non si spiega solo e soltanto con le pubblicita’ dirette o indirette, con il fatto che arrivare al 60 (o al 70 con la prima espansione) sia facile. No, si spiega in mille altri motivi.
Il gioco e’ immediato e facile, e non e’ un difetto. Il background tratto dagli strategici della serie puo’ affascinare un pubblico piu’ maturo, ma allora non si spiega come il gioco si incontrino numerosissimi ragazzini, che nulla sanno di quei gloriosi strategici? Forse perche’ e’ il MMORPG piu’ “carebear inside”, dove anche nei server PvP ormai sono rimasti in 4gatti4 a fare veramente a cazzotti fuori dalle aree ad-hoc (Battleground, Arena, eccetera). E poi quanto e’ vero che la Blizzard incoraggi il “casual player” quando si devono passare intere serate a farmare dungeon su dungeon per avere un’armatura migliore o un’arma che fa piu’ danno? E’ vero che, con il rischio di farsi bannare l’account, molti si rivolgono ai goldseller o ai  powerleveller. Ma non ce lo vedo il ragazzino che prende la carta di credito del padre per comprare 100 gold o la Sword of Samurai (nome inventato) per 75 euro. E se lo fa poi lo si incontra con la faccia gonfia a suon di paterni e amorevoli ceffoni. C’e’ chi lo gioca per puro piacere; ma quanti sono quelli che, una volta arrivati al 70, continueranno a farlo? Eppure ha 9 milioni di account attivi. E’ vero che la Blizzard, in maniera del tutto intelligente, e’ sbarcata in forze sul mercato asiatico. E in Corea amano gli strategici della software house statunitense (che si e’ pure fusa con Activision, giusto per), mentre il mercato Cinese ha immense possibilita’ di crescita. Che il futuro, per gli sviluppatori e i publisher occidentali, sia ad Oriente?
4) Ormai il mercato dei MMORPG, dopo l’incredibile successo di World of Warcraft, fa gola a tutti. La Electronic Arts si e’ accaparrata non solo la Mythic, ovvero l’ultimo dei grandi sviluppatori “indipendenti”, ma anche Flagship Studios. Mica male, no? Ora non rimane che qualcuno si “compri” pure Turbine, e siamo a posto. E se anche Bioware vuole entrare nell’agone dei MMORPG significa che il genere ora fa gola veramente a tutti. Come direbbe Folly: Ayeppaaaaaaaaaaaaa!
5) Beh, per sconfiggere il fenomeno RMT (Real Money Trade) non ci vuole molto. Basterebbe ritornare al passato, con giochi non “item based” come lo fu DAoC fino alla scellerata espansione Trials of Atlantis. Che non fu nulla in confronto a, per esempio, World of Warcraft. Una sola armatura, alla fine di una quest epica ma fattibile da tutti (con l’aiuto di qualche compagno di gilda) e basta. Anche la possibilita’, come in The Lord of the Rings Online, di avere i pezzi migliori del gioco con il crafting non sconfigge il fenomeno. Perche’ per comprare l’armatura, le armi e quant’altro fatto dai crafter servono tanti (troppi) gold. Una soluzione interessante la provo’ Soly Online Entertaiment, vendendo, con un “negozio virtuale”, i pezzi migliori. Ma allora tanto vale giocare a titoli F2P, no? Le microtransazioni possono essere la morte del RTM? Forse si, forse no. Sta di fatto che Codemasters ha avuto un’idea geniale con la sottoscrizione a vita. Che ovviamente non porta alla morte del fenomeno goldseller/goldbuyer; ma serve, genialmente, a fidelizzare i clienti. Idea geniale made in UK. Ben fatto, Cody!