Massively Overthinking: Are MMORPG players a minority in their own genre?

Oh my.

Deep in the comments of the MMOs-vs.-survival-sandboxes thread from last week, reader miol_ produced a beautiful comment about how MMO players have become a minority in their own genre, which he then expounded upon for us in this provocative email.

“I’ve reached the opinion, that since the launch of WoW and its clones, the ‘original’ MMO-playerbase became a minority in their own genre. Before, we were but hundreds of thousands of MMO players, but then came Blizzard with WoW and its legions of fans in the dozen of millions at its peak, starting to dictate what the new success of MMOs should look like. Even if we others tried to vote with our wallet and feet, we became a minority, having only a fraction of our initial influence, while many devs tried desperately time and again to find ways to get at least a portion of the new Blizzard playerbase.

“Am I wrong with that perception of history? Am I totally missing something? Or are ‘we’ are slowly becoming a majority again, now that WoW and its clones are seeing steadily declining numbers (instead of us winning more players to ‘our side’)? How do we lobby better for ‘our cause’? Or can we only wait and see, until the genre is small enough again? Or is it too late? Have we ourselves grown too far apart into our even more niche corners of personal taste since SWG, while production costs and our demands for production value have skyrocketed at the same time? How could we come closer again?”

Let’s tackle miol_’s questions in this week’s Massively Overthinking.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think miol_ is on base with some of these perceptions, though I may be a bit biased as a pre-WoW era MMO enthusiast. Those of us who like the older style of MMOs are probably in the minority these days, that much is true. However, I think most of us have evolving tastes. A lot of old MMOs had, essentially, time sinks, to ensure that people were always playing. New MMOs don’t exactly lack this, but they’re much more guided now (hi, daily quests!). While putting together dungeon groups and recruiting people by hand helped me learn a lot of socialization skills as a teen and young adult, these days, I just want to be able to jump into a game and have some fun. Features like regional conflicts have totally different meanings to me these days, as I’d previously stay up whole nights to help my guild protect their base, but these days, I’m fine with pre-formed landmasses that essentially change hands every few hours with little reward.

The only way I can really see that might allow you to “lobby our cause” would be to draw massive attention to pre-WoW era MMOs. I say this as a member of the Earthbound/Mother community, in that we campaigned for, yeesh, at least few decades to get Nintendo to focus on our favorite cult classic. Even then, we still haven’t won (only 2/3 of the series staples have been released outside of Japan). Things like fan art, petitions, and letter campaigns may seem old fashioned, but I’m sure taking things to social media can help, especially if your fan community acts as a cohesive unit. Hmm, maybe the Asheron’s Call community needs to figure out an AC day or something and use it to bombard Turbine/WB so it feels like we’re relevant at least once a year…

Oh, but back to the topic, no, I don’t think it’s too late for anything to change. I think that’s one thing that’s great about our site. Studios can see from the comments section how passionate people are and how big their crowd may be. Reddit’s another outlet people can use to gauge the community. As long as people organize themselves and make an effort to produce something to show studios the value of their fandom, you’ve got a fighting chance to, at the very least, get studios to not sue fans that want to keep a series alive.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I get what miol_ is trying to say. But every time I try to answer it, I keep running into the problem that I don’t really know who “we” are. Is it people who played any MMORPG before the tipping point known as WoW? Because that includes such a wide range of people who have very little in common, everybody from the Asheron’s Call Darktide ganker to the EverQuest uberguild raider, from the dude who ran a roleplaying tavern in Ultima Online to the girl who led keep assaults in Dark Age of Camelot. And it includes me, who roleplayed a smuggler and a moisture farmer and sold crates of foodstuffs out of a tent in Star Wars Galaxies. And some of those folks are still being served and served quite well by the modern AAA MMORPG.

Not all of them, though.

