One of the biggest issues discussed among MMO players and those of us who follow the industry is just how many players a particular game has and the habits of those players in general. I was surprised to find this article on CNN talking about the "migratory patterns" of MMO players and the effect that can have on in-game populations. CNN isn't your typical source for gaming news, and although this particular article was written for their rather obscure gaming "blog," it was linked on CNN.com's front page which is how I discovered it. Is this an example of MMO gaming penetrating further into the mainstream? Or is it just CNN doing a bit of "self-promotion" and trying to drive traffic to a segment of their website that isn't getting much use? Well that's a topic for another day. Let's stick to the issue at hand.
How Many of us are There?
As the article states, and most of us who follow the industry know, most MMO companies are pretty tight lipped about just how many people are playing their games. Those that are publicly owned, such as Activision-Blizzard (World of Warcraft) and Electronic Arts (Star Wars: The Old Republic) are required to disclose a certain amount of information for the benefit of their shareholders. Up until recently, Blizzard has had nothing but good things to say about the state of WoW so this probably didn't bother them much, but post-Cataclysm the news hasn't been quite so good. But because of those disclosure requirements, we know WoW has shed about two million subscribers in the past year. EA has not had to issue a formal statement on the status of SW:TOR as yet, but that will likely be coming soon.
Other companies that are not "public" do not face these requirements. Developers such as Turbine (Lord of the Rings Online), Funcom (Age of Conan), and Trion Worlds (RIFT) are not obligated to make public any specific figures about their number of subscribers or overall players. So when these companies DO have something to say, you really have to take it with a grain of salt. That is not to say that publicly owned companies don't stretch their truth as well (*cough Asian netcafe players in WoW cough*) but they can't get away with outright misstatements without running afoul of legal issues. Private companies can focus entirely on the good, or at least spin the facts to their benefit, in ways that public companies cannot. So for instance in the article when the Turbine rep says LOTRO is "huge" and they are "adding players every day," you really can't take it at face value.
This is especially true for the "free-to-play" or "freemium" hybrid games. I mentioned this issue back when I was experimenting with DC Universe Online. F2P games can claim anyone who has even opened an account as a "player" of their game. I still have my DCUO account and so Sony can count me as a player. But when was the last time I logged on? Have they earned a dime from me as a player? Does it give you an accurate picture of how many people are playing when one of these companies talks about how many "players" they have? This is where it becomes very problematic.
So do we know how many people are playing any given game? In a nutshell, no. The closest game/company that comes to full disclosure is probably Blizzard with WoW but I doubt they'd be so forthcoming if they weren't as big as they are. And as far as everyone else goes, they are only spinning their data for the best public appearance as possible. Let me just say though, I don't blame them for this. It is what any company would do to make its product look good. But as consumers of those products, we as MMO players cannot rely on this information to make decisions about what game is large and healthy and which are not. And that leads into the second issue in the article.
The Movements of the MMO Herd
The author makes some interesting points about what motivates people to play MMO's and the recent trends in population from one game to another. He talks about how he is a lifetime subscriber to LOTRO and how people in that game recently had been talking about the characters they planned to play in SW:TOR when it was released. He talks about how the game feels different now that many of his old friends and guildmates have left the game. I can relate to this as I "overheard" many similar conversations in RIFT during the months leading up to SW:TOR's release. But I think he really hits on the major issue that is going to drive MMO population trends going forward, and that is the social component of these games.
I have mentioned before about how I think we are reaching a "critical mass" in terms of high quality titles and the number of people willing to invest in playing them. WoW opened MMO's to the mainstream, but it is still a rather small genre compared to broader appealing games such as first person shooters or sports simulations. In essence the number of potential customers/subscribers is about as big as it is probably going to get and the market is getting increasingly "crowded" with big budget, high quality games that are competing for the same customers. How is this going to impact population and movement trends? Are players going to continue to remain loyal to a single game? Are they willing to maintain multiple subscriptions?
I think you will find that players will begin to "wander" from game to game as new content is released. A major patch or an expansion will bring people back to a game in the short term, but they'll be off again in fairly short order when the next "new shiny" hits another game. But in the long term, it is the social aspect of MMO's that can keep players from this migration. The author quotes an MMO gamer on this issue and I think he is dead on:
"With an MMO, even if I’ve done everything, I still have friends and people I’ve met to keep me coming back. I’ve always said, you buy an MMO for the game mechanics, but you keep playing because of the people."
What will keep you playing SW:TOR when Mists of Pandaria comes out? Why hang out in Middle Earth when you could check out The Secret World? What would keep you in Telara when Guild Wars 2 comes calling? Friends, guildmates, the relationships that you have built within that game community you are already a part of. And I think WoW's continued success in the face of its many challengers is a tribute to this fact. Many WoW guilds and player communities have been in place for years now. Why give that up just to play the latest "new shiny?" Why risk losing the connections and companions that one has made? Many people choose not to take that risk, and so WoW continues to thrive in large part due to this concept. This is also why games like LOTRO and even Everquest continue despite smaller active numbers of players. They have excellent communities and established player relationships.
Incidentally, this is the biggest reason I fear for SW:TOR's future. It's social structure feels like a total afterthought on the part of Bioware, like they just kind of threw a few things in at the last second. Grouping functions, guild structures, even something as simple as chat bubbles for spatial chat are completely non-existent. The game makes it very hard to be social, to create those long-term connections that will help the game thrive. What is going to keep people playing this game when by the end of 2012 several new competitors will have hit the market, or older games will have expansions out? Bioware's vaunted storytelling isn't going to keep people playing when they've run out of story to tell and the "herd" is ready to move to the next watering hole.
Where do you fall? Are you part of the "herd," simply looking for the next game to try? Or do you have friends and acquaintences in a certain game that you don't want to leave behind?
Curses! After I wrote up this post I noticed Massively had picked up the story and the link. And here I thought I was ahead of the curve. Oh well... they DO get paid to watch these sorts of things. That's what I get for trying to work ahead of time. :)