- Scott Jennings reports on the practical demise of Earth Eternal, lamenting that "online gamers are saying with their dollars, yeah, we actually don’t want to play anything that isn’t World of Warcraft". In the comments of that post, Psychochild suggests that the EE devs did not do enough to keep the time and cost of development (4+ years on a game that was still in beta) under control, arguing that "a smaller game absolutely needs to limit scope drastically".
- Complete Heal delivers some sad details from SOE's Fan Faire, where he learned that EQ2's subscription numbers have dwindled to the point where the game is about even with its predecessor from 1999, EQ1. Echoing reports from earlier this year that EQ2 devs were pulled away from the game to work on Free Realms, CH mentions that EQ2 is now sharing at least one dev with the "EQ Next" team. Against this backdrop, EQ2's next expansion sounds smaller than this year's (which was, in turn, smaller than the older ones).
- Keen observes a "new MMO slump" on the horizon, as we've hit an era where new games have a shelf life of 3 months (if they're lucky) before burnout and disillusionment set in.
When reality set in, we've seen dev teams decimated (e.g. Warhammer, Fallen Earth) to meet the new, lower revenue potential. I would have named LOTRO and EQ2 as two of the more successful games of the current generation, and populations in both games are supposedly steady. However, both have seen trends of less and less new content added in expansions as developer resources shift elsewhere, and both games are now hoping that dramatic shifts to free to play can bring in enough revenue to justify reversing that trend.
Returning on investment
Until Psychochild gets enough player contributions to build a high quality MMO without relying on profit-driven investors, we're stuck with what those investors are willing to pay for. The problem is not, as Keen suggests, that it somehow hasn't occurred to anyone that there's a market for games smaller than WoW. The problem is that bringing in enough money to keep the servers on is very different from bringing in enough money to offer investors a profit on an initial outlay in the tens of millions of dollars.
A game with 100K subscribers paying $200 per year brings in $20 million annually BEFORE expenses (servers, customer service, salaries for the live team). Who's going to front the developers a $20 million budget in the hopes of being paid back in five years (after, say 3 years of development and two years of live service if all goes well, with any profit even further out in the future)? The answer, apparently, is no one - the risk is only worthwhile if the prize is $200 million, but that would require a subscriber level that only one game in history has obtained.
Rising Price Tags Ahead?
Though I'm sure that there are ways to cut costs and increase efficiency, I don't think we're anywhere near having a virtual world on the scale of Azeroth, Norrath, or Middle Earth built cheaply. Meanwhile, the market is less and less tolerant of any perception that corners have been cut or left unpolished, which means that revenue will have to increase somehow.
Unfortunately, the history of the genre argues that anyone counting on more than 300K subs to keep their game afloat is making a risky bet, so this goal cannot be the longterm plan for a game breaking even. If all this is true, the last variable in the equation is how much money each player is spending. If our hobby is to go on in the manner in which we're accustomed, there may be significant price hikes in our future. Whether those hikes are presented in the form of "optional" item shop transactions (the current trend, which has its pros and cons) or other less voluntary mechanisms remains to be seen, but I don't see how things can continue at their current pace.