I think it’s fair to say that the “virtual world” ideal of MMOs has been eroded, “unbundled,” heavily, and that millions of new gamers entered MMOs with WoW and became MMO gamers just as “we” are. MMORPGs might be a minority under the MMO umbrella now, but the MMORPG playerbase just keeps swelling as the genre’s overall mainstream popularity increases. I don’t think we should venture down the “truefan” path. The genre belongs to everybody, not just those of us who got here first.

Well-told, but not well-planned.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I’m going to do my best to avoid cursing here, because I don’t want to make Bree edit all of that out. And I don’t think miol_ was actually trying to push my berserk button but stumbled on to it by mistake, so I’ll also do my best to keep that in mind. But the whole “are we the minority in our own genre” thing ticks me off because the reality is it’s not our genre. We don’t own sweet eff-ay. We just play video games.

Let me use an example from my own life, here. The first time I played Marathon, I was entranced. This was what the FPS genre could be. This was where it ought to go, this was the sort of game that Doom originally presaged. Only I was totally wrong, and instead of “atmospheric exploration punctuated by gunfights,” FPS games went far more in the direction of constant shooty bang-bang with nary a trace of exploration and mystery. Heck, the original Half-Life was praised as an intellectual game when it was, in fact, everything I had not wanted from FPS games. So was the genre being stolen from me? Were these developers and fans wrong to celebrate these games which went so firmly against what I had wanted?

Hell no. The genre moved in a direction I didn’t like as much. I spent years as a younger and far dumber man feeling as if I had been robbed of something, but really all that happened was I had mistaken potential and possibility for a promise. Development went down another route.

I started playing MMOs with Final Fantasy XI, and if we hadn’t gotten games which moved away from that game’s oppressively slow and unpleasant design axioms, I would have stopped playing MMOs altogether. What World of Warcraft accomplished when it first launched was to give people the parts of an MMO that they liked without the many tedious, unenjoyable, or unpleasant aspects which went along with it. The fact that the game later became responsible for a genre-wide narrowed focus doesn’t change the fact that it was not a unique and unexpected flub of a success; it was responding to a very real perceived issue within existing MMOs, and not solely to problem’s with the EverQuest model of gameplay. (Blaming WoW without acknowledging a lot of the really dumb decisions of EQ seems slightly disingenuous to me, really, but that’s a different lengthy discussion for a different time.)

The original playerbase of MMOs pre-EQ is a minority in the genre, but that’s because those original bases were a minority; it took a while for the genre to grow and diversify, helped along by the increased ubiquity of Internet accessibility worldwide. And it’s not that there aren’t lots of games out there offering big, diverse, fun experiences in new ways, nor is it true that there aren’t tons of options for people who prefer any given style of MMO. What’s happening – and this is something I touched on with my last piece about The Secret World and Secret World Legends – is that the “one route of content forever repeated” model you see in far too many games (which did not, in fact, originate with WoW) only works so long as there’s a steady drip of content and novelty, and until players get bored with that one route. If the game offers no alternative routes, people leave.

UO offers alternative routes. Final Fantasy XIV offers alternative routes. Black Desert and The Elder Scrolls Online and Project Gorgon and EVE Online and the neon block explosion that is Trove offer alternative routes. And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s out there.

So to answer the question: You’re in a minority, but that’s a function of history, not design. And if you’re waiting for the clock to turn back, it won’t… but don’t assume that some developers falling down an easier-to-develop hole means that there’s nothing out there beyond pining for an evolutionary backslide. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that what the genre grew into is no longer of interest, but there’s always something to be said for recalling that the genre is bigger than its most tone-deaf design choices.

Also, I’d like to note that I got through this whole thing without cursing once. So fuck that.

Somebody loves you, and that's good.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I always feel very uncomfortable speaking for a large group of people, most of whom I don’t know personally. Gross assumptions are born then and run rampant through fields of speculation and guesswork. So to be honest, I have no idea what the demographics are of the current MMORPG population and how big or small of a percentage is represented by… let’s call them “old school” players. The pre-WoW crowd, if we need a dividing point.

