Back in 2003, both Everquest and Ultima Online hit their highest population numbers. Everquest, the runaway hit, sported around 500,000 subscribers at peak while Ultima Online boasted of their own 250,000. This is, combined, about half of the initial subscriber base for World of Warcraft.
Everquest’s record for simultaneous users was set in 2003 measuring about 120,000 concurrent players. For example, the graphical-interface MUD Gemstone IV claimed a height of 2,000-2,500 concurrent players in 1995. Currently, WoW boasts around 2-2.5 million concurrent users.
Most of these are sourced from Wikipedia or other Google results. I doubt they’re 100% accurate, but I’m less interested in hard data (when am I ever?) than in the story the trends begin tell to us. Now that story is a fleeting idea in my head: that when we think of “MMOs” we’re, maybe, thinking about a whole approach to gaming that isn’t really what it used to be, nor will it look the same in another decade.
It is no question that the “Massively Multiplayer Online” tag became the “next big thing” in the mid-00’s gaming explosion. So much so that, at least in the West, “MMO” is tacked onto everything that smells a bit like a persistent progression mechanic.
And, well, in an age of immense market saturation for the “MMO” genre we still hear a vocal contingent of cries for a return to something that made older games so engrossing and encapsulating. Star Wars Galaxies has been a large target of player devotion, with even many individuals who never had a chance to experience the game clamoring for it’s features. Everquest Next, whose full fate is unknown at the moment, until recently recently had captured the hearts and dreams of almost every MMO player with their stated commitment to world and environment. A return to the Everquest of old, with the technology of today.
Even stronger evidence comes from the outstanding response to Everquest’s new progression server.
Yet we find that, in practice, the reality of “what people want” remains very different from what people vocally say they want. Not because players are lying or being disingenuous (there really is a huge cry for “classic” approaches), but because the actual population numbers for players interested in classically-grounded MMORPGs is much, much smaller than any study or analysis will show.
The numbers provided are rough and simple. This isn’t a rigorous analysis but my usual theoretical nonsense. In fact, I don’t think my premise is something most people would disagree with, just something people dislike to hear since it can force emotional responses toward concepts we think we hold true.
I very much suspect that the “MMORPG” genre isn’t as big as the big numbers make it sound. I want to be clear that this isn’t a “pissing contest” and this isn’t some game of “who can be more hardcore… grrr!” but an exploration of why self-identified MMO players seemed happier with more involvement in the past. Now that is very subjective, and I don’t mean “happier” as it has to do with smiles and puppies, but “happier” insomuch as there was a larger feeling of less churn and more investment.
So many elements have an effect on the larger picture. Free-to-play, WoW’s 11 million subscribers skewing concepts of “success”, the rise of crowdfunding. It could go on.
But in the end, if we want to talk about persistent RPG worlds in the lineage of MUDs, Meridian 59, NWN on AOL, Everquest and Ultima Online? how many games remain that adhere to that family tree? MMORPGs, at least in the beginning, were content to allow the new and exciting feature of playing with other people to lead the charge.
Now, this all veers quickly into a process of losing oneself in bright nostalgia. However, Richard Bartle suggested in 2004’s “Designing Virtual Worlds” that “Established virtual worlds have churn rates at under 5%” for which MUD2’s 4% churn is provided as an establishing footnote. For a book published in 2004, this is understood to mean primarily the later MUDs which persisted in relevance through the era of early graphic MMOs like Ultima Online and Everquest. In comparison, Everquest is claimed in the same paragraph as holding a 12.5% churn rate. Ultima Online’s churn rate is impossible to do more that guess at, though claims here would suggest 20% is in the right general ballpark. You can conclude that older games (MUDs and MUD-likes) with far higher barriers to entry (such as hourly billing and/or proprietary agreements with specific service providers) held far lower rates of churn than larger, higher-profile graphical releases. This is supported by Lord British, when speaking to Tim Fields in the 2010 book, “Mobile & Social Game Design: Monetization Methods and Mechanics” where the claim is made that players are generally willing to pay into subscription based games in the early era of graphical MMOs for about six months to a year.
High barrier to entry text-based MUDs sported low churn rates that the wider-published and comparatively lower-barrier concurrent graphical MMOs could only dream of attaining. That is, until World of Warcraft.
In late 2007, claims were made by an analyst that World of Warcraft met the old standard for virtual worlds with an extraordinary 4-5% churn rate. A claim made during a study published on RMT in 2012 marks WoW’s playerbase that never breaks and always plays WoW to around 23% of their population, with the remaining 77% of players taking breaks or churning out. This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does speak to a relative value for short-term churn.
I can draw some basic conclusions from all this data, though I’m far from concerned about data-only-driven models (which generally lead to the elimination of the “human” aspects of datapoints which rarely jive with conclusions based on cold statistics). I can suggest that MMORPGs have various choices to make when it comes to their scope and desired level of worldbuilding.
Games which attempted to mimic the World of Warcraft model failed. I’d chalk this to the fact that many games saw systems and concepts as the real “prize” in development… and not the accidental sense of community and interpersonal relationship. At this point, in 2015, all of this seeks to act as a call-to-arms for smaller, niche MMORPGs which can support specific communities while providing individual barriers to exit. The “everyone plays WoW” days are far behind us, and the lessons from history remain: place barriers to entry; make players work for understanding. Build for the community you want, and not the community you hope to capture. It is better to hold a low churn rate for a small population than to skim through thousands of players every month.
This isn’t entirely an economic argument, simply a look at what makes a good world. Good worlds exist in small communities with low churn. The future, at least from a consumer-player perspective looks to be small and cozy.