The next crop of AAA MMOs are largely ones that started development before the recession and before World of Warcraft finally started to lose subscribers, but weren’t far enough along to be totally locked into their designs. The advances in game systems probably have a lot to do with the fact that “just copy WoW” has been proven to not be a great way to make back your multi-million-dollar investment. For the first time in a decade, it’s no longer necessarily the safe bet to keep your designers from innovating too much.

But it’s also the first time in a decade that investing in MMOs seems like a huge risk. When Everquest had a few hundred thousand subscribers, it was tremendously successful. But then WoW got into the millions and that set expectations accordingly. We’re now in a realm where AAA games cost so much to make that games with hundreds of thousands of players paying their $15 a month are considered flops, and will soon find themselves converted to a freemium model to try to get more than $15 out of the hardcore and draw in a bigger audience willing to kick in a couple bucks here and there. Star Wars: the Old Republic had quite likely the highest-population MMO launch ever and it wasn’t nearly enough to actually count as a success, given the costs of production.

And even if your investors take the long view that a decent launch will pay back the game eventually, that doesn’t account for so many games hemorrhaging subscribers after the first couple of months. These days, there’s too much competition, and you can’t lock in your players for years the way WoW and prior successful games did. Players buy your game, play it for a while, and then move on to the next thing. The next thing might not even be an MMO: it’s possible part of SW:tOR’s problem was just its own sister game, Mass Effect 3, coming out shortly after launch and dragging people out of the MMO long enough to lose inertia. That’s certainly what happened to me.

While it’s been predicted before many times by smarter industry analysts than me, what I’m saying is that this next generation of MMOs may be the last generation of them in the sense we’ve come to expect: an immersive 3D action/adventure/RPG with a ton of content. Creating something that can even compete on that front costs millions and millions of dollars that it might never make back, and the smart money these days is in Web and mobile games. Investors are scared, fans are burned out, and developers are shell shocked from the frequent layoffs.

I’m really hoping that there’s enough innovation in this generation to get players excited again. Because if there’s not a big hit that keeps its audience long enough to make its investors happy, the next generation after this one is going to have a nigh-impossible time getting funding. I think there’s still a lot of cool things MMOs could do that other genres can’t, particularly now that they’re finally out of the decade long shadow of trying to emulate EQ and WoW. I’ll be very sad if we never get to see them.