Great Expectations: 2008

2007 opened with me splitting my time between EQ1 and EQ2. Through brief flings with LotRO, Dungeon Runners and Mythos, and even briefer flings with a half dozen more I played just once, I ended the year in pretty much the same place — playing EQ2 exclusively.

There’s these incredibly massive hype/PR machines and all they want to do is build up expectations for their ground-breaking, world-shaking title, or book, or movie, and then when it finally arrives, you go “meh” and wait for the next big thing. And the hype machine worked overtime this year. Burning Crusade, Vanguard, Warhammer, Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa; all have (or had) the hype machine promissing so much that almost anything that came (or will come) can only disappoint.

Not to say there aren’t some excellent games in the past year and coming soon. I just hope they can survive their hype machines. If you promise a carnival and bring only a pony ride, well, people are going to be disappointed, even if it’s a really good pony ride. Promise a walk in the park and it’s “Hey! They have a PONY RIDE!” Underpromise, overdeliver.

2008 will be a year of great expectations and diminished realities.

Personally, I expect to have EQ2 as my main game through the entire year. Because everyone needs a steady game to call home. You may wander, but you always come home. For a lot of people, this is WoW. For me, it’s EQ2.

It’s going to be hard for EQ2 to raise expectations, though. Out of all the games I’ll mention, it has the toughest road. The last couple of expansions have ridden on EQ1’s coattails, but I don’t know if they’ve noticed, but EQ1 no longer has such long coattails. Drawing from a subscriber base that has fond memories of EQ1 but doesn’t play that game, but want something both new and familiar to them… well, that doesn’t bring many new players in. EQ2 gets most of its new players from WoW, who appreciate EQ2 for its technical innovations but have nothing invested in EQ1 nostalgia.

Prediction #1: EQ2 will reinvent itself by the end of the year, either through some innovative new setting or a game mechanic that lets players have an impact on the world. I’m fairly confident about this one, because otherwise, the hits it will take when WoW’s next expansion and Warhammer come out will probably kill it. It has to respond strongly, and “Velious, EQ2’s Fourth Expansion!” or whatever won’t bring anyone new into the fold. Chasing EQ1 is a stupid strategy.

Prediction #2: Pirates of the Burning Sea will launch strongly, and settle into a role of being about massive clan-based fleet vs fleet battles. I don’t think people will do much solo PvPing, and the economic game will be used to fund the massive fleet battles. Ladder rankings will be an obsession with the players. I’ll try PotBS. I’m not that excited about it, but I think massive fleet battles will be the killer app for PotBS, and it seems from all signs that Flying Labs is positioning it precisely for that. Soloers and non-combatant types interested in the trading game, I think, will not be its final audience.

Prediction #3: Age of Conan will launch and sink without a trace. Come on. PvP with sex and boobies and lots of blood in an election year? The first politician who sees this game will tear it to shreds. ‘Sinking without a trace’ would be the best outcome. ‘Being used as a reason to crack down on MMOs’ would be the worst. Luckily, the teenage boys who make up its natural audience will balk at the subscription fees. Plus, who the heck even knows who Conan is? If the average player even remembers the old Schwarzenegger flick, that’d be amazing — the people who would want to play this game weren’t even born then.

Prediction #4: Warhammer: Age of Reckoning will sell two million boxes and take its place as the #2 MMO in North America. I think this is a slam dunk, being basically World of Warcraft with even more arena games. Those people who love the battlegrounds and arena battles in WoW will flock to the new shiny. This will be a relief to Blizzard, who can cede the battlegrounds market to EA-Mythic and focus more on their excellent PvE and raid experience.

Prediction #5: If WoW’s second expansion, Wrath of the Liche King. comes out this year, it will be disappointing. Given the presence of two and probably soon to be more WoW-alikes in 2008 (LotRO and WAR), almost anything Blizzard can come up with can only be thought of as ‘more of the same’.

Prediction #6: NCSoft will announce a Station Pass-like “pay one price, play all our games” payment plan. Because it’s about time they do that.

okay, those were the safe predictions. Now to get a little ‘out there’.

SOE: SOE will be bought out by a well-known games company, who will announce the development of a virtual world where players can take their characters from all SOE games and live and adventure together in a world they create. This brings hundreds of thousands of players back to SOE games as they take their Jedis and Code Jockeys and Rangers and Blood Mages out of cold storage and into an entirely new world that they create — sort of like Second Life for MMOs. This will be heralded as the birth of a new sort of MMO gaming, where your characters adventure in one world, but play in another.

Star Trek Online: After the new Star Trek movie loudly tanks, all development stops on the Star Trek Online license. EA then picks up Perpetual Entertainment (or what’s left of it) as a wholly owned division focusing on MMO middleware, its first internal customer being Bioware. Bioware in 2007 announced they were using PE’s middleware for their game, so this isn’t really all that out there. There’s a chance EA-Mythic may pick up the STO license along with the company.

MMOs and movies: At least one movie will launch day-and-date with a matching MMO. MMOs will be increasingly seen as commodities and part of the exploitation of a movie license. Tie-in figurines, pop-up picture books, props, Halloween costumes, video games… add an MMO to the list as something necessary to the launch of any new genre movie.

Guitar Hero: A MMO based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Memory of Whiteness” that lets musicians and musician wannabes play virtual instruments in player-created bands, quartets, symphonies — what have you — will be announced. Unlike Guitar Hero, players will be able to play both tunes available in the game, and tunes of their own composition. The MMO will usher in a revolution of musical creativity. Well, this is something I *want* to happen. And given the popularity of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, why not? I just threw in KSR because, you know, people should read his books.

Roleplaying & Machinima: An MMO that takes fan fiction and makes movies from it will be announced. Write a story and watch it acted out, or advance the plot in real time with friends. This will do for the craft of writing what the Guitar Hero MMO will do for the craft of composing: bring art to the masses at the cost of authenticity.

I want MMOs that make people SMARTER and INVITE CREATIVITY. And so I dream of a future where MMOs will open doors in your mind instead of seal them shut.

MMOs are still a young industry and there is still time to reinvent itself out of the circling spiral drain of cheap entertainment. Ten years on and they are still writing the same game. 2008 will be the year someone dares to show something truly new.