I think it’s safe to say that there are players who have been in it for the long haul, who have left and come back several times, and who are part of generations now of MMO gaming families. How many? No idea. Couldn’t even fathom figuring out where to start getting that info unless you ran a detailed survey. But from the responses of Nostalrius, Classic RuneScape, and the money poured into some of these throwback-tough-as-nails indie MMOs, it’s not an insignificant crowd. I sincerely doubt it’s anywhere near the size that could threaten the majority of online gamers’ desire for more casual and accessible content, but it’s there.

We throw the word “niche” around a lot in MMOs, especially since we exist in a Russian nesting doll of niches. There are always sub-groups of sub-groups that are looking for very specific experiences, and I guess that the dividing line between it mattering and making a difference is if that sub-group is large enough to make a game viable and financially profitable or not. It doesn’t have to be the majority, it just has to be large enough to make money for the studio and keep the server lights on. And considering how many games are still running and being made, I don’t see that as a problem.

Meridian 59

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I do think the original MMO crowd is definitely a minority, but as much from defection as from the growing MMO population! I’d have to say that I am not even sure the “original” MMO player base is original anymore. Yes, the genre does not cater to the styles that were first introduced way back when. We can all agree on that! But I have my doubts that many of those first players are in the exact same state now as they were then, and would actually love the way MMOs were. I think they have changed: Their tastes, their circumstances in life, etc., have all altered over the years. Even me, as much as I would love to throw my life back into SWG, would find the experience a bit lacking in that the world as it was then is simply not the world it can be now. And I mean that not in the gameplay mechanics of it all but in the fullness of the environment and living world we all created. The magic was in the combination of game, timing, and community. Those three things just cannot be replicated again. New ones combos must take the place. My specific life that I loved in SWG cannot ever be reborn; those stories have already been told. Of course, I can start a whole new set of stories.

Also, I think you can’t really pigeonhole MMO players with narrow definitions.

Your turn!


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Here’s the thing when i read the question are we a minority now, then combined with the fact that people want to make a distinction between pre-wow players and post wow players.. You all are the same players. Take a real close look at the original EQ and the original wow. Both games are basically kill x creature x times to get xp to get to max level, then run different “dungeons” to get the best gear. The only real differences between EQ and WoW is that when Blizzard created wow they tried to engineer out the things that we absolutely hated about EQ, which were things like down time (those that played EQ know what im talking about staring at that book for 15 mins to regain mana between battles). Or anyone remember when Plane of fear would reset it actually became a fight between the two biggest guilds to get in there first.. anyone that ever did it can remember getting mad seeing another guild there buffing up at the entrance when you were there first. All wow did is removed the downtime and created instances, then created the dungeon finder, players no longer had to go to every zone and do camp checks and try to find groups, can anyone say death penalty.

The reason wow was such a big success is easy to explain, first it had a big name behind it, every gamer mmo or not knew of blizzard, the studio already had a huge following and almost anything they created was a huge hit. So when they came out with world of war craft and people logged into it, first thing they noticed is that almost everything was polished up real nice and looked good, and even though there were a few bugs… there was only a few bugs. Then people figured out they could actually play it instead of having to spend hours looking at books and trying to find groups and what not. So given the fact that at the time there wasn’t much else out there when people came from EQ, and found all the annoyances had been engineered out, WoW couldn’t have helped but become a huge hit that ended up shaping the landscape into what we are seeing now.

Now I am forced to bring up SWG and what is actually missing from games today, and perhaps this is where the minority comes from. Now I know SWG wasn’t the first “Sandbox” mmo, however for a great deal of players it was the first introduction many had into a non-forced or if you want a nicer phrase “Non-Structured” play style, and non-grind heavy, and non huge time sink game play. Yea stop right there, i see those fingers starting to move on the keyboards, just because you decided to make it so doesn’t mean it was meant to be a huge time sink!

Unfortunately a lot of the best stuff that SWG had to offer, a lot of players never got to experience, those that played the closed beta and probably the first month of it’s launch will remember gaining xp from people using items they made, or gaining xp from simply using a factory or harvester as it was removed. The games original design was focused around the casual player being able to log in and play a couple hours every day and still feel as if they managed to advance.

