Massively Overthinking: What’s the smallest MMO you’re willing to play?

A comment on Reddit about the current size and viability of Kritika Online got me thinking about MMO playerbases in general lately. We all know that there’s a stigma attached to little games; the big games with big servers and millions of players feel safer, and nowadays people just assume a small MMO has one foot in the grave. But it isn’t always true. We could also rattle off some smaller MMOs that seem to be moving along just fine, with bills paid. Sure, they’d like to be bigger, but they’re holding steady and know how to work the playerbase they do have rather than constantly alienate their current customers in search of new customers. And some MMO gamers actually prefer those sorts of titles. After all, if the game has just a few thousand people, it’s much easier to get to know a large slice of them, plus have your voice heard by the developers and actually influence the gameworld.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked the writers to reflect on the smallest MMOs they have played, and then consider how big an MMO has to be in terms of playerbase that they’d consider playing it now. What’s the smallest MMO you’re willing to play, and why?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Man, this is a toughy. I’m not a numbers guy, but clearly people are probably aware that I chose Asheron’s Call over EverQuest and Ultima, so clearly I’m fine with a smaller playerbase for exactly the reasons Bree mentioned: easier to get to know the community and devs. What’s such a shame about the loss of AC and its fan sites is the fact that I lost all these cool moments where I had people like AC’s Ken Troop or AC fansite owner Maggie the Jackcat answer my questions. It’s one thing to get these moments in real alphas/betas (which was always one of the bonuses of testing before pay-to-test became a thing), but in a launched game with no NDA, you always think these moments will always be around on the internet.

But I digress. Small games and their communities are fun. Small teams listening to their audience is awesome too. Horizons is still around as Istaria, Ryzom is still standing, and Star Wars Galaxies still stands on emulators alone. Clearly they can survive without being World of Warcraft or even RIFTsized. But these days, with my limited time and search to find meatspace humans to hang with, small titles are hard to embrace because I’ve seen online communities and friendships dissolve when the game is no longer the glue. It’s the advantage of the larger games.

Statistically speaking, you’re more apt to meet people who play Final Fantasy XIV and Overwatch than Project Gorgon and PlanetSide 2. I’d really (really) prefer to be playing the latter two, but since they don’t have the numerical pull of the former games, it’s an uphill battle. When I play those games, it’s mostly for myself, and generally not for very long these days. Even if I get one or two people to try these games, even when the smaller game is actually better than the more mainstream ones (which I feel is generally true), the fact remains that social ties are a significant hurdle to overcome, made worse in MMOs since few age gracefully. For me at least, these days, the smallest MMO I’d probably reasonably play would be FFXIV, and while not a bad game, I still wish it was something more niche (and I say this as someone who’s been fortunate enough to talk to the game’s director!).

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m guessing the smallest MMO I ever played heavily was Asheron’s Call, or possibly Glitch. Both are gone now. So I get the stigma, I do. I’ve watched enough MMORPGs I loved sunset around me, both big and small, so I understand why people won’t take a risk by playing the littlest ones under the assumption that they’re closest to death. That assumption keeps some games – WildStar leaps immediately to mind – locked in a downward spiral where people just won’t invest their time and effort.

That said, my own hesitation on WildStar is more because I distrust NCsoft. There are other games, far smaller games, I’d give my attention to because I trust the studio behind them. Project Gorgon, for example, may turn out to be small when it does finally launch, but I’ve seen such a staggering amount of willpower and gumption out of its tiny dev team that I have absolute faith in the game’s longevity. People who develop more out of love than money prove less likely to betray players over the latter. Likewise, I am currently still subbed to Ultima Online, which is quite small, but we’ve seen Broadsword work its tush off to continue developing the game after EA spun it out of the wreckage of Mythic.

In other words, trust matters way more than a game’s age and size to me. And that’s a good thing, given how much of the real risk and innovation in the MMORPG genre is going on in the little games right now, not the big ones.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I’m the wrong person to ask about this particular issue, partly because I have the games that I play for myself, I have the games that I play for Choose My Adventure, and in both cases I’m not tremendously worried about player numbers. Even beyond that… well, as long as the developers say that things are fine and dandy, there’s no real reason to disbelieve them. (With, uh, one notable exception where it turns out all of that was a series of lies.) If the developers can keep the lights on, things are evidently going well enough.

