Sunday, January 1, 2012

Three Predictions for 2012

Here are a few predictions on the state of MMO's in the coming year.  Ironically, though I hadn't planned it this way, the three topics I came up with address (albeit in a different order) Wilhelm's top three questions for 2012

Go Big, Go Small, Go Free, or Go Home
The subscription MMO isn't dead, but there are basically two very specific circumstances under which it can work:
  1. Have a nine-figure budget like the reported $100 million in venture capital that founded Trion or the even larger figures that EA is rumored to have spent on SWTOR.  Ever notice how the three corporations able to foot this type of bill - Blizzard, Trion, and EA-Bioware - are the ones who are still touting the subscription model?
  2. Serve an un-filled niche, such as sandbox PVP (see Eve, Darkfall, or perhaps the forthcoming Dominus) or old-school group MMO (see Vanguard, lots of room for a newcomer in this genre).  The big-budget one-size-fits-all MMO that includes solo, group, raid, and PVP has to make compromises  to fit all these activities under one roof.  This makes it possible for a more specialized game to offer something that the big guys cannot.  However, as CCP found out last year, this also means that your entire company lives or dies by its ability to continue to keep one segment of the market satisfied.
Note what's not on that list.  The best licensed IP's out there don't guarantee you $15 a month - see DCUO and LOTRO.  Neither does implementation of a specific feature in what's otherwise a one-size-fits-all MMO (e.g. RVR in Warhammer and PvPvE in Aion).  Even the huge budget is no guarantee of success - probably the most remarkable thing about Rift's progress is how much discipline the team has shown in implementing only what they can actually accomplish and accomplish well.

The bottom line is that if you have yet another fantasy MMO, you're not solidly in one of the two categories above, and your business plan depends on collecting a $15 monthly subscription - FFXIV and Tera come to mind, along with Copernicus if they're not thinking F2P - you are in for a rough time in today's crowded market.  Of course, you're also in for a tough time in the crowded free market, but at least the bar is lower to get potential customers to actually try your product.   

SWTOR will have high churn... and high revenue
Both sides of the discussion on SWTOR's longterm prospects tend to assume that the game will be a failure if there is a mass exodus by the 90 day mark.  Ironically, there has never been another MMO so well-positioned to handle a high rate of churn. 

Yes, the game has guilds and PVP and dungeons/raids, all the traditional MMO trappings that tend to do poorly with high churn.  As long as Bioware was spending whatever ungodly amount they spent on this game, there was no reason NOT to support these playstyles and collect the associated revenue.  However, the core thing that has everyone raving is the Bioware story.  With the past Bioware games, the customer pays once for the box, and maybe once more if the expansions/DLC are worth purchasing, no matter how long it takes the player to complete the game or how many times they replay it.  With the monthly fee, EA gets paid every month for every playthrough and replay, regardless of how little or how much content Bioware actually adds to the game in future patches.   

With such a focus on a highly replayable single player story, SWTOR doesn't need half a million year-round subscribers.  They can get the same effect with 1.5 million players who pay 4 months out of the year when new content is added - or when players choose to replay the old stuff.  I don't see how Bioware can lose here - which is probably why they got so much of EA's money to spend in the first place. 

Mists of Pandaria Will Ship This Summer, Or Heads Will Roll
Many intelligent people are predicting that Pandaria won't ship until Q4, and there is strong basis for making this call - Blizzard is not known for shipping its products on time.  This round, however, I think the stakes are higher. 

Blizzard spent 2011 losing subscribers by the millions - to Rift, or wherever else - and SWTOR will not help this situation.  No amount of spin about how the lost players are in the less lucrative Asian markets, or how players have returned to WoW after the launches of past competitors, can change the reality that Blizzard will continue to lose customers and money until something changes.  A scenario in which the content that was available in early December 2011 is still the only content available in early October 2012 is unacceptable. 

My guess is that we will see the paid closed beta phase of Pandaria (courtesy of the annual pass) kick off in May-June, with an aim for an early Q3 release.  Delaying this product further is not like delaying Starcraft II or Diablo III, which do not have monthly fees - every month means more subscribers lost from the current live WoW service.  I'm prepared to believe that Blizzard might let the expansion slip anyway, but I think that there will - and frankly should - be consequences if this occurs. 

What do you all think will happen in 2012?


Tesh said...

Anecdotal, so perhaps irrelevant, but SWTOR loses out on *my* purchase by going with the blighted sub model. I was really looking forward to a new BioWare T-rated Star Wars romp. They killed my interest with the business model. The game might be great, but that's not how I spend my money.

Helistar said...

Pandaria will happen A LOT sooner than you think. The current raid instance is not designed to be as long-lived as ICC, and Blizzard will want to take advantage of the SWTOR player drop after the initial peak to get people back. I expect the beta to start in march and the expansion to ship by summer. I don't think they can rely on Diablo III to get back WoW players.

Targeter said...

Your MoP prediction is spot-on. It's almost irrelevant how much SWTOR damages WoW's playerbase; they won't allow Bioware a full 10 months of operation without a reprisal. Mists of Pandaria won't win over those who've already left, but it will help staunch the bleeding; there's enough features packed into the expansion pack to make it a full-fledged MMO in its own right.

Also, folks tend to forget the financial part of this equation; WoW has been a three quarter loser; they've lost subscribers 9 months in a row. For investors, this is a worrying trend that will only accelerate as time goes on. MoP needs to come out of the gate strong (and quick!) in order for Blizzard to show positive gain for shareholders, even if that gain only means the sub bleed stops.