The MMO Industry's Dark Horses of 2008

Who shall win the Dark Horse award of 2008?

If you would have stopped me in the street in January of 2008, first I would have peppered sprayed you and then double-Tasered your ass to teach you a lesson about manners. After that initial greeting, I would rewind the Taser chords, and we would agree that you should not stop strangers on the street and harass them about MMOs. Then, if you told me that Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) would introduce real money transactions (RMT) into EverQuest (arguably the granddaddy of gaming) I would have shocked you again for lying. No way would SOE drop RMT into both EverQuest and EverQuest 2 and lay the groundwork for micro-transactions to populate all (or almost all) future SOE games. I would have shot another round of pepper spray if you uttered the words micro and transaction when describing items costing $1-20 too.  Yes, RMT makes the list of dark horses in 2008.

This year the dark horses launched their attacks from very different stables. The games themselves offered little in terms of surprises (did Age of Conan or Warhammer Online surprise anyone?). Since there was no
Portal equivalent in the MMO space this year, we will instead take a look at how the companies and their expansions surprised the masses.

SOE definitely Tasered the Dark Horse this year.

Real Money Transactions

Coming from the stables of Asia, the dark horse of RMT shot out of the gaggle of free to play games to become a front-runner in the MMO industry. Widely accepted in other gaming regions, RMT seems to fly in the face of “the normal subscription model” in North America. The homeland of buffets and all you can eat platters strangely does not seem to embrace the idea of a la carte. Once thought of as a regional play in Asia for gamers who did not play from the comfort of their own computer, RMT is no longer an isolated business model. When SOE announced RMT in the EverQuests, they may have uncorked the genie in the bottle in the states. If players view these nickel and dime (which are more like five and twenty dollar bill) transactions as a way to enjoy content they wouldn’t pay $15 per month to play, then it could open the market to many more games.

If however, the rest of North America continues to enjoy the fact that $15 is the maximum out-of-pocket expense every month, then RMT will be a flash in the pan. This is version 4 or 5 of RMT, so even if this latest foray doesn’t stick, we’ll be seeing more of it. No matter how they spin it, RMT is not to the gamers benefit. Why would games go away from a fixed fee? Publishers like the idea of many smaller amounts because they can make more money overall. Would you rather have one set price or some fluctuating cost where you felt compelled to spend to keep up with the virtual Jones’?

Mines of Moria Brings Its Own Dark Horse

Only one game rallied from the ranks of released games to become a dark horse in 2008. Since AAA titles don’t typically qualify as a dark horse I’m bending the rules, but really anything that is not World of Warcraft could qualify for this award. The Mines of Moria is probably the second best expansion to arrive in November. Unfortunately, November was one of the busiest MMO gaming seasons - not to mention general gaming season - in anyone’s memory.

Through the Age of Conan and Warhammer Online launches as well as the World of Warcraft and EverQuest/EverQuest 2 expansions, Turbine has continued to roll out regular new content and has developed an amazing expansion. The Turbine dark horse hasn’t reached the top of the podium, but it musters on, bringing new classes, content and community to the game. This is one dark horse that you should definitely try and ride.

Sure makes me wish I had a horse instead.

PC Gaming Rides Again

Every year the headlines are printed about PC gaming going in the tank. The reasons are all out there: PC gaming is too small of a market compared to consoles. Why would anyone want to develop for a platform that is the pirates’ favorite target? Oh the woes of PC gaming.

Well I’m here to tell you that the PC gaming thoroughbreds have broken free. PC gaming reveled in single game sales records (Wrath of the Lich King), and one of the best holiday deliveries in the last decade. MMOs are finally on track to launch their games and expansions during the holiday rushes (see the September through November 2008 launch schedules). The piracy issue is also seeing some major strides. EA has decided that the best security is not the traditional DRM for its games, as it will be using Steam. The user name/password authentication method has been used for MMOs since their inception, so it’s nice to see the industry finally catching up.

Speaking of new anti-piracy options, the Blizzard Authenticator is a marvelous use of tried and true technology to protect your virtual assets. It won’t get you dates with hot chicks, but it will save your hot Night Elf from being poached by a sleazy guy. Will the authenticator be picked up by other games and be one of next year’s dark horses?

The Dark Horse that Went to the Glue Factory

Luckily this year we also saw the legal demise of Mr. Jack(ass) Thompson. Jackass attempted to use inflammatory remarks to further his personal desire to sit on Oprah’s lap and discuss how horrible video games are, but instead he was summarily booted from the bar. I’m bending the rules a bit by including an ass in a horse race, but sometimes exclusions have to be made.

Dark Horse Predictions for 2009

A year end article just isn’t complete without a glimpse into the future. The dark horse for 2009 is by definition a tough title to predict. If next year the dark horse article starts with “Why did we wait so long for RMT?” then you will know I missed in 2008. What are your thoughts? Let me know on the forums.

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