Lego Universe MMO set to close

If you’re feeling the squeeze, what do you do to make ends meet?

Some of us stick a jumper on and light a few candles to keep the soaring fuel costs down; others stop going out to pubs and clubs. Soup can be a great comfort too, but what about electronic entertainment like games? Where do these fit in to the austerity belt-tightening?

According to LEGO Universe, quite high. The online brick building game is set to close its moulded doors on January 31st offering gamers their last month of play for free.

Describing it as a “very difficult decision to make” it would seem that market forces have played their part, with the game unable “to attract the number of members needed to keep the game open.”

Praising the “amazing community” is all very well, but what of the prices? EVE Online costs just under 15 Euros per month – around £12 – and that’s a hardcore gaming title for adults. Meanwhile LEGO Universe was priced at a comparatively obscene £9.99 per month.

So with prices much higher than many young LEGO fans might have on a monthly basis – coupled with the need to play regularly when homework might be a priority, it certainly seems that attracting the the right number of members was a problem. But this isn’t a problem with the game or the community, but with the business model. It is a shame that the fans have to miss out simply because someone paid to know better made an error of judgement.

It’s a shame that LEGO Universe isn’t able to take a leaf out of Star Wars’ book, and reformat the game or release a new version. Star Wars Galaxies opened in 2003 to a big fanfare that was soon dampened by various in game problems and the rush for every newbie to be a Jedi. Noticing some imbalances in the game the developers made some changes, but a few more rebalances later the community was abandoning in droves following an unnecessary reset of the game world.

The best thing about Star Wars Galaxies is that it now exists as a model of how not to run an MMO based on a major franchise; its December 2011 closure date is one week before the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic, so clearly lessons have certainly been learned by Lucasarts.

Sadly, the problems aren’t limited to LEGO Universe. It seems that the world’s biggest fantasy MMORPG, World of Warcraft, has encountered a recent slump in subscriber numbers. While this should come as no surprise given the number of free-to-play alternatives such as Warhammer, Lord of the Rings Online, Guild Wars and DC Universe Online, what is most interesting is that the downturn in subscribers is mainly in Asia and China, the game’s traditional safe-haven.

Could it be then, that despite the need for austerity and belt tightening in the Euro Zone, gaming remains a priority for home entertainment? It certainly looks that way – global sales of games consoles and popular titles have increased over the past 12 months, continuing a trend that has been running for several years now.

While these figures don’t include the PC gaming industry, rumours of its death have been repeated so often that they simply cannot be believed, especially with current hardware allowing computers to out-perform Xbox 360.

While World of Warcraft will of course survive, the same can’t be said for LEGO Universe, which is a great shame as it offered an online gaming environment that was unique.