Hey, Where Did These Guys Come From?
by Jessica Mulligan
Last week, I had occasion, in the course of again being on the panel to select finalists for the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences panel to nominate a list of games for the Persistent World Game of the Year award, to run up a quick list of persistent world/MMOGs that were released last year or are still updating content regularly, or at least as many as I could remember off the top of my head. When I looked over the list, I was pretty impressed to realize just how many subscription games have come out since 1996 and are still around. Take a look (and these games are in no particular order, this was just how I jotted them down):
New Games or New Retail Add-On Releases for 2002:
Other games released since 1996 and still updating content regularly:
That isn't a complete list of persistent worlds and MMOGs, of course, but they are the ones that jump immediately to mind. The list is especially impressive when you realize that more than one persistent world/MMOG has been closed down in the past couple years, including the venerable Air Warrior, Legends of Kesmai and MultiPlayer BattleTech from the old Kesmai shop alone. Plus, there are still a number of low subscriber total, niche games out there, such as the text-based MUD II, the current successor to Bartle and Trubshaw's original MUD, Gemstone III and Dragon Realms from Simutronics, The Realm, originally developed by Sierra and taken over by Codemasters a couple years ago, and a bunch Mythic's older games from the GEnie and AOL era, such as Splatterball, Dragon's Gate and Darkness Falls.
All in all, there is quite a bit of choice for someone looking for a game to play, running the gamut of styles, interfaces and genres. Looking for a men-in-tights game with a lot of people and boatloads of content? Try EverQuest. Looking for something a bit smaller, more dangerous and more intimate? Check out Meridian 59. Want to just grab a simulation and have some quick fun in a vehicle? There is Motor City and Fighter Ace.
Now think about the games scheduled to be released between today's scheduled publication of this column, December 17, 2002, and the end of next year. There are six from Top Twenty publishers alone:
(No, I'm not counting on Worlds of Warcraft from Blizzard/Vivendi. If that one shows up before Christmas of 2004, I think we'd all be surprised, including the development team).
On the independent shop list, there is:
When you add that all up, we could have 27 major or kinda-sorta major subscription-based persistent worlds to play around with, come this time next year. In terms of sheer numbers and where the industry stands right now, that deserves a Wow! in anyone's book.
In terms of quality... well, that's pretty relative to the player; your mileage may vary.
The Savior of Online Gaming?
And speaking of The Sims Online (henceforth TSO), News.com posted an article about the game's impending release on December 17, 2002. It contains the standard press speculation on whether TSO will be the Big One, the Killer App of online gaming, that one that brings the Mass Market into the fold of subscription-based gaming. The article contains pretty much the same people saying the same things they've been saying for months, with usual speculation that TSO might just be the game to take persistent world gaming from the hard core niche out into a broader audience. Yeah, well, maybe; we'll see. My opinion is that persistent world gaming is still a niche, even for a more mass market product like TSO. What is more likely to happen, I think, is that more of the moderate gamers will decide to take the plunge. We'll no doubt see some of the mass market check it out, but there are still millions of moderate gamers that haven't decided to pay a monthly fee to game yet and I think this game will appeal more in that direction. I could easily be wrong; anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that hard core players initially bought The Sims, but their non-gamer girlfriends were the ones who saw it in action and got hooked.
I just hope the media and analysts aren't putting all our eggs into one basket, because if TSO crashes and burns now, after all this hype, it is going to drag down the entire niche with it. How far we'll be dragged down in that event is more speculation, but there is always the possibility that we'd be looking up from the bottom of a well at a very distant opening, holding onto a broken rope and musing about the good ol' days...
The most interesting part of the entire article for me was the speculation by unnamed "industry insiders" estimating that TSO cost $25 million to develop. If that is true, then the game was over twice as expensive to develop as it's next nearest competitor. The only way I can see the game costing that much is if the expenses for marketing, making the retail packages and shipping them to distributors and chains, customer service (player relations, community relations, phones, billing and accounts, et al), Network Operations personnel, servers, bandwidth and everything else one can think of is tossed into the pot. Even then, I'm having a hard time reaching $25 million, unless the development costs for the aborted SimCity Online are tossed in, too. Then again, I don't know how many people are involved or their salaries, which is always a huge chunk of the expenses, so what do I know?
