I find myself thinking a lot about the MMORPG industry lately and the ways in which the gaming industry as a whole has changed over the course of the past couple decades, because it seems clear to me that things have been changing. Did you know that up until 2004, PC gaming accounted for less than a third of the revenue of console gaming?
I sure hope you didn’t know that because it isn’t true. I made it up. If you look around, you’ll find that PC gaming and console gaming have basically been roughly even growing shares since around 1996. PC gaming has definitely overtaken console gaming at the time of this writing, but when Ultima Online launched in 1997, it would be inaccurate to say that PC gaming was a niche hobby thing while console gaming was everywhere.
However, there definitely have been shifts over time, and I think it’s worth talking about those shifts as they have happened. So join me on a bit of a journey as I head my way toward thinking about where the MMORPG genre specifically is likely to see growth and development over the future.
The thing that’s always hard to be sure about when looking at any kind of game industry figures is not just that you’re looking back through old data that is often obfuscated intentionally. It’s also that you’re looking back through things that aren’t always clear to everyone. For example, when I was 13 and my mother and stepfather got divorced, I no longer had a computer in my house… and that wasn’t exactly weird.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like having a computer was exactly weird, either. But among kids in my age bracket, it was weird not to have a game console, but those were also kind of just seen as toys. Kids usually had a console, often set up away from the main TV in the house, but having a computer was something that generally meant one or both parents worked in a field that required a computer. That’s my anecdotal experience, but the net result is my lack of a computer was reasonably normal back then.
One of the things that I think is easy to overlook is how much PCs have changed into standardized formats over the course of the intervening decades. We’ve gone from having dedicated mouse, keyboard, monitor, and gamepad ports to having everything run on USB ports, or Bluetooth depending on your setup.
So what does all this have to do with MMORPGs? Haven’t I made this rant before? Well, access matters more than you might think.
When I left college, my time in Final Fantasy XI was limited because I had dial-up internet. That meant I tied up the phone line, which meant that I needed to wait until a later hour to get online and start playing the game. If you think that didn’t have an impact upon the things that I could do on a regular basis or how easily I could play the game, well… I don’t know what to tell you. It was a major change when I got DSL and could actually log on without killing the phone, with fast speeds!
Standardization has changed a lot. At this point, PCs are reliable hardware that are almost certainly on a form of internet that does not in any way impact your ability to make or receive phone calls. We have unified platforms for buying and downloading games entirely online. Instead of MMORPGs being these weird things that kind of require a bunch of specialized hardware on computers and setups that can run them, they are every bit as accessible as every other game.
You might think that this is everything MMORPGs need to be wildly successful, except that as the actual history of the genre has shown, this is not the case. I am not someone who believes that MMORPGs are dying by any stretch of the imagination, but this is not the boom years when it seemed like some new big-budget project was coming out every couple of months.
So why is that? Well, I think part of it is the same reason so many of the games that were coming out during those boom years didn’t actually make it: because MMORPGs are a big commitment, and it’s a lot easier to make that commitment when you have a smaller field of options open to you.
Contrary to a lot of revisionist takes on old MMORPG culture, I did not make a whole lot of lifelong friends sitting and grinding levels in FFXI. I did, however, have a limited amount of time to play it and a smaller number of games on my PC to start with. Perhaps even more importantly, there were a smaller number of MMORPGs to think about in the first place. Some of that was just my not being as aware of all the options that there were out there, but the field definitely grew over time.
These days I have hundreds of games on my PC, and if I want to start a new one, I can go from the idea to launching it within about an hour. It’ll almost certainly cost me nothing. It’s more transitive and less anchored.
Even more notably, it turns out that MMORPGs are a much bigger gamble than people thought. I remember reading a PC game magazine before World of Warcraft launched looking at all of the big, exciting new MMORPG projects that were coming up soon, which at the time included Guild Wars, Tabula Rasa, EverQuest II, City of Heroes, and Auto Assault. Of those titles, three of them have shut down. One of them kind of crashed and burned on launch and never reached the heights expected for it even though it never died. And this was before WoW gave everyone diamonds in their eyes.
It’s not like MMORPGs never went south before then, but it’s amazing how much a perception of what reasonable success means and what the realistic success rate of MMORPGs has changed over the years. For a while, WoW sucked the vast majority out of the oxygen out of the room. It took near a decade for games to launch that would grow to equal it. And by that point it was already starting to look like trying to do that was not a great investment.
The reality is that the ways we think about this market and the way that studios think about it has changed pretty substantially over the course of even just the last decade. When I started this job in 2009, people were already saying MMORPGs were dying, which was not true then, either, but it was already also clear that these games were less safe than they initially appeared. And it’s hard to get big studios to bankroll big games when many of them are aware that it might just not work.
Oh, sure, when it works you have a game that basically can print money for a decade, but when it fails, you have a huge money sink that goes nowhere. So next week, I want to take a look at the future of titles beyond this year, speculating about further projects and the prospects for growth.