I recently read a really interesting editorial over at 1up. The premise of the article is that video games are falling into a trap that has already affected the movie industry and the music industry. The audience for video games is larger now then it has ever been, and the willingness of that audience to try new products is lower than it has ever been. For the most part, gamers are only buying the same games that everyone else is buying like the newest iteration of Call of Duty, Halo, or Madden. It's because humans want to be able to participate in shared conversations. As a consequence, the more socially connected we are (as a society) over the net the more monolithic our tastes become.
This really favors big publishers like EA and Activision that can put out games with production values that appeal to the masses, and still afford the advertising blitz or IPs (say Batman or Star Wars) that will attract the attention of the masses. Mid level publishers like THQ are being pushed out, they just don't have the budgets needed to compete at that scale. What we will soon be left with is a few big publishers selling safe bets with high production values to the masses (think summer blockbuster movies) and indie titles with low production values and miniscule budgets.
To me this seems to be a pretty accurate description of what is happening in console game space. I like to think of myself as an independent minded gamer. However, the games I have played in the last few years on my X-box 360 are generally ones you have heard of and likely ones you have played (e.g., Dragon Age Origins, Mass Effect 2, Halo Reach, Half Life 2, Fallout 3). The only things I could find in my disk collection that weren't connected to wildly popular IPs or from studios that have legions of fans (e.g., Bioware, Bethesda, Valve) were Crackdown and Borderlands. The more obscure games I have played were all downloads from small publishers.
And now we come to the point of the post, which you likely suspected all along. Is this going to happen to MMOs as a genre? I think a lot of the angst currently being directed at Star Wars the Old Republic has to do with this issue. The formula for a summer blockbuster movie seems to be: (1) rehash at least part of the story arc that Campbell outlines in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, (2) glam it the hell up with fancy special effects, a high profile IP, and/ or a huge ass advertising budget. The future that I feel a lot commentators are dreading in MMO space is the following formula for MMO blockbusters: (1) borrow a lot of mechanics and game design elements from World of Warcraft, (2) glam it the hell up with fancy graphics, a high profile IP, and/ or a huge ass advertising budget. This is very much the formula that SWTOR (and LoTRO and Rift for that matter) followed in the eyes of many MMO enthusiasts.
From there it follows that if SWTOR succeeds the formula for an MMO blockbuster will have been established. The financial success of SWTOR would be the first step down a path that inevitably leads to the place video games in general seem headed: all we will have available are predictable blockbusters or (more innovative) indie projects with lower production values.
So how do I feel about all this? I really like SWTOR. I also go out and watch all the Super Hero themed blockbusters in the Spring/ Summer with glee. I also recently bought Arkham Asylum (I won't pay $60 for a console game, I wait for them to go down), and I'm really looking forward to it. At the same time, I think Myst Online is a great MMO if you can get past the clunky controls (it must have at least ten players), I watch a lot of indie and foreign movies through Netflix (recently I watched "Super" and "The Girl who Lept Through Time" and enjoyed them both), and I really enjoyed Braid on my X-box.
I can't say that everyone panicking at the possibility that SWTOR does well is wrong. We may well be entering an era where all big budget MMOs are Diku style. I also can't decide whether I really care. The small guys will still innovate, just like they do in the music and movie industries. Let the giants spit out their predictable fluff, enjoy it for what it is if you can, and support the little guys with your time and your wallet when they make something you like. Hardly sounds like the apocalypse to me.