Dec 15 2009
Looking back over the last ten years of online gaming, there's no doubt that it has been an astounding decade. To say that the hobby has seen explosive growth is an understatement, and it has taken some interesting twists and turns along the way Here's a quick look at what I would consider the most significant trends that have impacted online gaming in the last decade.
Although it got off to a slow start, digital distribution has truly taken off in the last few years, thanks in part to services like Steam and Xbox Live Marketplace. It's very hard to estimate just how large digital distribution of games has become because some of the major companies involved are privately owned and subsequently not required to release any figures. Although it still probably hasn't overtaken retail, there is no argument that it's now just a matter of time.
MMORPGs Become Mainstream
If you were playing a MMORPG in North America at the turn of century, chances are it was one of about half a dozen games which included Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron's Call. Some MUDs were already well-established, but simply logging into a graphical persistent online world with hundreds of other players seemed like a miracle back then. The visuals were crude, the games often lacked basic features like maps, you might have to run for an hour to meet up with friends, and if you didn't like it you could go back to Team Fortress or Starcraft. Since then we've seen MMORPGs experiment with every setting from "Star Wars" to the age of wooden ships, and a few games have subscriber numbers in the millions.
Consoles Get Connected
It's difficult to estimate the impact the latest generation of consoles have had on Internet gaming and video gaming in general. Although the Dreamcast had little success with online capabilities, Microsoft took on the challenge in 2002 with Xbox Live, and within 2 months it had 250,000 subscribers. In 2004 the service passed the 1 million subscriber mark, and it reached 3 million in 2007. Incredibly, in the last 2 years that number has grown to over 20 million. A console or even a mobile gaming device without an online component is now almost unthinkable.
Everyone Wants to be World of Warcraft
Going into it's sixth year of operation, World of Warcraft is a hit followed up with 2 hit expansions, and another expansion on the way that will almost certainly be another hit. The game has set PC sales and subscriber records since it's release, and with revenues around $1 billion a year, it's the next best thing to a license to print money. It's become the envy of the entire industry, and many efforts have been made to replicate it's success. World of Warcraft certainly didn't invent the genre, but it has raised the bar so high that it appears to be nearly impossible to compete with it.
Steam Provokes Hate, Then Love
At the center of the digital distribution trend for the PC is Steam, a content delivery service launched by Valve Software. Steam was in the right place at the right time with the right idea, and Valve leveraged the large audience playing their Half-Life and Counter-Strike games. There were a lot of objections at first, but Steam is more than just digital distribution, it's automatic game patching, buddy lists, voice chat, server browsing, and a whole lot of convenience. Of course, it's also one of the most effective forms of DRM, which most people don't seem mind, given the other features it offers. Other digital distribution services haven't been quite as successful, but there's bound to more competition in the future, with Microsoft and others seeing an opportunity.
Casual Games Go Big
Casual games have a long history that goes back much further than ten years, but the last ten years has taken them from relative obscurity to being big business. Improvements in Flash and the convenience of gaming in a browser window have fueled tremendous growth in the casual games market. Scores of casual game sites have blossomed, and even large game publishers like EA have gotten into the action. Games such as Bejeweled and Peggle have penetrated every platform imaginable, and poker has seen a huge revival due to online play. Some studies indicate that 80 percent of Americans play some sort of video game, and the number of gamers worldwide is estimated to be as high as one billion.
Social Games Arrive
Facebook may not have known what they were in for when they launched the Facebook Platform in 2007, which allowed developers to create applications that access numerous features of the service. Some of the most popular Facebook applications are games, which have attracted millions of users in a few short years, in part because they utilize Facebook to market themselves. Game developers Zynga and Playfish seem to have particularly effective formulas, with several of the top games on the service, including Texas HoldEm Poker, Pet Society, and Mafia Wars.
Revenue Models Evolve
Ten years ago it was largely assumed that the way to make money on a game was to sell it in a store, and if possible, charge for access and additional content. With rapidly growing numbers of people playing online, it became clear that other revenue models could be profitable. In-game ads obviously had some potential, and people showed an almost surprising willingness to purchase extras such as game items, additional character slots, or premium access. There are now several doing very well with the "micropayment" model, including Runescape, Maple Story, and Runes of Magic. Just this year, D&D Online dropped subscription fees to try this approach.