In fact the pace at which you were allowed to gain skills and the ability to swap them out meant you could change play styles at whim. This was also the first game that a lot of people were introduced to the concept that there was more to playing an MMO then killing stuff, this game had a lot of options and allowed for different play styles like many had never seen before.

In fact I would argue IF LA/SOE had allowed proper development time (it actually was only in development for 20 months) probably needed at least another 2 years of development before launch, and had they actually been given the server hardware they were promised instead of refurbished EQ servers (this caused a lot of problems) then the mmo gaming landscape as it exists now would probably be a lot different. We’d probably all be complaining about SWG clones instead of wow clones.

After SWG failed, and wow succeeded the perception of the big studios became Theme parks are profitable, sand-boxes are under-performers. Which is unfortunate, because without big funding it’s doubtful many really good sand box type games will happen.

And i actually think that is where the distinction between mmo players is really made, you have the amusement park people and you have the sandbox people. Being as the amusement park crowd is the one that is getting the greatest amount of attention the perception of a minority comes into existence.

I myself am a huge sandbox fan, when i log into a game i want so many different options in play styles and so many different things to do that I am forced to decide which thing i am going to do first, in other words i want to actually be entertained by a game… So tired of logging in each day to these amusement parks and doing my daily quests and dungeons, and on Tuesday doing my weekly raids. Also getting tired of being forced into open world pvp games.. seems to be the only real difference in mmo games out there these days.

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I see this as like cable TV channels. In the beginning, we had the “big three” broadcast stations and maybe some local or public access channel. After a while, TV channels started exploding in number. The big three never went away and maybe they evolved a little, but the newer channels offered every niche possibility!

So it is with games. Each new game offers something different, if not something truly new. Maybe the newer games have more room to experiment where the three are steeped in expectations and feel they can’t change too much. Each new game will draw away a few players and some will find their ‘home’ or at least a niche away from the original three. Each player’s idea of what’s good will evolve to very specific criteria.

The end result is a fragmented group of players who know what they want and IMO, most of them figure they’ll eventually be offered what they want as long as they wait for it. Sure, they can lobby for something or fund Kickstarters that fulfill their desires, but changes are occurring constantly. I don’t think we’re ever going back to the “big three” and I think we will continue to see choices on the horizon.

Jeffery Witman

To expand on your simile, look at cable channels today. No longer are they catering to their niche market. Now they try to pull mass markets into the niche by diluting the essence of the niche genre down to window dressing. Let’s take SciFi/SyFy as an example. They went from running some of the greatest SciFi shows and movies on cable to doing Ghost Hunters and replays of Smackdown. They filled up their schedule with reality competition shows, and used the SciFi label as a setting for relatively safe formulaic dramas.

Translate that to MMOs. You look at the WoW-ification of the genre and it goes much deeper than just game mechanics or UI. Who is making the games has changed from small developers with a vision to large conglomerates with a market forecast report. I’m not saying money was never an issue in the early days of MMOs. It certainly was. The genre was dominated by pay to play games because of the ridiculous costs of server up time. Still, the lights stayed on and people got paid for those games. Even the simplest ones like Tibia are still able to make money and transition into the modern mobile market while expanding their playable world. You can’t tell me that game can do it and SWG, or Secret World, or CoH can’t.

It’s a struggle between business and art. When WoW struck it big, the art of MMOs became big business. The enjoyment of the players is tertiary at best in today’s development goals. They want it to be addicting, compelling, and profitable, and not necessarily in that order. You can make a Bejeweled clone and get rich in games today. You can put new dressing on the same mobile game a hundred times and get the same people to pay you for it again and again like it’s a Madden title. For MMOs it’s about the same things, just with sightly different scales.

The flood of Freemium titles didn’t help things, either. Once companies saw they could make a generic MMO clone, advertise it like hell for a month and double their initial investment the whole genre was doomed. The best hope lies in those old school MMO players that went into developing the games and who will be leading projects, or their own indie titles, to try and bring back some of the substance of that essence.

