MMO players purely love to speculate on the financial and population figures for MMOs they play; even more so for those they don't. An unhealthy miasma of schadenfreude and fear surrounds the entire genre. My game's not doing very well, goes the logic, it might close down. That would be awful. Maybe if people weren't playing that new game, the one I don't like, more people would play my game. I hope that new game does badly. Then maybe people who were playing it will stop and play mine instead. Then I'll feel safer.
This seething pot of bilious speculation bubbles with ignorance, rumor and misinformation. Because almost no MMO companies routinely issue detailed population data and few make public announcements even couched in generalities, each straw of data is grasped and examined until it frays and falls to dust in our hands. Every so often some professional information seller, like SuperData,
pops up with a squib promoting their services and whatever they choose
to highlight gets scorned or lauded accordingly depending on whose
pre-existing worldview it supports or denies. MMO companies with
something to crow about, like half a million subs and ten years of continual subscriber growth or three and a half million boxes sold , send out PR releases that even mainstream media notice but remain grimly silent when things aren't going so well.
The Nosy Gamer publishes his weekly table of results from X-Fire, which, even qualified with his usual due diligence, currently seems to indicate that MMO gamers have spotted that bright light in the sky outside and stepped out into The Big Room to see what it might be. It's summer. Here come the dog days, the midsummer doldrums, when everything starts to drift. School's out and so are the people. Everyone's at the beach or the mountains or the lake. France is officially closed.
Back when people took newspapers seriously this time of year was known as The Silly Season. It's certainly not the most sensible time to start examining MMO attendance and drawing conclusions. If you're looking to take the temperature and check the health of an indoor hobby like playing MMOs July and August probably shouldn't be your first choice. Yes, school may be out but so's the sun and much though the media love the cliché of gamers as pallid adolescents hiding from daylight in their fetid, curtained rooms, even journalists are finally coming round to the idea that video games are just part of the regular 21st century cultural diet, played by people who occasionally go outdoors.
It's always puzzled me somewhat when game companies choose to launch their new subscription MMOs at the start of the summer. A couple of years back The Secret World took a July launch window. Six months later the subscription was dropped. Funcom blamed a lot of things for the failure to attract sufficient subscribers, among them poor reviews and competition from Diablo III and GW2. You can tell Funcom's not a British company because the one thing they didn't blame was the weather.
Carbine opened the loading bay doors to WildStar at the beginning of June. Perfect timing for the first and second renewal notices to land right in the heart of summer. Isey's still subbed though maybe not for much longer. He reports forums filled with "doom and gloom about empty servers and bugs". In-game, he observes, "The few friends I had on my friends list are long gone and the areas I am still playing in are completely dead". Missy Mojo's already made her decision. She's gone, her parting comment something neither game designer nor marketing department would ever want to receive: "It just ended up feeling like a chore logging on to level".
All anecdotal evidence. We'll know the truth of it when the first server merges are announced no doubt. Will WildStar follow TSW and go Buy-to-Play by Christmas? If so, does it vindicate all those who claimed subscription gaming was a dead end for any game not called WoW or just confirm that no-one thinks about snow-chains in summer? Will the blame be laid on the designers who thought they could buck a decade of dumbing down with a call to the hardcore or on the suits who made them go to market out of season?
And if WildStar and TESO, about which no-one talks much anymore already, fail does that mean the genre is in terminal decline or just that those two games weren't good enough or focused enough to find an audience? Liore's just about done with MMOs. Is she speaking for the WoW generation or just herself when she says "MMOs are a dying breed"? Is it true, as she quotes someone telling her recently, that "WoW created WoW players, not MMO players"?
I tend to think she might be right on both counts. MMOs, as understood by the generation of players that was introduced to them through World of Warcraft, are dying.The zeitgeist that brought millions of adolescents and adults of all ages, all over the world, to spend extended periods of time together in a fantasy land where they were able to "be social, to achieve things with friends, to be part of a community" was indeed predicated on a pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter world that no longer exists and is never going to come back.
Among long-time MMO players, both those who predated WoW and those who arrived with or after it and went native, we see a yearning for the lost, golden age of social cohesion, reliable guilds, friends lists filled with people who actually logged on. That's why Syp got such a strong, negative reaction when he made the apparently reasonable suggestion that ArcheAge would be better if it offered a PvE-only server.
Pleasing the masses, it seems, pleases no-one. Any minority that pipes up does so only to complain, while the masses themselves never say a word so no-one knows what they think, or much cares, it appears. The future for MMOs is niche, apparently, or at least the only one we ever get to hear expressing itself is, and the niche in question usually involves bashing virtual people over their little virtual heads and taking their stuff. The family that slays together stays together as Harlan Ellison once said.
And yet. And yet. I play GW2. A lot of people do. A couple of months after launch, WildStar has fifteen North American servers. Two years after launch, GW2 has twenty-four. Anecdotally, two-thirds of those WildStar servers are flagged "Low Population" in Saturday night prime time. As I write this, in the middle of the afternoon here in the UK, so before breakfast on the US West Coast and mid-morning on a workday in the East, every GW2 NA server is flagged "Very High". Except the three that are "Full".
That jibes entirely with what I see in game. Every starting zone rattles with chatter from people who "just bought the game this week", asking questions that only a real new player would think to ask. I could spend most of each session explaining everything that's changed to the endless series of puzzled returnees coming back for a second, third or fourth run at this, the easiest of all MMOs to rediscover. Buy once, play forever. Clever marketing if you have the game to back it up. They do.
So, maybe all MMOs aren't dying, just the ones that fail to adapt, to evolve, to float on the prevailing cultural winds. We'll see soon enough if the PvP Niche - ArcheAgefirst then Camelot Unchained and the whole Kickstarted crowdof wannabe DAOCs and UOs - has the traction to recreate those fraying social bonds. We''ll find out whether there really is a hard core to WildStar's PvE Hardcore crew or just a soft center that runs.
In an MMO world where the same company closes Vanguard: Saga of Heroes (one of the best MMOs ever started, if not one of the best ever finished) in the very same week they bring Landmark (a shambles of a quarter-finished game-with-no-game-yet) to a mass audience via Steam, well you wouldn't want to go placing any bets on the future health of the industry. Still and all, I remain violently optimistic.
Oh look! While I've been typing it's clouded over outside. So much for summer. Let's log in.