Note: this is a reproduction of an article that originally appeared in the August 30 2002 edition of the UK computer games trade magazine MCV.
It appears with the permission of the publisher.
Massively multiplayer online games are the headline makers of Internet gaming. They are also the money makers. Tim Green, co-author of a new Online Gaming report for Screen Digest and ELSPA, dissects the success of these games and examines their future prospects within the games industry...
BACK IN 1979 academics Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle invented the Multi-user Dungeon at Essex University. The concept was a text-based role playing adventure played on rudimentary computer networks. Let's face it, other wise known as anorak-land.
Nevertheless, the MUD gave birth to online gaming, although it was later eclipsed by publisher-hosted matchmaking (Doom, Starcraft, Half-Life and so on) and by mass participation casual games.
Still later the definition of online gaming broadened. In the 21st century mobiles, consoles and the TV have made it possible to enjoy network games in the living room or even on the move. Multi-User Dungeons now seem a lifetime out of date.
How ironic, then, that today's biggest online gaming profits are being made by the present day incarnations of those ancient text based adventures.
Persistent worlds (or massively multiplayer online games) are where the money is in Internet gaming right now. While it's true that casual games services can generate revenues from ads, sponsorship and data mining, only the MMOGs can persuade consumers to spend money directly on gaming.
Outside of Korea (where this type of online gaming is disproportionately popular) three games dominate. They are Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call (although Dark Age Of Camelot and, to a degree, Anarchy Online are fast catching them). Collectively, they boast around 800,000 regular players paying from $10 a month to take part. That's around $8m a month or $84m a year in fees. Combined with the remaining smaller MMOGs available, this adds up to a sector worth over $100m a year (outside of Korea).
Around a quarter of these revenues come from Europe. Compared to offline revenues, $100 million is small change. But for the individual participants the combination of a £30 full-priced software purchase and an annual sub of between £120 and £240 make profits significant.
This has prompted a frenzy of creative activity in the sector. According to specialist web sites there are well over 200 live MMOGs available, with over 100 more in development. The vast majority of existing games are offered as pure online projects (sometimes text only) and attract tiny user bases. However, among the forthcoming games are some extremely commercial properties.
They include LucasArts' Star Wars Galaxies by Sony Online, Ubi Soft's Myst and EA's The Sims. A Lord of the Rings game from Vivendi (provisionally Middle Earth) is mooted, along with a Star Trek-based game from Sony.
Of course, the success of these projects depends on bringing in new, more casual players. Everyone accepts that there is little churn in the existing MMOG community. At present players spend hundreds of hours progressing through the game, making friends and building communities. According to Sony Online, for example, EverQuest players play on average 22 hours per week and stay with the game for eight months. This degree of commitment makes it hard to attract players away from their game of choice. Few players have the time or money to play many games at once.
So, to repeat, new players are needed. Bringing them in will depend on a number of issues:
It's said of MMOGs that people come for the game and stay for their friends. Publishers must take care to build in community and policing elements.
The Wintel PC set-up is still too arcane for the mass market. The mass market wants gaming to be like TV. Developers will need to simplify the experience.
At present, the leading MMOGs require extremely high system specifications. Until the equipment and software needed to get online is cheaper, the mass audience will stay away.
Online gaming via consoles may help. Interestingly, EverQuest is being released as a PS2 game.
The world of medieval fantasy is not for everyone. Publishers must use licences popular outside the gaming world and new kinds of gameplay. Obviously the arrival of Star Wars Galaxies could be a landmark in this respect.
Mass market gamers will not invest the hundreds of hours committed by present-day MMOG players in order to create advanced characters. The design of the new persistent worlds must allow for briefer, fewer visits. Selling pre-built characters and offering tiered pricing systems are among the options. The question is, can hosts still justify the same monthly subscriptions?
Of course, there is an implicit danger with enticing the mass market which is linked to this last point: By making it easy to join you also make it easy to leave. This is alarming because the only way massively multiplayer online games can earn back high development costs is to bring subscribers back again and again.
We'll find out how 'sticky' these games can be later in 2002, when Sony Online's Star Wars Galaxies and EA's The Sims Online are due for release. These will be watershed titles for the genre. As a franchise Star Wars needs no introduction and the potential of the online version, built by LucasArts and hosted by the same publisher which made EverQuest the biggest of all MMOGS, was illustrated when 100,000 registered on the official web site just weeks after it launched.
The Sims Online is rich in promise for other reasons. As an offline game it sold over eight million copies - and it's accepted that a good proportion of its players come from outside the traditional male, 15 to 30 year old demographic.
This presents a very good opportunity to attract those sought after new subscribers.
The online version will be interesting artistically too. It will recreate entire neighbourhoods in a city numbering tens of thousands of 'inhabitants'. Participants can build up businesses, shops, nightclubs, restaurants and they will be invited to become designers themselves by using tools to create games for their own entertainment.
EA certainly needs an online hit. Although its casual site Pogo is the Intemet's most popular games destination, the company has a poor record in the subscription games area. Majestic and Motor City Online were high profile failures, leaving only Ultima Online as a successful service.
EA expects to have 400,000 subscribers by the end of its fiscal year in March 2003 - almost as many subs as EverQuest took three years to accumulate. It's also releasing the Westwood-developed Earth And Beyond MMOG next year.
So the MMOG landscape is going to get crowded in the next two years. Common sense suggests that only a handful of projects will survive. The cost of launching and maintaining such games is exorbitant so it's likely the disappointments will be canned early.
However, the PR potential of a successful 'mass market' game will be significant and could help make persistent worlds another entertainment option for the millions who don't tend to see themselves as hardcore gamers.
Richard A. Bartle
14th July, 2003.