A Moment of Silence at the End of Winter
In the last few days there have been at least three notices of MMO or virtual world projects shutting down. It’s hard for me not to see these as indicators of the generational change in the now-traditional “heavy” MMOs/worlds: Stargate Worlds, There.com, and Vivaty — all very different takes on the previous age of MMOs/VWs, are gone or going away.
They’re doing so in an online game/world/app market that is growing faster than we can track — just not where they are. Not to be unkind (any effort in this area deserves some respect), but one way to look at these worlds is that they are the very finest in hand-made carriages for the elite set — right about the time cheap autos are rolling off the assembly line.
But looking forward as well as back just a few years (as I wrote in 2007 about the potential for a “Virtual World Winter“), it may be that this isn’t the depth of winter, but its end. In December 2007 I wrote:
While I’m still bullish on virtual worlds and MMOGs for a number of reasons, that doesn’t mean we won’t necessarily go through a deep winter before we find spring again. I’m often asked about what comes after World of Warcraft? Can this market be sustained?
I think we have the answer; as usual, it’s no — and yes.
To recap, a couple of days ago news bubbled up that Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment (their site does not appear to be available) was in its final death throes, spinning off its Stargate license and assets to a group of its developers under the hopeful name of Fresh Start Games. This has been a long time coming. It’s a big fall from several years ago when CME was all bright and shiny with lots of hubris, investment capital, team jackets, and really cool offices, to last year when they tried admirably to squeeze out a shooter based on the property to keep things going, to the recent very messy and very public bankruptcy filings and lawsuits indicating massive unpaid wages, rent, taxes, etc., for at least the past year, perhaps longer. Brrr.
A few days prior to that, There.com formally announced its closure. Not long before that, just about a month ago, its former twin, Forterra, was sold to SAIC (earlier these two had been the same company, but went different ways in 2005) after reportedly laying off most of its staff.
And just today, Vivaty, a virtual world startup using VRML-like technology, announced it was shutting its doors.
Set against the loud party (or as the nay-sayers have it, the soon-to-burst bubble) of fast-expanding social games, these closures may seem perplexing; to me they seem like the passing of an age. Most of the old guard — pre-World-of-Warcraft games like Ultima Online and EverQuest — stick around, sort of, but they are clearly in their senescence. And no one who’s a fan of Second Life brings up Dmitri’s Quarter anymore (the 2006 bet between Dmitri Williams and then-Linden CTO Cory Ondrejka that Second Life would have more users than WoW in North America by 2008).
What’s happened is that as many people have said, World of Warcraft won: WoW represents the highly burnished apex of first-generation graphical MMOG development. There are many other heavy-client MMOs (especially in Asia), but none has approached WoW’s global success. Those who have come after have failed to build on its success, living at best in its shadow. And this despite these games having similarities to WoW ranging from passing to all but embarrassing.
This of course raises pointed questions for the success of any traditional, retail, heavy-client MMOs in development, even those with an impeccable pedigree and license: as EA’s most expensive project to date (which is really saying something), can even a Star Wars-themed MMO hope to make money? Some estimates make this seem doubtful to say the least.
All that said: while WoW has hit cruising altitude, as former glorious MMOs fade and VWs close, and as no new traditional MMOs face an unblemished bright future, it seems to me that these are products of a former age, stuck in that age and its winter. It’s not that virtual worlds (games or otherwise) are going away; they’re just evolving.
Elsewhere, with games costing 1% or 10% as much as these popping up like flowers (highly profitable flowers), it definitely seems to be the end of a hard winter and the beginning of a crazy vibrant Spring.
So, a moment of respectful silence for all those MMOGs and virtual worlds that have gone or are going to face an uncertain life in a changed world.
And then back to work on bringing on the Spring.