Last week saw the launch of Star Wars Galaxies, an MMORPG so long in the making that it predates The Phantom Menace. Or maybe development didn’t but speculation did. I think it went along the lines of Lucasarts thinking of making “an MMORPG” and everyone naturally assumed it would be Star Wars related.

The MMORPG has evolved from text-based MUD’s but the first graphical milestone came with Meridian 59, which is apparently being relaunched by Near Death Studios. The first “MMORPG” termed as such was 1996’s Ultima Online, which is still going on to this day. The first MMORPG to hit critical mass was EverQuest, which was developed and published by Sony/Verant/989, the same basic entitiy that is publishing SWG.

The basic premise of an MMORPG is that of a massive, persistent online world in which people log on and play as an ongoing character. For this the players pay a recurring fee. Early MMORPG’s launched at just under $10 a month, but more recently most go in the $12-$13 a month range. SWG is setting a record by launching at $15 a month (or $12 a month if you pay a year in advance). This is in addition to the $50 for the boxed product (though that price does include a month of playtime).

A looming problem with the MMORPG concept which has already started to manifest itself is with the notion that the market is simply not going to tolerate them all. By this I mean – you can go and buy a “regular” game for around $50. You can play that game as much as you want, or as little as you want, it still costs $50. People on the whole don’t seem to mind the concept of buying a game, playing it for a bit, maybe even a lot, and then shelving it. The nice thing about “unattached” games is that you don’t have to commit to how much you will play prior to purchase. However, buying an MMORPG means that you fully intend on playing it a lot – enough to merit a $10-$15 hit per month. This is more than some people pay for some of their individual utilities.

A buddy of mine bought SWG to try it out and apparently has every intention of playing for the first month and then not subscribing until much later, if at all. This kinda blew my mind, to which his retort was that it’s not unheard of to buy a game for $50, play it for a month, then put it on the shelf indefinitely. I suppose that’s true, but the difference to me is that if I put the game on a shelf and then decide to pick it up much later, I don’t have to go pay again to play it. For that matter I don’t like the idea of having to decide within just a month whether or not I like a game. I lost interest in Neverwinter Nights but I’m starting to pick it up again. To me, this concept of paying to continue to use something you already own is the sort of thing that killed Divx (the DVD variant, not the codec). Still, to each his own.

But still, even $15 a month isn’t too much in and of itself. However it does limit you somewhat. There are dozens of MMORPG’s in existence vying for your money, and dozens more on the horizon. The looming problem is that many or most of these games are destined for failure, simply because they’re competing for the notion that they are the game which is worth the money you might be willing to spend on them. Some games, like Motor City Online – based on the thin premise of racing – have already folded. Sony has already unveiled a $22/month service wherein you can play all their MMORPG’s like EverQuest and PlanetSide (though SWG isn’t included). However, the prevailing theory is that the MMORPG’s that survive will have some compelling reason for doing so – such as having been around long enough to have an impact, or having a popular license. EQ and UO fit the first bill, SWG fits the second.

But then again a good license isn’t always enough. The Sims Online launched and since the original Sims game sold some 8 million copies, it was thought that a million people would buy SO. However, initially only 110,000 bought the game, and only 40,000 stuck around for the second month. Complaints about the game mostly centered around the notion that it was essentially a very graphical chat client. Speculation by analysts seems to indicate that most of the copies sold of The Sims were to casual gamers and less likely gamers (like women in their 30’s) and few of them are interested in the MMORPG concept.