The problem, I think, is less about the number of players and more about how many players the game is designed for. World of Warcraft’s raid-heavy endgame structure caters to a fraction of the playerbase and requires a lot of players to remain viable, but if you have five million players, 1% of your playerbase is still 50,000 people. You have a lot of players who can still make up your raiding endgame. It’s a very different prospect if you have a playerbase made up of 50,000 players to start with, and another when you have a raiding structure that appeals to even fewer players.

WildStar, I’m looking at you.

A game that’s designed for a smaller population and winds up with a bigger population can usually scale up without too much trouble. The inverse rarely works well. Thus, the games that make me nervous aren’t necessarily the small ones, but the ones that clearly have a problem where they need a much larger pool of players to enjoy the game than the game actually has or is likely to enjoy.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Size unfortunately matters. I wish it didn’t, but realistically it does, so I don’t want to deny that. Size matters when it comes to forecasting the prospective future and lifespan of a game, and size matters when you look at the growth or decline of an MMO to equally judge its prospects. I have shied away from some MMOs because the numbers didn’t look in its favor and I didn’t want to sink a lot of time into a game that might not be around tomorrow.

That said, I’m not completely shallow or numbers obsessed. Community loyalty and activity is important, especially if there are a signs that the players love the game and are welcoming to any and all who want to be a part of it. Small and scrappy MMOs with a lean and busy development team are also important to me, and I’ve certainly enjoyed these diamonds in the rough such as Project Gorgon and Dungeons and Dragons Online.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I hate that people shy away from a smaller niche game just because of the stigma that OMG it is going to die soon just because there aren’t a bajillion players. You don’t need a bajillion players to develop and support an awesome game! If the game isn’t your style, then fine. But if the only thing keeping you from diving in is a worry that it won’t be around someday, well guess what? That attitude is what could very likely help that exact result along. If all the people who wouldn’t play a game just because they worry about lack of players over time played, the game would have a more robust player base! Crazy, huh? Besides, I’ve got news: All games are going to die sometime. It happens. So why not enjoy what is there while it is there?

Small (or large) games can die off for many reasons; it isn’t always the number of players. If a niche game has competent devs focused on making their best game for a dedicated fan base, and the studio manages its money well, the game could easily last and provide great entertainment for a significant amount of time. To me, it sometimes becomes more a focus of whether devs want to make a great game that they love or make a ton of money. If developers (or pushy investors) want to just make as much money as possible… well then yah, you’d need a lot of players forking over cash — the more the better. (Note: Now, if we start talking about lobby PvP games that depend on having a large enough number of players that there will always be enough opponents to create matches at any level and any time of the day, then yes, you need a critical mass or your game will have trouble succeeding. But I am talking MMOs here.)

How small of a game would I play? As much as I love meeting new folks in a vast world, I find more and more I play with smaller groups. I just don’t have the time or patience for drama, and large populations can’t seem to avoid it. And small, tight-knit communities can be a super plus (as long as they aren’t cliquish and drive out new folks). One of my main loves is Secret World Legends, and that doesn’t have a massive playerbase. I am also happily playing on ARK servers with very low numbers and am loving it. Honestly, I’d happily play a fun MMO with features I love even if there are only 100 other players. (Admittedly, I don’t think that 100 players can support a game with the features I want, but the point was how small of a game I would play.) Either 100 or 10,000,000, it doesn’t matter to me; I don’t care about the numbers, rather I care about what the game offers.

Now, can someone just find a way to give me more hours in every day just to actually play? That’d be great!

Your turn!

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48 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: What’s the smallest MMO you’re willing to play?"

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KatsPurr
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KatsPurr

As long as I feel secure with an MMO, the size doesn’t matter so much. Security for me is knowing that the game has enough going for it that it will still be around for quite a while. For instance Wurm Online is now over a decade old and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Second is how the game is being updated and tended to by the developers. Does it feel like it’s just in “maintenance mode” or does it feel like the team are putting effort in to enhance and improve the game continuously? Again, with Wurm as an example, yes – with weekly updates, and improvements coming all the time, with the recent rendering engine upgrade etc, I feel secure and can feel like this game is worth investing time and effort into. As we have seen with big gigantic titles, sometimes those fizzle out before they even got properly started. So “big” does not mean “secure” or “good”.

