Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 28, 2013
More MMORPGs, less happiness

All the data I have, from subscription numbers to XFire activity reports, point towards an ongoing decline of the MMORPG market in general that has been going on for over a year. There are blips of renewed interest when a new big game comes out, but those quickly fade. A reader wanted to bet me last year that after three months Guild Wars 2 would have more XFire activity than World of Warcraft, and lost that bet. And I have two different theories to explain this general decline.

One is based on the fact that MMORPGs tend to be rather similar to each other. Yes, the fans can argue for hours about the fine details in the difference of the combat system of World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 or Star Wars: The Old Republic. But basically these are all just coats of paint on the same old hotkey-based combat system. You have levels, quests, a level-cap, dungeons, gear-collecting, crafting, zones, and a whole range of other features in each of these games. Write a general enough description of one MMORPG, and it'll cover a dozen different games. Thus the decline of the genre can be explained by people burning out of the same old, same old.

The other theory is based on the fact that there are differences in the details between games. Some games have player housing, others don't. Some games have auto-targeting, others have a more action-oriented manual targeting and slightly faster combat. The way you gain new powers with level, and the talent trees vary between games (and sometimes even between patch versions of the same game). Thus when you create a complete feature list of a MMORPG, there are millions of possible combinations if you consider each presence or absence of a feature, and each possible variety of a feature. In this theory the decline of the genre would be caused by us having evolved certain preferences for certain features, and no game offering EXACTLY the right mix. So maybe you like the graphics style and setting of Neverwinter, but hate that it has action combat. Or you love Wildstar housing, but can't stand the WoW-like graphics. You'd love a game that has the trading of EVE, but would want it to be fantasy instead of sci-fi.

How about you? How do you see the upcoming MMORPGs, like Neverwinter or Wildstar? Do they bore you with being not much different from all the games we already have? Or do you love certain features and hate certain others?

I know the Secret World was a huge flop, but they got over 1 million people to sign up for their beta. I think that might actually be MORE significant than their sales numbers (in terms of what it tells us about the market). There are clearly a TON of people hoping for and ready to play an MMORPG that is truly different from the WoW clones on offer.

But instead, we get Wildstar and Neverwinter. These games are the same old thing, and I think they are going to flop. And when they do, we're going to see lots of discussions about whether the MMORPG genre is dead or dying.
We are too old for this, Tobold. That's why everything looks annoying and stagnant.

Make the same question to a fresh player, someone in their 15-20 years, and he/she will list you a lot of "amazing" MMO's. The same MMo'sa that we find boring and non-innovative.
In my opinion the problem is this:
MMO developers tend to be (former) hardcore MMO players and produce MMOs for "their" generation.
This is the reason WoW (which still owns the market) is becoming ever less time consuming, but also ever more hardcore (faster, more skill based, etc).
You can also see this in the way Blizzard treats the low-level content. Even though there was a Cataclysm, the devs failed to revamp the entire old world, they failed to create any kind of consistent story while leveling that can make sense to a new player, and they even failed to make the professions useful before level 90!

At the same time there are simply no MMOs for new MMO players. All WoW clones tried to clone 'current' WoW, which was designed to keep old players playing, not to win new players. Proof: look at the speed of the leveling game. The WoW clones failed because they made players rush through the leveling only to hit an end game that was inferior to WoW's endgame (let alone EVE's 'endgame'!)

Combine this with a generation that often doesn't own a PC, but only laptops and tablets. While WoW runs on a laptop, it's much, much more fun on a 30 inch screen. But the current generation doesn't spend their money on 30 inch screens, just like my generation doesn't spend their money on cars or motor cycles.
President Lincoln said "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

The fact that academics say every story has already been written does not mean that new novels are unwelcome.

I do think for time reasons as much as any MMOs may be in decline.

But I certainly am very interested in WildStar and EQ3. Interesting is that most of the gaming sites I follow seem to have the buzz about WildStar ( but that could be my bias ) but the viewers/reader counts are about TESO, which you did not mention. It would have to be considered the Next Big MMO. Due to buzz, I think it will be a disappointment, regardless of the quality of the game. That is just the boom & bust cycle of hype. Similar to SWTOR, it has to try to appease some single-player-gamers expectations as well as MMO players.

Besides all the F2P allows some great stats - Terra is up to 1.4 million, SWTOR added 2 million accounts, even EVE has 0.5 mill. Subscribers (and players hardcore enough to xFire) may be down, but there probably are more people playing MMOs now than at any time.

TESO, which you did not mention. It would have to be considered the Next Big MMO.

The Elder Scrolls Online has the particular problem that it will be unable to avoid being compared with Skyrim. And Skyrim is an awesome game, with much of that awesomeness only working in a single-player mode. However good TESO might be, there will always be features "missing" compared to Skyrim, and that will drag the reviews down.
"All the data I have, from subscription numbers to XFire activity reports,"
Maybe you are just seeing a decline of Subscription MMO and Xfire user. It is true that the market is changing, it is no longer crazy growing like for the ten last years and may have achieved a certain "maturity". MMO sales 2 or 3 Millions box 2 or 3 times a year. That make a market of 4 to 9 million players. This is not size of the market for Top AAA Console FPS, but it is the same size of the FPS PC market, no ?
Fastest ever game selling on Steam ? Skyrim : 5 Millions buyer !

10 years ago, MMO was really really niche. Now it is on par with other PC game market.
For me I think a lot of it has to do with getting older, and getting more income. 10 years ago, when I was an impoverished student, my gaming was limited to one MMO sub and whatever single player games I could pirate. With such limited availability of games, you really need to commit strongly, to squeeze every last drop of fun out of it.

