"...nearly all of those who came, left" - Wagner Au
In his New World Notes blog, Wagner Au notes that Second Life has plateaued at about half a million active users. He carefully spins this news in the glass-half-full direction, saying that this makes Second Life essentially the equivalent of lovely Portland, Oregon, and what could be wrong with that?
That question implies a sort of settling for something less than being the start of the globe-spanning 3D Web, something less than winning Dmitri's quarter. More generally though, what does this slowing say about the growth and sustenance of virtual worlds and MMOGs overall?
While I'm still bullish on virtual worlds and MMOGs for a number of reasons, that doesn't mean we won't necessarily go through a deep winter before we find spring again. I'm often asked about what comes after World of Warcraft? Can this market be sustained? Is it possible that we could find ourselves in a situation where we have to say about our entire customer base that "those who came, left"? And if so, how do we prevent that from happening?
My question isn't about Second Life, though it may be one of our canaries in a coal mine. My question, as always, is about what's next, and how the virtual worlds sphere continues to develop - or not. We often take for granted the continued growth of virtual worlds, having leapt from a few thousand to many millions of active, paying users in about a decade. At the same time, many of us have been told for years that the market appears to be saturated. This has always turned out to be wrong, as the incredible success of games like Lineage, World of Warcraft, Runescape, Habbo Hotel, and others have shown.
And yet. I wonder about the prophetic nature of Au's words above because of where our industry finds itself. The undisputed leaders in terms of population and revenue are still "men in tights" games -- World of Warcraft, Runescape, etc. These are surrounded by a still-impressive second tier of... men in tights games: Lineage, Lineage 2, Ragnarok, Everquest, etc. There are a few non-fantasy-esque worlds doing well, but so far we have not done a good job of expanding the kinds of worlds in ways that millions of people find compelling.
This isn't a question of "why fantasy" as Richard recently asked, but more "what comes after fantasy?" Maybe it really is more fantasy because of its rich archetypal qualities. Maybe. But as I've said before, WoW casts a long shadow on the fantasy MMOG landscape. Are millions of people who are playing WoW and other fantasy games today going to be interested in even more fantasy in a year or two or three? When they're personally "done" with the WoW experience, what will they move to next?
My concern about the potential for a "virtual world winter" doesn't come from a feeling that virtual worlds are doomed or that they have just been a fad. But it is entirely possible for virtual world developers and publishers to fail creatively, technically, and in terms of business, and thus to not deliver worlds that people want. The answer isn't more WoW-like worlds: we already have that, and have seen the lackluster success in games like Vanguard and more recently Tabula Rasa (even though it's not strictly fantasy) that might well have flourished in a WoW-less market Nor is it more open, directionless social worlds like Second Life that have not caught on despite intense media attention. And yet I suspect we'll see a spate of worlds coming out very much along those lines, worlds which may well stumble and fail, casting a pall over the growth of virtual worlds in general, causing funders and publishers to retreat a bit, and making virtual world development that much more difficult -- our own personal winter.
Despite that, I believe we may still be at the start of the success of virtual worlds, but not if we depend on the past to determine our future. The challenge, in my view, is how to take what has succeeded and use it to create the next leap forward in terms of cultural relevance and acceptance. I'm interested to hear if others see the potential for a winter of failed virtual worlds, considering all fantasy-esque ones and "kill monster, get gold" gameplay in development. Is this just dark winter Solstice musings just before the light returns, or if not, how we might best work through this to a renewed flourishing in this area?