As I predicted back in January, Warhammer Online : Age of Reckoning (WAR) is going to be shut down before the end of the year. (Ignore all the other predictions I’ve made that haven’t yet come true. There’s still time! THERE’S STILL TIME!)
I’ve already spent a bit of time looking at how WAR basically destroyed Mythic Entertainment as a MMO studio. WAR has only been running one or two active servers for over a year. Many people (including myself) have wondered why EA kept this game running for as long as they did, but given the official reason for closure is that the licencing deal has come to an end, it appears that whatever deal Mythic signed with Games Workshop meant it was cheaper for EA to let the game run on than to cut it off until now.
This is also the second Mythic title to be shut down this year, the other being Warhammer Online: Wrath of Heroes. This leaves the studio with Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Forever as active games and no announced new titles under development that I’m aware of. That’s not a great sign for the studio’s future.
Some will inevitably blame EA for WAR’s failure to ever reach its potential, but EA poured a lot of money into Mythic to make WAR competitive with World of Warcraft. When WAR launched with a text chat system that lacked basic functionality I took it as a symptom of a much greater issue: Mythic had spent a lot of money trying to build big things while hyping up how great it was going to be, but failed to nail down the basics. It was only shortly before launch that players were given the opportunity to start playing ‘full’ WAR instead of testing limited areas, with the discovery made that while the individual components of WAR might be fun, they didn’t fit together well as a game.
WAR will go down as a MMO with some fun aspects, but one that never lived up to its full potential. It was also a title that, when it flopped on launch alongside Age of Conan, started the MMO industry on the downward spiral it still exists in today.
“It was also a title that, when it flopped on launch alongside Age of Conan, started the MMO industry on the downward spiral it still exists in today.”
I’m no defender of Warhammer for all the other reasons you describe, but I think you’ve misplaced the blame here.
I believe that each successful subscription MMO at its peak had something unique that put it in a niche where it had no meaningful competition. If you wanted 3D graphics in 1999, RVR in 2003, solo content in 2005-2006, or spreadsheet space piracy through the present, there was really only one place to spend your money. That guaranteed revenue propped up a business model and allowed continued investment in the products.
The success of WoW prompted every major title – I’d argue starting with LOTRO in 2007 – to go after the newly discovered solo market that Blizzard brought to the genre and monopolized through the vanilla WoW era. Today studios continue to develop around a financial model that only works with hundreds of thousands of long-term subscribers even as those subscribers have a constantly increasing range of options.
There are two ways for a new MMO to succeed in today’s market – either do something that no one else is doing to re-capture that captive audience, or else redesign your business model so you can actually recoup your development costs during the shorter window in which you can expect to retain your players. Warhammer and Conan were two of the earliest ships to be dashed against these particular rocks, and both had some room for improvement at launch, but neither created the structural problems that got us here.
I don’t disagree with you and my original comment doesn’t reflect my full view on the subject.
When WAR flopped – for a number of reasons – it sent shockwaves through the MMO industry. Mythic had a good reputation and a lot of kudos for DAOC. EA had given them a huge amount of money. It was thought that even if WAR didn’t match WoW in terms of player numbers, it would at least be a contender.
AOE launched and flopped at about the same time. Funcom also had a MMO development reputation and nerd IP cred that people thought they’d deliver on. Instead it was a comedy of errors that might have been accepted before 2004, but in 2007/08 it wasn’t something players would pay for.
The subscription model was certainly part of WAR’s issues (and if you can remember their payment issues, where subscribers were charged multiple times, this was another black spot). F2P was becoming a lot more accepted.
WAR and AOC were signs that even reputable companies with MMO development experience and a lot of money could flop and flop hard. EA decided to double down and spend even more on SWOR, but suddenly MMO companies found it much harder to find investment dollars.
So yes, I agree on the structural issues around MMO development is a big issue. MMOs require a large number of players that hang around over an extended period of time to operate, but this only works when you have a small number of distinct MMOs. Today, when there are dozens of similar MMOs to choose from, some of which you can play for free, the audience is too split for any titles but the market leader of a genre to really prosper.
My point (badly made) was that WAR’s failure kicked the air out of the Western MMO industry and that lost momentum has never been regained.
Well, and that’s my question – it’s definitely not good for the industry when major titles fail, but was this a village that can be saved? Or would even a well-made product – I’d argue LOTRO fits that bill as did Rift – struggle to sustain a subscription in a market where they faced real competition?
I had actually planned to write an article on that very issue, but in short, the cost of developing and maintaining a AAA-level MMO doesn’t match up with how much money most MMO titles will be able to make in most cases. There will be exceptions, but due to issues such as the F2P payment model dominance and the sheer amount of competition in the market, it is very hard to pull off. When there were fewer MMOs and AAA video game development was more focused on consoles it meant that there was a bigger chance of picking up a committed audience on the PC.
Also, it is a lot more obviously when MMOs fail versus single player games, since MMOs are meant to last for years and contain a lot of people, where a single player title can easily disappear without trace among all the other single player titles being sold.