So, a good friend of mine accidentally gets an Xbox 360. I say “accidentally” because he received it as a gift. If he had his say so, he probably would’ve gotten a new PC; however, he’s pleased with his gift because he has Call of Duty 4, which keeps him more than occupied. Of course, the sad part is that my PC version and his Xbox version won’t play together online, so we’re still stuck either playing at my house on the PC or at his house on the Xbox, either of which devolves into drinks, telling goofy stories and wondering why we both keep getting killed. It also leads to the occasional rant about why the PC and Xbox version of the game aren’t compatible and how this should be patched/fixed/updated, despite the fact that we’re probably members of a group of gamers comprising one-half of one percent of the Call of Duty population.
As amusing as our problem is, it got me thinking about multiplayer and PC games in more general terms. David already spoke at some length about his views on exaggerated reports of the death of PC games. As I thought about it, a curious thought struck me: World of Warcraft, if Blizzard is to be believed, has 10 million or more paying subscribers. That’s 10 million people paying more than 10 dollars a month to play a PC game, not counting the cost to actually purchase the title and its associated expansions. That’s big money no matter how you slice it. So big that it’s no surprise that MMOs continue to be developed. There’s even been talk of a great disturbance in the Force: Bethesda, developer of almost exclusively single-player titles in the Elder Scrolls series (Battlespire being the exception), might be planning their own. If the rumors are true, it shouldn’t be that surprising. Titles like Morrowind and Oblivion were already large virtual worlds in their own right (heck, even Arena was large, and that was back in the 90s), so why not funnel all that effort into something that could generate even more revenue? Even if the rumors turn out to be false, I can’t imagine that their corporate leadership hasn’t at least given the issue some thought.
Given the popularity of various titles in the genre, I began to wonder if maybe we’re going to see a longterm migration of PC gaming in that direction. Is it possible that in a decade, the majority of PC titles will be MMOs of some variety or another? Couple that with download distribution, and you won’t find shelves lined with PC games in stores anymore. That saves publishers money, and if they make more money from subscriptions than just selling titles, that will make them profitable. And that’s the name of the game, whether PC or console: profitability. As long as PC games remain profitable, we’ll continue to get more of them.
However, my inexperience with MMORPGs meant that I, until recently, was unsure of gameplay differences between them and the PC games I’m used to playing. In an effort to understand them a bit more, I decided to play the free trial versions of two very different games: Pirates of the Caribbean Online and Lord of the Rings Online. After playing Pirates for a very short period of time, I realized it wasn’t what I was looking for in a game. It was a bit heavy on the grind and cameo appearances by characters from the movies, and a bit light on real piracy (which should have been no surprise to me, as the movies are much more focused on fantasy than they are on pirates doing what pirates do best). Not my cup of tea, but I’m sure some folks enjoy it. I then tried out Lord of the Rings and found something a bit more to my liking. Less outright grind (quest XP tends to be much more than XP for wandering around randomly killing), a well-rendered virtual world, a friendly community and a PvP setup that’s completely optional and never intrudes in the lives of those who don’t want to get involved. In fact, Lord of the Rings seems fun enough that my beloved and I are considering purchasing it while the price is right so we can play together over the summer.
However, even as fun as this game is, I notice that it still suffers from some of the same oddities that affect all MMOs. For one, the world doesn’t change in response to the things you do. I’ve had to “stand in line” a few times to slay a particular critter to solve a quest because multiple fellowships were in the area, ready to tackle that baddie. Obediently, it respawned and let us all take our turns killing it, yet at no point was Middle Earth ever permanently saved from the ravages of old Bloodtusk. While many single-player games also suffer from this, either by fault or by design (Hellgate: London is the most recent game that comes to my mind in which named, unique critters respawn all the time, even after quest completion, if you return to certain areas), it seems that MMORPGs can’t let you have too much of an impact in the world around you. To do otherwise would ruin the game for others playing. Also, it seems that gold farming is in action in Middle Earth as it is elsewhere, although thankfully, the message spam relating to such things is minimal. There’s also the “Server Down For Maintenance” issue, along with the very similar “Server Needs to Be Taken Down For Maintenance Because of Lag, Rubberbanding and Inability to Leave Certain Areas.” These problems are the kind you’re going to find on any game where your PC must connect with some other server in order to do things, and it’s rarely a big problem. It does mean, however, that with any dedicated MMO, you can’t always play when you want.
At the moment, these issues indicate that the gameplay offered by MMOs can’t replace single-player, even if these titles add substantially to the entire spectrum of gaming. I do wonder, though, if the profitability of these titles will eventually render single-player PC gaming obsolete, not because single-player games stink, but because there just isn’t enough money to be made on them to justify development. I am aware that companies that develop MMOs also have higher support costs. I’d love to see Blizzard’s bandwidth costs for supporting 10 million subscribers in World of Warcraft, not to mention server maintenance costs, employee salaries and benefits, and legal fees for in-house lawyers who craft EULAs and use them to police players who violate them or hackers who try to hack the system. Yet, these kinds of costs have already been born by companies like Blizzard and Ensemble Studios for years without a monthly fee in order to enable games like Starcraft and Age of Empires (Battlenet and ESO) to be played online. While all of these things indicate that falling flat on your face when developing a MMO will result in bankruptcy even faster than developing a single-player title, the revenue potential is also much bigger.
Maybe single-player developers will mutate their content and publishing in order to increase profitability. Instead of high priced games with occasional expansion packs, maybe episodic games like Sam and Max Season 1 and Season 2, wherein the game is divided into much smaller chunks which are much cheaper and development is paced differently, is the way singe-player will go. Perhaps we don’t understand the economics of MMOs fully just yet, and there’s a theoretical point of market saturation that, once reached, means MMOs will compete with each other for gamers and their ever necessary subscriber fees rather than attracting new gamers (if that point is 20 million players or less, watch to see them start dying off in five years). Maybe there will one day be hybrid games that do both right out of the box. Imagine a game of Oblivion‘s scope that can be purchased for X amount of dollars and played single-player or for a monthly fee (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, Bethesda). Time will tell, I guess.
Still, one thing is for certain. Console gamers shouldn’t look with too much glee on this post. There is a theoretical point of profitability where even console developers will drop singe-player titles for exclusively multiplayer content, massive or otherwise. I do wonder if Xbox gamers would be willing to pay for both Xbox Live Gold and a subscription fee for an MMO. This question will likely be partially answered when Age of Conan comes out for the Xbox in 2009. Rumors have it that Microsoft might only demand Xbox Live Silver for MMOs like Age of Conan. If this is the case, and if Age of Conan is successful, my colleagues who work console titles might end up making the same kind of post five years from now.