I am going to eat Vanguard's lunch.
I am going to eat Vanguard's lunch.

Massive Online Games of 2007

by Loral on January 05, 2007

Over the last two years or so Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) have grown out of the niche market it filled previously and into the main-stream. Mostly, this was due to the release of World of Warcraft, a massive online game growing to over seven million players, at least ten times bigger than Everquest at its high point. Other games now hope to either mimic Blizzard's success with World of Warcraft or purposefully attempt to distance themselves from the giant. Today we take a look at the trends and predictions for massive online gaming in 2007.

Two games in particular have a lot of attention right now: Vanguard, Saga of Heroes, and World of Warcraft's first expansion, the Burning Crusade. This prediction should be pretty easy. How can Vanguard expect to have any market at all when they release their "Everquest of Olde", Vanguard, two weeks after Blizzard releases the first expansion for the most popular online game on the planet? What can Vanguard possibly have that would take any attention away from Burning Crusade? What does Vanguard offer that one can't find in Everquest 2, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Everquest, or Warcraft?

Vanguard takes the approach of distancing itself from World of Warcraft. This isn't Massive Online Gaming refined into an action adventure game. This is massive online gaming in the style of the original Everquest. Deaths are hard. Travel takes a long time. The big question is, do players want this sort of difficulty when they can hardly stand waiting for a griffin to take them from Stormwind to Ironforge?

Maybe it doesn't have to worry. The market is big enough now that even a nitch game can still survive and thrive. We've seen a few MMOs die, like Asheron's Call 2, but many others with very low subscription numbers like Everquest Online Adventures continue to survive by lowering the service cost enough to keep them going with few subscribers. The MMO market is a big one now, big enough that a dozen or more MMOs can live long lives.

Life isn't easy for an MMO, though, for either the players or the producers. Traditional games live and die strictly on sales numbers. If they die, everyone either forgets them or never heard of them in the first place. Few players are left out when a single-player game doesn't do well. Those that liked it can still play it. But when a MMO dies, tiny universes collapse and crush everyone inside. Entire social networks shatter. Friendships cease. There's a big commitment to an MMO and one of the big reasons players continue to play older MMOs is from this investment in character progression, time, and social networks. They look to the company to continue cultivating and growing the world in which they reside.

Knowing this, it's hard to invest in a new MMO that doesn't have at least a good chance for long-term success. Who wants to play a game they know might die in a few months or a year? Sure, there are a lot of things people might not like in WoW, but we know it's going to be around a long long time. Is that enough of a reason to play through the bad parts?

And what of console MMOs? I was excited to hear that Phantasy Star Universe isn't the most horrible RPG on the planet and might even offer up some good entertainment as a Diablo clone on Xbox 360. I doubt that the sales numbers came anywhere near the typical first-person shooter hit, Gears of War, but it is encouraging to see some movement in that direction. While I've spent most of my adult life chained to a PC to play games like Everquest, I much prefer the console as a gaming platform for a few reasons:

1. Consoles run on my big TV.
2. I don't have to install and troubleshoot games.
3. It sounds better on my home theater system.
4. The consoles are cheaper and require less frequent upgrades than my PC.
5. The usability is much improved.
6. Console games usually allow for shorter more life-friendly play sessions.
7. They just work.

The Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii are the first consoles to include nearly everything they need for console massive online gaming. The PS3 and Wii lack headsets, but the Xbox 360 includes one in the bundle pack. Even though MMO guru Richard Bartle warns us against voicechat in MMOs, it is the only reasonable way to communicate in a multiplayer console game. From what I understand, Microsoft's Xbox Live subscription complicates the subscription model for any massive online game released to 360, but assuming they find a way to build a revenue stream, all of the hardware is there and it is a virtually untapped market. If someone isn't building a World of Warcraft clone for 360, Wii, or PS3, they should be.

