Do Older MMOs Have The Advantage?

Pandaren Monk Fighting

Playable Pandas. Still more popular than any other MMO.

I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that it’s been quite a while since any new MMO has been released that’s been a major success. I don’t mean to the degree of being a WoW-killer or anything either, I just mean a recent MMO that’s done, y’know, well. RIFT’s probably the latest MMO that I can think of that’s actually proven to be commercially viable and even then I doubt it’s flaunting hundreds of thousands of subscribers. SW:TOR, The Secret World, Final Fantasy XIV, even DCU Online and Star Trek Online, all seem to just be limping by. What gives?

A quick scan of the list on Wikipedia of all MMORPGs shows that we haven’t really had a decent commercial success since Lord of the Rings Online in 2007. Vanguard, Tabula Rasa, Age of Conan, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Warhammer Online, Mortal Online, and then the ones mentioned above, paint a depressing picture of flop after flop after flop for the past five years. And yet, the most successful MMO of all time, even with it’s massive leaking of subscribers, is still doing very, very well. As are even older MMOs like EQ2, EVE Online and City of Heroes. Hell, even 13 year old Everquest is still turning a buck. Do these older MMOs just have a natural advantage over new ones?

Of course there’s every chance that I’ve got it wrong and games like TSW and SW:TOR are raking in a nice profit regardless of units sold or current subscribers. Perhaps my other examples of ‘flops’ are all real money-spinners behind the scenes. Perhaps it’s just the public perception that’s warped. I kinda doubt it though. I think what we’re seeing is the unfortunate reality of new MMOs being unable to penetrate the marketplace to the degree they both want and need to prosper. Compare this to the old MMOs of yesteryear that seem to be holding their ground pretty darn well.

Why is that? Is it just because new MMOs plain suck or because previous MMOs have an advantage through having already acquired an audience? Maybe the former suggestion is valid in a few minor cases but for the most part of it, I think yeah, older MMOs are a tough opponent. Not necessarily because they are better games but because they offer familiarity and comfort whilst new MMOs aren’t really giving players any reason to leave. Why exactly would someone give up their friends and raid buddies of several years in a game like WoW and up and jump ship to something like SW:TOR? Is there any compelling reason? By the way players are bouncing off new MMOs, I’m guessing not.

The comfort and community factor is definitely a big advantage for existing MMOs and a difficult factor to overcome. But is it the entire reason that new MMOs aren’t doing so well? Maybe. Whilst certainly a big aspect of it, I think what we’re also seeing is increasing competition in the market which, when combined with the rising costs of developing these games and a saturated playerbase, means MMOs are facing a tougher challenge than ever before to be successful. Instead of development costing a few million dollars, it’s costing hundreds, and now that there’s more MMOs than ever before to choose from, especially ones that have had years of development under their belt, player subscription isn’t reaching the lofty heights desired. It’s almost as if there just aren’t enough MMO players to go round.

Maybe all of this is coming from a biased perspective as I find myself still playing WoW, an eight year old MMORPG, and looking forward to its expansion more than anything else on the market right now. Maybe it’s because it’s just the right game for me, maybe it’s because it’s familiar and I’m lazy or maybe it’s because no other game is doing anything to stand out from the crowd right now. I honestly can’t say – all I know is that is has an advantage in my eyes..

But what do you think? Do older MMOs have a advantage over new ones?

-Gordon

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22 Comments

  1. Msbungle says:

    I think the advantage that WoW has is partially because many people have made friendships with people they still wish to play with and partially because it is very “user-friendly” – especially to those who may be new to MMO’s.

    I left when Cataclysm came out and I can’t see myself ever going back. That expansion broke certain ties I had to my main in-game. With those ties broken my interest in Azeroth broke as well.

    From what I’m reading GW2 is looking to do something different and so I’m willing to give it a shot – well that plus the fact that I don’t have to spend $15 a month to find out if it is doing something different.

  2. SlothBear says:

    An older MMO absolutely has the decided advantage over a newer MMO that is just a clone of the older one. Nobody who likes WoW is going to leave it to play a newer version of WoW where they basically lose the years of time they’ve put into the old game. Most of the games that flopped didn’t bring much to the table that people couldn’t get from a game they were already playing, so this isn’t really shocking to me. Sort of like everyone who tries to compete with the NFL by slightly tweaking the rules of football flops too. Nobody is abandoning their teams with decades of loyalty behind them for something brand new and slightly different. If you want the market, bring something new to the table.

  3. bhagpuss says:

    Not sure I follow your logic. What’s your evidence that older MMOs ” seem to be holding their ground pretty darn well.” ? Do you have information beyond the fact that they still have servers up and/or that they continue to add content? Does EQ have more subscribers than FFXIV? FFXIV has more servers.

