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Is the MMO in decline?

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EVE Online, Final Fantasy XIV, and World of Warcraft

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the game genre with the world’s most unwieldy acronym -- the MMORPG, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game -- was the king of the mountain. Lately, though, these virtual worlds seem to be stagnating.

Case in point: Sony Online Entertainment’s recent announcement that it is shutting down four of its titles, in which ‘decreasing player population’ was cited as one of the reasons for the move.

That’s not to say the shuttering of relatively minor titles like Vanguard: Saga of Heroes and Wizardry Online presages the doom of the whole genre. But it might be a good time to ask just where the MMO is headed.

With origins dating back to the 1990s (and perhaps even further), the MMO genre hit a peak in October 2010 when its arguably most successful title, World of Warcraft, topped 12 million paying subscribers. Gamers were shelling out as much as $15 per month to romp about in the fantasy world of Azeroth, turning WoW into a pop-culture juggernaut. Developer Blizzard hired celebrities like Mr. T and William Shatner to shill for it on TV. It even inspired an Emmy award-winning episode of South Park.

Lately, though, things haven’t looked quite so flush for the genre. Rival MMOs that were unable to gain WoW’s traction -- like Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Warhammer Online -- have either switched to free-to-play models and accepted relatively modest subscription numbers, or been canned altogether. WoW itself has dipped to about 7 million subscribers -- an understandable situation given how old it is, burdened with dated graphics and content that has grown stale despite attempts to shore it up with numerous expansions.

Can any new game come along and replicate WoW’s dominance, or has the market landscape fundamentally changed in the past ten years?

2013 saw few new releases for big, high-profile MMOs in the west – only Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV update, A Realm Reborn, really qualified. The last wave -- which included titles like Rift, Guild Wars 2, and Star Wars: The Old Republic -- petered out in 2012. There are a few big releases on the horizon, such as The Elder Scrolls Online, which is currently in beta and has taken the bold step of attempting a subscription-based model. Blizzard’s mysterious follow-up to WoW (codenamed ‘Titan’) continues to trigger speculation, but it’s a far cry from a few years back, when every couple of months seemed to see the release of another top-shelf MMO.

To some extent, the MMO may be a victim of its own success. One of its essential characteristics -- persistence -- has been co-opted increasingly by other genres, and even by meta-game networks such as Xbox Live Arcade. Whether you’re leveling up your soldier in Call of Duty, going leaderboard crazy in countless mobile games, or even browsing your achievements on your console, you may never feel too far removed from the games you’re playing.

As long ago as 2008, Eurogamer’s Rob Fahey was arguing that Call of Duty 4 was “the biggest massively multiplayer online game” of the previous year, noting that “[e]ach player character is persistent, leveling up through the ranks by gaining experience.” MMO designer and theorist Ralph Koster echoed Fahey’s sentiment in his blog, saying that “there’s lots of MMOish things like persistent character advancement snuck in [Call of Duty 4].” Such developments have only accelerated in the intervening years.

The end result of this is that gamers may not need to go to Azeroth in order to be a part of a vast online community, or to feel they’re making constant progress along some path of advancement. That sense of interconnectedness, once the rare province of a few multiplayer games, no longer seems so special in a world dominated by social networks.

Meanwhile, the market is flooded with free-to-play alternatives, from the venerable Runescape to Rift to in-browser titles like Wartune and children’s fare like Club Penguin. Go abroad and the picture becomes even more complex: you may never have heard of Dofus, for example, but millions of French gamers have, and over 100 million Chinese gamers play titles like Westward Journey and Zhengtu Online, which are scarcely known outside their homeland.

“We are seeing a transition to the free-to-play business model,” says Jesse Divnich, Vice President of Insights at game research firm EEDAR. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the subscription model is dead. Instead it just means it can be profitably supported by fewer games. There will always be a demand and a willingness to pay a monthly subscription for the right experience. Nowadays, that’s reserved for only the best of the best.”

Both MMO payment models -- subscription and free-to-play -- are problematic in different ways. Paying a $15/month fee may seem hard to justify when so many games are offering their wares for free. On the other hand, after the initial rush of ‘free stuff!’ subsides, it can be annoying to play a game that always seems to be reaching into your back pocket for a few extra bucks here and there.

There’s one subscription-based MMO that is still seeing membership growth: EVE Online. EVE has always charted a different course from WoW and its ilk: all of the action occurs on a single server, meaning there is only one game universe rather than potentially dozens or hundreds. Gamers have tremendous influence over the gameplay experience of their peers, and the galaxy-spanning sci-fi setting is radically different from the earthbound, Everquest-derived style that has been seen in so many MMOs, even sci-fi efforts like Star Wars Galaxies and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

EVE, with its ruthless learning curve and a mere 500,000 subscriptions, will never see the sort of market penetration that WoW achieved, but maybe that’s the point. Now that the novelty is wearing off, MMOs could increasingly be niche affairs, appealing to loyal, tightly-bound communities rather than attempting to please everyone with expensive licenses, lavish production values, and easy gameplay.

So it’s looking increasingly likely that the MMO space will be a splintered landscape. Rather than One Game to Rule Them All -- as WoW once aspired to be -- we may see more casual gamers hopping from one free-to-play game to another every month or two, while the hardcore remain devoted to a single game and keep it chugging along with a subscriber base in the hundreds (or even tens) of thousands, rather than millions.

“The MMO category is far from fading,” EEDAR’s Divnich insists. “It’s been a key genre throughout gaming and will continue to play a pivotal role going forward. How we interact with MMO’s and the business models that drive them will continue to adapt to meet the evolving needs of consumers, but the category is unlikely fading away.”

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