The Game Archaeologist: Why 2008 was one of the wildest years for MMORPGs

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In the relatively short history of MMORPGs so far, there have been a few years that I would say were watershed moments for the genres. And while I’m sure we could quibble over which year was the most significant, the one period of time that I keep coming back to in my mind as the wildest was 2008.

It was a year that defied a lot of popular expectations at the time and left us shaken in our belief that the MMO market was still evolving and growing. Today we’re going to take a look at what made 2008 so monumental in MMORPG history and how we are still feeling the aftershocks of it today.

Before we get into the year proper, let’s lay down a brief overview of what led up to this time. Going back four years to 2004, the gradually growing genre of MMOs lurched forward with the release of World of Warcraft. People knew it was going to be popular, but I doubt anyone — not even Blizzard — anticipated the millions upon millions of people who would flock to Azeroth.

The sheer popularity (and profit!) of this one title changed the direction of development for many western games — not to mention killing off a few that didn’t even want to compete in this now-dominated market. Studios figured that Blizzard had perfected a formula for a hit, best-selling MMO, and those same studios started up projects or changed existing ones to copy as much of the WoW format as possible.

It’s not to say that WoW was the only title on the scene or the only game contributing to the growth of the industry. City of Heroes, Guild Wars, and Lord of the Rings Online all came out in this 2004-2007 period, earning praise and fandom for their design and approachability. With lots of additional MMOs in development, there was nothing but a groundswell of hope and expectation that it was only going to get better from here.

When the calendar flipped over into 2008, two factors started to converge to make for what we all assumed was going to be an epic throwdown. The first factor was a growing fatigue with World of Warcraft from broad sections of its playerbase. Remember that most MMOs at this time only offered subscriptions, causing many players to pick a single game to enjoy. And for around 10 million people, World of Warcraft was that title.

But the problem is that it had been that title now for over three years, and even with the subscriber count increasing during the Burning Crusade expansion, the churn was significant. There was a growing eagerness to branch out and try the Next Hot Thing.

That brings us to our other factor, which was not one but two up-and-coming MMORPGs positioning themselves as that Next Hot Thing. Funcom had been working on a follow-up to Anarchy Online with Age of Conan, a brutal, adult-oriented game that eschewed WoW’s cartoony nature for barbaric brawls. Meanwhile, Mythic Entertainment had grabbed the rights to make a Warhammer Fantasy online game, and was following up its own Dark Age of Camelot with another RvR game called Warhammer Online.

Both of these titles shared similar traits: They were made by established MMO developers, they were follow-ups, they drew off of powerful geek IPs, and they were angling for more of an edgy, mature tone. While we are now looking at this situation in hindsight, it’s vital to understand how large both Age of Conan and Warhammer Online loomed over the MMORPG industry at the start of 2008.

People still assumed that World of Warcraft was the new normal rather than an extreme outlier, and so there was a lot of expectations that a really well-done modern MMO could break Blizzard’s stranglehold on the industry. So the confluence of bored WoW players and two exciting WoW alternatives meant that a showdown was in the making.

The fight began in May 2008. As World of Warcraft’s subscription count grew closer to 11 million players, Funcom rolled out Age of Conan.

Initially, it was off to a strong start, with strong reviews and 400,000 players in the first week. By June, a million copies of the MMO had been shipped. It was a good start — but the question was whether or not Age of Conan would have legs.

It did not. The game sold only another 200,000 units by August, settling into a decent-but-not-spectacular 415,000 subscribers. Interest started to fall off, leaving Funcom to begin the process of merging servers and handling the dedicated community that remained.

Greater hopes were being given to Warhammer Online, which was directly positioned to strike against World of Warcraft (which allegedly “borrowed” much of its world design from Warhammer Fantasy to begin with). There was a crazy amount of hype building over the summer for a game with creative features, a strong personality, and a self-promoting studio.

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Yet its release went pretty much the same way as Age of Conan’s earlier that year: WAR racked up an impressive half-million sign-ups in its first week, grew to 800,000 players a month later, but then started to drop off, falling down to just 300,000 by the following February and merging servers by that spring. Both games made big splashes but couldn’t go the distance in the shadow of WoW.

Speaking of which, a very-much-unbroken World of Warcraft soared to 11.5 million subscribers by that fall alongside the release of Wrath of the Lich King, its second expansion. A restless playerbase found itself invigorated by the new lands and class to explore, and so gamers flocked back from wherever they may have strayed.

While many expected WoW to be put in its place by upcoming competition, the slug-fest of 2008 proved to be a stunning confirmation that Blizzard’s MMORPG was a whole lot more steadfast than assumed — and that it wasn’t going to be quite so simple to dethrone the king.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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