Critical Hit: Return of the WoW Killer

Towards the end of last year, Blizzard Entertainment published Cataclysm, the new expansion pack for its all-conquering franchise, World of Warcraft. Six years, three expansion packs, and 12 million subscribers later, there’s still no stopping World of Warcraft’s growth – it’s a game which sits high, at the top of the food chain.

That doesn’t stop would be competitors from trying to knock it off, though.

Like death and taxes, that publishers are constantly trying to launch a ‘WoW killer’ is one of life’s certainties – and it’s with similar certainty that would-be pretenders to the MMO throne will find themselves stranded in World of Warcraft’s wake. Since it first appeared on shelves back in 2005, the WoW franchise has seen off the likes of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures to name but a few. All of these had been built up as potential rivals at one time or another, and now languish in near-mediocrity.

Critical Hit: Return of the WoW Killer Critical Hit: Return of the WoW Killer
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's Blizzaro!

Just two weeks into the New Year – and a matter of months after Cataclysm became the fastest selling PC game in history – the latest title to try to dent WoW’s crown has arrived in the form of DC Universe Online. Although it features the cream of super-heroes and super-villains, together with their respective home cities, and storylines penned by some of DC Comics’ writers, it’s the game’s multi-platform development on both the PC and PlayStation 3 that’s most interesting.

After all, while consoles aren’t exactly known for their prowess in the MMO space, the Blitzkrieg success of World of Warcraft has killed off the appetites of most developers to go server-to-server against Blizzard’s mega-franchise, Bioware’s The Old Republic aside. With that in mind, the multi-platform release of DC Universe Online is a shrewd move by SOE and WBIE as an attempt to make headway into the console MMO space.

Past efforts to bring the MMORPG genre to both Sony’s and Microsoft’s hardware have either been largely ignored – like Final Fantasy XI – or canned in various stages of development, as with APB, Age of Conan and the rumoured Halo MMO.

There have been numerous reasons why console MMOs haven’t ever really got off the ground, the biggest of which are the monthly subscription fees and the challenge of creating a workable control system on a gamepad, although the PlayStation 3’s compatibility with PC keyboards solves this problem to some extent. There are also some people who believe the genre’s failure to take hold on consoles is because MMOs are better suited to the intimacy of sitting in front of a PC monitor than the expansiveness of a 50in plasma TV in the lounge.

Critical Hit: Return of the WoW Killer Critical Hit: Return of the WoW Killer
Who will win this fight?

Time will tell whether DC Universe Online will become the success Sony Online Entertainment hopes. Quite honestly, if recent history is anything to go by the best it can hope for is to attain a loyal core subscription base to cover costs. Others have had to restructure as free-to-play models and rely on micro-transactions for survival. As for the worst case scenario, take a look at the likes of APB, Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault and The Matrix Online!

That’s merely the potential fate for its PC-based iteration though. I suspect for Sony Online Entertainment and Warner Bros Interactive, it’s the success of the PlayStation 3 version of DC Universe Online that’s more important. Console-based MMOs remain very much a genre yet to be exploited, and if owners of Sony’s monolithic console take to its subscription model, then DC Universe Online may just be the superhero to open the floodgates for other MMOs to follow.

Critical Hit is a twice monthly column which explores recent events in and around the games industry.
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October 14 2021 | 15:04