MMORPGs - 2006 in Review - Part 4 of 4, the Ringleaders
Dec 11, 2006 18:30:30

In this final part of our 2006 review we'll examine the MMORPG titles that have held the line or improved their offerings. In the past few days we've covered the failures, the dead and dying and the living dead. Now we finally turn our gaze to slightly more cheerful scenarios. Enjoy.

The Status Quo: They're not breaking or fixing

  • World of Warcraft - How can a game with a few million new subscribers be coasting? Easy, they haven't added anything in 2006. For 95% of the players World of Warcraft is the exact same game it was at the end of 2005. The remaining elite 5% was able to progress to uber raid zones added in various content patches. Otherwise, nothing significant happened. Classes were balanced, bugs were fixed, and subscriptions were added by the millions. No emergency alarms are sounding and the game is certainly growing in dominance, it just isn't growing in scope. If Blizzard released a content expansion every 6 months like the EverQuest titles they'd be selling another 7 million boxes twice a year. So whats the problem in Irvine? It can't be budget, they have all the money in the world. Hitting dates and executing tasks seems to be the problem. Sounds like a management problem. Get cracking guys.

  • EverQuest Live - EverQuest is approaching its 8th birthday and even after all that time it is anything but stale. SOE has been maintaining a 6 month expansion cycle (too fast for some players) and none of the expansions to date have been limited to a simple collection of new maps. SOE is constantly refining and balancing. After this long we could hardly blame them for leaving well enough alone, but they haven't. There have been significant improvements to the UI and graphics as well as some big changes to the game mechanics that have modernized gameplay without alienating veteran players. EQ is in the exact opposite situation as WoW. It is growing in scope quickly, but the player base is certainly a bit stale.

  • City of Heroes/Villians - The City suite of Massives are polished, well supported titles with a steady audience of super heroes fighting and causing crime. The community is extremely supportive of Crytpic Studios and there has been a marked lack of drama or controversy related to these titles. All of this points to CoH/V being a rockstar brand, but it lands on the status quo list for a couple reasons. First, despite frequent feature releases and tireless labor by the Cryptic staff there haven't been any extremely interesting developments since Villians came out in fall of 2005. Sure there are new things, but all the jetpacks, nightclubs, and base decorations in the world aren't going to shake the foundations of the MMO genre. Second, CoH/V seems to be somewhat stalled from a growth perspective. All reports indicate the games are doing well, but they are niche titles that will only see major growth if ported to a console platform.

  • Guild Wars - 2006 saw the busy bodies at Arena Net releasing two additional Guild Wars titles that aren't supposed to be called expansions, but let's face it, that's exactly what they are. Guild Wars is still one of the best looking MMOs out there and is certainly the only high quality free-to-play MMO, but 2 large new adventuring areas and 4 new classes has done little for growing the hype around Guild Wars. This game is going to be around for a long time and it deserves every customer it gains, but it might be time for Arena Net to start thinking of an additional title to add to their roster because Guild Wars seems to have peaked at this point, at least in the western world. Soon Guild Wars will be unleashed upon China which could significantly grow the level of participation in competitive PvP within Guild Wars (and will drive down the cost of gold in Guild Wars). 2007 will be the year that decides whether Guild Wars is a franchise to bet on, or a great game with a limited life cycle.

  • Final Fantasy XI - This year Final Fantasy XI held its own quite well In the past few years the older MMOs have been losing audience rapidly, but FFXI has declined in popularity only very slightly and has total subscriptions that are well over twice the likes of EQ/EQ2, CoH/V, DAoC and Star Wars Galaxies. Mu suspicion is that only a small percentage of the total player base is located in North America and Europe because the hype for FFXI is extremely minimal among the western MMO audience. FFXI is still being actively expanded and supported and in 2006 Square/Enix finally decided to do something about the botting and macroing taking place within their game.

  • Entropia Universe - Mindark and the Entropia players seem hell-bent on keeping this game a secret. Entropia Universe is what you'd get if you took Saga of Ryzom and Second Life and forced them to mate. On the game front it has a number of similarities to Ryzom in its alien world design and fresh take on character development. On the other hand your real cash money is tied intimately to your game earnings. More than a few people have invested 10's or 100's of thousands of dollars in virtual property within Entropia, and it seems those players are turning a profit. In spite of all the unique aspects of Entropia Universe this one remains in obscurity but is none the worse for wear in 2006.

