There are a lot of MMOs out there. How do you know which one of them is the most popular and therefore the best one? Well, you ask me. No, seriously, you ask me; I am a certified Worth Decider like Dan Olson, and thus you can just ask me and I’ll tell you. I am right 100% of the time, and there’s absolutely no need to look through my history for instances when I said that I was wrong about something, definitely not this very column.
But let’s say that I’m unavailable because I’m busy chasing a duck that stole my diploma. It happens a lot. What data can you look at in order to get a sense of whether an MMO is burgeoning with life and full of people or is on its last legs and desperately hoping that you’ll buy the latest gacha lootbox for one last cash-in before the developers strip the servers for parts, sell everything on eBay, and board the next plane to Cabo? Here, I’ll show you how to do it like the pros (me) do it.
1. Earning reports
There was a time when MMOs would brag about their subscription numbers. Then World of Warcraft showed up, and it became far less fun to brag about subscription numbers as WoW seemed to have an endless firehose of new players. Then WoW decided to turn an actual firehose on people who didn’t want to raid-or-die and eventually decided to stop sharing subscription numbers because Blizzard figured out how to get more money out of the five people still playing, so now nobody gives actual hard numbers for subscribers. Also almost everything doesn’t have a sub price any more, so that’s not wholly indicative.
But you can get a sense of the game’s overall state of things by looking at earning reports and seeing how a game – or its division – stacks up in a given quarter compared to previous quarters. I did a whole article about reading reports smartly, so that’s not a bad place to start. We also usually summarize them here when they’re relevant, so, you know. It gives you an idea.
2. Steam charts
Steam charts are useful for any game that is on Steam, but a lot of people misuse the data. While there are games that are only on Steam (you can’t get Lost Ark elsewhere in the west without going beyond the region), most games are on Steam in addition to other platforms and often only later in the overall process. Like, Final Fantasy XIV has been not on Steam longer than it was on Steam, so those numbers do not tell you how many subscribers it has.
But Steam charts are still useful because they give you an idea of the game’s actual player ebb and flow. I don’t think the FFXIV chart tells me how many people are playing the game, but I do think it gives me a pretty good idea of how (and when) the player count rises and falls over time, albeit with folks who came to the game late-ish in its life.
3. Reddit numbers
Subscribing to a subreddit is a pretty low-effort thing. It takes very little from you, and if you’re already on Reddit, it gives you access to an easy feed. There’s not much reason not to subscribe if you have an account and just want to follow these things. While there’s not a 1:1 comparison to subscribers vs. fandom – some people just aren’t on Reddit as users, for example – it definitely tells you something if a game’s most prominent Reddit community is struggling to break four digits (compared to games that easily break into the most popular spaces).
4. Reddit discussion
Let’s not forget that the tone of the discussion can tell you a lot about a game’s popularity. If I go on to the subreddit for two different games and both have around 10k people but Game A has people posting memes and talking about new events while Game B has people asking if the game is dead and wondering where everyone is… I don’t think just the numbers tell the whole story there. If you find a lot of doom and gloom, that is probably not a good sign.
Or it means you’re reading about EVE Online. One or the other.
5. Social media discussion
Is the game in question trending? Does it trend often? Are a lot of people posting about it? As a positive or negative? What do the most commonly used hashtags on Twitter look like? Check that last one quickly because Elon Musk is busy destroying that network, but at least while it still has users it’s a worthwhile metric to check. The point is that this gives you an idea of how many people are thinking about the game, talking about it, and engaging with it.
6. Update cadence
Look, this one might be hard to hear. You may wish to be sitting down for it. But if a game studio completely stops updating a game beyond minor bug fixes, it probably means that there’s no money in further updates, especially since the developers will usually tell you about major updates that mean things will be slow on the update front for a while. What developers release tells you a lot about their priorities and what they consider necessary – and if all the updates are things in the cash shop for months, that is not a good sign.
7. YouTube uploads
When I go to YouTube and search for FFXIV or WoW, I get the YouTube channels for those games coming up right away. The Endwalker trailer has five million views since its release; the Dragonflight trailer has 2.8 million. These are games with a presence and an obvious footprint.
When I go to YouTube and search for Shroud of the Avatar I get a bunch of negative videos about the game, with the most popular one hitting about 500,000 views in which a handsome British lad says, “This game is not good.” (I have, in fact, watched it.) So, you know… go ahead and guess at who’s competing at which tier.
This is a two-part metric. The first is whether or not there are official streams, and if so, how well-attended they tend to be. Viewership here is hardly absolute; after all, it’s easy to turn on a tab and mute it if you want to be counted as a viewer without actually paying attention, especially if Twitch drops are incentivizing you to do just that. But it gives you some idea of what’s going on in terms of popularity because nobody cares about Twitch drops for games nobody plays.
By the same metric… are there other people streaming the game? Do people want to watch it? Are there people who do this on a regular basis and are happy to show it off to others? It’s another good metric for giving you an idea of who’s out there watching and curious.
9. Fan sites
You know what’s cool about MMOs? They produce a pretty neat ecosystem of fan sites… when they’re popular. People will spend a lot of time putting together sites that show you screenshots of every furniture item or let you search databases of items or whatever. There is always a wiki. But you can sort of gauge how things are going based on how those sites are going.
Like, if your game has just had an update and the wiki is already listing new items from it? That’s a good sign. If your game had an update a month ago and the wiki is still missing a lot of items? Not such a good sign. If it was three months ago and the wiki’s last activity was four months ago debating if Fart_Pilot should get to keep his name? Not a good sign.
10. Gut check
This is very scientific, I know. At a certain point you have all of these data, and they paint a picture, and you have to kind of look at what exists, examine what you’re expecting for the game in the near future, and make a gut check of where this game is at in terms of popularity. That’s where the benefit of doing this for more than a decade comes in.
Alternately, of course, you can just ask me. As mentioned, I am a certified Worth Decider.