MMO studio report card: Where are our leaders?

turbineUsually when we think of MMOs, we concentrate on the games — but lately I’ve been thinking of the studios and which of them are trying to lead the industry forward.  Time for a studio report card, looking at Western studios!

Blizzard

Even though World of Warcraft is still a (slightly diminished) raging phenomenon, Blizzard’s made it pretty clear that it’s not very interested in trying to do that much else with MMOs.  This year we saw the official end of Titan, Blizzard’s MMO follow-up to WoW, and then at this past week’s BlizzCon, Blizzard barely gave lip service to its current MMO: “Yeah so it’s World of Warcraft’s 10th anniversary and there’s some expansion coming out this week… NOW LOOK AT OUR PIXAR SHOOTER!  WOO!”

Count me among those sorely disappointed that Overwatch wasn’t a superhero MMO.  The second they said “team-based shooter” I passed so hard on this that six kidney stones came out.

Turbine

Turbine’s definitely been struggling, starting with several bouts of layoffs that have left the studio leaner than before.  How much leaner?  How many people did they hire between layoff rounds?  No idea, but it is disconcerting how much WB seems keen on whittling Turbine down.

Turbine’s been coasting on three aging MMOs — the most recent of which was launched in 2007 — and one superhero MOBA.  I’ve really wanted to see what Turbine could do with a modern engine and updated ideas for an MMO, but it simply may not have the personnel and finances to do that any more.  I kind of miss it being a daring indie studio.

Cryptic

Even though Cryptic’s a favorite whipping boy of many, it’s actually been doing fairly well.  Champions is by far its smallest and most neglected title, although it did get an update fairly recently.  Star Trek Online and Neverwinter have fared a lot better with regular updates and (in the case of the former) an expansion.  I like to think of these as solid B-list MMOs that have a good free-to-play model and an easy pick-up-and-put-down attitude.

Interestingly enough, Cryptic has a “top secret” project in development, according to its official site.  It’s a safe wager that it is MMO-related, and I’m pretty excited to see what this might be.  It has sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero genres covered — what else could it be?

Sony Online Entertainment

Even though SOE axed several titles in the past couple of years — as part of a trim-down effort — the studio is absolutely on fire for MMOs.  While everyone else seems to be edging away from them, SOE launched PlanetSide 2 a year or so ago and is making Landmark, EverQuest Next, and H1Z1.  Plus Dragon’s Prophet but HAHAHAHA I don’t count that.

I don’t currently play any SOE titles, but I expect this to change when EQN comes out.  And I look forward to that, because this is a community I’d really like to be a part of.

Funcom

Funcom’s taken a lot of blows in the past few years — layoffs, merging studios/teams, the raid by police.  And its stable of games (AO, AoC, TSW) aren’t massive money-makers, but I guess they’re doing well enough to keep from closing.  Funcom’s latest effort is LEGO Minifigures Online, a kiddie title that probably doesn’t have much appeal to its old fan base, but it might be the revenue generator that it needs to keep the whole ship afloat.  No word as to any future projects, so I’m not holding my breath.

ArenaNet

Anet is 100% all about the Guild Wars 2 — even Guild Wars 1 has been placed on life support.  And that’s fine, as GW2 is doing well and nobody is expecting this studio to develop other titles.  Expansions, yes, but not titles.  Probably the next game we’ll ever see out of them is Guild Wars 3, if anything.

Mythic Entertainment

“Didn’t Mythic tank?”  Yes, yes it did.  But its demise had some interesting results, apart from the sad closure of Warhammer Online.  First, ex-Mythic employees split off to form Broadsword and handle UO and DAoC, and while I don’t expect new MMOs from that team, I wouldn’t mind being surprised with a small retro-design love letter.  Second, we have a spiritual DAoC sequel with Camelot Unchained and Mark Jacobs.

Trion Worlds

Your feelings on Trion are probably influenced on whether or not you’ve been screwed by them lately.  I’m not playing ArcheAge at the moment, so I’m more inclined to be favorable to the studio.  I like RIFT and the expansion is pretty awesome.