Sony brings another variable to the table; MMO franchises. Sony Online Entertainment now hosts the most amount of massive online games of any single company. Matrix Online, Everquest Online Adventures, Everquest, Everquest 2, Gods and Heroes, Planetside, Star Wars Galaxies, Vanguard, and an upcoming DC Comics game all reside within the umbrella of SOE. They learned that niche games can survive with very few players by simply hosting a whole lot of them. The players from the most popular hosted game help fund the maintenance for the games with far fewer players. It's a great idea and proves, so far, very successful. If (when) SOE starts releasing massive online games for the Playstation 3, they may have a leg up in the fresh market of console MMOs. Much of this, of course, depends on the dubious success of the Playstation 3, a trojan horse console designed to push Sony's proprietary format into every home in the world.

SOE's label on the Vanguard box makes me feel confident that the game will meet with at least some long-term stability. Their decision to release so close to the behemoth of Burning Crusade still makes me scratch my head. There was a lot of work put into a game that will very likely get crushed out of existence on retail shelves and Amazon sales ranks. I'm sure a group of self-proclaimed hard-core gamers disagrees with me and, according to Bartle again, they may be right to question a game that simplifies MMOs into an arcade shooter. That doesn't change the market, however.

Whatever new expansions and new releases we see this year, 2007 is the year of the Burning Crusade, whether we like it or not.

Loral Ciriclight
3 January 2006

Comment Posted by: Szithis on January 5, 2007 09:34 PM

Vanguard also sucks, badly. Its nothing like the "vision" of olde.

Comment Posted by: Aarkan on January 6, 2007 05:04 AM

Vanguard's only mistake is being released so close to WoW. It should wait until late may or mid-june, right when school is winding down and when people are getting bored of WoW again to have something to suck them right in. I sure know that I won't be buying Vanguard while I'm trying to level up my druid to 70 and to get my blood elf somewhere and I'm pretty sure I was the biggest Vanguard cheerleader ever right after I saw their stuff at E3. It's a sad shame.

Comment Posted by: Talaen on January 6, 2007 07:45 AM

I agree that it's a mistake for Vanguard to release right at the same time as the Burning Crusade. Just from a marketing point of view, it would be better for them to wait a few more months, for a variety of reasons:

1. The glitter of Burning Crusade will have started to wear thin by that point.
2. They could spend that time polishing, which is something that up until now Blizzard has only really been reknowned for doing.

Not that I believe that World of Warcraft is all that and a bag of chips. Of the reported 7 million subscribers, at least 5 million of those play in China, where they pay much less than western subscribers, and are also prevented by law from playing more than 5 hours in a day (although there are ways players get around that, I'm sure). Likewise, most of the game's popularity in Asia had nothing to do with the game itself and everything to do with Starcraft, which is almost like a national sport in countries like South Korea. That's not to say Blizzard isn't doing well, but they're not doing quite so well as you might think watching their ads.

Burning Crusade is going to have the net effect of slowing down WoW's subscriber churn for a bit, which is really most of what expansions do. But in the end, the structure of the game is such that once you hit the high end, unless people just love raiding, they get jaded and leave. One of the bad consequences of Blizzard's very accessible and solo-capable design is that WoW has fewer in-game commuunities than nearly any other MMORPG. Everyone's too busy soloing and finishing quests, and the game doesn't really push you to meet people and make friends - as we all know, given the choice of waiting for a group and going out and soloing, a huge percentage of players is going to go out and solo.

Vanguard still has the potential to do well, but the majority of its initial subscribers are going to come from former EQ players who are dissatisfied with the games they're playing right now and long for a return to a more challenging and difficult game. Vanguard is basically going to be what EQ2 was originally meant to be. There's some stigmas that Sigil has to overcome, but if they do it well, and get the word-of-mouth engine moving, then they should have a substantial subscriber base within the first year of operation. It won't be multiple millions, but that's ok, because churn rate will probably be much lower.

Comment Posted by: Loral on January 6, 2007 10:30 AM

Can I see a source for the figure that five million WOW subscribers are from China?

