While Syncaine laments that the MMO genre hasn’t gone anywhere in 12 years, I was left pondering a different question: can the MMO genre go anywhere? Can there be another breakout success?
I would suggest the question is less straightforward than it might seem, for a few reasons.
The first reason is due to the nature of the genre itself. Even if you are a super-fan of Half-Life 2 and believe it to be the best game ever invented… you still likely bought and paid for other FPS titles in the past 12 years. The same is not necessarily true of MMOs. I’d wager that most people that stick with the MMO genre long-term generally find one game and settle in. And why wouldn’t you? Someone would move on from Half-Life 2 because eventually you would run out of content to explore. That is much less likely in MMOs, because they are updated regularly, expansions are released, other players generate content, and so on.
The above generates the curious (and fairly unique) phenomenon that a lot of MMO players – possibly even a majority – are still actually playing the most influential MMOs (Ultima Online 1997; EverQuest 1999; EVE Online 2003; Second Life 2003; World of Warcraft 2004). If the market for FPS titles is 40 million people, each new FPS has 40 million potential customers. Meanwhile, the market for MMOs is X – Y, where Y is the number of people currently satisfied with their present virtual home.
The second issue is one of definitions. While it might not seem so at first, “MMO” as traditionally defined is rather restrictive. For example, most people would suggest that Crowfall is a MMO, despite its “persistent” worlds having an expiration date. That sounds more like a long-lasting lobby to me. But why is Crowfall an MMO and Destiny not? Or PlanetSide 2, which is arguably more persistent than either? A game like Fallout 3 can be said to move both the FPS and RPG genres forward in specific ways, but MMO-ish games often fall outside the standard MMO purview, thus limiting potential genre-changing titles. In other words, experimental MMOs can innovate themselves right out of the genre.
Third, a given game can only really be considered influential if it, or its derivatives, are a success. Consider the glaring omission from the Top 50 list: Star Wars Galaxies. I would have thought that with the amount of name-drops SWG receives in just about every MMO dev design sheet, it would be a shoo-in contender for sure. But if you think about it, not only has SWG shut down, but I don’t even know if any other game claiming its mantle has survived or even been released yet. Anyone know of any? Regardless, this means a given game must both shake up the genre and be successful in a general sense to count – just the first is not enough. Which leads me to the next point.
Fourth, not to be alarmist or anything, but… I’m pretty sure the MMO genre as we know it has peaked. As recently as 3-4 years ago, over half the MMO market was just WoW, and WoW has lost half of said playerbase since then, and is still top dog by a factor of 3-4, minimum. Where did all the bodies go? Not to other MMOs, for sure.
This leads me to the question in the title: CAN there by another MMO success? FF14 has come the closest, but is there anyone out there that seriously believes we will see a second WoW-like coming ever again? I personally doubt it. There was always an element of “right time, right place” to WoW’s meteoric rise, and not only has that time passed, but there is pressure coming in from other genres co-opting the traditional MMO strengths, in the same way we see “RPG elements” everywhere today.
So, basically, I do not see that list of late 90s/early 00s-only influential titles as a deficiency of development testicular fortitude, but rather a simple systemic and semantic issue. Other genres can take greater risks because they need only make one sale, not twelve per year in a F2P environment, while also maintaining a healthy population. Even if smaller MMOs were released and did innovate, chances are they remain too small to be “Massive” or just shut down after a few years and thus no longer be influential.
It is lose-lose-lose for everyone, but there it is.
Almost exactly two years ago, I asked “Where are all the bodies?” in terms of a trend of flight from MMOs. Last week, Wilhelm presented the SuperData Research group’s June report. The two slides of note are below:
As pointed out in the comments over on TAGN, the accuracy of numbers and legitimacy of the research company itself might be in question. For one thing, neither FFXI nor FFXIV are even on that list. The absence of Guild Wars 2 makes a little sense given the criteria for inclusion (subscription option), but the others? I dunno. Perhaps they are being implied in the missing 26% of market share. Which, incidentally, covers $756 million of the total revenue on the chart.
In an attempt to compare the subscription revenue graph to the last update from MMOData.net, I got the following result:
My methodology was to squish the one graph until the years lined up. Regardless, I have a hard time imagining the precipitous drop in subscription revenue on their chart is correlated in reality. There is a very real decline in overall MMO population – we have reached the same population levels from mid-2008 at this point – but revenue can’t be that bad. Can it?
