The Ninth Circle #12: A Shot Across the Bows


A Shot Across the Bows

In older times, before the notion of territorial waters, naval ships had free reign across the seas, and could often be seen close to the shore of hostile nations. A ship of that country would respond by approaching and firing a warning shot across the bows of the intruder. This shot was a sign that they would be attacked if they did not withdraw. A warning shot could often escalate into a battle, and even outright war. We find this scene recreated today, with Blizzard and Sony as the protagonists.

I?m interrupting the flow of The Ninth Circle to bring you my take on a recent development in the games industry. Part 3 of The Best will be pushed back to the next article.

By now you will have noted the imminent release of Lords of Everquest, from Sony. A brief glance at the gameplay notes and building graphics will show you that the game is as identical to Warcraft 3 as you can get without committing actual copyright infringement. I prefer to think of this game as Evercraft.

What is interesting to me is not the what of this game (features and so forth) but the why.

Why are Sony creating a game that is obviously intended as a direct market rival for Warcraft 3? The answer is obvious, but revealing.

Sony see Blizzard as their number one competitor in the online PC games market. Of all the companies in the industry, developers and publishers alike, it is Blizzard that has caught Sony?s eye as a competitive threat.

Sony evidently view Worlds of Warcraft as a direct threat to their own flagship title Everquest. Since WoW is being pushed on the strength of its existing Warcraft fan base, it is this that Sony is trying to erode by releasing an Everquest-themed version of Warcraft. In other words, Evercraft.

The Everquest and Warcraft franchises both have many things in common. Both are fantasy-themed games with a large, devoted following. They are both created franchises, not based on a license acquisition. Also, neither is particularly original, offering a predictable fantasy experience that has mass appeal. This is important, considering that the Lord of the Rings movies will have brought many people to consider fantasy games who otherwise never would have. The ones most likely to catch their eye are the more straightforward games with a direct tie to Tolkien. Here, I would say Warcraft: Orcs vs Humans has the advantage, as Everquest is fantasy more familiar to D&D players than those fresh from The Two Towers.

Everquest?s advantage is in business terms; they have a large existing base of paying subscribers. While nothing was said in the initial press release, I fully expect Evercraft to offer a Battle.net style service to its player too, otherwise it would fail as a competitor to Warcraft 3. Over 400,000 people pay their monthly fee to play Everquest online. If this is to be Sony?s target market for Evercraft, then their online matching service may well charge a fee, or better yet, charge a fee, but be free for existing Everquest subscribers. That?s what I would do.

While Everquest have their large installed base of subscribers, Sony should know better than anyone that this can be an ephemeral and sometimes illusory advantage. Players will quickly migrate to a game that is widely accepted as being better. Everquest had no trouble overtaking market incumbent Ultima Online when it was released, quickly surpassing it is terms of subscriber numbers, both by attracting new players to the (at the time) new area of online-only games) and also through attracting disaffected UO players. Ultima Online had a large player base, and was based on a venerable and respected franchise, who games are often talked about in glowing terms by older players, like me, in columns, well, like mine. This did not help. Everquest quickly surpassed its rival, creating a juggernaut that is still running.

If Sony feel that they also need to compete with Blizzard in the Science Fiction arena as well as Fantasy- they don?t need to worry; Star Wars Galaxies will eclipse anything anyone else can product, Blizzard included, in the online sci-fi sphere. This is why Blizzard are not making “Worlds of Starcraft:”

Sony?s move should put any rumours of them buying Blizzard to rest. It can only strengthen rumours of Microsoft doing this. Asheron?s Call and its sequel, Microsoft?s efforts to date, have failed in the market. If Microsoft are serious about competing with Sony in this area, Worlds of Warcraft and Freelancer Online would be a great way to try.

So who are these people making Evercraft? Rapid Eye Entertainment, the developer responsible, is made up almost entirely of ex 3DO staff, meaning their experience lies in the old Might and Magic games, as well as the Heroes of Might and Magic spin-offs.

Sony have another developer partner in Snowblind Studios, who previously brought Baldur?s Gate to the Playstation 2 in the form for of Dark Alliance. Snowblind and Sony have made no official announcement of their current project, so whether they are porting Evercraft to the PS2 or simply working on the PS2 version of Everquest I have no idea. They could even be making an Everquest-themed console shooter to compete with Starcraft: Ghost. Having mentioned Starcraft: Ghost, it?s worth noting that the way Blizzard approached this game, having all the work done by a third party, is more reminiscent of a publisher than a developer, and may well have alerted Sony to Blizzard?s growing power.

The good ship Blizzard has sailed too close to the shore of Sony?s core PC online games market. Lords of Everquest is Sony?s response. It will be interesting to see where things go from here.

Disclaimer: The Ninth Circle was written by Lorelorn (David Kay) and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.

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