As you may or may not be aware, DC Comics is getting ready to launch their foray into the world of MMORPGs with an online game that’s coming out sometime next year. (As with pretty much every MMO, “sometime next year” was “sometime this year” until they decided that it needed more work. You definitely don’t want to plan your life around the launch of an MMO, is all I’m saying.) The hope of the developers…well, the hope of the developers is that it’s going to be a spectacular success that will dethrone “Worlds of Warcraft”, be universally hailed by gamers everywhere, and make them all so much money that they can buy their own giant robot made out of smaller robots. But the realistic hope is that it will knock over “City of Heroes” as king of the much smaller “superhero MMO” mountain.
My guess is that it won’t. This is not the same thing as saying it’ll fail; I want to stress right off the bat that I think it’ll make money. It’s actually pretty easy to make money on an MMO, because you’re charging people $10-15 a month to play a game you’ve already paid the development costs for. You’d have to make a spectacularly bad game in order to fail to cover the costs of server maintenance and QA with a subscription-based model, and very few people have made spectacularly bad games. (That said, it is theoretically possible for the game to fail, long-term, if the game gets enough negative reviews that DC decides to pull their license with Sony when it comes up for renewal. But that’s pretty unlikely.)
But just because it doesn’t fail, doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed. And I do think that DCUO is going to wind up in that same shadowy limbo of “making enough to keep going” that Champions Online wound up in, instead of making the push to topple CoH. (Full disclosure: I have a 72-month veteran’s badge in CoH. I don’t know that I’d call myself a raving fanboy, but I’m not unbiased and I know that the hardest thing about bias to recognize is how much of it you have.) DCUO has a lot of the same problems CO did–it’s much easier for CoH to zip in and copy their relatively small innovations than it is for a new company to design an entire game from the ground up that does everything CoH does and does it better and then add new things on top of that. CoH might have an older game engine, but it’s also got the benefit of six years of additional content and depth of development. (Although thankfully, DCUO is not making the colossal mistake CO did of not having villains available at launch. That right there was a deal-breaker for many.)
But DCUO has the DC superstars! That’s got to count for something, right? Well, it does and it doesn’t. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, honestly; on the one hand, it does have a brand recognition that CoH doesn’t. Superman is more exciting than Statesman, Batman is more exciting than Manticore, and so on. But on the other hand…let me put it this way. Imagine buying a game called, “DC Universe Online”. Imagine getting home, spending the half-hour to an hour that it takes to install the game, jumping through all the hoops to get registered, logging in…and finding out that you can’t play as Superman. Or Batman. Or Robin, or Wonder Woman, or Elongated Man, or even frickin’ Turtle Boy. Instead, you help those characters. That’s right, you’re the DC Universe’s newest sidekick! (Or, for those of you who would rather play a villain, you’re the Joker’s newest henchman. The strict continuity-correct version of the game has you getting shot in the face by your own boss at level five.)
The interesting thing about this is just how small a mountain we’re talking about, by the way; CoH probably has about 125,000 subscribers (although it’s gotten something of a bump from its recent expansion) while WoW, king of the MMO market, has about ten times that. It really shouldn’t be all that difficult to set your sights higher than CoH, and yet the first game to go head-to-head with it failed. Part of it might simply be the “sunk costs” factor; for me to go to a new super-hero MMO means giving up six years of character development, perks, and time, and DCUO is simply not convincing me that it’s worth that right now. That might change, of course; part of the “fun” of blogging is being forced to eat your words in a year’s time. But my guess is that DCUO is going to be a modest success, which will be a failure by the standards it has set for itself. Only time will tell if I am correct.