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

    
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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.