MMOs are becoming part and parcel of modern culture

Massively multiplayer online (MMO) games are a growing phenomenon, expanding to new areas and adapting to new business models. The genre has become integral to the game industry and is quickly spreading to newer platforms, but exactly how pervasive has it really become?

MMO games are not exactly new, with the genre’s origin going way back to the 1980s. It wasn’t until Ultima Online and EverQuest debuted in the 1990s that MMOs started to become popular, but it was really only in 2004 when World of Warcraft launched that everyone started to realise the potential of these games and exactly how much money could be made from them.

In many ways we can see a parallel with tablet PCs. Tablets are far from new technology, with their origins going back several decades, but it was only when Apple released the iPad that the industry was renewed. Now we have almost every dominant computer manufacturer getting in on the game.

This is no different for MMOs and just as the tidal wave of tablets doesn’t show an end in sight, the same can be said for these kinds of games. In fact, the growth of smartphones and tablets have facilitated MMOs, as there is a substantial rise in both browser-based and app store MMOs.

A perfect example of how pervasive MMOs have become is a recent revelation that the UK government spent a whopping £2.8 million ($4.5 million) developing a browser-based MMO to teach children road safety. The game, Code of Everland, is a free-to-play effort by the Department of Transport, which is hoping it can make children more aware of the rules for crossing the road, but adding in spells and potions probably doesn’t help that. We can only hope they’re not playing the game on their phones while walking across the road.

Another example of how MMOs are seen as a goldmine is the upcoming Michael Jackson MMO called Planet Michael. With the King of Pop’s popularity, while both living and dead, it was somewhat inevitable that his estate would explore the possibility of bringing his iconic music and videos to the gaming world, an aim he was apparently working on before his death. 

The idea of a Michael Jackson MMO might sound bizarre, but then so does a road safety MMO, and these are but the tip of the iceberg of what’s out there and what’s on the horizon. There are hundreds of World of Warcraft clones and even more casual MMO games that have benefited from a growing Facebook culture, not to mention an MMO based on the Bible.

Games that were previously run as single-player computer games are now becoming MMOs as well, with a good example being the Age of Empires series. These real-time strategy games were extremely popular and made Microsoft and Ensemble Studios a ton of money, but after its third outing in 2005, with its last expansion in 2007, many wondered what was in store for the fourth game. Age of Empires Online was then announced in August 2010, with a planned release some time this year.

Even single-player games are stealing the MMO concept of downloadable content in efforts to fight game piracy, an issue which MMOs simply don’t suffer from, given the requirement of accounts and subscriptions. The Dragon Age games are a good example of an attempt to use downloadable content to prevent piracy, while also adding to the profits a company can make from a single game, but we may find that an MMO version will be in the works at some stage too.

MMOs were traditionally run as a subscription-based service, but that will change over the coming years with the success of the free-to-play business model. Free-to-play is technically a misnomer, as the games usually come with an in-game shop that charges real money for often the most basic of things, allowing the penniless to play a limited version while sometimes fleecing the wealthier gamer for instant items.

The success of this model can best be seen in the games developed by Turbine, Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online. Not only does the company have two of the most iconic licences available, with rumours that it may be working on a Harry Potter MMO, it has twice shocked the MMO world by changing both of its leading titles into free-to-play games. Just this month it announced a tripling of its profits from Lord of the Rings Online, which turned free-to-play last September, showing just how much money is yet to be made in the MMO industry.