Microsoft and Marvel to sleep together (and other MMOG thoughts)

Microsoft signed an exclusive deal with Marvel Enterprises (the comic book folks), giving the software giant rights to use Marvel’s intellectual property in MMO (massive multiplayer online) games. Read about it on CNet.

This may sound like a good deal to Microsoft, or to fans of Marvel comics and MMOs, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Here’s why.

  • From the CNet article: “The deal is Marvel’s first MMO pact. The first title is expected in 2008.” We all know that really means 2009. That’s a long time away (although not a long time considering the development efforts required to produce an MMO), and a long time to wait when there’s already a superhero game on the market, City of Heroes, which is among the better MMO’s out there. (In fact, Marvel tried suing NCSoft, makers of City of Heroes, for copyright infringement. The suit flopped.)
  • Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), owners of the EverQuest franchise and Star Wars Galaxies), recently acquired The Matrix Online and signed a deal with DC Comics to make an online game. Sony’s the big player in the market who is running into stiff competition from Blizzard (World of Warcraft) and NCSoft (City of Heroes, Lineage, GuildWars) and is trying desperately to expand its market share. Too bad they still don’t realize that to succeed in the MMOG universe, you need good games with good quality controls. Sony’s failing miserably in the quality department, and their games are suffering as a result. Sony’s expecting its DC-branded game for a “fourth-quarter release in 2007.” We all know what that means: 2008 – a long time away.
  • Consider the similarities in a game based on the Star Wars or Star Trek (where Star Trek Online is under development) universes with a game based on DC or Marvel comics. In Star Wars, you spend time killing creatures and aliens depicted in the movies, but rarely get the chance to interact with the main characters in the movies, and pretty much never get the chance to battle and kill them (i.e. you can’t attack and kill Boba Fett or Han Solo). The same would probably exist in a comic book game – you wouldn’t be able to be Superman, nor would you be able to kill Lex Luthor. So the appeal is in the market name and, to a lesser degree, the ability to have some content, but ultimately it comes down to the main issue: Can the designers design a good game, or not? Microsoft and Sony saw their greatest success in the MMO world until they got real competition; now their market share is falling because the quality of their games isn’t good enough — despite the marquee titles.
  • Finally, Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of experience in the MMOG area. They were involved with Asheron’s Call early on but eventually bailed out, returning the game to its developer, Turbine. They are developing a new game, Vanguard, right now – a game also being primarily developed by a third party, Sigil Games Online. It appears the main attraction of Microsoft as a MMOG shop is in their marketing and distribution clout. Unfortunately, those two areas are helpful, but don’t guarantee success in this area. Sony has marketing and distribution on-par with Microsoft, yet EverQuest II can’t compete with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft because the game simply isn’t as good. Don’t expect that to change significantly in the future. Marketing and distribution will help initial sales, but it won’t give a game legs, as the EQ2 vs. WOW battle has shown.

We truly are in an age of competition in online games. How everything plays out remains to be seen. To keep up with the different games and their popularity, check out MMOGChart.

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