At the risk of answering a question that is way too generic for a single column, allow me to present you with 10 "Cold Hard Facts" about the MMO industry that will make themselves felt by game developers and players alike in the foreseeable future.
Ask Massively's 10 "Cold Hard Facts" about MMORPGs.
10) MMORPGs would be better off targeting groups of players rather than individuals.
One of the dirty secrets of World of Warcraft's early success was their ability to target and recruit entire guilds of players away from Everquest. It lent a stability to the nascent player community, and provided a pre-existing social structure for new players. There are plenty of games out there that have prettier graphics or more intense game play, but at the end of the day, communities retain players better than any feature can.
9) Most MMO developers are entirely too ambitious with respect to the number of subscribers a game will obtain.
I don't understand how some games with nearly 100,000 subscribers can be considered a "flop", while other games consider the same number of subscribers a great success. MMO development requires a great deal of up-front development cost, but very little to maintain relative to the development costs. Does it really matter if your game reaches profitability in 6 months or 6 years? As long as you have more money in subscription revenue than you have in operating costs, your game will be profitable. Once you've recovered your development costs, it takes even less to keep the money rolling in. 100,000 subscribers paying 15 dollars per month will pay for even the most ambitious MMO development project eventually.
8) Microtransactions are overrated.
Seriously, does anyone think that leaving your credit card on file with an MMO company so that "Junior" can buy goodies for his character is a good idea? The first time some parent sees a 5000 dollar credit card bill because little Junior just had to have uber gear for his character will spell the end of Microtransactions in MMOs. Whether you call it RMT or Microtransactions, gamers who buy their way into top-end gear will always be held in contempt by players who earned that gear by playing the game.
7) Free-to-play games will not be as successful as pay-to-play games.
TANSTAAFL. The fact that a game is "free to play" does not mean that the player will not experience cost. Whether it is incessant advertising, or "premium content" or "microtransactions" for the best and shiniest gear, rest assured that game development companies will make their money somehow. At least with a "pay to play" game, you know exactly how much money you're going to spend on a game.
6) MMO content will continue to progress from content that requires long hours of gameplay to content that can be played in small and short chunks of time.
The one unavoidable downside of MMORPGs is that they do not have a pause button. With the average age of gamers rising, the days of 12 hour raids are long over. Designing content that allows players to take breaks, or even resume content at a later time will prove to be more popular with casual gamers. Most MMO developers have finally caught on to the fact that casual players are a more desirable audience than the hardcore gamers are. Hardcore gamers are notoriously fickle and prone to hop from game to game as the latest and greatest thing hits the shelves. Casual gamers tend to pick a favorite and stick with it.
5) The next successful MMO will target a demographic outside of the most popular 18-25 age group.
Gamers are growing up. That means there will be a larger demand for games that cater to more adult sensibilities and tastes. It also means that the market for kid-friendly MMOs will grow substantially in the near future.
4) NCSoft made a mistake by pulling the plug on Tabula Rasa.
Tabula Rasa may not have had a large audience, but the fans they had were dedicated and supportive. Tabula Rasa was a great concept that needed more time to find it's niche in the marketplace. If Anarchy Online can survive for 7 years, a game like TR should have lasted for more than 1. I really hope that NCSoft decides to release the server code as open source and give the community a chance to keep the game alive, but I'm pretty sure that will never happen.
3) Innovation will come from smaller developers and not large "Triple-A" game developers.
Big boys play it safe. The little guy has nothing to lose. That's why most of the big titles out there steal concepts and ideas from other successful games. They know what works in the marketplace and what doesn't. It takes a company willing to put art ahead of profit in order to really push the limits of what is possible with MMO gaming. It's also why I have high hopes for Copernicus. 38 Studios seems intent on bringing in real artists rather than cranking out a formulaic game. I hope they also have the patience to let Copernicus find it's niche rather than pigeon-hole it into "yet another WoW Killer".
2) The three greatest innovations in MMO gaming were Voice Chat, User Customized UIs, and the Achievement system.
Why these three? For those of you who never raided in Everquest, just imagine trying to raid with 100 players in a zone without the benefit of Ventrilo or TeamSpeak. With customizable interfaces, imagine being stuck with the vanilla interface in World of Warcraft and not having Omen or CTRaid or Deadly Boss Mods. As for the achievement system, City of Heroes established that players will go back to old content in order to pick up a badge that they missed. No other feature does more to improve the replayability of content than the achievement system and now other games like Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online, and even World of Warcraft have picked up on that.
1) There will never, EVER, be another MMO as successful or with as many subscribers as World of Warcraft.
Blizzard was in the right place at the right time. They had a well-known game setting, only one heavily established competitor (from which they recruited players as well as designers), and the time and money to release a polished product. Game developers have a far more competitive landscape to deal with today as well as increasing pressure from corporate management to ship a game early, sometimes before it is ready to be shipped. There aren't many properties out there that haven't been touched by an MMO anymore and with upcoming releases like Star Trek Online and Stargate Worlds, that list is only growing smaller.
That about wraps it up for me. Even though I will no longer be writing for Massively, I still plan on working with them at Dragon*Con each year, and you can keep in touch with me at the Dragon*Con MMO website. I wish you all of the joy and success in the world, whichever world it may be.