Commentary > Game Over
Everquest with Wookies
Star Wars enters the persistent world gaming space but will it make a difference?
June 26, 2003: 8:02 AM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - It took George Lucas and his staff just shy of three years to create the last "Star Wars" film. It took a couple months more than that to create the franchise's latest video game.

And while "Star Wars Galaxies" will be available on store shelves starting Thursday, the game's far from complete. Still to come, say developers, are player-owned and operated vehicles, player-run cities and space combat. Nonetheless, no massively multiplayer title has been more anticipated since Electronic Arts (ERTS: Research, Estimates) launched "The Sims Online" last year.

Sony (SNE: Research, Estimates) and LucasArts are hoping "Galaxies" performs a little better than "The Sims Online", of course. That title, with 100,000 paid subscribers, didn't come close to living up to EA's estimates. Even if the strength of the Star Wars name brings in a crowd on par with the 430,000 subscribers of "EverQuest", though, don't expect massively multiplayer gaming to move beyond the niche market it's been stuck in since the mid-90s.

"Star Wars Galaxies" hits store shelves Thursday.

Massively multiplayer games work on a simple principle: A player purchases a game at retail, installs it and logs onto the virtual world where the action is set. The first month is usually free, but to keep playing, the player has to pay a monthly fee (usually somewhere in the neighborhood of $15). In theory, it's an eternal stream of income for the publisher. (The theory usually turns a blind eye to the high costs of keeping the games running, though.)

The Themis Group estimates worldwide online gaming revenues in 2001 came in at roughly $275 million, which sounds pretty good until you a) realize that's less than 3 percent of the industry's total revenue or b) start digging back into older estimates.

Take a 1997 Forrester report, for instance, which predicted online gaming revenues would reach $540 million by 1999 and $1.6 billion by 2001. Jupiter Research was a little more conservative in 2000 (though no more accurate), expecting revenues to hit $211 million that year and $770 million in 2003. The fact is that online gaming has never lived up to expectations. Every year, the experts offer their revenue predictions and every year the market falls short.

Still, gaming developers and publishers love these types of games. In fact, PC Gamer magazine report there are 43 online games on the market right now with another 73 in development. Most of those won't make it in the long term.

"I think there's probably room for between three and five [massively multiplayer games] to survive and/or prosper," said John Taylor, managing director and analyst for Arcadia Investment Corp. "The way people decide to spend their entertainment time breaks down along several lines - one of which is genre. There are only going to be one or two games which are really successful in the key genres which are offered online which, right now, is defined as fantasy role playing."

Experts expect  
Experts expect "EverQuest 2" to surpass "EverQuest's" subscriber numbers.

There are really two groups ensuring that massively multiplayer games or persistent worlds, as they're sometimes called never move beyond a niche: casual gamers and hardcore gamers.

Casual gamers have steadfastly refuse to pay a monthly fee for their games. Typically, they view the $50 they spend at retail to be a high enough charge for their entertainment. Several experts were betting that "The Sims Online" would be the game that might change the mainstream mindset. It wasn't.

And while "Star Wars Galaxies" has an even wider mainstream appeal than "The Sims", no previous Star Wars single-player title has come close to approaching the Sim's offline sales.

It's not just matters of finance that keep casual gamers away, though. The time investment required by massively multiplayer games is also more than most people can afford. To progress in these games, you need to dedicate several hours a week. Real world demands don't always allow that. As a result, your character remains a weak, low-level figure, reaping none of the truly satisfying rewards.

Hardcore players, meanwhile, don't blink an eye at the time investment required. They simply don't see a reason to pay. Since the release of "Doom" in 1993, online play has been a part of the gaming world. In most games, it's a free component, regardless of the title's genre. Games like "Quake", "Counter-Strike" and "Warcraft" have an online population that vastly exceeds the total number of people in pay-to-play games.

Click for older columns.

Switching those users to a pay model is going to be a Herculean task and one the industry isn't likely to pull off. New features that free online gaming can't offer are a start but even titles offering those will find the convergence rate moving just a little slower than maple syrup being poured in an igloo in mid-January.

And with both casual and hardcore players, there's a large contingent who simply want their games to end. Or, put another way, there's something appealing about working towards and achieving an ultimate goal.

I won't be the least bit surprised if "Galaxies" sets new subscriber records. And I fully expect a handful of other upcoming titles to ping the gaming world's collective radar as well. But are massively multiplayer titles the future of the industry? It's about as likely as seeing a Wookie with a Mohawk.  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.

Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus rally
Thanks for nothing, Corporate America
It's not just the economy, stupid
What's wrong with Starbucks
Wall Street banks are healthier than ever
Goldman Sachs: Buckle up. Trade war fears will likely get worse

graphic graphic