Will NCSOFT's 'WildStar' Be the Next 'World of Warcraft'?

WildStar, an eagerly anticipated new MMOPRG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) from NCSOFT's Carbine Studios, is launching for the PC today.

The release of WildStar has been preceded by a lot of hype. In an interview with IGN, producer Stephan Frost called WildStar "one of the most feature-complete MMOs to be coming out in the past 10 years," comparing the game to premium content found on HBO.

Carbine Studios has the talent to back up those bold claims -- it was founded by 17 members of Activision Blizzard's (NASDAQ: ATVI  ) Blizzard Entertainment, the creators of World of Warcraft, one of the most popular MMOs of all time. NCSOFT, the South Korean publisher of popular MMOs Guild Wars, Lineage, and City of Heroes, acquired Carbine Studios in 2007.

WildStar. Source: Carbine Studios.

WildStar is a pulpy sci-fi western MMO -- a theme that anime series like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun, along with cult favorite series Firefly -- have explored in the past. That's a notable departure from traditional fantasy MMO titles such as World of Warcraft, Zenimax/Bethesda's Elder Scrolls Online, and Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.

To see if WildStar can live up to the hype, let's focus on three key areas -- the MMO market as a whole, the market for sci-fi MMOs, and WildStar's business model.

The market for online games is shifting away from MMOs
The launch of Blizzard's World of Warcraft in 2004 was the watershed event that made MMOs a viable mainstream business. World of Warcraft peaked at over 12 million subscribers in 2010, but as of last quarter, only 7.6 million subscribers remained. Activision tried to attract new subscribers by making the game free-to-play up to level 20, after which they must pay a monthly subscription fee.

There were three main reasons that the number of World of Warcraft subscribers declined -- the game was aging graphically compared to flashier titles, similar titles fragmented the market, and free-to-play MMOs became popular with casual gamers.

Another major factor, which affected all MMOs across the market, was the rise of MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) titles such as Tencent/Riot Games' League of Legends and Valve's DotA (Defense of the Ancients) 2. These games, which center around "heroes" battling it out in a large arena, were much faster-paced than traditional MMOs.

Both League of Legends and DotA 2 are free-to-play but feature microtransactions. League of Legends is now much bigger than World of Warcraft, with 67 million monthly players, 27 million daily players, and 7.5 million concurrent players. In early May, DotA 2 also surpassed World of Warcraft's user base with 7.85 million unique accounts.

League of Legends. Source: Riot Games.

The sci-fi MMO market can be a tough one
There's another reason that MMO developers don't often develop sci-fi MMOs like WildStar -- they simply don't attract as many gamers as fantasy MMOs.

CCP Games' EVE Online, a title best known for its ridiculously expensive spaceship battles, only has around half a million subscribers despite being launched 11 years ago. Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) /LucasArts' Star Wars Galaxies never became the hit it was meant to be, but limped along for eight years before finally being discontinued in 2011.

Sci-fi MMOs like EVE Online frequently struggle with user growth. Source: CCP Games.

Electronic Arts (NASDAQ: EA  ) /Bioware's Star Wars: The Old Republic -- which cost approximately $155 million to make -- initially looked doomed, but it bounced back from under a million subscribers to 1.6 million after EA replaced the game's subscription-based model with a free-to-play one.

The business of WildStar
WildStar's base game will cost $59.99, while the digital deluxe version -- which includes an in-game hoverboard, suit of armor, armor dye, and special title -- will cost $74.99. Both versions include 30 days of free game time.

After that, gamers will have two payment options. The first will be through a regular monthly subscription, which costs between $10.99 (full year) to $14.99 (monthly). The second is through an in-game item known as a C.R.E.D.D., which can be redeemed for 30 days of additional game time, similar to the PLEX (Pilot License Extension) in EVE Online. C.R.E.D.D.s can also be sold to other gamers for in-game currency.

But when we add all of that up, WildStar costs considerably more than many of its competitors. World of Warcraft is now free-to-play and costs $12.99 to $14.99 per month after level 20. Final Fantasy XIV's base game costs $39.99, and its monthly subscription also costs $12.99 to $14.99. Plenty of other games, such as Sony and Warner Bros.' DC Universe Online, are also free-to-play.

Yet that doesn't mean that WildStar is necessarily overpriced. Zenimax/Bethesda launched Elder Scrolls Online for $59.99 to $79.99, along with a $14.99 monthly subscription fee and in-game microtransactions. Nonetheless, Zenimax reported that 5 million players had registered for the beta version of the game by the time the game launched in April, although it's unclear how many of those players have upgraded to the retail version.

However, WildStar players should remember that Elder Scrolls Online is popular for two other reasons -- it's part of a 20-year-old franchise, and it's a fantasy MMO, not a sci-fi one.

The Foolish final take
In closing, plenty of gamers are excited about WildStar's unique setting, humor, and its customization features for characters and housing. But the main question now is if it can live up to Stephan Frost's lofty promise that the game would be the "HBO of MMOs."

WildStar. Source: Carbine Studios.

WildStar clearly faces some major challenges -- the market now favors free-to-play games with microtransactions, MOBAs are stealing players away from MMOs, and sci-fi MMOs have traditionally been less popular than fantasy ones.

So what do you think, fellow gamers? Will WildStar live up to the hype and deliver on its big promises, or will it fizzle out like many World of Warcraft wannabes before it?

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