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 RIFT–sized. 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!