A few weeks back, I talked about the various tiers of MMORPGs, and that included a discussion of what we call the Big Five ’round these parts. This prompted some debate that was both energetic and phenomenally unnecessary, ranging from arguments that it should be the Big Four to declarations that it should include other MMOs that aren’t MMORPGs to propositions that it should really be the Big Two and then another tier and so forth.
With many such debates, the real issue tends to be more about establishing some kind of moral or factual high ground for emotional valuation, so the whole thing descends into a swamp really quickly. But I want to contend earnestly with this question, and I think it’s a chat worth having. So let’s go behind-the-scenes for this round of baseball facts, so to speak, and talk about why we have the Big Five instead of another number. And to start thing off? Let me reveal the mathematics we use to determine the cutoff point.
The math is what we call a “gut check.” It’s very complicated, as you can tell.
At no point did anybody sit down and determine, formally, what the Big Five were. It was an emergent property as people tracked the industry and watched which games were consistently the biggest in terms of visible playerbases, ad spends, profits, and so forth. We didn’t even come up with the “Big Five” designation; it had just swirled around the MMO community for years. On MOP, at least, our determination is focused around MMORPGs because while we are an MMO site, our first interest is and always has been MMORPGs. It’s not as if we think Fortnite and World of Warcraft are comparable in terms of revenue, and if we were going to pick out the five games that are indisputably MMOs and have the biggest earnings, MMORPGs wouldn’t break into that list.
Why five? Because it’s a good number. Because it represents a change in the way that MMORPGs are structured, and that’s worth considering, simply because for many years the western MMORPG market in specific was WoW and then Everybody Else. But let’s talk about what even that means because it does not actually mean that Blizzard won and everyone else was competing for crumbs.
Despite the mythology around WoW, the period between 2005 and 2015 (roughly) was not devoid of successes. Many MMOs that had launched before WoW were frequently successful and still going strong, like City of Heroes and Final Fantasy XI, and games launched after it did fine for themselves in many cases. While those other games were not comparable in terms of success and were usually smaller, they were successfully smaller and had dedicated playerbases.
The thing that was really going on was that WoW was sucking a lot of the oxygen out of the room not in terms of having all of the subscribers or even just being more successful than any other online game (League of Legends launched in 2009, after all) but in terms of design and concepts. WoW was a big, runaway success, and a whole lot of people higher in the studio chain saw that and immediately said, “Hey, why don’t we make our own one of those?”
Herein lies the problem, to restate something that I’ve said elsewhere in the comments: This thinking works great in a lot of contexts. But it doesn’t work in online games.
Let’s take a trip back to the time when dinosaurs yet roamed the Earth, also known as the distant past of 1993. You have a Sega Genesis and you really like Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. And you want more, but… there… isn’t any more. Not without buying a Sega CD, and your parents inform you that that isn’t happening. In later years you will realize that your parents are actually sparing you a great deal of agony, but you are missing out on another game in the franchise right now and you don’t have a new game to play.
But… hey, there is that Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind game. It’s sorta similar! It’s not as fast, but it’s closer in general feel and structure. And so hey, that’s what you want for your birthday, and someone gets it for you, and you’re happy-ish. Not as happy as you will be in Christmas of that year when you get Phantasy Star IV despite the price tag and fall down a rabbit hole you will ultimately never emerge from, but happy-ish.
This is not autobiographical, for the record. I never got Phantasy Star IV as a present.
Where this thinking becomes a problem is that it doesn’t work for online games. I don’t play a bunch of City of Heroes and then want a game that’s just EA’s Version of CoH, for example. I keep playing CoH. So a whole lot of MMOs were either changed (badly) to be more like what people thought WoW was or saw their design tilted to be WoW But We Own It And There Are Slight Tweaks To The Formula.
We saw the same thing play out with battle royale games and survival sandboxes and MOBAs and so on. Heck, Niantic’s whole model is “we had a hit with Pokemon Go, can we just port this gameplay style to every popular IP?” The answer is no, and that’s a bad idea, and the company should feel bad.
The emergence of the Big Five represents not a gigantic revolution where suddenly all five of these MMORPGs are making the same amount of money, and we are not tracking this real-time in the Situation Room to see which one “wins.” That’s… actually the opposite of the point. Guild Wars 2 is presumably not doing as well financially as Final Fantasy XIV, but that’s like saying Patrick Stewart isn’t as big of a movie star as Tom Hanks. They’re still both stars, they’re both talented, they’ve both done more than fine for themselves doing very different types of movies. And Patrick Stewart in this analogy is not trying to be more Tom Hanksian to get roles.
Tom Hankisian? Tom-Hanks-ish? Let me know which you prefer in the comments.
Designating the Big Five does mean acknowledging that the MMORPG market has contracted a bit, but that also comes as it’s become clear a lot of the market expansion over the last decade and a half came from companies trying to flood the space and mimic an existing success. This is not a state of affairs where someone wins; it’s a state of affairs where the oxygen has been let back into the room and projects are not necessarily chasing another game. And I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as a positive change.
Will this last forever? Of course not. Nothing does. All of the games in the Big Five are older, and while the pace of new MMORPGs has slowed a fair bit, it’s not going to be true forever. You never know when things are going to get knocked around, and there are a lot of games that seemed to be doing fine right up until they weren’t. Heck, that’s just life. Things seem fine right up until they don’t a lot of the time, and you’re left to sigh and pick up the pieces afterwards.
But that’s why we count what we do. In another decade, if we’re all still here doing this job just as I’ve been doing it for the past 14 years or so? I imagine things will be different again. But that’s why we are where we are right now.