By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website
With more than eight million subscribers, World of Warcraft dominates the online gaming market but some strong rivals are gearing up to take it on.
Age of Conan promises bloody and intense combat
Gaute Godoger, game director at Funcom, said succeeding was important for the health of the online gaming world.
"The industry so needs competition to World of Warcraft," he said. "We need other strong games that can make people understand that there's more to it than WoW."
Funcom is developing an MMO based on the iconic hero Conan who was originally the creation of US author Robert E Howard.
Mr Godoger said Funcom was trying hard to make Age of Conan stand out when it launched in October 2007.
The whole tone of the game would be darker than many others to reflect Howard's vision of a corrupt lost age of Europe, he said.
This means it is likely to have a very different audience.
"It's for adults," he said. "We did not want to be a teen-rated game, we wanted to have the possibility of making a game that takes the licence seriously."
Combat will also be different and success will depend on a player's skill on the keyboard.
"Players want to be more active in combat and know that their skill as a player matters," said Mr Godoger. "There's no auto combat, you have to do all the running and attacking as you sit there."
Alongside the bloody sword-play will be areas in which guilds can create their own cities that they police and run.
In areas set aside for player-versus-player combat, guilds will be able to construct castles that others, perhaps hundreds of others, will be able to lay siege to. They will even be able to build siege engines to batter down walls.
Another game with a strong background to draw on is The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), which launched on 24 April.
It has perhaps the biggest chance of all the newcomers, thanks to the interest in Peter Jackson's films and the huge numbers who have read the books.
"Having that brand or licence is very valuable for getting a ready-made audience," said David Solari, vice president and general manager of Codemasters Online Gaming which is running and publishing the game in Europe.
In LOTRO players can take on barrow wights
But, he said, getting hold of such a licence was just the beginning.
"The very least you have to do is make a great game," he said.
Key to building up interest in the game was the community created around it. This usually means using the beta, or test, period as a way to let people take their first steps in the virtual world before it launches.
"The beta is like a demo in the regular games business," he said.
More than one million people signed up to take part in the LOTRO beta, said Mr Solari, and many of those testers have already packed their bags and moved to Middle Earth by buying the finished game.
Letting potential players loose in the world helps game makers fine tune the game and gives players a real sense that they are shaping the future of LOTRO, he said.
"For the first time we have allowed players to shape Tolkein's Middle Earth," said Mr Solari. "Players want something they can feel they can own themselves."
LOTRO has also learned from the bad experiences seen in other games, he said.
The game features some well-known foes
For instance, LOTRO rewards the repetitive actions often required in online games. In return for slaughtering large numbers of one type of creature players will become more powerful or gain a fancy title to demonstrates their prowess.
In this way, he said, LOTRO hopes to avoid the "grind" that afflicts the middle ranks of those adventuring in WoW.
Mr Solari said the game world was 50 million square meters in size and the first free expansion, Shores of Evendim, will add many more quests to the thousands found in the launch game.
He said Codemasters had found regular updates were a great way to keep players enthused.
Some older games are taking on WoW too. Star Wars Galaxies is revamping to be more fun for both existing and new players.
WoW's success, said Jake Neri, producer for Galaxies at LucasArts, has meant everyone is seeing more players sign up.
"The player base for MMO games has exploded," he said. "We see new people trying the game all the time."
"And," he added "we have some die-hard folks that will never play anything but Galaxies."
The strong licence and offline following is also a big help as is the fact the game is set in a science fiction rather than fantasy world.
Galaxies gives players more than one planet to play on
Galaxies launched in 2003 and has been tweaked a few times since as its creators realised what people wanted to do.
"Galaxies was one of the first MMOs," said Mr Neri. "There was no handbook on how to do these things."
The series of changes has aligned the game more closely with what players actually do. For instance it has led to the number of available professions being cut from 32 to nine.
The extensive tweaking has given Lucas Arts a "baseline" to keep everything balanced, said Mr Neri.
With that done, Mr Neri said, Lucas Arts had plans for a series of updates which included a beast master expertise system that would let players train and breed pets in the game.
During the gestation process players would be able to tweak the creatures to produce strains never before seen.
Also coming was a storyteller system that would let players set up and run their own themed events in game. The events could just be a party or a specially-designed combat encounter.
The game, said Mr Neri, was all about the players and what they do with it.
"They make the place come alive, just by their playing style," he said.