Vague Patch Notes: Why do so many MMOs fail?


We talk a lot about MMOs that fail here on Massively Overpowered. I wrote a whole column about how our standards of success are kind of skewed so that we often look at games like RIFT as a failure despite, y’know, the game getting multiple expansions and sort of sloughing into irrelevance over a long period of time, but that isn’t really what I’m talking about here. We’re talking about the games that might even get critical acclaim but yet usually don’t even get a single expansion, and then sometimes they wind up shutting down or coasting along forever with no serious updates and few players. They just straight-up no-ambiguity fail.

You know the games. WildStar, The Secret World, Champions Online, Swords of Legends Online, Elyon, The Repopulation, Asheron’s Call 2, Ryzom… I could go on. That’s just off the top of my head. Some of these games were not bad games, but I say if you look at all of these games in an objective light, they were all failures. They did not succeed financially, most either shut down or got rebooted to no real success, a couple are lingering on inexplicably, few saw a real expansion, and none of them is tearing up the active player count charts right now. These were not mid-tier hits but failures, fairly early in their lifetimes. So… why? Why do so many MMOs fail?

The easy and straightforward approach to answering this question is to just be coldly economic and say that there are only so many games that can succeed within any given window. This is a very simple and very satisfying explanation that has only the slight problem of being obviously and demonstrably wrong.

Initial sales matter a lot with MMOs as they do with any video game, but most of the games in the fail category that did get a traditional retail launch sold well. These are not games that no one played. For example, Warhammer Online sure as heck sold to solid numbers, and it’d be easy to say “well, that launched into the teeth of World of Warcraft’s second expansion,” but I would hasten to point out that Wizard101 – which is definitely in the mid-tier success category – launched the same month and did just fine (and is still alive, unlike WAR’s retail version). There’s more at play here.

Not to mention that the video game industry now is not the video game industry in 1997. You have games coming out all the time; there is no real “ideal” time to launch. You can sometimes bump a game a week or two in any direction, but you often get a few big titles launching around the same time and they all do fine. And we’re talking about MMOs, games that are long-term commitments rather than being something you play for a month or two and then forget. (Theoretically.)

Can't or won't?

Another explanation we hear a lot is that it’s somehow the fault of WoW or of MMORPG developers expecting WoW levels success or whatever, but… that’s also not true. The games I listed earlier cover a huge swath of time, from pre-WoW to post-big five. And they’re wildly different games in terms of structure, expected audience, game loops, so on and so forth. What links them all together is not their windows or anything else, just the fact that they didn’t succeed with MMO players. And you can’t convincingly argue they all lacked any merit as games; a we know, a game failing doesn’t mean it was hopelessly bad.

Last but not least, it can’t be as simple as “most games fail.” This is broadly kind of true in that a lot of games don’t get the attention they deserve or don’t fully catch on, but if most games outright failed, you wouldn’t get the number of games in development that we actually seen. Plenty do, but plenty succeed. And there are plenty of MMOs that do just fine even if they don’t become part of the big five.

So what’s the secret? Why is it that so many MMOs wind up failing?

Obviously, if I knew the one weird trick that would answer the question definitively, I would be making more money selling the answer to studios and helping them avoid the pitfalls. But I do have a theory about it just the same, and I wanted to come up with something other than the obvious answers of “there are too many MMOs” or “it was release timing” or “all of those games were just uniquely bad” because that’s way too easy.

You know what I think it comes down to? Being willing to be boring but happy to be there anyhow.

The original launch version (which I’m using as a comparison here because that’s the version I actually experienced when first getting into the game) of WoW had boring stretches. I don’t mean unpleasant stretches – it had those too – but in basically every starter zone, it was not just willing but almost eager to have times when you’re just figuring out where to go and feeling kinda bored. You’re not unhappy, mind you. The game is just not trying to pump stimulants directly into your brain from the word go, and it’s all right with being a little boring.

But it also didn’t seem as if it didn’t care if I logged back in. It felt as if it had lots to show me, but it was neither shoving me ahead full-force and desperately trying to engage me nor acting as if it couldn’t care less that I existed. It was engaged, but not relentless. And that let me get into it… but at my own pace.


Compare that to several of the other games I listed above. WildStar and TSW are both very invested in showing you every awesome thing they have on deck, ideally within the first five minutes, and they seem afraid to let me slow down for a moment lest I lose interest. What they have to show off is not, in and of itself, bad or dull… but it’s a bit much all at once! By contrast, Ryzom feels like it can’t be rid of me fast enough, telling me that if I want to play this game, I had better be prepared to dig like a maniac into systems that will never fully open to me.

None of these are bad games. When you get over those initial humps, they’re all good, although they all have problems. But the thing is with these games is that they didn’t generate enough of the success needed to eventually get better and get over these problems. The number of people who can get over these humps on their own is small, and that makes it harder for people to believe there’s something really cool over on the other side.

Just like meeting people, a game coming on too strong or coming on too aloof leads to people losing interest. It’s not fair and it’s not awesome, but it is the reality of how human brains work. “Should” doesn’t come into play. And when a lot of MMOs don’t have the confidence to show their hand but not stuff all their best tricks into the first minute, well, a lot of them make people bounce off pretty quickly.

But hey, I could be wrong. For every stretch of pleasantly boring game time I have, you might be thinking that it’s so boring you want to scream. But clearly the evidence is what the evidence is, and I feel like there’s a better explanation than “the game I liked failed because other people all have bad taste, unlike me, the one human with Correct Taste.”

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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