Now days I spend easily $300-400 a month on entertainment stuff, games, subs, books, music, etc. I played TSW, SWTOR, GW2, all those, and I grab them, play for a couple months to get the larger chunk of the enjoyment out of them, move on to the next thing. I don't think that this has anything to do with the quality of the games, it's simply easier for me to transition now compared to back when games lasted longer. More money -> easier access to larger game library -> less interest/holding-power for any one game.
I started WoW a few months before Burning Crusade hit. I loved it and it became the only computer game I played for years.

I left for SWTOR, but a combination of SWTOR going F2P and MoP coming out had me heading back to WoW.

My friend (who still plays SWTOR because he prefers Sci-Fi to Fantasy and I don't care about setting) and were discussing what it would take for me to try a new game seriously.

I'm not sure what they could offer. I've got such a history now with WoW. All my achievements, gear, and memories. I just can't see what 'killer feature' would make me want to give all that up, and start over.

I can do pretty much everything in WoW on my own schedule, and fine tune the amount of time I'm willing to play (mainly through scenarios and LFR). I think I'll be playing it well toward Level 100.
Neverwinter (played a bit of the beta) is very polished but feels like it doesn't bring enough to the table for me. Wildstar looks painfully like WoW in space. I think I'll be enamored with ESO right up until I can actually play it. The game that surprised me is Defiance, which I think is bringing something unique with its blend of open world MMO with shooter controls and mechanics to the scene....I'm planning on dedicating myself to it. Only problem I see is I have no idea how much lasting presence Defiance can manage, and while I love the twitch-based controls, my experience is that hardcore MMO fans are usually averse to twichy skill-based gameplay.
The real driving force of MMOS isn't a set of rather trivial features, it's the illusion that the rewards the game doles out actually matter. Whatever value there is in the gameplay is ruined by the expectation you do it far past the point of enjoyment.

Once that is gone, it's gone. You can't refool yourself. So I don't think it will be a long slow slide back to whatever the natural player base is.
Well, I lost the bet. However...

No one can say GW2 is a 3-monther or a 6-monther. It is evident that GW2 is the SECOND most played MMO. SWTOR and TERA were to B2P and not get the second place. We will see if SWTOR expansion will get it the second place.

And we are seeing GW2 evolve as a game and a world with the living stories. Anet is really trying to make GW2 a living world. GW2 is the MMO that is creating new benchmarks, not WoW, TSW, TERA, SWTOR or Neverwinter.

Wildstar I need play first for have an opinion.
And now WoW is adding GW2 style 'dynamic events' in Patch 5.3. What was that saying about imitation and flattery?
You said better than I about KOTOR-> SWTOR,and Skyrim->TESO. The latest press briefing they had a list on one side of the blackboard of things needed to be a ES game and another list of things for MMO players. It is tough enough to do one well without serving two masters.

Re "successful": the recurring revenue of MMOs is one of their appeal. MMOs player numbers may not rival a console/Buy-once game: e.g. hasn't SWTOR generated about as much revenue as GW2? How many days of WoW subscriptions does it take to equal GW2s sales: 30? 40?

Which is more successful, the game with 3 times as many players or the game generating more profit or the one with the higher metacritic score. IMO, money is nice and metacritic is random.

I agree with Joao that GW2 has much innovation. It has been said we are in a post-WoW world. Your AAA MMO will need most of WoW's features since they are regarded as standard. But much innovation is being driven outside of WoW, with a lot of that coming from GW2.

He is probably correct about the GW2 numbers, but I am not as convinced it is obvious. E.g., if there is another several million person MMO, it is probably not going to get there with xFire users. The more MMOs cater to a broader audience and a more global audience, the less reliable xFire or gaming sites will be.

the problem is not how many people have Xfire, but how to measure how many players play a game with no subscription.

GW2, TERA, SWTOR, LOTRO, STO, STW and others MMO don't have subscription. So, we need use a system for statistical sample what MMO have more players. And for not compare oranges to apples, we need use the same sample system to WoW, that have subscriptions.

Is you find a better way to measure player numbers with a diferent system, share with us. For now, the best sample we have is Xfire.

Anyway, what the subscription numbers say is that WoW is bleeding players. Taht is the reason they are commited to make a patch after otehr one.
FWIW, I had to google Xfire to know what you guys were talking about. :P

I don't really understand the point of it. I already know what games I've been playing, why have some external site track it? o.O
@Michael the point is that a site like Xfire can create an aggregate of playing hours from its participants. You offer your data for them to track along with everyone else. The only problem with discussions like this is all you're really talking about is "what Xfire users are playing." I don't use Xfire, for example, so my play data isn't represented here (I do use Raptr, though).
@Tori Bergquist & Michael

Actually, the original purpose of Xfire was for people to see what their online friends are playing right now. Lots of people play different games, and it's convenient to know your friends are currently playing WoW, or Call of Duty, or LoL, etc. The focus on measuring time played came from how Xfire monetized.

Naturally, as has been pointed out here, this does tend to attract a more "game hopping" demographic to Xfire. If you only play WoW, you have no need for it.

However, I have yet to see any reasoning why this would affect one MMORPG more than any other, or why the Xfire trends would not follow the general trends (i.e., if WoW drops from 40k hours to 20k hours, that probably indicates a significant drop in overall players).
Obviously, MMOs have become a mature market, Blizzard in general have that kind of effect on a market, they are the perfect "rite of passasge" game maker.

There's now a plethora of options that are not WOW/GW/SWTOR and they should be accounted for in terms of multiplayer games.

LoL and WoT (DOTA2, etc) have taken the battleground concept and ran with it. There's a ton of F2P titles that have the leveling game figured out (you can speed it up with boosters).

Maybe someone will come up with a pure raiding game with no leveling...
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