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TotalCowage .

I think anyone who has had a relatively satisfying, or just a well-traveled life hits a point where MMOs are no longer about other people; you’ve had enough experiences, and you’ve got a core of good and consistent friends already, and so you look for what a game can offer you personally, and bring your friends too it, rather than decide to play depending on how many more people there are to meet.

The only sense population matters from that perspective is if there’s simply not enough to access particular content; either the economy becomes dysfunctional, or certain raids etc are never run because few are still interested in it. In which case, I’ll still tend to play until I get to the point I’m having to endlessly spam to try and interest people in content I’ve not yet seen, and I have to make an exceptional effort to get on with people I likely wouldn’t have chosen to spend time with in a healthier community… at which point my time is probably up.

So something like Star Trek Online I’ll still fire up, because I can just ignore everyone if I feel like it, and it has automated queues for raids, so I don’t have to put up with being badgered to join people’s guilds, or lie about the kind of people I want to hang around with.

Where as some of the worst times I had in an MMO was joining EvE University (back when the game was near it’s peak) having heard the game stops being boring in Player Corps and during wars… and sitting circling a station for over 6 hours, with nothing to do but listen to someone with no discernible charisma on team speak go on and On and ON about how stoned he was, whilst people made up all kinds of weird claims about how frustrated the person hiding in the station must be, and thus it was a huge dramatic moment…

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jay

I’d rather have a small playerbase that the dev’s listen to, communicate with, and have a really good relationship with; than a mega playerbase who the dev’s ignore because “they know what’s best” and “know what the players really want”

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rafael12104

The size? It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter!

Polyanna
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Polyanna

I’m less concerned about overall population and much more so about trend; growing, shrinking, or stable.

Games that are growing are awesome because usually that happens when they’re widely perceived to be good and getting better, and it feels good to be part of a community that is always welcoming new players discovering a game you like. Most games, however, only manage to grow steadily for a short time, either after launch or after a big expansion release, before they fall off significantly and, with luck, stabilize.

Some few feel like they’re steadily growing over quite a while as they’re slowly discovered, or re-discovered, by a noticeable stream of new players over time. ESO has been like this for the last year or so since its turnaround with the One Tamriel overhaul.

Games that are stable, at any level that allows the game to be operated at a net profit, are the next best thing to games that are growing. What population level is profitable entirely depends on the developer and how good they are at sizing their cost structure to revenue.

There are games like Anarchy Online that seem able to persist in maintenance mode almost indefinitely, despite probably having only a couple of thousand players worldwide still actively playing them at all. The problem for games in this state is that at a small stable population a developer can’t afford to do anything new, which means that attracting new players becomes harder over time as the game ages with no updates. So it’s easy for a game like this to slip into a slow collapse, as attrition takes its toll and is not offset by a trickle of new players.

Games like this also often are vulnerable if the publisher operates in a boom or bust mindset, where it tends to cancel anything that isn’t generating record breaking quarterly numbers, even if it is profitable.

I am happy to play any game that is stable, at any population level that allows the game still to be reasonably playable (Anarchy Online, unfortunately, is a good example of a game that is quite un-fun to play with low pop, when groups are impossible to find), as long as I think that the publisher can be counted on to let it run as long as it is self-supporting, and as long as the content feels new to me, even if it isn’t all new to everyone.

The worst are games that are shrinking, regardless of the current population. SWTOR undoubtedly has a higher overall population than some other games like STO, but I can’t bring myself to play it anymore because it feels more grim every time I go back since 4.0, with no real hope for a turnaround in sight.

I’m happy to play STO, on the other hand, because it feels like it is trucking along quite well for years, despite never growing much beyond the modest base of loyal players it’s had since a year or two after launch. It has a cost structure and revenue model that works for it, and even funds a healthy slow flow of new content, and it always feels like it’s doing well and like there are people around still having fun with it, no matter how long it’s been since I was last there.

When a game hits a point where it feels like it’s shrinking, with no bottoming out point in view, I usually move on, because I want to remember it in better days, if I really liked it. Otherwise, if it’s either stable or growing (or stable with the occasional boom and bust cycles as expected from expansions or sales), then I’ll stick around, or at least come back often.