All I know is that the expansion isn't even out yet and I can't log in to any server upon which I have characters without a queue of 400.

Comment Posted by: helpful on January 6, 2007 01:44 PM
is the official Chinese WoW website Loral.
The chinese WoW business model is not really directly comparable to the subscription based model that you may be used to in Europe and North America.

The account keys sell for about 3-4bucks, and gametime is bought directly - by memory it is in blocks of 60(?) hours at a time or so - and the monthly fee arrangement you are used to buying isn't available.
The figure of 5 million refers to account keys sold rather than subscriptions, since there is no simple method of tracking how many 'active' account keys there are.

Don't get me wrong - WoW is still very popular - just take the staggering numbers quoted with a pinch of salt, and remember that the most profitable WoW customers (in terms of margin) are probably the Europeans, and the least profitable, are probably the Chinese.

Comment Posted by: Aarkan on January 6, 2007 01:58 PM

Even still if your sub numbers about China are correct they're sitll making a TON of money. If they shut down WoW right now it may very well be the most successful MMO of all time. (monetarily)

Comment Posted by: TheSonOfAbsorBane on January 7, 2007 04:06 AM

Gah, what is it with people that feel a need to discount the success of World of Warcraft? Why is it every time someone posts either WoW's high numbers, or EQ's low numbers someone has to come out and either bash WoW or Cheer SOE.

Just look at the lists:

WoW Live Servers:

WoW Emulation Servers:

EQ Live Servers:

EQ Emulation Servers:

Anyone who can take the evercrack needle outta thier vein long enough to set thier personal addiction aside for a second can see WoW is leading the pack.

There's no reason to crap on the companies numbers.

Like Loral said, just because EQ isn't leading the pack any more, there's no reason to cry "it's dead!". Hell, who would hire Absor? No. EQ will be around for a good long time. There's no reason to panic.

So relax, go back to AA grinding, and just accept the fact WoW is the leader in the pack these days. In a few years, someone else will be.

Comment Posted by: Unknown_Guild on January 7, 2007 04:31 PM

In your article you state that Bartle warns about using voice chat in MMOs.

I think you have to be a bit more specific and remember that he is refering to persistent fantasy world gaming and RPGs. It seems fair to say that the reasoning behind his statement applies to an RPG regardless of its MM status.

Perhaps it's not a good idea to go confusing genres? RPG is a genre, as is FPS or the such. You can prefix them with MMO or not. Massively Multiplayer, Multiplayer or Singleplayer are not genres in and of themselves.

As to Vanguard, I've seen the beta and it seems about as close to EQ as it gets (even down to the /corpse mechanics, urg). I won't say much more, save that I loved EQ in 99 but I'm not convinced by V:SoH in 07. Potentially a great RPG world, but I'm not sure about it being a great gaming world.

Burning Crusade may quickly become Burnout Crusade for the hardcore EQaholics pretty quickly. Players might return to boost their new Blood Elf characters through the new dungeons till they're all in a shade of Octarine level gear, but ultimately it's not going to add much to the essential elements of gameplay. WoW doesn't have the depth of feeling and involvement of EQ pre-Luclin. Everyone's trading in Org, or straight in and out of instances, with little sense of flavour in the world zones. Did they learn anything from the PoP I wonder? In short, likely to be a good gaming world, not sure about its ability to support RP.

Viable businesses? Both are I'm sure. Sony hardly has to worry about infrastructure (seeing the EQ2 patcher at the front of V made me wary), Blizzard is generally experienced and the industry is set up to absorb big investment losses by default. We might see a developer or two bite the dust, but the publishers will still be going strong. Doesn't mean we'll get good games though.

As far as consoles go for MMO(RPG) play, I'm not convinced. It's a different type of play on a console. 'Lean back' in the living room and predicated on a different type of interaction with other players. Traditional RPG (NWN, FF, etc) works as it's pausable and essentially linear (though it might include some branching), but I've yet to be convinced about permanent virtual worlds in the console environment.

