Monday 15 August 2011

But a crop is a crop, and who's to say where the harvest shall stop?

The wait continues. Like wheat anticipating the harvest beneath a rich blue sky, as the sun makes its repeated arcing passes overhead, the field of MMO adherents stands still, in quiet anticipation of the next major releases the genre has to offer. Occasionally a gentle breeze of hype brushes the ears, making itself known through the ripples and swirls it leaves in the bending swaying stems of opinion. In the meantime, opportunistic smaller games –field mice and yellow wags– make comfortable nests within the vast golden sea of consumers, content to do so in the knowledge that when the harvest comes the verdured crop belongs to the Colossi of MMOdom, who will come with giant metal fingers and reap the reward of their careful cultivations. Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic between them will thresh the wallets of the multitude, where a bumper crop of revenue is all but guaranteed.

I’m almost to the point of anticipation with respect to the release of these two games, not through any great desire to play them but because I want to know the extent of their impact. Will they strike with a force that sends shockwaves across the landscape of MMOs, or will they fizzle and burn in the atmosphere and provide little more than brief brush strokes of brilliant light across the canvas of the sky? In this melancholic MMO climate, even a good game is not guaranteed to launch with a mass and velocity great enough to set the world on fire when it lands. I leave my excitement for the games themselves until I’ve had a chance to play them, whereupon I’ll see whether they have that ineffable spark that keeps me hooked beyond the initial marital bliss of the first twenty levels. For me, World of Warcraft had accessibility and scope, Lord of the Rings Online its source material and graphical splendour; I’ll have no idea if either GW2 or SW:TOR has a compelling hook until I play them, so for the time being I remain objectively pleased with the facts that have been presented so far (races and classes, for example) but I’ll leave any judgements until after the honeymoon is over.

Other games still ping softly at the edges of my radar, the blips for Funcom’s The Secret World and CCP’s World of Darkness still hover around at the periphery of the genre no matter what turns it takes. They remain small signatures for now but probably shouldn’t be ignored, lest they creep clandestinely into range before slowly surfacing and revealing the previously hidden extent of their behemoth nature. It might be considered that these games are destined for a niche status, but it’s always worth remembering in such analysis that upon taking World of Warcraft out of the MMO pool, the delineation of nicheness assumes a vastly different size and shape; World of Warcraft is a slow aging whale, and it will only take one lean efficient shark to take a successful bite before a feeding frenzy ensues.

Back in 2007 I wrote:

“So here we are in the tree of MMO life, where Everquest saw the graphical MMO genre explode out from its roots, and World of Warcraft brought it into the branches of mainstream popular culture as perhaps Half-Life did for FPS games. And now we begin to see the influx of MMOs released in the wake of this success, and the weight of all this extra growth that isn’t needed begins to damage the tree, it weighs it down and forces it to spend resources in keeping these branches alive which would be better spent in growing a few stronger and healthier branches. And if nobody comes along to prune it, eventually it will wither and fail, until it is a gnarled trunk unrecognisable from its former glory.”

I think we’re looking at that gnarled trunk. The question is: do Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic represent the last vestiges of new growth on that aged foundation, or do they represent saplings formed from that original tree’s seed, from which a whole new generation of flourishing growth will bloom?

I stand in the field beneath the rich blue sky, awaiting the harvest.

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