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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because its an unsustainable lifestyle for the vast majority.

after a decade of millions having gotten sucked into it, there are a lot of stories of the aftermath.
the toll its taken on many lives.

and the millions themselves learn from 1st hand experience what a massive impact it has on their lives.


disUserNameTake melissamcdon

The part that you’re correct about is that you “believe”.  You believe without any real numbers…

MMORPG gaming is VASTLY more popular today than it was a few years ago.  Yes, we as players are spread out across a great many different games instead of packed into a couple of games and so to certain people they may imagine MMOs are less popular than they used to be but there are many many more millions of players into MMO games now than there used to be.

Mobile gamers mostly grew out of what used to be FaceBook and Browser gamers, and then of course a lot of new gamers growing up that would have trickled into other types of gaming have stuck to Mobile gaming instead.

One of the things you’re missing is that many of these mobile players are playing mobile MMOs.  It’s not as if PC is the only medium where these exist.  So not only has the PC MMO player base expanded by many millions, but these crazy amount of Mobile gamers have added in a great many more playing mobile MMOs.

So MMOs as a whole are doing absolutely great and have more players than ever.  You’re trying to get technical by saying that a smaller percentage of gamers as a whole are playing, but you don’t have numbers to back that up, that’s just a personal belief.  

I”ve noticed that as people tend to get older and lose some interest in MMOs themselves, they suddenly feel that’s the way the entire gaming population is.  This is especially true since their entire group of friends are also aging and often losing interest at the same time so they look around at the people they personally know and think MMO use is declining.  They’re not out there seeing just how many games exist now and how many people are playing them or realizing just how many new players join every day to pick up the slack.

I see MMOs being more popular than ever now, and mobile gaming has only added to that number, not taken away.  A lot of people don’t realize how many MMOs exist on mobile right now, how popular they are (and growing), and how many new MMOs are in development.  PC gamers are especially ignorant of this, but so is anybody who doesn’t do the searching and expand their mind and groups they associate with to learn about all the mobile MMOs out there.

Yes, mobile added a lot of gamers (though as mentioned, took a lot of gamers that already existed on Browser and FaceBook type games already as well).  But it’s not as if they joined and are all playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds.  The majority of the most popular games are all multiplayer online games.  Those may not be the traditional MMOs that you’re used to, but they are still very much MMOs.

And they have numerous classical types of MMOs out too.  A lot are overhead action, but they have numerous traditional 3D types as well.  Asobimo, Inc. is just a single company, but they alone operate 5 different 3D MMORPGs on mobile (they used to have 8 but some got old and shut down now as mobile tech moves very fast).  And that’s a minority of the MMOs that exist, it’s just one quick example of one single company’s games.


Axiom1320  Basically you can boil it down to a lack of confidence by the consumer


Kayweg Tizmah1
How is this click bait exactly?  This seems like a pretty reasonable headline for the topic to be presented. 
I can agree the question is loaded because it does assume MMOs are losing popularity when we don’t have much evidence of it.  Syllable should have merely asked, “Do you think” Instead of “Why do you think”


Tizmah1 The headline is, Tizmah. It’s loaded.
I accept that it’s being softened up once you read on, and i did.
I just don’t care for that kind of click bait approach.
The headline could have read “Are MMOs less popular than they were a few years back ?”
It’s the subtleties, the underhanded attempts to lead a discussion into a pre-defined direction.
I can’t even tell if it’s deliberate, there’s every chance that it wasn’t.
Let’s just say i have become wary, ok ?


I’m not sure about “popularity” but what’s clear is that monthly subscriptions are in decline.

More MMOs are moving to micro-transactions, cash shops and, um, cosmetic enhancements or premium subscriber models.

Does this mean that MMOs are a lot less popular than before?  Not necessarily, but the traditional funding model of receiving a subscription fee from each player every month is certainly in decline, and basically no new games of any consequence are using it.  We shall see how well the new revenue models hold up but my impression is that long-term having a cash shop with micro-transactions is simply not going to support all the costs that are associated with running the servers, updating and patching these types of games.  So I expect a lot of them to fail in the future.


melissamcdon I believe the total percentage of all gamers playing MMOs has diminished even as the overall gaming population has vastly increased, mostly from mobile gaming.  PC gaming numbers have been more or less stagnant.


