Tobold's Blog
Thursday, June 17, 2004
How persistent are MMORPG?

One of the main features of MMORPG is that they are "persistent". That means even if you log off, the game continues, and even evolves without you. But how persistent are these worlds really? While the game you are logging out of now will certainly still be there tomorrow, it is a lot less certain that it will still be there in a year or in ten years.

Earth and Beyond announced in March of this year that they will shut down all their servers in September of this year, after having run for 2 years. Official reason given was "in order to focus resources on future games", but that is just marketing speak for "this game didn't make enough money". A game that is not very successful can end up making a loss every month, if the running costs for servers and employees are higher than the income from subscribers.

But how about the more successful games? Are they persistent? I'm afraid not. Take a look at some data on Everquest after 5 years. EQ sold 2.5 million copies, and with 420,000 current subscribers is one of the biggest games around. But wait! What are 420,000 people doing with 2.5 million copies of the game? Even if some of these copies are expansion sets, the data also say that EQ averages 250,000 new subscribers every year, which in 5 years should add up to 1.25 million subscribers, and not 420,000. Obviously two thirds of these new subscribers are not current subscribers any more, but have stopped playing. There is a high player turn-over.

High turn-over not only means that in a year your friends might be gone from the otherwise persistent world. For Everquest the total number of subscribers hasn't changed since last year, so the 250,000 new subscribers just balanced the 250,000 people leaving EQ in the same year. 60% turnover per year is a lot, there is not much player retention in EQ any more. Furthermore I doubt that they can keep this rate of new subscribers up. Not only is there heavy competition from new games from other companies this year, with World of Warcraft being the most hyped one. But more significantly EQ2 is coming out this year, with current EQ subscribers being encouraged to switch over, offering them free beta access. It seems pretty obvious that in 5 years EQ1 will not be around any more.

Anyway, if you compare screenshots from EQ1 and EQ2, you see how long 5 years is in terms of computer graphics evolution. Attracting large numbers of new players to a 5 year old game with outdated graphics (even if they have been patched up a bit like in EQ) is not going to work. And it is likely that marketing will focus on getting players into EQ2, not EQ1.

MMORPG have a positive network effect. The more people play, the better it is. It gets easier to find groups, and there is a lot more traffic on message boards and fan sites discussing that game. Consequently a decrease in subscription numbers is self-accelerating. Your best friend stopped playing, your guild just dissolved, so you stop playing as well.

In summary, MMORPG being persistent can probably be translated as "being around for 2 to 10 years". In fact, looking up persistent in the online Webster dictionary reveals a definition of "existing for a long or longer than usual time or continuously", a MMORPG probably falls under the "longer than usual" part. People rarely play the same single-player game for years, and you have a hard time buying a video game that is a couple of years old in a store. Each individual MMORPG is around for a long time, but not forever.
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