Are MMOs a fad?

Spinks has a good article here about EA’s acquisition of Playfish and it’s lay-offs of staff for it’s more traditional MMOs. She wonders what it means for the MMO market as a whole.

My thoughts are not that “2010 will be the beginning of the end” for the traditional, big budget MMO as she worries. Instead, I think we will start to see decline as the MMO market hits saturation. This isn’t a bad thing, because every product hits this point in it’s lifecycle. Wikipedia defines that as this:

4. Saturation and decline stage
  1. costs become counter-optimal
  2. sales volume decline or stabilize
  3. prices, profitability diminish
  4. profit becomes more a challenge of production/distribution efficiency than increased sales

The trick is what happens with #2 on the list. The best side is like Dungeons and Dragons. While it has never in my opinion reached the fad level it did in the eighties, where you could buy D&D action figures for your kids,  play an entire genre of pen and paper RPGs copying or inspired by it, and watch cartoons based on it, it has not only maintained itself through the decline, it constantly reinvents itself to attract new decvotees.

The better side is  Pokemon. Tremedous, tremendous IP when it first came out, bigger than probably anything except WoW. However, it couldn’t keep at that rate of success indefinitely. It spawned a ton of knock-offs and hangers on, some very good (Monster Rancher) some very bad (Medabots.) It hit the decline stage, but it has stabilized in terms of sales, and focuses on maximizing profit while keeping the fanbase happy through remakes and spinoffs. This is the good side of managing decline.

The worst side you can pick from two examples. Tamagotchi were the previous fad before Pokemon, but they declined to a shadow of their success, and have almost faded into oblivion. However this is nowhere near as bad as the previous console videogame fad, around the time of the Atari 2600, when not only did it decline, it killed the market until Nintendo revitalized it.

My personal thought is that we will see MMOs become like Pokemon games, in which they decline in popularity, but continue to serve the enthusiast market will quality games tailored to them. They will because by then, the fad will have moved, and along with it the people who don’t have deep ties to the game itself, but played socially. I think we will see modest, continual growth, and every now and then we will see a standout title get some mainstream success, like Street Fighter IV did for the fighting game genre.

So the worries are valid, but I have faith that MMOs will endure and not decline.

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