I think the big thing here is how they are going to provide a good social experience. If Vanguard and WoW:BC are essentially more of the same then you'll probably get the general level of burnout and population curve that developers have noted before (pre-SWG Raph Koster suggested an estimate of 2 years of play before an indiviual get bored and ships out). If console gaming with voice provides a level of (bot-assisted?) teamplay that mixes playstyles well then you might see some CS style clans coming out of it with very high turnover rates, but a steady base level of players.

I wonder if there is actually demand for MMORPGs on consoles? Or are the games companies throwing some out there to 'test the waters' as it were?

I'm probably wrong in my assertions. Heck we can predict as much as we like on here and, likely, some of us will be right and some wrong, horoscope style. If there were a clear magic formula for success then we'ed have no need for EA, Sony and the such to fund so many horrid franchise sequels and we'ed see less developers going under.

Coding for high framerates may be approaching a hard science, but the practically indefinable quality of 'gameplay' is still a long way off, being predicated largely on a combination of popular psychology, guesswork and a smidgeon of wisdom. I've been involved in that world before and experienced its pretentions first hand.

Why don't we just be grateful for some options and settle back to wait and see?

Comment Posted by: Armarant on January 8, 2007 05:28 AM

TheSonOfAbsorBane wrote:Gah, what is it with people that feel a need to discount the success of World of Warcraft? Why is it every time someone posts either WoW's high numbers, or EQ's low numbers someone has to come out and either bash WoW or Cheer SOE.


so I am guessing you think just the opposite should be true.. you should be free to bash EQ and cheer Blizzard. I prefer to think of it realistically. WoW has its large numbers because just like EQ in time of yore it is providing a service that no one else is bothering to match at the moment. the game as a whole has been able to provide great solo entertainment, great group/raid content and have lots of events that take place each year.

WoW shall sooner or later start its downward trend and start losing players when the next game comes out to provide people what they crave. it just happens to be that at the moment the majority of people want a easy to play game that lets you get into it very fast (grouping optional) and has a great storyline backed up by games full of lore that stays consistent and true with the game world.

Comment Posted by: Dendory on January 8, 2007 08:18 AM

I played Vanguard beta. And basically anyone who did can tell you the exact same thing. Vanguard will fail, because it's very very far from behind ready, with buggy content, unfinished quests, and very bad performance. Vision is one thing but sales depend on the released product.

Comment Posted by: Ogulbuk on January 8, 2007 10:34 AM

One thing about the 360 live system:

Final Fantasy XI exists in the 360 because with the release of this new console Live was updated in a way that allows more flexibility in the part of the game developer. Now, under the free version of Live, a developer can hosts their own servers and conduct their own independent billing.

My brother plays FFXI on his 360 and he has never paid for the premium program and as a bonus, the game supports voice chat but only among 360 owners. Don't know how well that is used considering that the servers are shared with all FFXI players making it hard for you to actually team with an 360 owner.

Comment Posted by: Teremar on January 8, 2007 12:33 PM

Yes, the WoW expansion will sell a lot of copies. Obviously there are a lot of accounts to update, but more than that WoW has been in dire need of an expansion for a long time. Those server queues are so huge because the new PvP reward system (basically expansion content released early) is giving a lot of non-raiders their first chance at significant gear upgrades in a year or more.

But is that a problem for Vanguard? I'm not so sure. Vanguard has been presenting itself up as the anti-WoW and has a very different target audience. I doubt there are many people who are both happy enough with WoW to want to buy the expansion and have the slightest interest in Vanguard. (Yes, I imagine you're an exception Loral.)

Let's face it: both The Burning Crusade and Vanguard are pretty much known quantities. People are going to choose one or the other depending on what kind of game they prefer, regardless of release dates. Vanguard is going to pull most of its audience from EQ and EQ2, not WoW.