Still and all, a $25 million development to launch cost point added to the typical monthly expenses for a subscription Persistent World would imply a burn neutral point on expenses of around 200,000 monthly subscribers, with an adequate ROI point (Return on Investment) of around 400,000 to 450,000 monthly subscribers. While those numbers are easily within the reach of a successful TSO (the potential here is huge), the extremely high development cost, if accurate, puts incredible pressure on the game to perform quickly at levels that took the likes of Lineage: The Bloodpledge and EverQuest years to reach. When you add in the fact that EA.com's other recent subscription offerings, Motor City Online and Earth and Beyond, have to date shown lackluster performance and that analysts figure that the losses at EA.com are dragging down the whole company's earning performance significantly, the pressure on the TSO team must be like that on a group of soldiers crawling through a known but unmarked minefield while taking fire.
Nothing like a little pressure to enhance your holiday season, eh?
The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling...
Every once in a while, some journalist writes an article about how console games are replacing PC games. It is usually phrased in military terms about the 'war for players and sales' and how the consoles are winning. The latest such entry appeared in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star-Tribune last week, titled Console games are winning the sales race with PC games. My opinion on this other such articles is: Duuuhhh. Where have you been, noob?
With the possible exception of The Cartridge Crash era, which lasted from late 1983 to about mid-1988 and featured literally hundreds of thousands of Atari game cartridges being plowed under in landfills, the total number of console games sold annually has always been higher the total number of PC games, as has the revenue generated. Remember, the PC didn't really start to take off in sales until the late 1980s. Heck, when I started at AOL in 1988, the most reliable estimate we had of the number of PCs in homes in the US was around four million or so. Since the mid-1990s, the ratio of console game dollars to PC game dollars has generally been no less than three to one and sometimes as high as six or seven to one. This year, the numbers are expected to be about $5 billion USD in videogame software sales and about $1.4 billion USD in PC software sales, for a ratio of about 3.5 to 1. When you count in the estimated $5 billion USD in console hardware sales, it looks a whole lot nastier at about 7 to 1. Although why console hardware should be counted, but not PC sales figures, is a strange one. If one added 2001's PC revenue numbers of $25.7 billion US to the hardware mix, the ratio would change radically in PC games' favor.
OK, I really do know why the hardware numbers are tossed in; the console is only good for one thing, and that is playing the games made specifically for that console. PCs, on the other hand, have many uses. Be that as it may, what seems to worry analysts is that sales of PC games are flat for the first time in the past decade. I say, big deal. It was bound to happen at some point, just as it has happened for console game games over the years. It has taken the PC this long to reach a first saturation point; pretty much everyone who can afford a PC and has the inclination to buy one has done so. Now, with a first saturation point reached and with the worldwide economy in a down phase, it is the upgrade path for the manufacturers, not only trying to convince new buyers to dig in, but convincing previous buyers to upgrade.
If you stop and think about it, there are a heck of a lot more PCs in the world than the there are videogame consoles; some 130 million-plus PCs are sold annually. So why the low game sales figures? I'm guessing the reason are the rising prices for PC games and the fact that, since 1994, the PC game industry has built a lot more games to appeal to the hard core niche than the general public (although that may be changing, now that The Sims! has sold over 20 million units). In fact, we're in much the same situation as we were in 1989, when the talk at Chris Crawford's original Computer Games Developer's Conference was all about how PC games were going to die because the consoles were back and publishers wanted more console games than PC games. The keynote speaker that year, Stewart Alsop, pointed out to the developers that they needn't worry; consoles and PCs are different markets and there would always be a market for each type of game. That dinner speech was a real eye-opener for the attendees and those that stayed in the industry saw that PC game sales rose every year until, possibly, this year.
Alsop was right thirteen years ago and his remarks still apply today. There will be swings in the sales numbers, but there will always be a market for pure PC games, just as there will always be a market for console games. Since consoles cost a whole lot less than PCs right now, one can reasonably assume that people who want to game, especially young people, will start with consoles. And rather than seeing consoles completely take over the market, I see more convergence as consoles become more like set-top box PCs and players of PC games and console games start to interact in the same games online.
Now, that will really be something to see.