Early this year, I explained my cynicism about the massively multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG) as a sustainable business model. To make a long story short, oversaturation of the MMO user base is ultimately going to bring a major decline in subscriptions until even the big bad MMO beasts—yeah, even WoW—collapse. (You can read the full explanation here.) The dying process would be slowed by the emergence of free-to-play MMOs, but even these aren't sustainable if the market is oversaturated. (I explained this in an article titled "The Bursting of the F2P Bubble.")
Now, nine months later, it looks like there may have been a little something to my prediction. World of Warcraft is finally falling out of the spotlight, losing a million or so of its subscribers in a fairly short period. Sure, to Blizzard's MMO, a million subscribers is a drop in the bucket, but if this trend isn't soon reversed, we could see another MMO bite the dust. And WoW's biting of the dust would leave a pretty significant mark on the industry.
But WoW isn't ready to die out just yet. In fact, the new expansion has been announced, titled "Mists of Pandaria." Of course, several WoW players are upset by Blizzard's choice to focus on something as lighthearted and childish as pandas, so Mists of Pandaria might not do a whole lot to keep longtime players coming back. (Personally, I fail to see what the big deal is. I mean, WoW is already practically a cartoon. It's not like we're talking about Dark Souls or even Skyrim here. I don't see how the Pandaren would even be out of place in its world. Besides, they're already a part of Warcraft lore. Does anyone else remember Warcraft III?)
Either way, though, WoW can't thrive forever. It's getting old, and I have a feeling players are itching to move on.
Enter Star Wars: The Old Republic. This soon-to-arrive MMO may be the perfect cure for WoW fatigue. In fact, EA knows this well; they've been throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at this project. Obviously they're fairly confident that the game will take off. And I can't fault them for this confidence. I mean, this is the Star Wars license we're talking about here.
Then again, The Lord of the Rings license is nothing to scoff at either, and even The Lord of the Rings Online hasn't been able to topple the undisputed king of the MMOs. But when all is said and done, LotRO might be a little too similar to WoW to ever have had a chance at being a true WoW-killer.
In theory, SW:TOR is the perfect un-WoW. While WoW and LotRO both have medieval-inspired fantasy settings, SW:TOR has a futuristic sci-fi world as a backdrop. This puts it into a different genre that still shares a similar fan base. (Yes, fantasy and science fiction are two very different genres, even though they get lumped together too often and the line between them isn't always perfectly clear.)
The real question, though, is whether SW:TOR can ultimately break the MMO mold of fetch quests and tank/healer/DPS party builds. I think its long-term success is dependent upon how much room it can put between itself and these longstanding MMO tropes. Different is better, if SW:TOR's hope is indeed to capitalize on WoW fatigue.
And with BioWare at the helm, we're guaranteed to be treated to a pretty decent story. I mean, they seem to have done alright with Dragon Age and Mass Effect so far. Hopefully the writing in SW:TOR is equally as solid as these titles, with a story that is ultimately meaningful in the established Star Wars universe. If so, SW:TOR could draw in an enormous player base on this fact alone.
My prediction: It's too early to tell whether The Old Republic has what it takes to topple WoW. However, I'm not so sure that it wants to. I mean, if WoW is to ever go away, I think it could easily cast a skeptical eye on the MMO as a whole. Many players and industry professionals will reason that if even WoW can't make it, then no other MMO even has a chance. And the tricky thing about MMOs is that they require a solid user base in order to survive. An MMO without other players isn't really an MMO, now is it?
Either way, SW:TOR is a game that should be on your radar if you have any interest whatsoever in MMOs. Whether it surpasses WoW or not, I think it's going to be perhaps the best indicator we have of the longevity of the MMO as a genre. If it quickly falls by the wayside, I'm pretty sure the MMO will go down with it. However, if it has a long and healthy life ahead of it, we could see the MMO continue to thrive.
CCC Editor/Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*