Will Oversaturation Hurt the MMO Market?

So I’m chatting with my old buddy Kohath the other day, and he asks how things are going at 38 Studios. I tell him it’s great fun and we’re all really positive about what we’re doing. Kohath, glass half empty sort that he is, tells me that he worries about the future of MMOs. Specifically:

“You guys have an uphill battle differentiating yourselves from all the other MMOs that no one cares about.”

At first I laughed his comment off, because I usually spend more time considering all the good games that we will one day have to compete against. But after thinking about it, I wonder if he’s right: Could the prevalence of crappy MMOs turn people away from the genre so that they never end up seeing the good ones?

Personally, I’m starving for a new MMO right now. As great a game as I think WoW is, it doesn’t have enough variety in its race/class combos to really appeal to my style of play. While I dabble in some other games, none of them have the overall feeling of cohesion and smoothness that WoW does. So I’m kind of stuck in the middle, waiting for games like AoC and WAR to hit the shelves so I can give them a shot.

In the meantime, I end up downloading some of those free-to-play MMOs that are springing up all over the place. I mean, it seems like I can’t follow a couple links from a message board these days without bumping into some developer I’ve never heard of that somehow has half a dozen different MMOs under their banner. So I try one or two, and almost invariably they end up being the same kind of click-to-move (I HATE click to move!) grindfests where everyone is literally standing around in a field of dozens of the exact same mob killing them over and over again.

And it makes me wonder if Kohath is right. What if the potential players of the next great MMO get drawn in by the glow of free gameplay, only to find a game that, well, sucks. And then another just like it, which is also free, but features martial arts instead of wizards in pointy hats, yet sucks for exactly the same reasons. How long before these people assume that MMOs in general must all play the same way, and therefore all suck?

Look, I can’t complain about losing market share to a great game–fair is fair. But losing market share because of crappy games would piss me off.

This is the challenge facing build-it-yourself concepts like Metaplace. How many mediocre games will someone play before they decide that the whole thing must be mediocre and move along? Sure, you can argue there are a jillion crappy MySpace pages and MySpace does just fine, but MMOs aren’t web pages; they thrive on emotional investment on the part of the players. How long before someone stops being willing to take chances on one set of products and applies their reluctance to a whole genre?

Ultimately I still see the glass as half full, despite Kohath’s concern. My world view requires me to believe that a great game is going to be a success regardless of the amount of noise in the marketplace. But a look at the history of the once invincible Atari is a cautionary tale about what can happen when greed marginalizes quality. And with all the money to be made in the MMO space these days, there’s no shortage of greed.

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