There are a bunch of reasons why MMOs are less popular these days or have not seen much growth compared to the overall number of gamers.
I would speculate that the following have something to do with it.

1) Time investment.  
Most serious MMOs take a lot of time to build up a character, relative to other games.  The extreme example would be a game like EVE Online where it literally takes years to train and develop a character.  Many people are simply not willing to put in that kind of investment
2) Attention Span.

Gaming has moved more towards immediate gratification, so there has been a lot of growth in genres like MOBA.  You can play a single session which only takes maybe an hour.  Many MMOs are more suited to playing for 3-4+ hours at a time, and people simply don’t have this time or they are not accustomed and willing to spending it on a single game.

3) Cost.
The $15/mo. cost of most traditional MMOs is looking quite outmoded now compared with micro-transactions, b2p, and other business models.  Most people are simply not willing to spend this much money on a game every month, considering you can get cheap games on Steam for even less.  MMOs have higher development and maintenance costs that other types of games, so the greater charge to play them is perhaps justified.  But this is not the perception of most gamers who think “a game is a game.”  They are going to find the best optimization of cheap and fun and for many ppl MMOs are not it.

4) Mobile Gaming.
The complex, CPU-intensive nature of most MMO games is not well served by mobile devices, which have seen by far the most growth in gamers.  That said, there are MMO-style games that can be played on these devices but they are quite simplified compared to traditional PC MMOs.

5) Market Fracturing.
There are many more MMOs now than ever, but this leads to several problems.  People tend to play an MMO for the first ~6 months after it comes out and then they move onto the next one, leaving the old one a hollow shell.  These “old” MMOs then hobble along for awhile with a much reduced player base.  Also, the type of vibrant, dense communities one might expect are hobbled by this.

6) Dumbing Down and Stagnation of the Genre.
Most games in the this style have settled into a quite familiar “theme park” rut of leveling, gear progression, PvE instancing, and managed PvP, where one’s actions do not effect the game world very much or at all.  Maybe this isn’t “dumbing down” but the willingness of new companies to take risks seems diminished, perhaps because the risk of failure is quite acute.  In other words, if you’ve played a few theme park MMOs, you have really played them all.  This is why new games in this style are having trouble obtaining and keeping an audience.

7) Older Gamer Demographic.
The older gamer demographic does not have the extra time required to play.

8) Toxic and Hostile Communities.
Unfortunately, these types of persistent, massively multi-player worlds tend to attract a segment of the online population who are interested in “imposition on others” as phrased in Richard Bartle’s classic “Players Who Suit Muds” essay.  This is part of the reason the environments end up being so highly restrictive and managed, in order to control those players who just “want to watch the world burn”, troll/harass other players, etc.  This also extends to elite raiding and PvE where abuse for not following directions or performing sub-optimally is quite common.  In session based games, you only have to live with these players for a short while.  But they are always there in an MMO.

9) The PvP/PvE Conundrum.

Part of the problem I see in this genre is the usually impossible balancing act that must be done to balance/support PvE and PvP.  Oftentimes, these two gaming styles are opposed to each other.  So you see more now dedicated PvP games like Planetside 2 which have honed the mechanics of PvP with basically no PvE.  Balancing items, managing content, etc. between these two styles I think is quite difficult and “fraught with peril” e.g. maybe a particular build/item is over-powered in either PvP or PvE so it gets nerfed but causes unintended repercussions.

Anyways, that’s like a huge TLDR; I wrote there.  I find MMOs to be both the most intriguing and frustrating of all the game genres!


FooBunny3 Its funny, as much as people bash on wow and  being a wow clone.  I would actually look forward to a new IP that was very wowish in design.  Things have gotten so bad, that an updated wow clone with original IP would be a welcome addition and I would finally have an MMO to play again.


The premise of this article is only true if there are fewer people playing MMOs than their used to be.   I believe that’s dead wrong.   MMOs have become big in Asia really only in the last decade.   I believe there are millions more playing than there used to be.   I get the feeling the article topic should have read, “Why am I (the author) bored with MMOs?”