With the exponential growth of the gaming industry within the past decade, it is hard to imagine that any part of it might be in trouble. But the MMORPG has always been a unique genre, a proverbial ugly duckling that though lucrative for some, has proven a financial disappointed for others. From humble beginnings in 1997 with the widely acclaimed and much adored Ultima Online, the MMORPG stayed quietly in the shadows as the gaming industry blossomed. Its seeds were sewn amidst the likes of Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, all making unique contributions to the genre in their own right. Years later Star Wars Galaxies and Final Fantasy XI joined the club, games that would gather an equally sizeable, loyal and respectable fan base.
Yet in these early years the MMORPG retained a relatively small portion of the gaming community. It was not until 2004 that this all changed with the release of Blizzard’s notorious World of Warcraft. Launching from the successful and engaging IP of the Warcraft series, Blizzard’s MMO grew to be a giant that dominates the MMO industry even today. At its peak it had 12 million subscribers. In comparison, Ultima Online’s peak came in 2003 with a total of 250,000 and in the same year Everquest peaked at 450,000. These were the sights of the time, maintained by a niche minority of adulating fans that ardently stood by their game of choice.
Of course, that is not to suggest that WoW fans have lacked a sense of loyalty. After all, it has kept its position as the highest subscribed to MMORPG despite numerous attempts by competitors to dethrone it. But this is really the crux of the issue. World of Warcraft was a virtual El Dorado for its competitors, who watched with an expectant eye as Blizzard’s profits soared. Games such as LOTRO, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online and SWTOR all sought to equal the MMORPG giant and take a share of the seemingly bottomless bounty of the MMO market. But despite the competition launching from famous and renowned IPs, their ambitions all fell short, with average subscriptions of 500,000. These numbers aren’t to be shunned at of course, with many MMOs surviving happily regardless of the initial disappointments, but still they beg the question of what the future holds for the genre in general which, for better or worse, has been controlled to an arguably unhealthy extent by a single game.
Yet whilst games such as Guild Wars 2 have earned their own success, they do however place the MMORPG genre in darker and far more uncertain territory. If the subscription model proves to fail with the new generation of MMORPGs, and if WoW finally topples (with subscription numbers showing a steady decrease over recent years), what is to become of the genre? It is hard to believe that F2P and micro transaction models provide a sustainable future, and most of the MMORPGs that adopt them have been forced to due to depreciating subscription numbers.
Either way, it is our hope that the core attractions of the MMORPG will survive past the misdemeanors of the last decade. But should the genre fade into relative obscurity, we can take solace in knowing that the sense of community, of uniting players in a multiplayer world, will live on in some form. So when the sky inevitably darkens and begins to fall on each MMORPG, look to your guild websites, clan websites and guild hosting services to hold onto the community you cherish.
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