  • Dark Age of Camelot - 2006 was a big year for the creators of Dark Age of Camelot. As it was, Mythic Entertainment made for quite the success story having started a MMORPG studio from scratch and managing to ride DAoC for many years until securing the the funding and licensing to start work on Warhammer Online. Suddenly, Mythic was purchased by Electronic Arts effectively cementing their position as a key player in the space. Concerns regarding Mythic's ability to properly finance Warhammer Online disappeared over night and fears regarding DAoC's future vanished as well. Mythic followed up the acquisition with a significant DAoC expansion pack called Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Clearly DAoC's subscriber numbers have been falling along with their peers for the past two years, but all in all the game appears stable for now.

  • Lineage II - In 2005 Lineage was dethroned as the player subscription champ of all time. World of Warcraft took that title, but the team at NCSoft seems unswayed by that information. The subscription numbers in North America and Europe are still weak, but believe it or not, they've grown over the past year. How does the king of all Korean ports manage to keep it going where all others have failed? The answer to that is easy. They keep expanding, keep improving and most of all, they do not apologize for their decisions. Lineage 2 is grindy. Lineage 2 has thin lore. Lineage 2 is plagued by gold farming bots. Lineage 2's level curve is ridiculous. You know what? NCSoft doesn't care. This is the game they've built and they're going to keep building more and more content (and awesome cinematics to woo us) until far after Lineage 3 appears on the scene. Lineage 2 is entering middle age, but it still looks pretty solid and it is still a worldwide juggernaut in the the MMO space with a great PvP system to boot.

    The 1UP-ers: They're fixing stuff for the better

  • EverQuest II - The game that got clobbered by World of Warcraft two years ago is making a comeback and I'll be the first to admit that the changes they've made over the past two years push EQ2's system quite a bit closer to WoW. They've streamlined quests, polished the newbie experience, and added enough content to choke Rob Pardo. SOE hasn't just tried to copy WoW; in some areas they've easily surpassed World of Warcraft's system, particularly the PvP system, the web-based offerings, and community relations. EQ2 is starting to become the game it should have been a couple years ago. The magic of the original game is starting to appear and the polish of a 2nd gen MMO is now in full effect.

  • Star Wars Galaxies - SOE doesn't know when to quit do they? SWG has certainly had its share of bad press. The total revamp that was done in the now infamous NGE patch changed the game completely, something an MMO hasn't done on such a large scale until now. NGE incited an insane amount of rage from the player ranks. Interestingly enough, those players were also enraged before the NGE. So how has it shaken out for SOE? It seems that it is going rather well. SOE has said there has been an influx of new players in 2006 (myself included) and the game plays well. There's no doubt that many people were burned by the massive changes that took place, but it seems that the vast majority of the changes did improve the game for the average player. Don't write this game off yet. SWG is holding its own and if you weren't sprayed by the hose in the past you might find a pleasant surprise if you play Star War Galaxies today.

    Rising Star: Just kicking ass

  • Eve Online - Only one game in this category and you surely saw it coming. How does Eve Online qualify as the only rising star of 2006, especially 3 years after launch? There are many reasons, but the most critical one is the devotion of their player base. Due to Eve's extreme depth and steep learning curve there is no such thing as an Eve player who isn't devoted. Eve wasn't a smash success at release, but today we see the number of Eve Online players climbing steadily past the competition almost solely on word of mouth and internet marketing. You can't buy Eve Online in a store and yet CCP doesn't seem to mind that they're missing out on what must surely be millions of dollars in impulse game purchases. All of this culminates in a fanbase that is supportive of CCP to the dying breath. Add on the fact that you MUST be patient and intelligent to enjoy Eve and you have all the information you need to explain the fantastic community. CCP's team also happens to be the coolest kids on the MMORPG block. They are extremely passionate, accessible, and forthright about the direction of their game. They don't hide their subscriptions numbers (like SOE) but advertise the numbers as something to be proud of. Eve Online has an exciting flexibility to match all play-styles and frequent free expansions that add features, not just maps. We've covered a ton of games in the past 4 days, but Eve Online stands alone as the one that is definitely moving in a positive direction.