Trion’s definitely making a play for MMO domination by creating a broad platform of games.  It’s got its newish Glyph platform, RIFT, ArcheAge, Defiance, and Trove.  Defiance is its most underperforming title, but Trove might be a sleeper hit considering the good press I’ve seen on it lately.  I don’t know of any future projects, but I’m sure Trion’s considering them and I’ll be on board for where the company goes next.

Gazillion

Gazillion’s currently happy being the flagbearer of online Marvel games, with Marvel Heroes and Super Hero Squad Online.  It does have a “top secret” game listed on its front page as well, so maybe there’s something cooking.  Marvel Heroes is doing surprisingly well, and I’ve been saying that this is the underreported success story in the industry.  It’s going to be benefiting from the dozen or so Marvel movies coming out in the next half-decade, that’s for sure.

KingsIsle

KingsIsle has its 101 franchise — Wizard101 and Pirate101 — which has been one of the most successful kid-oriented MMO efforts.  Although lately it seems as though the studio’s gotten a lot quieter and less ambitious.  Chances are if we’re going to see any future MMOs from them, they’re going to be other 101-style games.  Ninja101?  Space101?

CCP

CCP was on the cusp of becoming a respectable multi-MMO studio, but then it jettisoned World of Darkness and pledged undying loyalty to the EVE universe.  Still, EVE continues to progress, EVE Valkyrie is in the making, and DUST514 is… there.  We don’t talk about DUST514.  It’s not considered polite in civilized company.

Valkyrie is more of an experiment than a genuine push for a new MMO, but maybe this is indicative of how CCP wants to expand its porfolio going forward — games that hang off of EVE instead of stand-alone games.  EVE Online 2?  Don’t see that ever happening.

Jagex

RuneScape might be ignored by “serious” gamers, but it shouldn’t be dismissed.  It’s still a powerhouse of a game, both in expansion and in player numbers, and Jagex recently announced that it’ll be incorporating a Hearthstone-like card game to go with it.

Jagex failed to come through with Stellar Dawn, but it is going to be pushing out Transformers Universe at some point.  I’m not overly thrilled about how that game looks, but it is a strong IP and could help shore up Jagex’s reputation as a multi-game studio.

8 thoughts on “MMO studio report card: Where are our leaders?

  1. Nice summary. It seems to me that being a multi game MMO studio is not the best strategy. An MMO is a lot of work and if you want to have a successful one, spreading resources around doesn’t look like it is the best idea. The only companies on your list that are still enjoying continued success in the industry is Blizzard, Jagex, ArenaNet and CCP. SOE’s success with multiple games has been at best marginal. Turbine, Trion and Funcom do not seem to be generating a lot of financial success either.

    As for leaders: there aren’t any. Blizzard has abdicated. I expect SOE to bungle EQNext. Landmark itself seems to be in no man’s land. I think standard themepark is in good hands with ArenaNet and Square. Pushing the envelope and genre in different directions though….. no students in this class I am afraid.

    BTW you forgot to mention Zenimax, EA (Swtor), Square and Carbine.

  2. I find it amusing hwo much i agree to your evalution of some of the studios and how different my taste still seems. It indeed looks like Cryptic is one of the strongest studios currently out there and i really feel the temptation to return to STO. (I really wish i could persuade my friends to return there, but some things are just impossible. )

    For SOE, i don’t have confidence in that studio. Not one grain. After SWG i couldn’t resist to give DCU a run, and indeed that game was fun. But next to that, with all what’s going on there and Smedleys not that recent statements (still this year) on former SWG players, i fully understand that SOE does not want my money, and i won’t force them to take it. They just have a reputation and track record of misshandling MMOs and not understanding their userbase, so why stick to them when there are many better alternatives out there? (They share the bad reputation with NCsoft there. )

    For ArenaNet, I loved GW, i also casually play GW2 and it’s not completely bad. (You just shouldn’t look at the story, that part is weak. If you play it as asia grinder and GW2 is quite fine and of much higher quality than most asia grinders. ) So despite GW2 by far fell short of the huge hype created at launch (which for a buy2play title still was a full success, as the game did sell) the game is active, there are enough players and i am confident that the game will be here for years (and some expansions) to come.