Cyclone Jack
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Cyclone Jack

Enough that the game sustains itself, but I’m personally a fan of smaller servers, since you get to know the other players and build a community. Though if I’m having fun, I don’t care if I’m the only person in the area.

plasmajohn
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plasmajohn

I’d probably be playing Wildstar today if they didn’t add the Primal Grind. Heck, I’d probably be back with SW:TOR if they didn’t introduce GC.

Of course I think they’d both have much healthier populations today if they didn’t implement those systems in the first place or at least recognized what a huge mistake they were and ripped them out as soon as it was apparent it was affecting the bottom line.

Nabe
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Nabe

I kinda like it when there’s less people around, as long as there’s enough to get stuff done … like TSW before it changed to SWL and Wildstar before it went f2p, I’d always see the same names in zone chat and get to know them and stuff…

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Alex Malone

The size of the playerbase has never been a concern of mine.

Mostly, this is because I’ll only play MMORPGs from launch. The first six months of an MMORPG are the absolute best in my opinion and things invariably go downhill from there. As I’m playing from launch, I’ve no clue what the playerbase will actually be so I’ll play (or not) based on the game’s merits alone.

Additionally, when I’m playing an MMORPG and the playerbase starts to drop, it becomes very noticeable and so that might prompt me to quit. Usually, what tends to happen is the amount of content being released slows down and the target audience shifts towards casual/solo player, so the game stops being interesting.

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Schmidt.Capela

My issue with Wildstar isn’t exactly size or longevity. Rather, it is that I nowadays avoid investing in games where the pinnacle of progression requires raiding (as in, group content requiring a large organized group). I’m done with raiding, I will leave a game rather than even attempt to raid in it (even with easy raid difficulties and LFR-style automated grouping), and if when looking at a game I get the impression I will eventually hit a brick wall due to my refusal to even consider raiding, I tend to not even bother trying the game.

(I don’t consider hot-joinable content to be raids, mind. I find things like GW2’s open world bosses, where anyone can join or leave at any time and players don’t have fixed roles, to be not just acceptable, but very enjoyable.)

As for how small a MMO I’m still willing to play, it’s more about whether I feel like the game is ending soon than about the size of the player base. I won’t ever bother with a game that already has an end date (to the point I immediately stop playing a game when a closing date is announced even if I do love playing it), and even if no such date has been announced I will rarely, if ever, bother with a game that I believe will close in less than a year.

A caveat: if the game had an offline mode or official, publicly available server software, and thus would allow me to keep playing even after the official servers went down, I would be willing to play it to its bitter end. More so if the game allowed me to copy my online character for offline play.

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Modrain

I’m more concerned about trends than absolute numbers.

One of the smallest MMO I played was most likely Druaga no Tou : Recovery of Babylim (it got released only in Japan and France afaik), which probably never went above one or two thousands concurrent players here. It never wanted to get big, never got big, and I was fine with it being small. During the time I played it, it never felt like the sparse population was an issue.

On the other side of the spectrum, Wildstar wanted to be big, never managed to be big, and once it went downwards, the pessimism surrounding the game was a hindrance to enjoyment (well, admittedly it wasn’t very high to begin with). When the studio’s objectives aren’t being met, that there are people leaving it, that the ambitions are being toned down… It’s really hard for me to invest time in such titles, even if it has twenty times the population of the aforementionned Druaga.

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Knox Harrington

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mysecretid

Honestly, if I’m having fun, I’ll play, even if I’m the only player in sight.

The problem is, though, that if I’m playing something where I seem to be one of the only people in the game, I start to wonder if the game is going to shut down soon, and I have to consider whether or not I want to get attached to a game which could vanish at any moment, without warning.

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Rolan Storm

SWGEmu, certainly. For sheer pleasure of playing the game at whole other point in life. I do not see more than 2k concurrent players online, but… do you know how we got used to big numbers in MMORPGs? 1500-2000 people at one place it is a lot. So I am fine with these ‘low numbers’. So I guess that’s 1000-2000 would be my number. Project Gorgon is another one. Though I have not been there for a long time. And of course SWL, though it has more numbers now.