    And there you have it, the state of MMORPGs at the end of 2006. It has been a slow year for our favorite genre of games, but 2007 certainly will change that. Check back tomorrow for 2007 in Preview.

  • Submitted by Brent on Dec 11, 2006 18:30:30 CST (comments: 11)


    '...' by Heartless
    Submitted on 2006-12-11 19:46:32 CST
    Just gonna throw on devil's advocate here for a moment. WoW is #1, but all I hear from people is that it is doing everything wrong. Maybe at 10 million players people will start believing that Blizzard has done something right. There is no evidence that producing expansions every 3 to 6 months makes a better game or that it is a requirement for a successful game. Actually every game to follow that model has dwindled off over time so far. So I don't see how WoW can be criticized for being a market leader who doesn't do what everyone else does.


    I like the whole fixing stuff section you added. Poor SOE games. IMHO SOE's best game isn't even an MMORPG... it's the Pirates CSG (constructible strategy game) online.

    'World of Windows?' by Wilhelm2451
    Submitted on 2006-12-11 20:12:21 CST
    Move that logic to Microsoft and Windows and see how well it sits. All I hear about MS is how everything they do is wrong, yet it runs 90% of the desktops worldwide.

    Being #1 does not bring with it any inherent statement of quality, good or bad, but it does open you open to examination by a huge audience that will pick apart all your work. Your competition and its partisans will always assail you with how much better they are than the mass market, lowest common denominator package that the market leader always comes to represent.

    That said, I am a WoW fan. It is its own game, and while there are features I would like to see added, I have fun playing it all the same.

    I am with you on the expansion thing. More than one expansion a year is probably too much for me and hardly seems worth the turmoil it can cause. But I am not the type of player who runs through content at maximum speed.

    'World of Opinion' by Brent
    Submitted on 2006-12-11 22:24:15 CST
    I hear where both of you are coming from on the WoW thing.

    The main issue I have isn't so much expecting them to do what everyone else does, I'm just expecting them to do SOMETHING.

    Nearly two and a half years waiting for an expansion for an MMO that has the fastest leveling curve around is just too long for me. A solid 50% of WoW toons are level 60. That speaks volumes to me.

    I'm not saying they should change the leveling curve, but I will stand by my opinion that one large content expansion every 2+ years is not enough and that's why I put them in the coasting category.

    I'm looking forward to the expansion as much as the next WoW player, I guess, but it is harder for me to get excited when I quit playing in January out of sheer boredom and need for content. If they'd released that last January I would have been pumped. Now I'm luke warm on it.

    '...' by Heartless
    Submitted on 2006-12-12 08:15:31 CST
    Again I will say it. Maybe WoW has found something. Maybe what they have done is show the industry that if you build a solid game from the start you can hold a solid player base. Maybe all these other games NEED to throw out expansions because their basic game sucks!

    Ask any EQ2 player and they will agree that the game didn't get decent until Kingdom of Sky and has gotten a ton better with the EoF expansion.

    IMHO bring expansions when you have the chance to do something with the game not just because you think gamers are getting bored. In my experience gamers get bored regardless if there is new content expansions or not.

    I understand your feeling on it, but I am looking at the broader picture and trying for once in my life to understand why a game is popular. Blizzard has been pushing quality over quantity since the days of the original Warcraft. Maybe... just maybe... that is the key to all their success?

    'Blizzard Quality' by darrenl
    Submitted on 2006-12-12 08:40:53 CST
    Blizzard is a quality doubt. They are probably one of the one companies in the gaming business who only ship when its ready. We should applaud that.

    That's probably one of the reasons why we haven't seen an expansion for 2 years. The other reason is I think Blizz got caught without the internal infrastructure to handle 7 million people playing their game. I bet they staffed up for around 300000 for the year they launched. According to MMO Chart, since 2004, they've been adding subscriptions at the rate of 270000 per month. I'm pretty sure that they've been scrambling to put in place the resources just to keep up...never mind the resources to develop a completely new expansion pack.

