Over the past few years, I've felt that the number of quality MMORPGs entering the market yearly has been dwindling. Perhaps it's the fact that there's a massive behemoth named World of Warcraft that's attracting millions of potential customers who could be playing other MMOs, or maybe everyone has been collaborating, waiting to unleash a torrent of awesome MMORPGs into the market at the same time; hoping to smash into the Blizzard half of the pie and come away with enough crumbs and blueberry filling for everyone. Either way, even if the past few years have seen only a few really successful and innovative titles (EVE Online and Lord of the Rings Online come to mind), I'm sure most of you will understand me when I say, with confidence, that the next few years of MMO development should radically change the face of MMORPGs as we know them.
Don't believe me? During the next few years, and speaking purely about the 'mainstream' MMOs with solid, experienced development teams or extremely popular brands, players will see the release of Aion (NCsoft), Final Fantasy XIV (Square Enix), DC Universe Online (Sony Online Entertainment), Champions Online (Cryptic Studios), Guild Wars 2 (ArenaNet), Marvel Universe (Gargantuan), Star Wars: The Old Republic (BioWare / Mythic) and The Agency (Sony Online Entertainment). Of course, while a majority of you have probably already chosen your 'soon to be favourite' MMORPG of the future, I'm sure you're all very worried that this latest batch of MMOs may not end up delivering the hype and the prestige that some of these companies inspire. In this way, I've decided to compile a list of my most anticipated upcoming MMORPGs that I believe have a strong chance to succeed, and what I believe it will take to turn them into the next big thing.
Final Fantasy XIV
This really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has heard me gush about the massive potential that Final Fantasy XI had in its early years. This time around, Square Enix has garnered even more potential for their latest Final Fantasy MMO with the offline RPG crowd already drooling in anticipation of FFXIII and the ever faithful MMO crowd drooling at SE's crowd-pleasing statements, like "we've learned a lot of lessons from Final Fantasy XI," and "we're going to make FFXIV appeal to a broader range of players."
There's no denying the fact that the Final Fantasy series is one of the most well known RPG brands in all of gaming history. Added on to this extreme brand awareness is the fact that Square Enix does tend to produce some of the most polished content the MMO world has ever seen, even if it is released on a platform that feels a little bit clunky. To be honest, if anyone has the potential to rip away a large chunk of subscribers from the dominating World of Warcraft, I can definitely see Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIV becoming a real powerhouse if they manage to release an MMO with just as much innovation and polish as they did with Final Fantasy XI.
What they need to do to succeed: In everyone's mind right now, we're all wondering just how big a hole Square Enix is going to dig themselves into when it comes to their horrendous public relations. We were recently invited on a tour of FFXI's latest content updates (http://www.zam.com/story.html?story=19214), but if SE doesn't do something to increase the stability of their public relations, I'm guessing there will be many disgruntled FFXI players who just won't be going over to their newest game. If, however, Square Enix manages to fine-tune their North American experience and create a polished gaming experience, that includes good customer service, look to see the world of Eorzea teeming with hundreds of thousands (dare I say, millions?) of keen MMO gamers.
Developed by NCsoft, the Korean company that has snagged millions of users in eastern Asia with their flagship titles Lineage and Lineage II, Aion capitalized perfectly on China's one-year stalemate with Blizzard concerning World of Warcraft's Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Of course, Aion didn't just 'stumble' upon its 5 million subscribers; it did it with its incredible graphics, its massive-scale PvPvE battlefield (The Abyss) and its smooth, intuitive battle system. In other words, Aion is definitely poised to be a top-five leader in the MMORPG race, if they can somehow solve the problem of the Asian grind mentality.
What they need to do to succeed: A lot of complaints that players have about Aion is the fact that the game tends to boil itself down to grindtastic grindiness. A lot of players note that Aion has a fairly linear quest system, and players can expect to spend hours grinding out a level at a time. One of the biggest appeal factors of World of Warcraft is the fact that players rarely feel they need to grind too much for anything, and there are many paths that lead to a single reward. On the other hand, self-declared "hardcore" MMO gamers point to the ease of access of World of Warcraft and argue that a 'real' MMORPG, like Aion, should punish players for deaths in PvE (EXP loss) and PvP (massive Abyss point losses per death).
In my opinion, if NCsoft really wants Aion to be a fierce competitor in the North American MMO industry, they need to figure out a way to make Aion a little bit more accessible while still appealing to the more hardcore PvPers and dedicated gamers. Expanding and broadening the spectrum of activities that players can participate in regarding endgame content will also go very far.The Superhero MMOs in order of estimated appearance: Champions Online and DC Universe Online
While I don't believe that there is a huge demographic of superhero MMO gamers out there, perhaps there is something that Cryptic Studios and Sony Online Entertainment know that I don't. Either way, players who were bored with the 'monopoly' that City of Heroes had on the superhero MMO market can now breathe sighs of relief as we will end up seeing two more of these super-powered monstrosities charging their way into the industry. While I'm certain that they will all boast unique features and fun gameplay, what worries me most is my personal belief that there just isn't enough superhero pie to go around. Will the next five years also see the shutting down of a superhero MMO or two?
What they need to do to succeed: Personally speaking, the biggest problem I have with superhero MMOs is the fact that you start with a lot of things that most MMOs use to 'tempt' players. For example, players can create a wickedly awesome costume in Champions Online, and because players start with their wickedly awesome costume, this sort of negates the main reason why I look forward to new armour in the first place. A friend of mine also whined about the lure of games like City of Heroes, and he opined that the game's real appeal was simply in creating fantastical characters. To me, whichever superhero MMO that can somehow grow to become more than just making a superhero and getting bigger explosive powers will probably be the one that lasts in this competitive market. They need to figure out how to attract MMO gamers beyond your average comic book fan!
This just about wraps up Part I of what I intend to be a three part series. Remember, I can't cover everything I want in every upcoming MMO genre, so if you have something that you really expect from our upcoming 'next-gen' MMORPGs, be sure to leave a comment and lead a discussion!
Christopher "Pwyff" Tom