You know what myth needs to die? The idea that big companies don’t want to take chances in the MMO space, that they don’t want to do anything other than sword-and-sorcery fare. Let’s take a look at some track records of some of the bigger publishers who have tried to enter the space.
Sony: Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside, Sovereign, the Agency, DC Online, PS3 Home.
Electronic Arts: Earth and Beyond, Motor City Online, Majesty, Sims Online, Battletech 3025.
NCSoft: City of Heroes, Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, Alter Life.
Ubisoft: CyanWorlds (Myst Online), Matrix Online.
Now then, some of these games never saw the light of day, and I can tell you know there are many more that you haven’t heard of from these publishers that never got past the zygote stage. But looking at the actual track record, two facts are inescapable. First, the big guys ARE trying to get into genres that aren’t fantasy, and secondly, their track record of doing so isn’t very good. There are a couple of moderate successes on the list (CoH, SWG), but even those titles weren’t as successful as fantasy titles released by the same publishers.
The big publishers WANT to represent multiple genres – they are taking a portfolio look at it. They want their online portfolio to cover a mixture of costs, ambition, and inherent risk, with fantasy games covering the ‘low-risk’ slot. So they’re all going to make a fantasy game – and good thing they do, that fantasy game has significantly helped cover the costs of the other games in most of the companies cited above.
The more interesting question is, so why haven’t they succeeded? The most obvious answer would be to blame the market – maybe the customers just aren’t THERE for an auto demolition game, for example. I would tend to reject that. I think a better answer is that we dn’t know how to build those other games yet. With fantasy games, we’ve been iterating on that design over decades now as an industry. The next guys building an MMO car demolition game will only be building the second one.
Anyway, for all you startups out there – if you want to get publisher money, I would urge you to look away from fantasy. Not because I think making a fantasy game is a bad idea, but rather because publishers usually have that slot filled internally by their AAA team, but also because they desperately want to fill slots in that portfolio. Still, don’t be fooled into thinking a unique genre is a free pass. You need to be prepared to explain how your title will beat the odds and establish a new genre precedent.