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There’s a lot of truth there.
Still disappointed in the changes to Sci-Fi/SyFy channel.

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I think the idea that whatever your first MMO was that gave you “that feeling” is the thing everyone who has experienced that is chasing. It’s like falling in love. There are people that keep chasing that initial phase over and over. They aren’t looking for actual love. They are chasing “that feeling”.

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Paragon Lost

In the end I feel that we aren’t a minority in our own genre. Sometimes the genre moves in direction that many of us don’t agree with, but overall we still play so there is still more we agree with than disagree on. So we still are a part of the hobby.


WoW was a response to EQ was a response to UO was a response to DikuMUD was a response to tabletop D&D was a response to wargaming….

And every step of the way, somebody from the old school was whining that the new kids drawn in by the progress were ruining the “real” game. I’ve been watching the process since the hot computer game was Pong and a couple of guys in Lake Geneva were tossing around ideas that would evolve into the first RPG.

If your idea of a “real” game is UO or EQ or a text-based MUD or Chainmail, have at it — they’re still up and running. If your idea of fun is reverting the paradigm of the whole industry back to a point that suits your tastes…. good luck with that. And if you want new games with old paradigms and nothing in the niche aisle is working for you… start coding.

For my part, I think I’m mostly over 45 minutes of rolling funny dice to resolve one combat. Unless you’ve got pizza, then all bets are off.

Melissa McDonald

“true” RP for me was too difficult. I just decided to be me in every MMO. Kinda like Alice stepping through the looking glass. It just felt more natural and I don’t have to worry about consistency.

“true” RP is also overrated. I learned this during a particularly uncomfortable incident in original EverQuest, waiting for the boat to arrive as a Wood Elf, and having to deal with a particularly grumpy, distrustful Dwarf. Good, true RP from the dwarf, but I found I didn’t like being around someone who felt obligated to pretend to hate me. KnowwhutImean?


That is why I consider effective roleplay to require consent. Not just for the PvP part, but for the interaction as a whole.

Consent, in this case, means finding a way to interact that is mutually enjoyable for everyone involved. Having a back channel to the other players so you all can ensure each other that it’s all just roleplaying, adjust how you are acting to avoid creeping out anyone, and figure scenarios that will entice most, if not all, of the players taking part.

It’s what my groups always did in pen and paper RPGs. No matter how bitter the characters are with each other, their players were always in agreement about the conflict existing and how it might play out, to the point of jointly planning how they could escalate the conflict in interesting ways.

Yeah, it detracts somewhat from immersion. But I consider the benefits to vastly outweigh any downsides.


Let’s try another example: Marching band alpha-geek sad that it got popular and now all the ACTUAL popular kids are in it, so he’s totally outclassed and no longer alpha anything?

Is that pretty much a restatement of what’s going on here?

Sebastian Shaw

No. Its not.

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

Not even a little bit

Jeffery Witman

Almost, but not quite. Marching Band used to win national competitions and then the popular kids joined. Now they can’t even make it to state and there’s signs up in the band room about not leaving used condoms in the trombones.


I wish I could give you more than one point. /applause


I don’t have anything to add beyond saying I’m on Team Eliot for this one.


Since the word “original” was used by the questioner, then the question answers itself. Of course they’re in the minority.

odin valhalla

I had an atari in 1983 everyone since has screwed it all up. I am a minority because I am a console gamer, because I played Atari as my first gaming experience.

The premise really doesnt work as games are defined by people who play them. As an example when I started in LOTRO you had to play in groups to finish the content. Then once I think the great river dropped (it was before Rohan) I leveled a toon and never had to group (even through all the epics in moria, they scaled them for solo play).

To me LOTRO was always an MMORPG, to someone who started later? You could say it was a SPRPG. Games have broad offerings because the player base is so broad there really are no minorities or majorities IMHO, youre either a gamer or you arent.