While some starving sandbox gamers may have prematurely labeled ArcheAge as the second coming, anyone who has actually played the game or followed larger MMO industry trends could have told you that it's a niche title regardless of how much money XLGAMES gambled on its development.
At the risk of stating the bloody obvious, I have to say it anyway: MMO sandboxes are niche. Sandparks, a buzzword that ArcheAge basically created, are also niche. And Korean import sandparks are incredibly, almost indescribably niche, apparently even in Korea.
Look, I'd like nothing better than for Western MMOs to return to the days (and more importantly, the feature sets) of Star Wars Galaxies, Asheron's Call, and Ultima Online. But that's never going to happen when millions of gamers are still idling in World of Warcraft and millions more are gamehopping across the F2Pverse like ADD-addled jackrabbits.
And here comes ArcheAge, a complex, PvP-centric world with meaningful crafting, extensive and time-consuming non-combat activities, a player-driven economy, and an unfamiliar -- to most Western gamers -- Asian aesthetic that pairs steampunk race cars with girls in bunny outfits and plate-wearing dragonslayers. Really, folks? You're going to go out on a limb and predict that such a game might not be a hit in America?
Bravo and remind me to check in with you again if I need the over/under on tomorrow's sunrise!
In all seriousness, an XL restructuring, if there is one, may mean a whole lot of nothing for ArcheAge and its fans across the world. When it comes to the game's American faithful, XL's rumored troubles are especially irrelevant, at least for the next year or so. See, ArcheAge is a deep game. And it hasn't even entered beta over here, never mind launch. When it does, it's going to take two or three months for the hardcore to do their usual rush-to-cap-and-cry-about-no-content flame out, and even then some of them will likely remain occupied by the endgame siege PvP pacifier.
Laid-back sandbox fans, roleplayers, and auction-house queens of industry will take far longer than three months to do everything there is to do in the game, and that's assuming XL or Trion doesn't add any additional features not present in the current build. XL could lay off everyone save for a live team skeleton crew right now and still partner with Trion for a successful stateside launch. Also, while I don't know the title's financial particulars, I have a hard time imagining the budget being so bloated that a year or more of live service with either a sub or a carefully considered cash shop couldn't result in a profit for XL and a feather in Trion's cap.
From what we know of the publishing relationship, Trion is basically waiting on XL to get its stuff together and decide how it wants to package the game for a Western release. Rumor has it that most if not all of the content and systems will remain unchanged, which basically leaves language translations and monetization as the major items on the to-do list. Also, Trion is surely smart enough to know that ArcheAge's likely American audience is already well aware of it, and therefore it probably won't overspend on marketing and incur any costs beyond basic customer service support, billing, and so on.
ArcheAge is basically a bonus for Trion. The company's primary focus is RIFT, and though both titles are fantasy MMOs, they couldn't be more different in terms of gameplay and target demographics, so I would be very surprised to see Trion attempt to do any actual development work on a Western ArcheAge build. That's not to say I'm hoping for maintenance mode and no new content after release, but AA is after all more sandbox than themepark, and given the tools and the freedom I'm more than capable of amusing myself in MMOs indefinitely with no help from developers.
Just keep the servers on, squash the bugs, and I'm happy!
And in case you're still wondering where I'm going with all of this, allow me to be blunt: It's way, way too early to label ArcheAge a failure. I can't believe I have to explain that since it hasn't even launched yet, but there you go. It's never too early to get your mind right in terms of expectation, though, and the reality is that ArcheAge was never going to compete with games like Guild Wars 2 or the legions of disposable F2P titles cluttering the landscape. The game's feature list dwarfs that of just about every title in this genre, and certainly all of the AAA ones, and that complexity and choice makes ArcheAge unattractive to time-poor players -- i.e., the majority -- right out of the gate.
When you add in a significant open PvP aspect -- which limits sales in the Western MMO market -- plus the Asian culture shock, you're left with a title that was always going to be niche.
And that's perfectly OK.
Jef Reahard is an ArcheAge early adopter as well as the creator of Massively's Lost Continent. The column chronicles one man's journey through XLGAMES' fantasy sandpark while examining PvE, PvP, roleplay, and beyond. Suggestions welcome at email@example.com.