Playing any massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) is a bit like living in a house that never stops building itself around you. The landscape is ever-shifting, and a little unsettling. When you pay for a game at retail, you usually pay a one-time fee for a relatively closed experience. But most MMORPGs require a monthly fee, and with that fee comes an understandable paranoia: “Am I getting my money’s worth, here? Hey, all my friends are ditching me for the next big thing. Guess I’ll go, too.”
Thus narrates the histories of Ultima Online, EverQuest, Final Fantasy XI, and, of course, World of Warcraft (WoW), which has long reigned as the current king of MMORPGs.
Then again, what counts as a “long” reign over the MMORPG market is a matter of opinion. But WoW had over 11 million subscribers as of 2008, and people still seem to be pretty interested in the game and its expansions
The MMORPG market is full of contenders, however. This year’s Tokyo Game Show had a particularly interesting reveal: Phantasty Star Online II, a sequel to a Dreamcast MMORPG with a small, but loyal audience. Is there a chance this Sega MMORPG might make a dent in WoW‘s kingdom?
To put things bluntly: Heck no. While the original Phantasy Star Online did see a port to the GameCube and Windows, its initial Dreamcast release and gameplay over a 56k modem(!) made for a pretty limited audience. Phantasy Star Online was a solid little workhorse, and there’s little doubt its sequel will likewise attract a dedicated following. But Phantasy Star is not a household franchise name (not that it doesn’t deserve to be). The niche that loved the first online Phantasy Star will love the second, and plenty of newcomers will hop aboard, but ultimately, it’ll be a game for the fans. After all, the Phantasy Star games have always just gone off and done their own thing without trying to keep up with the Final Fantasy clones slumming around the RPG genre.
“Just be yourself” isn’t a bad approach to take when MMORPGs are involved. In fact, it’s not really fair to say that Phantasy Star Online II has no chance of dethroning WoW; anything is possible. That includes a mass exodus of discontented players who are ready to try something newer and smaller.
The really interesting contender for WoW’s userbase will be Final Fantasy XIV. Yoichi Wada, the CEO of Square-Enix, is grooming the next online Final Fantasy to be WoW’s direct competitor. Or at least that was the plan he outlined in a December 2009 interview with Develop. Wada admitted it would be “tough” to go up against WoW, but believes the Final Fantasy brand will cause some defection from Blizzard.
Outlook on Wada’s optimism: Murky. Reactions to the beta have been mixed, and include complaints about the controls, lackluster graphics, and a semi-baffling leveling-up engine that’s based on a “fatigue system.” Also rampant are accusations that Square-Enix has outsourced the project to a Chinese company that can’t tell a Chocobo from a horsebird.
Any competition is welcome in the MMORPG genre, but if it’s half-formed, it may as well not be there at all. It’s too early to tell how either Phantasy Star Online II or Final Fantasy XIV will really fare against WoW, but you might want to hang out with your Tauren buddies a bit longer and watch how things pan out.