Massively Overthinking: On the popularity of the MMORPG genre


This week’s Massively Overthinking comes from Kickstarter donor Syllable, who wonders,

“Why do you think MMOs are not as popular as they were few years back?”

Is it true? Under what definitions and caveats? If it’s true, then why? And if not, why do people believe it to be? I posed these questions to our writers — and now I pose them to you.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): There’s a general sense that MMOs are less popular than they were a few years ago, but it’s quite difficult to prove as trends like free-to-play and the proliferation of cash shops mean we’re no longer comparing apples to apples. Global subscriptions have certainly dropped in the past few years, but the number of MMO players worldwide has reportedly increased. The latest financial projections I’ve seen also showed that MMO revenue was up worldwide, but those figures used a grossly incorrect definition of MMO that included games like League of Legends and CounterStrike Source. The truth is that this industry has no reliable and impartial experts capable or willing to assess the state of the market, only invested parties trying to make their corner of the market look bigger than it is and private analytics companies that don’t know what they’re doing but will pretend they do in order to sell a $4,000 industry report.

I believe that the market for traditional MMOs is shrinking in the west, and media trends over the past few years have shown that online gamers’ time has been moving from true massively multiplayer games to instanced and lobby-based online games such as MOBAs. A big part of the reason has to be the decreasing time that people now have to play, as the generation of gamers who once sunk hours per night into dungeon runs now increasingly have jobs and families of their own. The average EVE Online player when I started was about 23 years old and likely to be a student, but today the average player is close to 30 and has a degree-level qualification. The average gamer in general is now reported to be about 31 years old, and if that trend is universal, then it makes sense that games which offer shorter play sessions and require fewer scheduled events are going to do well.

Attitudes are changing with regard to online gaming too, and people just don’t seem to care about things like persistence and sharing virtual spaces any more. Gamers are still buying always-online singleplayer games despite the complaints, and they seem happy with the seamless matchmaking in games like Elite: Dangerous (which lets you switch contact with other players on and off at will) compared to the persistence of a game like EVE Online. The younger generation in particular doesn’t seem to be as interested in the long-term nature of MMOs and virtual worlds, a trend that might be due to their growing up with fast internet connections and instant access to media. Today’s young gamers seem to spend a lot more time than we do watching gaming videos on YouTube and streams on Twitch to get their fix, and famous personalities have emerged on both platforms to give an entertaining twist on gaming. I can’t help but think that MMOs just don’t fit into this format very well, and as a result they’re losing traction with this audience, who are now more interested in shorter session-based games and indie titles.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t think MMOs are not as popular as they were a few years back. The MMO player numbers and overall number of MMO offerings continue to widen and spread out, even if you narrow it down to just “real” MMORPGs. I do think fewer truly AAA MMORPGs are being made, though, and some of the AAA games are cutting back significantly or turning to crowdfunding akin to AAA non-MMOs shying away from standard publishing paradigms. MMOs are becoming more and more expensive, and we’re having to share financing, resources, and player time with MOBAs and not-so-massive online games now.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): “A few years back” is a remarkably vague time frame. I mean, that could cover any time between 2013 to 2006, and I’m fairly certain MMOs as a whole have gone through plenty of peaks and valleys over that period of time. There was a rise and fall for several big titles along the way there, and all along the way I’m fairly certain that we still had writers who do not play MMOs demonstrating a staggering unfamiliarity with MMOs as a whole. Saying “not much has changed” would be a lie, but certain cycles do repeat themselves.

I’d argue that over the past few years we’ve seen several games settling into comfortable spaces, one major success story in the form of Final Fantasy XIV, and a few big projects that didn’t hit with the impact they predicted due to some boneheaded decisions. That’s been bookended by World of Warcraft’s ongoing dedication to bleeding subscription numbers because if you have a better explanation for the past several years of that game’s lifespan, I would love to hear it. But none of that means that MMOs are less popular, just that online gaming is evolving in some different ways, developers are trying out new ideas, and so forth.

MMOs are, I think, as popular as they’ve ever been. The past few years have had some unkindness mixed in, but there have also been some soaring points, and on an average I think they’re doing pretty darn well.

