The Drying MMO Pond


I was in Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) this evening.  It’s my go-to RPG-type game when I just want to bum around a bit and talk to some old online friends.

Well, there was a discussion about MMOs (Massive Multiplayer Online games) in the “global” chat channel (meaning all players could see it no matter where they are).  I made the…ahem…mistake of postulating that World of Warcraft (AKA, WoW) was killed not by other games but by time.  This induced a handful of snarky comments about how saying WoW was a dead game was factually inaccurate and foolish to even question.  The general consensus was that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

That in and of itself is nothing unusual.  But not this time.

WoW reportedly had 10 million-plus subscribers at its peak, circa 2010.    Leaked numbers from last October put the subscription base around 1.7 million.  If correct, that’s about an 85% reduction in subscribers over that period.  Don’t get me wrong; 1.7 million is nothing to sneeze at.  WoW is still the biggest MMO ever made and no other MMO has ever come close to knocking it off its perch.

It’s just the biggest fish in a slowly-shrinking pond.

MMO–and specifically in the case, I am talking about MMORPG-type games–are fading in popularity, across the board.  I don’t think they will go away for good but they’ll become much more of a niche market.  Like I said, 1.7 million subscribers is a lot…but it’s two orders of magnitude less than the folks that play battle-royale games like PuBG and Fortnite.  It’s less than the number of folks who play Minecraft.  It’s less than the number of folks who play fucking Candy Crush, for Pete’s sake.

I know Blizzard has and is making tons of money off WoW.  I also know they just laid off eight hundred employees worldwide within the last month.  So clearly, despite its success, WoW is no longer the financial juggernaut that allows Blizzard to pretty much do as they pleased on the gaming scene.

Most other MMORPG developers aren’t in much better shape.  Most have moved to the business model of microtransactions–that is, providing the base game for free or a nominal charge, then nickel and diming in the game itself, for cosmetic and frills (if you’re lucky) or game content itself (if you aren’t).  The old “$15/month subscription and play everything all you want” just doesn’t feel as viable as it used to.

And in a world where someone can toss up a mobile app for under six figures and return millions of dollars, how many developers are going to risk a multi-million dollar budget on a WoW-style game these days?  Not many.

What does this have to do with writing?

Well, MMORPGs (RPG’s in general) are home to some of the best examples of world-building I can find in any fantasy medium.  Obviously, a game like LOTRO, which is based on Tolkien’s seminal works, is going to have a rich lore foundation.  But games like WoW have a rich and developed history.  Sure, it is full of fantasy tropes, like a new omniverse-ending threat emerging every ten minutes.  But imagine having a lore and a world constructed across multiple games, over two decades, and worked on by dozens of people–and still keeping it generally consistent.  That’s impressive and something I believe authors can note, study, and even emulate.  I never like turning away from potential sources of inspiration, no matter how tangential.

Or you can think I wrote this long babbling blog post because I was bored and tied together a tenuous thread.

Muse:  I vote for option two.

Shut up, you.


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