What is sorta interesting though is in the small text below the graph, which states the data was pulled from “36.9 million digital gamers.” If you take that figure and multiply it by the market share, you get 13,284,000 as the WoW population. Of course, WoW did not have 13+ million subscribers in 2013. Discrepancy! Or is it? If you assume a 5% churn rate each month, at the end of the year you are left with 7,178,143. That is somewhat close to the estimated 7.6 million from this year. In other words, it’s entirely possible that 13+ million players played WoW at some point during the year and 6 million of them cycled out.
On the other hand, when you plug EVE into that same equation, you get 1,107,000 players throughout 2013. So… maybe it’s all bullshit.
Accuracy aside, I think the takeaway from all this is twofold. First, the MMO market has clearly peaked and we are transitioning into a much lower (presumed) equilibrium. Second, it’s still surprising how money there is in the genre. I mean, look at SWTOR there. $165 million in revenue last year? It actually took this Forbes article to kind of shock me into the realization (emphasis added):
And what may be a surprise to many is that Star Wars: The Old Republic is actually #4 on the list, bringing in $165M in revenue last year. While much of the game went free-to-play after a disappointing debut, there’s still a subscription model that has made the MMO profitable for EA. Often SWTOR is regarded as a cautionary tale in the industry in terms of bloated budgets, over-ambition and emulating competitors, but looking at the numbers, the game has evolved into a profitable enterprise for EA, and has made even its massive budget back at this point.
I don’t even know if that is true for sure, but remember, SWTOR budget was somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million. So… are we still allowed to call the game a “failure?” The criteria gets a little goofy when you are making ~44% more than the paragon of subscription growth¹, EVE. We can maybe say that it could/should have earned more, but (presumably) profitable businesses really speak for themselves.
As always, I believe key to success is keeping realistic expectations and budgeting around that. If you need 500,000 or 1 million subscriptions to stay afloat, maybe you should calm your shit, Icarus. The entire market is like 18 million subs, and more than a third of those are locked down in Blizzard HQ. If you can get by with 50k or 100k, you should have no problems capturing a least a portion of the 500k+ people that seem to appear on MMO release days and leave a month later. Now more than any other time, you need to start small and work your way up.
¹ Which is more historical fact than current event. As far as I’m aware, EVE has lost subs at this point like all mortal MMO endeavors.
WoW subscriber losses since Q1 2011: 2,900,000.
SWTOR subscriber losses since Q1 2012: ~700,001.
Aion subscriber losses since 2011: ~600,000¹.
RIFT subscriber losses since 2011: 350,000¹.
LoTRO subscriber losses since 2011: 300,000¹.
EVE subscriber losses since Q2 2011: ~20,000¹.
Where are all the bodies?
It is seductively easy to imagine the MMO landscape as a zero-sum, closed universe. One developer’s bone-headed design mistake is another MMO’s gain. “Guild Wars 2 is going to nail the coffin shut on SWTOR/steal another million from WoW.” But it is fact that there are less people playing “traditional” MMOs today than there were in mid-2009. And there were fewer game options back then!
The graph up there is somewhat misleading in two ways. It does not represent the entire MMO market (browser-based games, etc), so it is entirely possible that in the journalistic sense the “MMO” market is doing perfectly fine. But it is misleading in the other direction too: do you really care how Second Life and Dofus and Asian MMOs are doing? There are a lot of games you will never play and/or people you cannot possibly play with that are propping up those numbers. The Truth™ is liable to paint a much bleaker picture.
I think we may need to start entertaining the notion that the entire genre – as we know it – has peaked. Not just the hot topic of F2P vs Subs, but the whole damn shebang. Classical arguments like “WoW lost subs because grinds/attunements/etc are good” become embarrassingly moot (if they were not already). Where are the bodies?
Whoever is leaving does not appear to be coming back for a second date, or even meeting new people; they have simply vanished back into the ether. Speculation on the whys seems moot as well, because there is zero indication the ex-pats transition anywhere else. Rather than go to the alternative MMOs that offer grinding/feature no grinding, they simply go away.
On a tangentially related subject, yesterday was my one-year WoW anti-anniversary:
So… we have located at least one body. A body with an extra $179.88 in its pocket at that.
Where are the rest?
¹ Based on eyeballing this chart, which hasn’t been updated in a while.