I'd love to see what some of the Industrial Organization types in our local Economics department would make of the question of optimal MMORPG size. On the one hand, a game the size of WoW can, in theory, have ten times the devs of EQ putting out ten times the content (though clearly they don't) and still make ten times the profit. On the other hand, having a variety of niche games like Vanguard allows devs to really tailor their game to a target audience rather than trying to be all things to all people. I honestly don't know which I think is better for players. For game companies, obviously they'd prefer to make the next WoW. We may need a few more failures before the niche strategy looks like a good alternative.

Comment Posted by: Skuz on January 8, 2007 08:54 PM

I think people should stop looking at numbers and using them as comparisons & stop comparing games with widely different audiences.

WoW is a game that is very good at what it does, which is offer fast fun in 10minutes to 1 hour slices of time, that you can (& most prefer) to so solo.

Everquest's audience prefer more depth & involvement & are happy to do that in longer gaming sessions of 1-5 hours, that almost exclusively require groups.

Trying to compare the two does neither justice, they are both different sections of the market.

Vanguard will sit in a niche, along with Everquest, & at some point in time there will be a serious contender to WoW's dominance of the broad base low depth fast access short time session gameplay.

Playing WoW could be likened to grabbing a burger from a huge Macdonalds, playing EQ like spending a while hunting for a small exclusive restaurant with a select clientelle & spending several hours there eating food with a huge variety on the menu.

Comment Posted by: Teremar on January 9, 2007 10:20 AM

While there's been some exaggeration of the differences between WoW and Vanguard (it's easy to see who has a level 60 WoW char and who doesn't) I think there's some consensus that their impact on each other will be limited.

But EQ is another matter. What are people hearing from the EQ population? Are a lot of people planning to switch to Vanguard? Or is the attitude more "wait and see"? When I described Vanguard as a known quantity I mean the playstyle. It sounds like there are a lot of questions about Vanguard's execution.

Comment Posted by: Bonzz on January 9, 2007 12:20 PM

Teremar, based on random chats in the raid and general channels on EQ, there is quite a bit of interest in Vangard from the veteran players. It remains to be seen if, once they try it, they are willing to return to the days of "doing everything the hard way". And yes, I think (only an impression) that these are the players who have tried and didn't like WoW and who also play or have played EQ2.

Comment Posted by: SpittingOnAbsorFromHellsDeapths on January 10, 2007 04:12 AM

The single biggest issue against Vanguard:SoH?

Playability on existing PC's. Think EQ2 system requirements on steriods.

While almost ever EQ player I know, past and present is eager for Vanguard:SoH, very few of them have systems capable of playing EQ2 well. The net result is V:SoH is going to crush thier systems.

So just as there was a massive fallout at the launch of EQ2 where players bought it, and then couldn't play it. Expect the same from V:SoH

Comment Posted by: Loral on January 10, 2007 11:39 AM

Warcraft's excellent performance on low-end hardware is one of the big reasons it does as well as it does.

Other companies would do well to note this. Nintendo did with the Wii and it had an incredibly strong showing over the holidays. I know I love mine!

Comment Posted by: Naladini on January 10, 2007 10:27 PM

Designing something ultra-high end now, that will still look good 2-3 years from now sounds nice in theory ... but when you look at the numbers that lower quality graphics have allowed in terms of subscribers and low video lag in high density situations (aka the Massively Multiplayer part of the game, that so many Massively Multiplayer games struggle rendering), you begin to realize that if your game is successful, you'll be able to afford that graphical revamp in a few years because of the extra subscribers you draw in at launch.

Interestingly enough, EQ was one of the first games to *require* a 3d graphics card, and it was incredibly successful for its time despite the higher end requirements.

I think we're seeing a ceiling though, if you really want to push the numbers beyond the 500k US niche MMO mark, you need to lower your requirements to accomodate the people who won't upgrade their machine just to play one game. (Obviously, it takes more than low quality graphics to create something that will really sell, you still have to have a compelling story/world, strong character development capabilities, and some good luck with community "buzz" as the game launches.)

