It’s all doom and gloom! At present there’s this sense of dread around the MMO community. Whispers of death and destruction in the wind. The end is nigh and not just because December 21st is fast approaching. MMOs are on the verge of expiring! Blizzard fired 600 employees!! Bioware fired 400 employees!!! 38 Studios fired everyone!!!! Is this the beginning of the end?
I suggest you sit down and enjoy a warm cup of tea (or coffee if that’s more your thing).
It would be foolish to ignore what’s happening right this moment within the industry. People losing their jobs, developers thrown out of business, MMOs being canceled or shut down and the majority of titles turning free to play… the list goes on and on. But to say that the genre is on its way out is a bit of an exaggeration. Consider this: World of Warcraft, the largest MMO today, has slightly over 10 million subscribers. 8 years ago having anywhere near half a million people playing your MMO meant you were dominating the genre. This at a time when there were only a handful of MMOs on the market.
It’s important to realize just how big of a deal World of Warcraft was and the impact it had on MMOs in general. Before its release there was a growing buzz for massively multiplayer games and yet not everyone was sure if WoW would be successful. There were analysts who were, quite rightly, questioning Blizzard’s business acumen for putting all their eggs in one basket. No one, not even the folks at Blizzard Entertainment, predicted just how successful it would eventually turn out to be. It grew the genre almost a hundred fold and propelled MMOs into the mainstream. Suddenly everyone and their uncle wanted to jump on the bandwagon. Players got really excited.
Publishers got really excited too. Blizzard had struck gold and they wanted a piece of the action. However not everyone went the right way about it and there were casualties because of it. Anyone remember Asheron’s Call 2? Any recollection of Tabula Rasa? They were shuttered in 2005 and 2008 respectively. 2009 saw the end of The Matrix Online. There are many more but these are the relatively high profile ones which I can remember at the top of my head. They closed not because the industry was sick (it was booming), but rather because of lack of foresight, bad management or poor quality. It took some time for developers and publishers to understand that this had become an extremely contested space, and if your game did not cut it then it was going to get chopped down. To make matters worse we saw the term MMO being used willy nilly to the detriment of the genre. Hellgate: London and All Points Bulletin were both labelled with the MMO moniker to justify their monthly subscription. They both failed.
Some may ask: ‘What about all these games going free to play? Surely it means the industry is struggling?’. Not at all. Free to play has been the model of choice in China and Korea way before we have seen it successfully implemented in western markets. For the record the MMO market in China and Korea is thriving. Turbine decided to change their business model and attempt to go F2P for their game. They did it well and it paid dividends, vastly increasing their profit margin. Others followed suit. These are not signs of a dying industry but rather an evolving industry .
I have to say gamers love drama. When any new MMO is announced there is always talk of how it is going to fail miserably. We’re all just drama queens. We want to be the ones who wave their hands in the air and shout ‘I told you so!’. Truth be told this could be a way to project our own fears on the matter. MMO gamers invest a lot more in the games they play than other gamers. We have much more to lose if the MMO we play goes bankrupt so it’s inevitable that we quake in our boots when we start seeing bad omens. This is nothing new. Let me direct you to this post. It’s a blogger reacting to the news that AC2 was going to shut down way back in 2005 (back when the industry was seeing its fastest growth I might add).
If I had to make my own prediction I would say that, unless MMOs reinvent themselves again, we are going to see a steady decline in MMO players over the coming years (see the amazing graph I drew below). However when this decline eventually plateaus interest in MMOs will still be healthy enough to sustain the industry.
So, to conclude, I believe that MMOs are dying just like a healthy 40 year old is dying. The genre may have seen better days and it is all relatively downhill from now on but we are not going to see MMOs as we know them today disappear anytime soon. When this breed of MMOs finally expires it’ll only be because a different kind of MMO has emerged and ultimately we’ll all be much the better for it.
In the meantime: Just keep calm and carry on playing.