I also love the news because MMOs and studios constantly surprise me. Hey, maybe you're an amazing clairvoyant person who can not only predict but accurately foresee all of the jukes and twists that the industry makes. I am not. When mental superpowers were being handed out, I got "setting people on fire with a mere thought" instead of what appears to be the widespread "know it all" ability. I don't regret it. I mean, you probably already knew that I was going to post a picture of Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi being attacked by bees on the front page of Massively.
But I think that the surprises are part of the fun. No matter what we've seen in the past and no matter how knowledgeable any of us is about MMOs, the strange developments keep on coming. So this week I want to list 10 stories that I really didn't see coming at all.
OK, first of all Carbine, don't split hairs and say that your business model is hybrid-anything because that's like saying a normal car with a AA battery strapped to the dashboard is a hybrid. Anyway, back to the topic at hand, did anyone really see this coming? Two of the biggest MMOs currently in development both announcing -- within two days of each other -- that they're bringing back a sub-only model? It was a news bomb that still has people chattering away at it and endlessly debating the worthiness of a subscription model.
I'm starting off this list with these examples because really, only in MMOs do you see this sort of weirdness happen. Conventional wisdom and the collective learned lessons of the past few years has shown that free-to-play is the standard and games launching sub-only don't stay that way for long. Yet there you go.
2. The explosion of free-to-play
It's always amazing to me how quick culture and our micro-societies are able to adjust to change so much that we fool ourselves into thinking that this has always been the case. Kind of like we're brainwashing ourselves. But such free-to-play pervasiveness wasn't the de facto standard prior to 2009, when Dungeons and Dragons Online threw a hail Mary pass by changing its business model and scoring big in doing so. Prior to 2009, I would have just assumed, much like anyone else, that MMOs would keep coming out with a subscription model and we'd have to choose which games we wanted to play based on our budget. Virtually overnight, all that changed as other games jumped onto the F2P bandwagon and gaming for frugal players became an all-you-can-eat buffet.
3. Star Wars Galaxies abruptly shuts down
I still remember the day that we heard in the Massively office that SWG was going to be put out to pasture, which was about 24 hours before the general public would be informed. It was a shock to just about all of us, whether we were fans of the game or not, because SWG was a long-running, much-beloved, and supported MMO that showed few signs of (ahem) "dying." Yet due to legal wrangling and behind-closed-doors proclamations, SOE had to shut it down the same month some other Star Wars MMO was going to start up.
You know what it felt like? It was like reading Game of Thrones for the first time and coming to "that part" after which you realize that nothing is sacred and safe, that anything could go at any moment.
I've always felt that the pro-sandbox crowd, including many of my colleagues here at Massively, are a very vocal but definitely minority subset of MMO gamers. It's seemed like gamers generally gravitate more toward themepark titles, and that's what studios have been building almost exclusively for nearly a decade now. Yet with the explosion of Minecraft, game modding, and a combined player-developer revolution against the norm, we're seeing a tidal wave of upcoming sandboxes heading our way. That's cool with me, by the way; I think many of them sound awesome. I just never would've imagined that there would be so many of them almost all at once.
I think that this has to do in great part to the next industry move I didn't see coming, which is...
5. The widespread embrace of crowdfunding
Kickstarter and its contemporaries have been around for a few years now, but they definitely weren't on my radar before last year. It was like Massively was hit with a sudden plague that caused us to report on these new crowdfunded projects every other story, and I have yet to meet anyone who thought that the traditional path of funding games would be completely subverted by appealing to gamers directly.
Now, it remains to be seen whether these games will fizzle or fly, but the fact that so many of them are being made when they normally wouldn't have seen the light of an investor's board room cheers me the heck up. And it feels great to see the "little guy" get a shot after being tired of the publishers stepping all over studios.
6. The shutdown of City of Heroes
So let's get all mopey again because while I could say everything about CoH that I said about SWG, the truth is that it was just as much of a surprise. Even with F2P and running in the black, City of Heroes found itself facing an abrupt end, releasing its community to fly to other universes. It kills me to think about the fact that Paragon was also working on other projects that we'll never get to see.
I guess this was surprising because City of Heroes seemed like one of those games that would always be there, whether or not you were playing it. Despite the hundreds of games in this space these days, there's a hole that this game's sunset caused that we can't stop feeling.
I think the jury's still out on Defiance, both the TV show and the game, but from what I've seen and heard, they're both solid though not spectacular. What's amazing to me is that anyone in his right mind would greenlight a project to create a TV show to run in parallel with an MMO, with lore, characters, and events crossing over between them. I mean, maybe this sounds like something that would happen in a far-flung future year, but in 2013? MMOs aren't that well-known in the mainstream, not to the point that it seems to make sense to pair them up with television, but here it is anyway. Transmedia synergy and all that.
8. The rebirth of Final Fantasy XIV
How do I put this kindly? FFXIV was a dud at launch. It was an instant laughing-stock and (in my opinion) an example of how out-of-touch Square-Enix was with its players and the industry. In any other universe or with any other game, it would've languished for a while before being taken behind the barn and shot. Yet Square-Enix did the unthinkable: It owned up to the mess, it took the game offline for months, it reworked it into a new game, and it re-released it. In all the years I've been following MMOs, I've never seen anything quite like this tale, and I'm quite happy for FFXIV fans right now that they have a great future to look forward to.
9. SOE gives new life to EQMac and Vanguard
SOE isn't above cutting loose or shutting down its MMOs (see #3), but I have to give credit to this studio for going above and beyond to support games out of sheer love even when they're making a razor-thin profit margin (or none at all). EQMac was on the chopping block, and the studio stepped in to reverse its decision and save it as a thank-you to the fans. Vanguard was languishing for years and then received a huge amount of studio support with a free-to-play transition and the expansion of its dev team. Surprising? Yes. Welcome? Absolutely.
10. The return of Asheron's Call 2
Well, I just had to end with this one. Despite the fact that Turbine is strangely reluctant to talk about its decision to bring back AC2 (and trust me, we've sent multiple interview inquiries regarding it), the fact that the studio did it at all was just out of left field. I mean, how often do you see games return from the dead years after the fact just because? Exactly.
Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.