Panic at the Console
Jan 04, 2006 12:21:00

The last 5 years have been a trip of massive proportions.

Blizzard recently attained 1 million World of Warcraft subscribers in North America (5 Million worldwide). Sony's EverQuest maintained between a quarter-million and half-million subscriptions between 2000 and 2005. Ultima Online has had between 100,000 and 250,000 subscribers since mid-1998. Dark Age of Camelot has held steady at around 250,000 subscribers for 4 years and is showing no sign of decline. The new generation of MMORPGs is springing up around us at a frenzied pace as everyone grabs a piece of a rapidly expanding market.

How big is that market? Let us for sake of argument assume that there are 5 million MMORPG players in North America. It is a significant number of gamers, but in the grand scheme of computer games, it is still a small number, or is it deceptively small?

There has always been a relatively deep line in the sand between your average video game player and a RPG player. While they both may exhibit a marked lack of pigmentation and a proclivity for technology, they (read: we the readers of this article) come from significantly different roots. The average video game player of my generation was most likely the recipient of an Atari 2600 birthday or holiday gift anywhere from 1978 to 1980. In contrast, the average RPG player had a TRS-80, Vic 20, or C64 and a copy of Zork. While members of the two families intermingled and even switched sides occasionally, the rift between the two has always remained enormous. The gaming objectives of both groups are valid and celebrated, they are simply different. Over the years the numbers of Nintendo, Sega and Playstation players skyrocketed, while the RPGers crawled into a niche of the underground gaming scene populated by the Infocom series, the PLATO system, Bard's Tale, Might and Magic, and later, MUDs. Over the years the dividing line between the two gaming styles graduated into a platform separation. Consoles and PCs. All the great action and arcade games were on the console systems, and all the RPG options required a PC. There are exceptions, it isn't entirely black and white of course.

2005 rolls around and all homes have a PC (though the game play capability of the average PC is suspect), and many homes have a console gaming device (if there is a console gamer in the household.) Everyone needs email, not everyone has a Need for Speed. Nevertheless, console games outsell PC games because the barrier to entry is so much smaller. Cheaper device, less support requirements, can be maintained by an 8-year-old, can withstand the abuse of an 8-year-old, and it can't browse porn or get infected by malicious spyware (yet). Simple choice for a household looking to
play a few games. But then the RPG gamers show up with a copy of World of Warcraft and start converting their console gaming friends. The machine requirements are low, the game has a low barrier to entry (easy to learn), it has some great action, short and long term goals, and bosses to kill. Suddenly, the console gamers have more options than they know what to do with; building up a great garage of cars in Gran Turismo seems positively block in comparison to the options available in World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft becomes a MMORPG training ground for these converts and the next thing they know they're tackling Guild Wars and Everquest 2 and City of Villains. The console sits on the floor in front of the TV collecting dust, for a really long time. A new console device comes out, but no one cares because they're too busy trying to level a new character on the Horde side.

Here is what should be causing the console device and game developers some panic: a console gamer will probably buy 5-10 games per year even if they are a causal gamer. The console games normally have 10-40 hours worth of game play in them which explains the numerous purchases. RPG gamers probably only buy 2-3 games per year, and 1 or 2 of those probably sits on the shelf after a few weeks of play (Guild Wars). How big of a problem is this?

A first time World of Warcraft player will spend in excess of 300 hours leveling a single character to 60. If the average console title has 30 hours of play, that equals 10 unpurchased console games. Estimating very lightly, let us say WoW has converted (or at the very least semi-permanently captured) 100,000 console players. 10 games x 100,000 people x $50 a game represents $50 million that is NOT going into the hands of the console gaming market.

The average level 70 Everquest player probably has 100 DAYS of game play under their belt. That is 2400 hours of play. Multiply that out and we're talking about a game that cannibalizes a huge part of the gaming market simply by monopolizing player-hours. Interestingly enough, this type of game also saves a player's dollars. The monthly fee equates to about a third of the cost of a new A-List console title. The money invested in console games is usually spread all over the market hitting various platforms, publishers, and studios. Under this new model, all of a player's investment is sunk into one game for an extended period of time.

This trend indicates that longer, open ended games will be the killer entertainment software of the next half decade. We will be seeing more games that absorb us in seemingly endless content and seemingly endless replay-value. When we find the one we like (it might take a few false starts) we'll likely plant ourselves there for the better part of 2 years, and it is going to take a massively-multiplayer Resident Evil release to make us even begin to consider buying a new console system, and chances are, it would release on PC before it released on a console system.

EDIT 1/6/06:
Heartless Gamer posted in the comment section of this post early this morning, but it really isn't a comment, it is a full blown response which is well crafted and fair. He expands on some points that I didn't delve into (but wanted to) and contests some of my observations. I am including it here as an update to the blog entry. I considered crafting a response, but I'll just say two things instead: 1) Who is up for developing a Massively Multiplayer version of Pong with me? and 2) Thanks for the thoughtful comments Heartless_, it is appreciated.

Heartless_ wrote:
Let me start by saying the new banner is bling!

Assuming of the 5 million or so MMORPG players that are playing out there (which I'm doubtful of, but we'll play ball) it is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of players that would play MMORPGs if they didn't come off the line like solid brick walls. There seems to be little, if any, move to make MMORPGs more
accesible (please don't read that as simpler) to the mass audience.

You hit the idea on the head that RPG gamers come from a different breed. I'm not so sure if you can limit it to past systems. You need to remember that back in the day of the Atari 2600 there was almost TWO TIMES the number of gamers in the market. Yes you heard that right and if I could get the link to Nolan Bushnells speach I would :P

RPG gamers also come from the roots of D&D (duh!) and that is something you can compare to the experience of being a non-Atari gamer back in the day. It has never and will never be about the graphics, technology, or the feature list.

It will remain to be about the PEOPLE.

Also I think you are complete backwards on people coming in through WoW and moving onto "harder" games. It is quite the opposite. People get stressed out on the overly time sink methodology of games like Everquest and jump ship to the more casual friendly WoW.

WoW in no ways should be seen as a market entry point for new gamers. It is bringing in new players, but the experience it promotes DOES NOT make people get into what you are classifying as harder MMOs. Don't confuse more time consuming with harder. It could be debated for years how hard WoW's end game content is compared to EQ's. Its the delivery mechanism that counts here and WoW delivers a system that a new gamer isn't going to be destroyed in.

On another note I don't believe time played is something the MMORPG market has cornered. I would even wager that the average Counterstrike player has more time online than most MMORPG players over a much shorter time span. Sure there is a lot of cross population amongst FPS players and what games they are playing, but the same is true of the MMO market (except within the HARDCORE circles).

What I'm getting at is that ONLINE play is what is stealing the market. MMORPGs are just charging for that time and hence are getting the attention of the venture capatilists looking to fund projects that are going to prove to be a genuine revenue stream.

Videogaming was born in the social aspect. It was not something that was developed as a solo experience. Pong (or Tennis for Two) was two players remember. The majority of early games focused on playing together. It wasn't until after the video game crash and the eventual launch of the original NES that spurred more single player games.

You give players a way to play together and they're going to eat it up. This is something MMORPGs have been charging for, but they by far do not have it cornered.

Submitted by Brent on Jan 04, 2006 12:21:00 CST (comments: 0)


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