The reason to play them is how these games made. They are all unique. SWG is still Star Wars sandbox, grind or not. Project Gorgon have so many features it will take a list to name them all. And SWL has most alluring story, an occult adventure without any comparison. In many ways these games are much better – in my book – than their much more successful cousins. Guess my reason they are interesting? Suprising even. Things I stumble upon in SWG, did in Project Gorgon (playing a cow) and learned in SWL are precious. It was fun.

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Utakata

The Chua is probably the smallest playable specie…

“I think they’re talking about MMO’s, not characters Uta.”

Oh! Err…City of Heroes? Not sure it ever broke 150k players tops…but it was memorable blast. Although, that be mid-range as opposed to small. O.o

Duey Bear
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Duey Bear

As long as there is one IRL friend to play with me I will play a dead game.

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mistressbrazen

The smallest released game I played was Glitch and I really, really, loved that game. If you went to a party there could be 20-30 Glitchens there but otherwise, you came across people here and there and you could always visit people on their streets.

In general, size doesn’t matter to me. Even when I am in a guild, I usually run quests with the same two or three people regularly. In TSW, I did the whole game duo until it was time to get all the dungeons done and fight the Gate Keeper. I want to see other people in the world, but I don’t have to interact with them to be happy and there don’t have to be thousands. I have a full, complicated, stressful life outside gaming so the relationships within a game world are nice but not necessary for me.

Estranged
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Estranged

I play games I like and don’t worry about shutdowns or population.

A short time that is fulfilling is better than years of average.

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Knox Harrington

That’s what I tell people when they ask why I’ve been married so many times lol

Estranged
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Estranged

Knox, I’m going to steal your line.

Better to have loved and lost…

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Bryan Correll

I kinda like a small community myself, as long as the mechanics of the game don’t require it have a huge population to run smoothly. Cause sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came.

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Thomas Zervogiannis

I wouldn’t mind tiny MMO’s, as long as they are not in danger of shutting down, and their world does not feel empty – some of them are like that. For example, I just started looking at https://screeps.com/, which is exactly that: a tiny but fun MMO (though technically not exactly RPG) with around 70-100 concurrent players and an extremely niche design. Popular MUD’s also come in mind.

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Rolan Storm

That’s a good one, thanks for sharing.

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Thomas Zervogiannis

You’re welcome :) I was also curious to see if MOP wrote about this one and to their credit, they also covered it when it launched: http://massivelyop.com/2015/08/10/player-scripted-mmorts-screeps-is-launching-on-august-12/ and I think on one more article sometime.

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Rolan Storm

2015, August… No wonder I missed it. I’ll share with my little brother and a friend of mine. Coder and SysAdmin respectively, they might be interested.

In other words: fun little game, I’ll spread the word. Ta.

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Rees Racer

Fallen Earth was probably the smallest MMO I played for any considerable length of time (years ago). I don’t what state it’s in presently, but I reckon it still has a (very) small and extremely dedicated player-base.

The game’s rough, no question…but it had so many great features, wonderful setting, clever writing, satisfying gunplay, and a crafting system that was almost unparalleled.

I have nothing but very fond memories of it, but I simply can’t go back as I’ve been spoiled by games with more polish, better graphics, and brighter (longer) futures…

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Armsbend

For me a few hundred K is preferable. I’ve found that in gaming popularity is usually always a plus – unlike other art forms. Once a novel is written, or an album is made it’s there – you can’t take it away and nothing is going to happen to it in the future. For an MMO once it’s released it only gets better if they can continue to fund it. So you have to simply be popular. If you aren’t i’ts a spiral of defeat. Players continue to leave, money dries up and eventually development either dries up with it or it’s becomes less interesting or they are forced to adopt more unattractive methods like lockboxes or re-using old assets.

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Robert Mann

I’ll play whatever I like, with whatever size community. That said, if a game requires people for content, it needs enough people to do the content (very rare to be an issue, honestly.)

Richard de Leon III
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Richard de Leon III

Personally I could play a solo MMO, even if i was the last player. Especially if the game has some very good solo content. I could play WoW if i was the last player forever, I couldve played CoH forever too. Which is why i wish mmos that have susetted were sold as a single player game when they closed down cuz i would love to play em especially without other players mucking things.