    How are you differentiating the “success” of older MMOs from that of newer ones? Why is Age of Conan a “flop” but City of Heroes a “success”? Both are still running. Are we to take it that some MMOs stay up as some kind of charity project while others make a profit? How are we to know?

    Would you say Anarchy Online was a success? It’s been up for over a decade. No-one talks about it any more and who knows how many people play it but it’s still there. What about Face of Mankind? Istaria? Ryzom? All written off, all still there should you want to play them. How about The Realm? UO? Asheron’s Call? Ancient games, still running. No-one writes about them, talks about them. Someone must still play them though or they’d have been switched off long ago, wouldn’t they? Do silent games like those support your hypothesis or undermine it? What exactly do you mean by success?

    Of the “failures” you list, Vanguard, Tabula Rasa, Age of Conan, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Warhammer Online, Mortal Online, the only one that’s gone is Tabula Rasa and I think the general feeling is that that one closed too soon and would have survived in the current market had the operators not lost their nerve. Why are you labeling them “failures” when they are still running? What is a failure?

    I’m not saying your hypothesis is wrong, but is it evidence-based? The only evidence I’m prepared to take is whether an MMO still has a server up.

    • Msbungle says:

      I completely agree. The idea that something isn’t a success because it hasn’t decimated WoW’s population is silly to me. It would be like saying Burger King is a failure because they have fewer customers than McDonalds. People making these connections are, on some level, failing to realize that these MMO’s are businesses.

    • Gordon says:

      Success is certainly subjective, for sure, and given the lack of hard numbers available it’s difficult to ever be accurate I guess. I also completely hold my hands up and say that the success or failure of these games is largely based on my own perception (or , at least, the ‘vibe’ that I get from the MMO community).

      I wouldn’t necessarily say that just because a game has a server running though, it’s a success. Personally, I imagine that being successful, at least in a commercial sense, would require a reasonable rate of return and it’s hard to image that happening when companies like Mythic and Bioware make sweeping statements about the number of subscriptions they require to turn a profit and then fail to acquire them. If the developers themselves don’t deem a game to be successful, I think it’s fair for us to call them unsuccessful too.

  4. Steve says:

    New MMOs do not in ANY way foster friendships…. the older MMOs (even WoW in vanilla) made you group in order to advance. This fosters friendships and those help keep you playing the game.

    With the frantic rush to allow people to solo almost ALL content, once folks have got a character max level there isn’t much to keep them there.

    IMO they need to get off the ’solo’ bandwagon and require grouping again… let the solo folks play another game and let the rest of us make new friends and get old friends to join us.

  5. Kelindia says:

    The biggest reason why is that they simply were there first. Friendships were formed and gameplay was refined over the years for their playerbases. The reason WoW is so huge is that it was first to offer alot of things and more importantly refined them to a point unprecedented before and largely after as well.

    The other big problem is MMO’s releasing while bringing in only a few new things to the market or having major core problems that weren’t addressed.

    If you want to launch a successful MMO you need to be distinctly different while avoiding all those other pitfalls like lack of grouping, boring combat and meaningless gameplay.

    I think Rift showcases my point the best. It was struggling with early sub loss largely due to being very similar to WoW at launch while lacking the refinement seen there. Rift however has a strong enough group of developers that they overcame alot of that through innovation and constant content. It will be interesting to see the effect of Rift’s first expansion on it’s playerbase. If my theory holds they’ve become distinct enough that by launching their new expansion they’ll see a substantial gain in long term subs.

  6. mynsc says:

    I think it’s because all the new MMOs you mentioned don’t truly feel new. Or like you said, they don’t stand out. Why should I quit my current MMO, where all my virtual friends are, where I know the server, the lore and the mechanics inside out and go to another one and start everything from scratch, when it’s not really offering me anything worth moving for?

    Just two games have really made me want to move. First one was Warhammer Online. The game really stood out, with it’s focus on RvR and this is why it had one of the biggest openings of all MMOs. People were attracted to it because it offered something unique and something that was desired by many. Unfortunately, the game was full of bugs, unfinished, imbalanced and quite broken towards the endgame, but even so, the 5 months I stayed with it were incredibly fun.

    The second is Guild Wars 2. It’s hard to resist trying out this game, considering its payment model and the WvW and other new features it brings. Time will tell if it will be a winner, but right now it’s definitely catching the attention of players.

    New MMOs can still achieve incredible success, maybe even bigger than it was possible in 2004, but they need to forget about WoW and try to do their own thing. Sure, learn some lessons from the big names, but don’t copy them and don’t make it your goal to try and emulate them. Players are incredibly thirsty for something new, like for example an AAA sandbox or at least some kind of hybrid and the first company that will offer them one will certainly get rewarded.

  7. Imakulata says:

    I am not sure what methodology you use to find out whether a game has been a flop or a commercial success; it’s possible you are privy to internal info few people who do not work in the MMO providers are but if I were to compare the “flops” and “decent commercial successes” based on the publicly available information, I would come to a very different conclusion. It seems that few subscription old games measure up to the new ones.