Comment Posted by: Armarant on January 11, 2007 06:23 AM

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ok so I did a quick google of this guy.. Plat seller. nuff said.

First result off google..
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Comment Posted by: menleniel on January 11, 2007 01:40 PM

I dont' see wow having much impact. People I've talked to in eq aren't going to wow because of a new expansion. New expansion or not, wow players aren't planning on checking out vsoh.

Vanguards impact on eq is going to be interesting. A year ago most of the people I talked to were interested in at least checking it out if not switching. Now, after being in beta many have lost interest.

I'll probably check out vsoh, but I tend to doubt I'll abandon eq. I've spent a lot of time and effort to have high end raider, and I still enjoy raids if not some other parts of the game.

Besides, I really doubt I can ever recover the feeling I had when I started eq (the fear of seeing a new zone, the terror of drowning and wondering if you'll get your char back, the sheer amazement of large a zone like karanas is) from any game ever again.

Comment Posted by: Talaen on January 11, 2007 04:20 PM

Sorry Loral, I missed your question to me last week - it looks like someone else got you some info though. Of interest to you might be Blizzard's press release today, which finally gives us regional breakdowns for NA/Europe in addition to China.

Basically they're ballparking it at 2 million NA, 1.5 million EU, and 3.5 million China. They don't go more into it than that, so we're not sure if China is just China (becasue of legal differences) or if China means "all of Asia" and includes Korea.

Based on this my five million comment was incorrect, so it's nice to see them finally officially release the NA/EU counts. I know that's going to make SirBruce's life easier.

Having been playing the Vanguard Beta for the last week or two, I can say that I think it's going to turn out well. The game is running well on my (admittedly built for EQ2) machine, but even that machine wasn't top of the line 2 years ago when I put it together, it was just close to top of the line.

Rather than graphics or performance though, I think the big differentating factor between Vanguard and every other game is going to be pacing. If you want a game that you will be playing for months to years before you get to the top, like the EverQuest of old, you want Vanguard (or EVE Online, but one could argue that you never hit the top in EVE). If you prefer a quicker game where you can advance to the high end within a month or two and start doing high end things, then you'll probably stay where you're at now.

I have a feeling that Vanguard is going to draw most initial subscribers from former EQ players who migrated elsewhere after PoP. This is just my opinion based on a few weeks of play. The game feels like old-school EverQuest, where groups are important, knowing when and where to use your skills is important, and you have to really be on your toes in a difficult dungeon to watch out for the health of every member of your group. There's enough downtime, and more importantly the world is so huge, that you end up getting to know the people you group with fairly well, add them to your friends list, invite them to your guild, and so on. Advancement is slow enough that you find yourself spending multiple nights in the same dungeons and areas, which gives you more time to really get to know people and the world around you. Pacing is slower in Vanguard than it is in EQ2, or WoW especially, and I think players that have been put off by the more "accessible", faster-paced, more soloable gameplay of these games are going to like Vanguard.

The unknown here is what kind of stigma Vanguard is going to have. The Vision used to be a dirty word in the community back in the day. So there's the fear that Vanguard may be too hardcore - or that it may be too raid-focused, too complicated, too time-consuming, etc. I think that fear is going to hold people back at first until the game's actually out there and people have the chance to see for themselves.

For me, based on trying things out during Beta, Vanguard is going to be enough of a better game that I am planning on stepping down as guildleader of my EQ2 guild and moving on to Vanguard next month.

Comment Posted by: Loral on January 13, 2007 01:01 PM

Comment Posted by: Aarkan on January 14, 2007 10:52 AM

The new EQ expansion areas sound great, though are probably restricted to 65+ and the rest of it sounds like more gimmicks a la the last 4 expansions which were all too little too late. It's shame because the Luclin story was my favorite and seeing it continue would be great but unless there's good content for below 65 there's no chance I'll be coming back.

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