Age of Discouragement?
by Dave Rickey
A time to be born, and a time to die;
In his keynote for the first day of the Austin Game Conference, Mark Jacobs divided the history of online games in three eras, with the current era being the Age of Disappointment. I can't really understand the logic for doing so, however. Mark is certainly well-acquainted with the history of online games, he was a part of much of it. But history did not stop when Mythic emerged from the contract-development wilderness with Dark Age of Camelot. There were failed games before DAoC, there have been two successful games since (TSO may have been an underwhelming success, but it only counts as a failure when measured against the expectations that were set for it, if AC was a success then so was TSO). In truth, we are solidly in the growth phase of our market, and our largest related markets have yet to really open up.
That's a bold statement, I know, but I think I can make a good case for it. First, I would refer readers to the MMOG Subsciptions Chart maintained by Bruce Woodcock. Bruce seems to have made good use of his visit to the Austin conference, he has firmed-up figures for quite a few games compared to his earlier versions. Bruce also makes available the source Excel spreadsheet that he uses to generate his chart. A few minutes work with Excel plotting the growth of the US/European OLRPG market makes it pretty clear that the market is seeing continued growth, although with a possibly significant flat spot extending for 6 months prior to the launch of SWG.
There's a classic progression of the acceptance of innovation/market growth, which is pretty widely accepted these days. It runs "Innovator" (4%), "Early Adopter" (12%), "Early Majority" (34%), "Late Majority" (34%), "Late Adopter" (12%) and "Laggards" (4%). If you plot that curve against that from Sir Bruce's chart, you get the inescapable conclusion that the US/European OLRPG (I'm using that outdated abbreviation deliberately) market is somewhere in the Early Majority phase. Where in that phase is hard to say, but at any rate the market (at around 1.4 million subscriptions) is no more than halfway done with its growth, and correspondingly at least 4 years short of effectively flat market growth (<10% year to year growth). That's the pessimistic projection, the optimistic guess would be only 25% of growth has already happened and we're 7 years short of flatlining. So the market has never looked better, and looks to improve before it turns south on us.
"A growing market forgives a lot of sins." Yes, quoting myself is bad form, but at any rate the market is growing and that growth is fueling a lot of misplaced effort and allowing a lot of mistakes to be washed away with a shot from the newbie hose. For the next few years, good games will succeed and bad games will fail, just as they have been doing for the last 5 years. After that, things gets interesting.
No game has, to my knowledge, ever seen more than a 15% drop in subscribers due solely to the release of a competitor. Even SWG has created barely a blip in the subscriber counts for the already existing games. What is typically seen is a few months of increasing churn and reduced re-subscription leading up to the expected release, followed by a slow decline in churn and increase in re-subscription back to near the starting level. Rather than wholesale exodus, what is seen is a collective "Waiting for Game X" that results in a slight depression of the subscriber base. Nowhere was his more pronounced than with SWG, which cast a near zero-growth shadow over the entire OLRPG market for more than 6 months. But the main thing here is that nothing happens *quickly*, trends develop slowly and can be hard to spot. However, the market shows classic growth profiles that are fairly easy to project into the future.
If I'm tip-toeing around this, it's because market forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, especially in this industry (widely publicized projections from a few years ago would have the market 4 times its current size by now). Nonetheless, I'm going to make some: Over the next 4 years, the OLRPG market will grow by about 400-500K subscriptions a year, reaching a little more than double it's current size (around 3-3.5 million subscriptions). No more than 6 years from now, the market will show clear signs of saturation, with raw added subscriptions off 50% from the peak, and percentage growth rates under 10%. That will be the true Age of Disappointment, when even a good game is not assured of finding a subscriber base to sustain it. It's also when the depradations of new games on the subscriber bases of existing games will stop getting washed away by the incoming market growth. At that point, the OLRPG market in the US and Europe will be around a half-billion dollar per year business. Not bad, but not great.
However, now I get to explain why I'm using the currently out of fashion "OLRPG" term. This term encompasses UO, EQ, AC, AO, DAoC, SB, and SWG, as well as upcoming games like Wish, Horizons, EQ2, Mythica, and World of Warcraft. It does not, however, include WW2O, Neocron, Planetside, or the late Motor City Online. Once upon a time, during the "Golden Age" of the CRPG, those games dominated the market, and were the consistant best-sellers (along with their close cousins, the Adventure games). Only later, as both technology and game design advanced, were they displaced by more action-oriented genres like RTS and FPS games. The CRPG market didn't go away, but flat market growth led to a perception that the market was dead that was only dispelled years later by the release of Baldur's Gate. Much the same process seems to be occurring with the OLRPG, leading the way into a new environment on the shoulders of a type of player that is more willing to accept the primitiveness of our games and fill in the rough spots through their own imagination.
Still waiting in the wings is whatever will follow. WW2O, Neocron, and Planetside represent the leading, "Innovator" edge of entirely different markets, that are potentially much larger once we figure out how to reach them. What I see coming is 4 distinct markets, defined by their adherence to two pairs of design imperatives: Persistant vs. Transient world spaces; and Direct vs. Indirect gameplay.
Persistant | | Planetside | UO | | Direct ---------------- Indirect | | MCO | EQ | | Transient
Both of these are "soft" barriers, a game that is primarily persistant with indirect, character-based gameplay may have transient properties to the world and areas of gameplay where it is the player's skills rather than the characters that determine success. But in designing and developing game systems, we are going to have to make decisions (consiously or not) of what categories the primary gameplay is going to fall into. Assuming these divisions I've drawn are real, the questions become a matter of how much depth there are in each of these distinct markets, and just how distinct they are. One thing I am certain of is that although the market saturation of OLRPG's has not happened yet, it is dimly within sight, and it will be our ability to escape from the OLRPG mold that will determine the long-term future of the MMO industry. Part of this is going to depend on factors outside of our control, such as broadband adoption rates (most forms of gameplay cannot be adapted to direct player action without the low latency of a broadband connection).
One thing I would note is that there is no factor on that chart for games without some form of "cumulative character" persistance. The development of character advancement and the safeguarding of that advancement against devaluation through cheating by others is a primary property of any subscription-based game, and no game with that business model will succeed without it.