    I checked the Xfire “hours played” statistics; I understand it’s not a very good one compared to PCU and money earned but it’s a statistics which a ladder is easily available for and there’s some history thanks to Nosy Gamer’s “Digital Dozen” series.

    1 WoW (2004) – sub (in the west) – it has been 1st for quite a long time
    2 SW:TOR (2011) – sub (f2p planned) – has held the place except for various beta weekends
    3 Aion (2007) – f2p – another stable one since it went f2p this year
    4 Eve (2003) – sub (payable via in-game money as well)
    5 GW (2005) – f2p with entry fee
    6 Metin2 (2004) – f2p – I haven’t heard of this one but it seems to be very popular w/ Xfire community
    7 LotRO (2007) – f2p
    8 TSW (2012) – sub – this one seems to be the only one out of my list that is falling

    It seems to be true that new games have it harder, partly due to high competion, partly due to the fact that players who are likely to play a game for a long period of time are also late adopters but Xfire ladder paints a different picture of four groups which seems to say the problems’ effect on new games is not that big:
    1) WoW and Eve
    2) f2p
    3) new games
    4) games that barely survive or don’t

    • Ettesiun says:

      By using Xfire data, you restrict your analysis to a certain type of player : the hardcore game that use Xfire. You have not even a sligthly accurate number of subscriber. For exemple where are all the Facebook games that are played by millions of “player” ?
      These statistics are interesting to see what hardcore player are playing. They will play older games that softcore players.

      So you are right when saying that newer games are more successfull than old one, but I think (without any data unfortunately) that in reality it is more true that xfire data shows.

  8. pitrelli says:

    It makes me a sad panda that people are excited by MoP.

    I remember either syncaine or tobold had said wow would go nosediving in subs and quality after they moved their A team to work on Titan. I think that is what’s coming to pass. Cataclysm was great for around a month….. Maybe mop will be similar.

    As for success in general, its relative to what expectations are from the devs and investors. It’s they who know targets and numbers needed to bring home the bacon.

  9. Bristal says:

    As a casual and older player, my 4 years in WoW represents to me a massive investment in time and energy, and a brand loyalty that will likely only end in me stopping MMOs entirely. Why would I want “another MMO”? This one was hard enough to learn and I basically get to trade it in for a new model every 2 years.

    WoW has a HUGE amount of content that just keeps piling up. There is no way a new game could approach that unless it is a very different game. And in the end retention is about content.

    That said, the one feature that needs to be addressed, and could draw me to another game, or will end my gaming days, is the community problem.

    The company that can best solve the anonymous dickhead axe grinder social problem, and find a way to reward positive community development will get my cash and time.

  10. Amuntoth says:

    Don’t quote me, but I believe I read somewhere that SWTOR made back it’s investment in box sales and second month subs alone, and that everything after that was just money coming in. Now of course you have to count current developers salaries and server costs etc, but I doubt it would take even 30,000 subscribers at $15 a month for the game to continue generating a nice amount of cash.

    I disagree with your assessment that some of those games are failures. I think WoW has blinded us. It used to be that 32k subs was a HUUUUGE MMO. Granted, with development costs rising that number alone wouldn’t sustain a new MMO, not at first. But counting boxes sales and second month subs you can make a killing before settling into a nice groove. For instance, lets assume a new MMO gets 1 million boxed sales ( I believe SWTOR got much more than this). That is 1mil x $50 = $50mil. Let assume that HALF of the people drop their sub before the second month, so we have 500,000 x $15 = $7,500,000. So we’ve got about $57.5million in the first month. Then let’s assume that it drops to 20k subs and stays steady. 20k x $15 = $300,000. So that is $57.5 million by the end of the first month, and $300,000 a month after that. Even assuming that the game doesn’t do QUITE that well, that is still a TON of money rolling in.

    So the question is, why go F2P/layoff developers? Because of the current trend in business of profit MARGINS. It doesn’t matter that the game is profitable, only that they can increase that profit MARGIN by a couple %, and thus look better to their investors.

    Then again, this is just an outsiders take on the whole thing, and I could easily be WAAAY off. Still, I’d say most MMOs remain profitable, if not Blizzard cash cows.

  11. Paul says:

    Don’t quote me, but I believe I read somewhere that SWTOR made back it’s investment in box sales and second month subs alone,

    I don’t believe that’s true, especially if one looks at the “fully loaded” cost (including cost of marketing). I’ve seen estimates of that being as high as $500 M.

  12. Stratagerm says:

    Since this is about WoW, the question should be restated as Do Dominant MMOs Have The Advantage?

  13. Edwin says:

    I agree your points gordon! This is really such a nice post and thanks for sharing this information with us.

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  15. melik says:

    I agree with your points gordon!

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