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): Are they not as popular? I don’t know; I guess I’d have to see some data before I just go with that. Anecdotally, they seem more popular than ever, and too popular for my tastes. Yes, I know, hipster this and rose-colored glasses that, but if you stop slinging labels and actually study the history of the genre, you will see how much the games and their feature sets have changed.

Said changes were a series of design decisions made to attract a larger audience that didn’t like MMOs the way they were, and that audience is still here, solo-grinding their little hearts out. I guess MMOs are dwarfed in popularity by MOBAs and by single-player games in general, but when has that not been the case? This has always been a niche genre that has only gained in popularity as it has lost pieces of what made it unique.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): What’s new becomes old and what’s old becomes new. What, I can’t just spout cryptic mumbo-jumbo and be done with this one? Heh, oh well. While it’s still very hard to determine any patterns of the industry due to its relative newness (yes, even two decades is pretty “new” compared to other forms of entertainment), I’d concede that there are periods where there’s more general community hype and periods where things slump. I don’t think it’s that shocking to say that when there’s more to get excited about — big-name MMOs and expansions in development — it’s easier to see MMOs as on the rise once more.

But the fresh car smell of MMOs is long gone: excitement over the novelty of MMOs, the experimental nature of studios, and World of Warcraft surfing a huge wave of popularity. We have since gone through a tumultuous period of cloning, backlash, some successes, a major shift in how MMO business models are done, the Kickstarter revolution, and voxels, voxels, voxels everywhere. While fewer studios are taking big risks with huge budgets, we’re seeing more innovation with smaller titles for the first time in a long while — and that’s genuinely something to get excited about.

One other thought: It could be that MMO vets have tempered excitement with reasonable expectations. We’re no longer going “overboard” with our anticipation as we used to because we’ve been burned by developers or by our own internal hype.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I’m not completely sure that they are less popular than they were before. I think the drop in perceived popularity is like due to World of Warcraft’s drop. However, that being said, the spike in population after the launch of Warlords of Draenor tells me that people still want to play an MMORPG, it’s just that no one game encompasses everything they want anymore. Players have spread themselves out among the half a trillion MMOs that are out there since the launch of WoW.

From a development standpoint, individual games have become less profitable because the market has been saturated. But I wouldn’t call that less popular unless you are judging from the publisher’s standpoint.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Why are MMOs not as popular? Depending on how you define popular, I’d say that statement is not quite accurate. If you look at the number of people playing MMOs across the board, then I’d say they are more popular because the sheer number of people playing now is much larger than before. MMOs as a whole are less niche (even when individual games are niche) so there are people in playing who had never even heard of them years ago. There’s also more of a variety of titles to pull in people with different tastes.

However, if you are talking about numbers of players per game or number of hours dedicated to each game, then yes, I’d say they are less popular. The majority doesn’t seem to want to settle in a single world but flit about taste-testing everything. Add to that the fact that the generation that did cut its teeth on the intensive virtual worlds of yesteryear has reached a stage of life that doesn’t often allow for marathon gaming sessions, and you have fewer people spending time in the games.

Now, if you are talking about the passion and love of MMOs, that one is way too subjective! I just can’t answer for other folks out there. For me, I’ve come across a game I am having trouble tearing myself away from and look forward to getting back into when I am away. Granted, that feeling has been absent for a little while, but it is back — and I am enjoying it!

Patreon Donor Roger: I wish Syllable could give us a bit more to go on, so I’ll assume two versions of this question: not as popular to play and not as popular to be made. I honestly don’t have the numbers here to give an objective view, but based off my own observation, there’s still a lot of people playing. They’re spread out and changing the game they are in, and some are just in hibernation until a new game comes along. How about being made? I’m pretty sure the lackluster recent releases of MMOs haven’t helped investor confidence — namely WildStar, Elder Scrolls Online, and ArcheAge. With the huge success seen in the MOBA arena, investors are chasing after a new dollar. That’s not to say MMOs aren’t seeing growth, just not everything online is being made into an MMO.

Your turn!

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