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Massive Growing Pains Part 1

An analysis of the evolution of gaming's newest genre

PART I: An Introduction

MMORPG* is a huge acronym that stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. Unlike its name the genre began very small. But then most things do. In the seventies a few students at universities the world over began to develop some of the first online games. Initially entitled MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) these games were the domain of the hobbyist. They were special because their world was persistent. Players would always return to the same world they left and every player would share exactly the same resources. The genre was remarkable because the games were bigger than any one player. The focus of this paper is to examine the current state of this "new" genre and to attempt to divine its future in this volatile time.

[*MMOPRG is not the lone acronym used to label these games. MMOG or MMO games (massively multiplayer online game) and MMP game (for just massively multiplayer) are also common terms. Part of this differentiation comes from other sub-genre's emerging within the genre but for the purposes of this article these terms will be used interchangeably.]

PART II: The Big Bang

A brief history of the MMORPG genre.

Often the evolution of video games is referred to by generations. Quake was the generation following Doom, or the Playstation 2 is a generation removed from the original Playstation for instance. These provide a common frame of reference across the entire industry and are often used when discussing MMORPGs. However, the exaggerated development cycles required by games of this magnitude have blurred the lines of the already blurry generations even more. Like a human generation it's essentially impossible to put a discrete date on a generation. Nevertheless the implications are the same. A generation is a level of evolution within a genre. It is a point where one can look at the games of the present and say that they are, at least technically, superior to the games of the past.

The first generation began with the transition from hobby to multi-million dollar business in the mid to late nineties. While a few online companies (Prodigy, Compuserve, The Sierra Network, and later AOL among others) had built pay-to-play MUDs on their services over the years none was a run away success. But change was in the air.

First came Meridian 59, a ground breaking 2.5D MUD. While historically significant Meridian 59 would eventually fade from view (although it is still in operation under a different team than originally developed it). But two games would walk through the door that Meridian 59 opened: Ultima Online (UO) and Everquest (EQ). These two games would take the concept from hobby to prime time and UO and EQ both quickly raked in hundreds of thousands of players all willing to pay a monthly fee.

With profit margins fading on "standard" gaming titles a number of other companies would dive into the genre and it seemed as if they could do no wrong. The "first generation" of the MMORPG would come into full bloom and see titles such as Asheron's Call, Anarchy Online, and Dark Age of Camelot. Virtually every title released did well. It seemed that the MMORPG genre was the "Land of Milk and Honey". Developers rolled up their sleeves and went to work while publishers started fishing for their next title.

And so we drifted into the second generation of the MMORPG: where we are today. But somewhere something went wrong. The cows started to dry up and the bees started to fly away. There's still profit to be made. Final Fantasy XI, Star Wars Galaxies, and City of Heroes have all done quite well. But for every Star Wars many other games have barely broken even or failed financially. Asheron's Call 2, Shadowbane, and the Sims Online all struggle. They continue to exist but show little of the prosperity of the first generation. Worse though are titles including Earth and Beyond and Horizons which have already gone defunct or declared bankruptcy.

And the woes worsen. Other titles, some quite large, have been cancelled outright while still in development. Ultima Online 2 would be the first big cancellation but it would not be the last. Just in the last few months prior to this writing Ultima X, True Fantasy Online, Mythica, Dragon Empires and Warhammer Online have all been cancelled. And these five are just some of the most visible titles that have closed their doors.

The second generation is drawing to a close and the success or failure of a few key titles (World of Warcraft and Everquest II being chief among them) will set the tone for the twilight of the second generation. Many will be waiting and watching very carefully over the next year. Will we see an upsurge and a strong conclusion to the generation? Or will the slide continue?

But not everyone is content to watch and wait. The Third Generation is on the horizon and the first titles of it are already under construction. The earliest any title that could truly be termed third generation will arrive is over a year away and while the end of the second generation will set the stage it will be these titles that will carry it forward.

[For those interested in seeing the exact numbers for the subscriptions there are a number of books available. However the most comprehensive and accessible resource available at the moment has to be the long running works of Bruce Sterling Woodcock available here.]

A Virtual Meeting of Minds

  An Introduction
  A Virtual Meeting of Minds
  The Insight of the Founding Fathers
  In Summary

  Printable version
  Discuss this article

The Series
  Part 1
  Part 2
  Part 3