Social games like Facebook's Farmville are "the next big thing" to enter the gaming industry within the past few years; how much will they influence the way MMOs are developed?
Have you played Farmville yet? Judging by its popularity—which includes a player base of 69 million people, according to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg—it's a safe bet that at least some of ZAM's readers have tried it out. As Zuckerberg noted, more people play Farmville than those who use Twitter, let alone Blizzard's world-dominating MMO, World of Warcraft, with 11.5 million players.
As many bloggers have pointed out, if Farmville was an honest-to-goodness MMO instead of a Facebook app, it would have WoW's player base beat by almost a 6:1 ratio. However, can Farmville and other "social games" like Mafia Wars—developed by the industry-leading Zynga—really be compared with what most gamers consider "true" MMOs like EverQuest, WoW and Final Fantasy XI? It's an issue that's inspired occasional debates in our own forums from time to time; many MMO players consider social gaming a passing fad that owes its recent popularity to mind-numbing simplicity. On the other hand, it's difficult to ignore the sheer success of the genre, and wonder if this new gaming platform might change the face of the MMO industry as we know it.
In February, we featured an editorial about the financial stability of game developers and what it might mean for the future of MMOs. It's no secret that the "Western model" of MMO and online gaming is gradually succumbing to the influence of Asian free-to-play and micro-transaction revenue models. Subscription-based MMOs are incorporating more "premium" services and items like Blizzard's recently-launched vanity pet store, and publishers of upcoming MMOs are surprising the community by announcing free-to-play revenue models (like the recent news from Gamigo that Black Prophecy won't be a subscription-based MMO, as everyone expected).
Part of the "Asian influence" that readers stumble upon in many business- and industry-related MMO news stories is the prevalence of online gaming in China. As we reported last year, China is expected to claim half the world's online gaming market by 2012. Despite its strict censorship laws, two-thirds of China's Web users are also online gamers, according to a Wall Street Journal article.
It's important to remember that "online gaming" and "MMOs" aren't synonymous in this context, though. The majority of China's 200 million online gamers aren't MMO players—or at least, not in what we consider the "traditional" sense of an MMO like WoW or EQ. The same is true here in the West; "online gaming" includes everything from MMOs to multiplayer Web- and browser-based games, including Facebook apps like Farmville. Usually, the term "social gaming" is used to differentiate these products from MMOs and other multiplayer PC/console games.
Now that we've explained the distinction between these two platforms, what about our original question; "Will social gaming change the face of MMOs?" If the recent business decisions of industry veterans like Richard Garriott (Ultima Online, Tabula Rasa) are any indication, the line between social gaming and MMOs might become blurrier in the years to come.
After visiting the International Space Station and suing NCSoft for $27 million, Garriott finally returned to the gaming industry last February and founded Portalarium, a development company aimed at "Bringing Premium Games to the Social Web," according to its mission statement. As Gamasutra explained in an earlier article, Portalarium will develop Facebook and browser-based social games, directly competing with the likes of Zynga and other market-leading social games developers.
In an interview with Gamasutra not long after the announcement, Garriott explained his motivation to invest in the burgeoning Facebook and mobile games industry. "I as an artist, as a creator, and a gamer myself, my passion completely lies with creating and playing story-based content," he told Gamasutra. "As I review my 30 year career, I don't think the market has necessarily tended to reward that."
We're not too sure how Garriott believes that better storytelling can be accomplished via social games played on Facebook or with your iPhone, but it's clear that he's one industry vet who recognizes that change is just beyond the horizon. As Massively.com points out in a related article, this new wave of free-to-play, browser-based gaming is more accessible than any other medium in video gaming history; players can jump in with no up-front costs and minimal—if any—product installation and setup. With "one account to rule them all," Facebook offers its users an unprecedented way to access hundreds of multiplayer games, all just a few mouse clicks away.
Regardless of Facebook's popularity and the success of its apps, mobile and social networking as-a-whole have already influenced many of today's MMOs. Publishers like Blizzard, CCP, NCSoft and more are beginning to incorporate Web 2.0 features in their MMOs, giving players the ability to review their characters and share information via the Web and mobile applications. Blizzard, for example, has already released its popular iPhone Armory application, and an Auction House app is on the way. Forward-thinking developers have adopted these mechanics in the design of their upcoming MMOs, such as BioWare's HoloNet component of Star Wars: The Old Republic.