When the man behind Ultima Online talks, it's probably a good idea to at least listen to what he has to say. Richard Garriott believes that companies like Blizzard are going to have more to worry about in the future from companies like Zynga than big name rival publishers. Could he be right? Has Blizzard missed a potentially big boat?
When Ultima Online first launched in 1997 not many people suspected that it would become the phenomenon it has, and fewer still predicted that it would help establish a genre that stands as one of the most financially successful ones in the industry right now. Richard Garriott certainly was a forward thinking individual, and to his credit he still is.
In fact, just recently Garriott has stated that companies like Zynga will be the ones to pose the greatest future competition towards already established giants like Blizzard. In an interview with Industry Gamers Garriott notes that while something like Zynga challenging Blizzard seems like a pipe dream at the moment, but that, "Right now, where those worlds seem very distinct, and very separate, and very noncompetitive, they’re targeting completely different users - I think within a few years, you’ll see that’s not really the case."
The Ultima creator sees the current state of the Facebook based companies like Zynga as only the very beginning of what will evolve into a powerhouse threat towards the current juggernauts of online gaming which Blizzard stands at the forefront of. He states, "I think you’ll see that the quality level that comes up through the casual games will rival the quality of traditional massively multiplayer games and then, because it’s not something you have to subscribe to, because it’s something that virally spreads, and especially because, as people churn out of a big MMO they’ve got to go somewhere. And if you’re a company that does only one big MMO, odds are they’re churning out for somebody else,"
It's easy to label such speculation as just so, but Garriott has had an impressive track record and although past success doesn't guarantee that future predictions will be correct it certainly doesn't hurt the chances either. Garriott also sees this potential threat as something of a failing on the part of companies like Blizzard to jump into the market and assert their dominance over it from the outset, saying, "The only reason Zynga exists is because people like EA, people like Blizzard, failed to step in. And so each of these major upheavals allows new, major corporations to come in and fill that space, which I think is to the great detriment, and then leaves the big companies of the previous iteration actually trying to catch up."
Garriott does bring up some intriguing points to think about, but I believe there is room for some measure of debate here.
My first and foremost concern is that if Zynga is really going to become a top class competitor, then the company itself will have to avoid the same stagnation that its potential future competition is accused of currently suffering. Garriott talks about the games evolving, but at the moment it seems to me from the outside at least that they might have reached a bit of a ceiling themselves. Without wanting to invest and take the time to make games better, companies like Zynga will never really move past the modest Facebook diversions to pose an actual threat.
Secondly and just as importantly, Blizzard are many things: idiots they are not. If there comes a time when they see the potential in this market, I have no doubt that both them and others will move in full force. They haven't done so so far because it's quite possible that they see no need to. Certainly it's arrogant, but it's also likely that the second that the big name companies catch a whiff of a threat or potential for profit that they'll move in fast and hard. Zynga and companies like it will be entrenched of course, but Blizzard and the others have advantages of huge preexisting playerbases and a trusted name.
What it comes down to is that there's little doubt that a battle could be on the horizon, but will it be as big a deal as Garriott thinks it will? I certainly don't believe so, but only time will prove any argument right or wrong in this regard.