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Schlag Sweetleaf

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rafael12104

Lol! Nice!

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Thomas Zervogiannis

Wheee!! Monkey Island reference. Love that game!

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Rolan Storm

Aren’t we all. :)

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Schmidt.Capela

The first thing I thought when I saw the image:
“You fight like a Dairy Farmer!”
“How appropriate! You fight like a cow!”

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Rolan Storm

Yeah-heh-heh… Good times. Have remake for a few years in my library now, still had not played.

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Bruno Brito

Neocron is good, but it’s so damn small that i’m lost and lonely most of the time.
Anarchy Online is one i want to play more.
Wildstar will always have this fear. But the game in running for what now, 2/3 years? Cmon.

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Castagere Shaikura

Earth & Beyond Emulator
Neocron 2 Community run
Are two games i always have on my PC. They were two of the first mmo’s i ever played. I did also have Asheron call 2 before Turbine shut it own. Anarchy Online was my first mmo. And i would still be playing it but i don’t like what Funcom is doing with it. The game will be 17 years old this year.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Well, I’m playing Stash from Frogdice. It’s grid-based MMO and based on the playing field SMALL definitely applies. Nonetheless, it has everything an MMO has and some things I really like, public dungeons, in-depth crafting. Not a lobby game. Not instanced. Actually small might be a stretch. Tiny is probably better. Still, there are enough people playing to keep the chat channels going.

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Leiloni

I’m not terribly concerned with how big a playerbase is – only with if a game is fun. Games of all sizes can be fun, or very much not. I know I’m in the minority with that opinion, though. Having a smaller playerbase doesn’t affect the fun factor for me, nor does it make me afraid that the game will die down because in my experience, a lot of smaller games stick around for quite a while. I tend to get tired of games long before they shut down.

I’ve only ever played a game for ~2 years before leaving – I’m not the type to stick around for 5-10 years – so a game’s potential death is never something I worry about. And I’d guess that the majority of gamers is in the same boat with that one, so I don’t know why they all worry so much about games dying.

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Phubarrh

Well, if it was small enough to get shut down, I guess that would be City of Heroes.

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connor_jones

Secret World legends with their what, limit of 20 or so people in each of the open world questions maps?

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TheDonDude

A MUSH.

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Sally Bowls

It doesn’t need to have a million players, but I can’t see going below 100,000 often. I want a lot of my questions to be googleable; reddits/forums that are active. Some blogs & guides. I find the OOG experience especially tends to drop off if there are too few players.

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Thomas Zervogiannis

For in-game (as opposed to technical) queries, not having tons of information might not be a bad thing (at least for some): little information puts the players on an even ground of exploring and learning the game by themselves, and this has its own charm.

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Armsman

As long as I find the game fun, and can do the content, I could care less about the number of subscribers (as long as it’s enough to keep the game running of course.) I don’t play games because they’re popular (or not) – I play them to enjoy myself. <— For me THAT'S what matters.

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Daniel Allan

I used to play era online back in the day, an old mmo coded in visual basic
I don’t recall if it ever topped 50 players I played it for quite awhile before moving on to UO private shards that never had more than say 100 players

In general I don’t interact with many players, if a mmo was more condensed I wouldn’t mind, maybe its finally time for a micro online game, persistent world but more story focused with perhaps everyone on the server playing it as a single group., crowfall is sounding a little like it with the temporary kingdoms, if it wasn’t quite so pvp focused id be more interested.

saying that, other players is still the main reason I play mmorpgs over other game types,

playing ffxiv atm and it nearly does feels like a single player game outside of enforced group dungeons, still waiting for a mmo that’s more player driven story, EQN was sounding like it before coming vaporware.

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Zen Dadaist

It’s relative to the people I know that play and our ability to get the content done. So in the case of Anarchy Online, which has a tiny tiny active population these days, it’s big enough for me to be able to play just fine because my friends and I are so well set up after all these years, we can do anything we want. If I was wholly reliant on randoms and PUGs then I think it’d be too frustrating and would need a bigger population. Sometimes I PUG in Rift and it can be depressing when queues are so, so long.

kofteburger
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kofteburger

Landmark.

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