MMORPGs: Time to Level Up

Steve Peterson has taken a look at the current MMORPG landscape for his latest editorial on the [a]list daily, in which he attempts to explore both the problems developers are currently facing and the potential for the future of the genre (yes, he does mention mobile). Here's a snippet:

The latest entry in the now-classic MMORPG subscription model is The Elder Scrolls Online, which is looking to get players to pay a monthly subscription fee. Many observers think this is a wild hope, that players just won't put up with a monthly subscription fee any longer. Bethesda may not be as crazy as you might think, if you take a close look at the numbers. The key fact, recently revealed, is that Skyrim (the last game in the Elder Scrolls series) has sold more than 20 million copies. That's an immense number, and it makes The Elder Scrolls Online a much more viable proposition. If only 25 percent of Skyrim buyers pick up The Elder Scrolls Online at $60 (which seems like a conservative estimate), that represents somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million, which should be more than enough to cover the costs of The Elder Scrolls Online development even if no one ever buys a subscription.

What does the future hold for the MMORPG? We will continue to see players engaged with roleplaying online, as the computer offers the richest array of tools. Console MMORPGs are growing, though, and Sony Online Entertainment is pressing forward to make the PlayStation a popular platform for MMORPG fans. Innovations like emergent story lines and user-generated content will continue to keep players interested. New games will continue to come from Asia and attempt to find a foothold in the western world. Blizzard hopes to create new excitement in World of Warcraft with its massive Warlords of Draenor expansion this year.

The largest potential market of the future is, of course, mobile. Tablets are in the hundreds of millions of units already, and smartphones are over a billion and still climbing. What's obvious, though, is that the MMORPG will have to fundamentally change in a number of ways to become viable on mobile devices. If you've ever looked at a World of Warcraft player's computer screen in mid-raid, you'll see that interface will never translate to a smartphone. Complicated controls and interfaces certainly aren't suited to smartphones. Tablets offer a larger area, but without physical keys really complex layouts are still problematic.

Another issue for mobile MMORPGs is one of engagement time. A typical smartphone gamer plays for a few minutes at a time. A tablet gamer may play for tens of minutes. A typical MMORPG player online can easily play for hours at a time. Hours-long play sessions are not going to work well on a mobile device, so MMORPG design for mobile will have to take that into account.