August 1, 2006
If you've been following PC game sales for the last couple years, you've probably noticed that World of Warcraft hasn't had a tremendous amount of competition since its release. Other games have still been successful, and have even outsold it for brief periods of time, but WoW has been selling as consistently as The Sims, which is pretty much unheard of for a massively multiplayer game.
The game has been such a hit, in fact, that some people feel it's having a negative impact on the PC game industry as a whole. Their reasoning is that, instead of purchasing several games a year like they used to, many gamers are now too wrapped up in WoW to relinquish time and money to other titles, single-player or otherwise. It goes without saying that a successful product will always hurt its competitors, but could it be that WoW's popularity will result in lower PC game sales overall?
When One Game is Enough
It's not unusual to find MMORPG fans that dedicate all of their game time to a single title. I first noticed this phenomenon with EverQuest, and still have friends that have been playing it for 4 or 5 years to the exclusion of almost everything else. Some of these people used to buy games on regular basis, but now they rarely spend on anything but monthly fees and expansion packs. In fact, even getting them to try a different game is like pulling teeth, because they're so attached to their EQ characters that they can't let go.
Another aspect of this is that, no matter how hard-core you are, there is a limit to how much time anyone can spend playing games. Given that making progress in MMORPGs has customarily been quite slow, not many people play more than one at a time, and still fewer play more than two on a regular basis. And if playing a MMORPG keeps you from buying a lot of games, it starts to make economic sense as well. It seems to me that MMORPGs do fundamentally shift the way people consume games.
The Power of Community
MMORPGs owe a great deal to the online communities they create, and the larger that community gets, the more appealing the product becomes. At a certain point MMORPGs take on a momentum of their own, simply because everyone wants to play the game that everyone is playing. As a result, some games enjoy long periods of market dominance, especially in North America and Europe.
Is there still a place for single-player games? I can't imagine that there won't always be titles which cater to those that play games to get away from other people, but I do expect their numbers to dwindle in upcoming years. No doubt, you won't find most MMORPGs very compelling if you play them like single-player games, because they don't really shine until you're part of a guild that is doing large-scale raids or PvP campaigns. However, once people start playing online and sharing their experiences with other gamers, many find that there's just no going back. When Oblivion came out, I recall my WoW guild discussing it, and I was surprised to hear many of them remark that single-player games feel "empty" and "dead" to them now compared to MMORPGs.
The Next Big Game
With the exception of Spore, I don't see anything on the PC game horizon that has much chance of exceeding its popularity. Nevertheless, WoW won't be on top of the heap forever, even if its rein continues for a couple more years.
As for stifling innovation, it's worth noting that WoW didn't get where it is by innovating as much as it did by taking proven concepts and improving on them. Blizzard has so far made remarkably accurate assessments about what makes a game fun, and few would dispute that they deserve the success they've had. They've also proven that an enormous development budget and attention to detail can pay off in the end, which may impact the way other companies make games. While some will choose not to compete, others could well push to be more innovative in response.
Inevitably, WoW will succumb to an even bigger hit, and I'd bet my shorts that when it finally happens, it'll be a cross-platform game almost as much like WoW as WoW is like EverQuest, with prettier graphics, of course.