Anyway, here are my belated predictions - I don't know if this makes my job easier because I have a month of additional information (see first item, below) or harder because there is less time left for the predictions to come true. In any case, if I have predicted bad things for your favorite MMO this year, rest assured that my lack of accuracy well have guaranteed your game's smashing success. :)
Rift Goes Free To Play in 2013
First up, a minor cheat by exploiting information that only became available in late January. Two days ago, I would have said that Executive Producers Scott Hartsman's position against turning the game free to play would be enough to keep it from happening in 2013 - even if Trion's views eventually changed, failing to work ahead on the conversion would keep it from launching this year.
Then came news that Hartsman has departed from Trion Studios. In the last week, we also learned that Trion's MMOFPS Defiance plans to launch with a buy-to-play model featuring a $60 box and no recurring subscriptions. We already knew that the online strategy game End of Nations - assuming it survives being in-sourced into Trion proper - was going to be Free to Play. Going back to last year, Rift already has an in-game store, and then there were the layoffs at Trion and the former End of Nations developers.
Moving this particular game to free-to-play is debatable, but Trion has investors to answer to. As long as things are going really well, Trion has the ammo it needs to justify why they are continuing to buck the overwhelming industry trend. If things have started to go downhill - and the layoffs suggest that they have - then we can expect Rift to lose its subscription in 2013.
LOTRO: Helm's Deep Or Bust
As I've previous written, I think LOTRO is under a lot of pressure to increase revenue THIS year. Turbine's 2008 press release indicated that they have the license through 2014, with options to extend the term out to 2017. We don't know whether the terms of the option years are favorable, and presumably the studio's new owners at Warner Brothers are capable of re-negotiating a reasonable deal if this is worth their time.
That makes 2013 the year in which Turbine has to prove the game's worth. LOTRO will not fold in 2013, but if things go badly it could very well close when the license issue comes due in 2014. To this end, I expect the following:
- Unlike last year's Great River update or the F2P relaunch's Enedwaith region, we will NOT see a new region added at the current level cap. The price point on these new optional areas has generally been low, and that makes it a questionable investment that would be better saved for the next expansion.
- Speaking of which, I expect the new expansion to require a minimum purchase of $50, up from $40 last year and $30 the year before. As with last year, Turbine will offer plenty of opportunity to pay full price early and then discount the thing by 50% for an end-of-year sale once the early adopters have paid up.
- The expansion will bump the level cap to 95. LOTRO has lots of level-scaling content in past expansions that could be used to level to the new cap and skip buying the new content. Making the cap higher makes that option less desirable because you would have more levels to grind out.
- The actual battle of Helm's Deep - which, as in recent years, may get delayed to a patch after the expansion launch - will be presented from multiple different perspectives so that solo, group, raid, and monster players can all participate in this iconic bit of the lore.
Asheron's Call 3 Announced
It's possible that Turbine dusted off AC2 just as a lark of a weekend project. Then again, we know that they've been working on a mystery title for a while, and it would make a lot of sense for them to work in their own IP so that they are not at the mercy of some rightsholder.
This is a Blizzcon year, which means we will probably get some announcements in addition to the oft-delayed Starcraft II expansion. My guesses:
- WoW's next expansion announced, but will not be ready for beta in 2013. After years of promising to try and get expansions out in a more timely fashion, Blizzard finally concedes that it's going to be 20+ months like the previous attempts.
- Blizzard announces a console based non-subscription spinoff of one of its existing IP's. A recent rumor suggested that this was the real nature of Titan, the long rumored online followup to WoW, but that was supposed to be an original IP. We know they've been flirting with consoles for years now, and I'm guessing that this is a separate effort. It will be interesting to see whether it runs on current generation console hardware, as Blizzard's development cycle is so long that next generation consoles will probably arrive before this game does.
- Titan will finally be announced, but will not be playable or in any way suggesting it will debut in 2014. Blizzard has had time to ponder how DIII went for them and see the way the wind is blowing, so this game will NOT have a subscription. It will instead be designed from the ground up with something - content, characters, etc - that people can purchase to keep the revenue flowing.
I'm not going to belabor my analysis from last week - this studio was on shaky footing before TSW disappointed, and I'm not convinced that layoffs alone can balance the books, especially if they hurt the ability to deliver future updates. I'm not sure what EA does on a day to day basis as the publisher for TSW - if they own the servers, billing system, etc, that would be a major impediment to any attempt to sell the title off.
New Subscription MMO's
If an MMO studio asked me for advice, I'd say that attempting to launch a new MMO with a box price and a monthly fee is really poorly advised. However, I don't think the industry is quite ready to let this approach die just yet. Looking at two major upcoming releases that have yet to announce business models:
- Wildstar: Will definitely have a box price at launch. I predict it will not charge a subscription by the end of 2013 - either they'll be smart and not try or they'll be forced to reconsider between launch and the end of the year.
- Elder Scrolls Online: With all the hype they're already firing up for this game's beta, this game shows all the signs of having a large budget, and they are declining to state their planned business model. It's possible that they are going to go buy-to-play with frequent paid DLC and are saving this piece of news to build anticipation for the inevitable pre-purchase campaign. Still, GW2 aside, I will believe that a big budget MMO like this one is willing to voluntarily surrender the monthly fee when I see it.
So I predict Elder Scrolls WILL launch with a monthly fee. They will probably still have it through at least the end of 2013, but that may have more to do with launching late in the year than with the game's success. (I do predict they will launch this year - even Blizzard doesn't start its beta process an entire year in advance of release.)
After proudly proclaiming 2012 the year of the Kickstarter-funded game - and cheerfully pocketing 5% of the proceeds with no obligation to help ensure that backers get what was promised - Kickstarter is due for a reckoning. At least one video game product that received $1 million in backing will go bankrupt before delivering the promised game in 2013.
Kickstarter will make some token changes in response to the backlash, but will remain constrained by their business model - they make money when projects are successfully funded, not when they force creators to post information that dissuades people from backing risky and/or poorly thought out efforts. Expect some minimal token effort before returning to business as usual, but the incident will cost the site some of its hip status within the blogosphere.
No big winner, but perhaps balance?
Overall, I don't see a single MMO emerging as the big winner in 2013, the way that Guild Wars 2 arguably won the half of 2012 after its release. When you look at Syp's list of new MMO's to watch in 2013, half either aren't traditional MMO's or else are unlikely to release in 2013. As a result, we're likely to get at least 8-9 months into 2013 without a major event launch with the traditional cycle of hype - and all too often disappointment. (We could go the entire year if I'm wrong and Elder Scrolls slips into 2014.) Even the slate of major expansions is going to be relatively quiet since many of the big players released something in late 2012.
This is a real opportunity for MMO's that are currently sitting in the middle of the pack. Players will still wander from game to game, and now is the time where an existing product, with most of the rough edges from launch already smoothed out, can potentially make a big impression. Even if all of the things I've suggested come to pass, 2013 could be a good year on the balance if we come out the other side with a solid pool of games that are quietly getting the job done.