19 Feb 2011

The Last MMO on the Street

It’s difficult to argue against the hype that a strong retail release can generate. Pictures of gamers lining up in the cold and the dark to be the first to get their hands on a new game make for great newspaper articles and TV features.

There’s also the social part of being one of these gatherings. There’s a feeling of being a band of brothers in arms, as if we’re all members of some secret club sharing knowing winks and inside jokes.

But is it, when all is said and done, actually needed?

Cataclysm managed to break sales records again, managing to shift 3.3 million copies in the opening 24 hours and 4.7 million in the first month. For the first time this also included copies sold as a digital download. As a comparison, the previous record holder was Wrath with 2.8 million.

The retail stores didn’t reach saturation, at least from what I saw. Even today there are still places trying to shift unsold boxes of the Cataclysm Collector’s Edition. The online sales were priced to match the high street, although it’s unclear if this was to maintain margins or avoid an uproar from retail firms.

The figures might be impressive, but in the context of videogame sales they’re not that high. In the previous year Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 managed to notch up 4.7 million copies sold in the first 24 hours. While Warcraft’s figures are great for PC, they’re not record breaking when compared against other games.

With the dwindling PC prominence in our local games stores anyway, including a buoyant indie scene that’s going direct to Steam and skipping retail altogether, are the days of physical PC game boxes numbered? Considering that the PC is considered the “home of MMO”, are we witnessing the last wave of top tier games to make it to the shelves?

For larger developer-publishers like Activision Blizzard, having a retail channel is a clear advantage due to the marketing clout a successful launch can generate. Smaller MMO developers may choose to skip the high street altogether and instead focus on a pure online delivery. This can only be a good thing, as lower costs can potentially mean more MMOs, greater innovation in the genre and increased competition.

It may well be that Blizzard’s Titan may be the last MMO box we see on the shelves. From there on out, our access to virtual worlds may be an entirely virtual purchase.

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