    For Funcom, i really wish they would be much better off. They don’t have a huge portfolio, but what they deliver is of exceptional quality. Additionally, i have confidence that MMOs provided by them don’t just get the SOE/NCsoft treatment, but rather stay alive as long as they are at least marginally lucrative. Anarchy Online is still alive and FC knows their playerbase and fanbase well enough, to provide goodies and references to their other games in their newer titles. *dramatic voice on* So, long lifetime games with high quality and still financial problems, of gamers of the world, you do something wrong. *dramatic voice off* (I also hope that the licensing of Dreamfall Chapters also helped FC again. )

    On Trion, i indeed only casually play Rift and don’t have a problem with that. Although i also dislike the Glyph launcher. For me that thing looks like an attempt to build up a rival to steam, but unless the later commits some real atrocities, there is no way to really push into the market. (Steams portfolio is just too big by now. ) So i consider this effort to be futile, but their games, at least as far as i am concerned, are fine.

  3. What I would give for a crystal ball of computer games…in near future how will all the casual gaming impact, in mid term what will become the next big thing (and will MMO be in anyway related to that?) and long term…well what on earth will be the definition of ‘computer game’ be? Movies and TV merged into digital reality will make ‘computer games’ redundant…separating reality from digital will be the name of the game…or not?

  4. “CCP was on the cusp of becoming a respectable multi-MMO studio, but then it jettisoned World of Darkness…”

    On the cusp? Somehow that doesn’t line up with what we have heard about where development stood for World of Darkness, which wasn’t anywhere close to being a thing. CCP was stealing resources to work on EVE on a regular basis.

    There is an interesting comparison with CCP and Blizz, who both seem to have decided that maybe one MMO is all a studio should make. Blizz has no doubt realized that any MMO they make after WoW will never match it and be judged a failure, as we tend to falsely judge every MMO that doesn’t hit 12 million subscribers. If MMOs are forever… we’re not too far from 20 years of EverQuest… then why dilute your resources trying to get several going at once, unless you see them as a commodity to close whenever they don’t make goals. Is CCP any less respectable for only having a single MMO (like Blizz) than NCsoft, which has several but which shuts them down regularly?

  5. I think you’re right about Gazillion; they will reap the rewards of having the Marvel license in the heyday of the Marvel movies.

    My kids play Marvel Heroes 2015 like it’s the only thing around, and it’s amazing how many times they’ve played the same storyline with different toons.

  6. I’m with Jidhari – if you want to look at which studios are trying to set the pace, you really need to look at the two who released new MMOs this year, especially since both of them tried to buck the F2P tide and sell us a subscription.

    Carbine are suffering from a really nasty case of ‘slipped halo’ effect at the moment. They had a hype train built up to full steam ahead, for which some responsibility lies with the players and some with Carbine themselves. Then the game landed and turned out to be fun, quirky (and sophomoric – but hey, movie box office receipts suggest that sophomoric sells just fine). However, it turned out NOT to be nearly as revolutionary as it pretended, nor ass inclusive as it should have been. Openly nailing your colours to the “hardcore or GTFO” mast may feel cool when you strike that pose, but it’s decidedly less cool to realise that you’ve told 95% of your player base to GTFO, especially when backtracking on the approach only serves to alienate the remaining 5%. Carbine aren’t aspiring to lead the industry right now – if anything, they’re struggling not to be held up as an object lesson to future developers.

    Zenimax seem to be doing somewhat better, if only because the gamer community had lower expectations and in fact decided to hate the game, sight unseen, for not being their ideal of The One True Elder Scrolls Game regardless of how well their ideal would have actually worked out (pro tip – Skyrim is a single player game. Many things that are cool in single player games are somewhat less cool when some jerk with a mind of his own is in your virtual world). The public berating of ESO has died down as the usual suspects have moved on to crucifying Wildstar for murdering their favourite kittens, the player base seems to have fallen off much less of a cliff than Wildstar’s, and Zenimax are putting out a reasonable pipeline of updates. I think ESO has settled into the same sort of niche as SWTOR and RIFT – a comfortable player base whilst not being anywhere near challenging WoW’s dominance, enough to be profitable with a good-sized community of satisfied players even if they aren’t being raved about by the cool kids. Could ESO have been bigger? Probably, if only they’d sent their interns out to sleep with gaming journalists for better reviews at launch 🙂 However, I don’t think it’s going to be seen as a stain on anyone’s resume.

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