    I think they've got at least one foot on the ground now, and I'm hoping we'll see more expansion content from them. If in the next 2 years we only see BC, then yes, there's a problem.

    D out.

    'Blizzard's Success' by Wilhelm2451
    Submitted on 2006-12-12 13:48:33 CST
    Pondering this, I think here are a lot of things that Blizzard has done with WoW that you could point to as reasons for success, but I do not think any of them are unique to WoW. I think you would find that they are all part of the traditional way that Blizzard operates. They have a history of making big hits and selling millions of copies. I cannot think of anything they have done or any changes they have made that do not have precedent in past games. Quality over quantity, reasonable machine requirements, shipping when the product is done not when a date is reached, game play that is both good and easily accessible to a wide audience, and however many more you want to come up with, they are all mirrored in past Blizzard products.

    I think the first break from tradition will come if and when they do a second expansion for WoW, as one expansion per product seems to be the norm for them, and that won't be much of a break.

    I would say, rather lamely I admit, that WoW is successful because Blizzard has a process for making successful games, and part of that process includes not blindly doing things just because other game makers do them.

    This, of course, leaves room for competitors. Nobody will clone WoW and beat Blizzard at their own game. But companies that are willing to take more risk, to innovate, or to extend beyond the normal scope, can find a niche.

    Which leaves me wondering about SOE again. I applaud their willingness to tune EQ2, but sometimes I boggle at how they go about it. Mentoring, which is one of may favorite features now that I have some WoW friends playing, started off as completely unusable and had to go through a series of iterations before it became viable. I wrote about 5 features that Blizzard should steal from EQ2, but three of them have had to go through a lot of work in front of a live audience before they became worthwhile. If there is a lesson SOE needs to take in, it isn't from WoW, but from how Blizzard works as a whole. WoW is the result of a company that knows how to create success. Blizzard is the reason WoW is successful.

    'Biggest Best' by Lauren
    Submitted on 2006-12-12 14:28:00 CST
    WOW is the most successful MMO to date, but that doesn't mean it's the best, nor does it mean that it's perfect. Blizzard put out a high quality game, no doubt there. However, there haven't been a lot of solid games of this genre within the 2 yrs since WOW's release. IMO that is a huge factor in why the numbers stayed so strong without an xpac. It's not that the players didnt want new content or that new content is required to keep players. Some of it was that when you got tired of WOW, there wasn't anywhere else to go that was worth the effort of starting all over.

    2007 will see several new titles release for MMORPGs. Individually, none of them possess the potential to topple WOW. However, they collectively will provide other opportunites and avenues of game play if you become tired of WOW. Let Blizzard try not doing another xpac for two years and see if they can sustain that player-base.

    'Bleh' by Sanctified
    Submitted on 2006-12-12 16:55:12 CST
    So tired of reading about WoW.

    '...' by Heartless
    Submitted on 2006-12-12 20:11:16 CST
    I am not sick of reading about WoW. IMHO it is a thorn in the side of the perception of the online MMORPG community. All their senses say... its too cartoony, its too easy, it has no content, but it still reigns supreme.

    It makes great discussion :)

    'Bleh' by Brent
    Submitted on 2006-12-12 22:35:47 CST
    I'm almost weary of it too. :)

    'Heartless said: Cartoony.' by ZonMezz
    Submitted on 2006-12-13 15:41:02 CST
    I can explain that. Go into Ashenvale and you basically see some rivers that don't flow, don't trickle down like normal rivers do, and there aren't any water falls etc. This all considering how steep those rivers are and they look like they could jump off the banks. But it works because the world has a design style which fits.

    If you were to play some of the more realistic mmporgs out there, those rivers would have to flow in a logical way, pools would have to be created, rapids, etc. not to mention realistic water effects. Possibly hundreds of hours of work just to make one stupid river make sense, not to mention the entire zone.

    The cartoony way Wow was designed is perfect for being able to create content. If you look at Naxx, when they designed the bosses, the artist's designs had to be made less detailed and dumbed down so that they would fit into the world.

    Wow was almost perfectly designed for creating new content.

    The only question is:

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