2011: WoW, Not WoW

Monkey in the middle of a metal detector
Hat of the cousin of the tax collector
Automatic sensors in the president’s skull
Do you have yesterday’s time?
What up, dog?
— Was, Not Was

2011 will be an interesting year for MMOs.

Without a World of Warcraft expansion shipping (Blizzard seems to be holding to an 18 month cycle for shipping them) – although Diablo 3 will ship near the end of the year and be a massive, utterly predictable hit; and though we can expect to hear the first bit of Titan (my guess: MMO first person shooter or similarly actiony, if only to be as different from WoW as possible) and the beginning of the hype train for WoW’s 2012 expansion (new hero class of healer, to go with a druidic “Emerald Dream” as the next expansion theme), this will be the launch window for… everyone else. Or, as Rift put it in their new TV commercial, which neatly summarizes the not-quite-truth-in-advertising of every WoW clone:

Though we may be in a world eerily like it

So, in 2011: DC Online, Rift, Planetside Next, Tera, World of Tanks and a game based on a somewhat well-known science fiction license are all varying degrees of being confirmed to launch. We could also see titles such as Guild Wars 2 (disclaimer: yes, I work for NCsoft, no, I don’t know when it’s shipping, and no, I couldn’t tell you when if I did), Neverwinter, Faxion, and possibly Jumpgate Evolution and (less likely) The Agency and The Secret World.

That’s a lot of MMOs. It’s safe to say you’re not going to play them all. Or even most of them. Some of you will play some of them! And, thankfully, not all of them are blatant World of Warcraft clones – in the 2011 lineup we have action games, shooters, tanks (ironically, this one may be one of the most successful!), space games, and, of course, games including elves and skeletons and things that fall down containing pants. But still, a heartening number of NotWoW, which tells us the market may be learning that NotWoW may be one of the easier ways to make your place in a market where everything not called World of Warcraft is technically a statistical aberration.

The biggest event, and the one that will shape 2011 in terms of MMO development, will be, of course, the Old Republic. EA has bet somewhere north (maybe well north) of $150 million that Bioware has the secret sauce to bring an MMO to market that isn’t a statistical aberration. Could they be right?

On the one hand, it’s Bioware, which has yet to make a really bad game (even Jade Empire had its good points!), and they made the very wise decision of basing the game in their own George Lucas-free Star Wars universe of millenia past, meaning that everyone can be lightning-bolt flinging Jedi masters without plaintive cries of MY IMMERSION! from the license holders. It may also be one of the most anticipated (if not most hyped) MMO titles of, well, um, ever. Lots of people are going to buy this.

On the other hand, it’s Bioware, which hasn’t done such a great job with online so far – their attempts to leverage DLC content for their RPG releases have been slow to release, and full of technical issues when they do (one DLC pack for Mass Effect 2 shipped for the Xbox 360 initially as a massive file of nothing but zeros, which admittedly is an interesting way to cut development costs). Of course, this is why they made a new studio in Austin full of MMO veterans, and why EA gave them control of Mythic, and all sorts of other very good reasons to maybe possibly ship the most expensive MMO of all time at some point.

And it will ship in 2011. It has to. Even EA can’t afford a burn rate for another year that Bioware Austin is spending on development. It’ll be out, rest assured. And there are enough bitter veterans there to know that shipping an incomplete, yet successful game ….isn’t an option.

Are you thinking that I’m cheering for the other hand? You’d be wrong. I’m well aware that The Old Republic has a lot of hoops to jump through, and many mines to dodge. And I’m fearful that almost literally insane cost inflation of development will price all but Activision and EA out of contention as first-tier MMO producers. But all the same, I hope The Old Republic is a massive hit, with millions of subscribers, enough to make back its development costs and then some. Because the market needs real competition. Because Austin needs studio that has a successful MMO shipped within the past decade. Because a lot of my friends work there and I’m pulling for them. Because I’m a Star Wars nerd, a Bioware fanboy, and I’d kind of like a cool game to play.

And because in 2012, the Old Republic development team may get some sleep.

Your lack of faith in our ability to compete with Activision is disturbing.

The Old Republic will be make-or-break for the MMO industry in a lot of ways.

If it succeeds, it will show that the “big iron” still works – throw as much meat as you can at the machine, and crank out a huge project, and spend your way to greatness. It will prove that the subscription model is still potentially the most lucrative way of monetizing an MMO, at least in the West. And everyone will breath a sigh of relief. The old gods still listen to our prayers, now shut up and find more virgins, we have to get the sacrifices ready for the next expansion pack.

If it fails, expect a rethinking everywhere.

Expect huge studios to throw everything at Facebook/casual gaming YESTERDAY, in a frenzied, and possibly futile attempt to survive. Expect it to be very difficult to fund new traditional MMO projects, as even the most clueless venture capitalist will remember news stories about EA and the Old Republic and how Blizzard was the exception that proved a rule. Expect free-to-play cash shop gaming to be The New Order for almost every MMO, launched or not. In short, expect the apocalypse in 2012.

And expect all the usual suspects to ignore all the games listed above that didn’t do that badly, because they’re still essentially statistical aberrations next to WoW.

2011 is the year of WoW: Not WoW. This is when those of us who still enjoy the old-school massive content-rich expensive-to-produce MMO (and I number myself among them) find out if we can have nice things.