Vague Patch Notes: Examining the MMO tiers, from the Big Five to maintenance mode


I’ve mentioned many a time that one of the ideas behind the Vague Patch Notes column here on MOP is to have a place where we can reference back when we talk about concepts, and one of the concepts we talk about a lot but don’t ever truly define is the idea of MMO tiers. And the reason for this is that the concept itself is inherently fuzzy. It’s not like how you can point to certain publishers and say, “Well, that’s a triple-A publisher right there,” or objectively say, “That band draws crowds of 10,000 to a show, so they’re known but not big.”

MMOs are not kind enough to give us those objective measures most of the time, so we have to kind of suss everything out by secondary sources and guesses. But we still do talk about the concepts all the time, so let’s dig into what we mean when we reference the big five, or mid-tier, or whatever.

First and foremost, it’s important to note that when we’re talking about tiers it has nothing to do with quality. Mid-tier MMOs are not necessarily better than low-tier MMOs; they’re just in a different space in terms of development lifecycle, resources, and player counts. I say this because it’s just important to note that this is not grading MMOs or giving them awards; we do that every year too. It’s just useful for having broad categories to understand where various games are.

At the top, of course, we have the big five. This is not actually any sort of legal designation, but we use it to discuss the five “biggest” MMOs out there with the largest budgets, active player counts, and so forth. But even that designation is a touch contentious, since we all go back and forth on what game makes it into the number five slot. There’s no real debate over World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy XIV, or Guild Wars 2, but is the fifth one Black Desert? RuneScape? It’s probably not Lord of the Rings Online, but why not?

Personally, I will vote against RuneScape as long as there is breath in my body, but the point is that we know where the big kids are on the field. We know that this represents the game with weight to throw around and passionate, solid fanbases. (Theoretically, people are weirdly hypeless around Tamriel, but it’s still real big anyhow.) These games are doing fine.

Below that is… the mid-tier MMOs. And you might think that sounds weird, and it is, for reasons we’ll get to in just a moment. This represents your Lord of the Rings Online or your Star Trek Online, your games that are clearly doing pretty well, according to their owners’ own financial reports, and they appear to have solid player counts, but they’re also not hyper-invulnerable. They don’t have endless budgets, and they’re solidly making money, but you wouldn’t be shocked if one of them slipped toward maintenance mode.

I'm too sexy for any players.

Next on deck are the small MMOs. Note that I said small, not ailing. A lot of small games are, in fact, doing just fine for themselves. Ultima Online is a small title at this point, subsisting primarily on a small core of people who really like the game and collectively pay for its small ongoing development costs. These are games that, functionally, do just fine by running a tight ship and keeping costs down to responsible levels. Usually, they’re older titles that were once much bigger, or they’re games with a small but dedicated playerbase pitched at a maintenance cost for small and dedicated playesbases.

Ailing MMOs are… well, the next step below that. Think of it this way: If a small MMO is the equivalent of a town fair, ailing MMOs are massive multi-state festivals that have the attendance of only a town fair. The world and game were built for a lot of people, and those people did not show up. Usually these are games that you logically expect to shut down, either games with audience-alienating premises or imports that swung and missed. (Goodbye, Swords of Legends Online.)

Usually, you think of what comes next as maintenance mode, but I really think there are two kinds of maintenance mode. The first is actual maintenance mode, with smaller updates and a commitment to keep the game online. But the second is abandonment mode; the game is online, and it’ll still sell you things, but no one is expecting any more updates or really anything but holiday events. You know, like Secret World Legends.

Now, I mentioned before that it seems like there’s a space between the big five and the mid-tier where games ought to go, and it’s really hard to think of many games that would go there. This in and of itself speaks to a problem; when there’s not much space between “a major success” and “middle-of-the-road,” it’s hard to really pivot to the latter when you were pitching to the former.

I'mma do it for the vine.

That doesn’t mean companies don’t try. But it does lead to problems when they don’t, like… make it there. New World obviously wanted to break into the big five, but it seems to have followed the all-too-common pattern of pitching itself at the big leagues and trying to hastily scale down instead of pitching itself in the mid-to-high tier and then scaling up as success happened. I talked just the other week about how Star Wars: The Old Republic seemingly set itself up with a content strategy that made sense only if it stayed in the high end, and once it clearly wasn’t, it was stuck with content that left no space for anything but high-end polish on mid-tier actual development.

You could argue that really that is the middle tier, not the high tier, but that’s picking nits. Regardless, it shows the same basic problem and the same basic incentive set. In fact, there’s a whole article to be written about how it’s much easier to scale up than it is to scale down; not this week, but perhaps in the near future. (I leave myself these reminders for later, you see.)

What the point is this week is to take a look at how the various layers of performance work for MMOs in general, to think about things from the business side of things for just a little bit. None of us tends to be great at this because at the end of the day, we like MMOs as games to be played. It’s not easy to forget that the companies running them are doing so to make money, but it is easy to sort of put it into the back of your mind and focus instead on the play and what you’re doing for fun.

And yes, the people who are developing the game probably feel the same. But their bosses are running this game to make money. As reporters, we have to think about where games are in terms of making money and drawing in new players to spend money on a game. That, unfortunately, has more than a few knock-on effects.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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