Tobold today made a post about the possible successor to WoW, listing some upcoming MMOs and commenting on their chance for success. As always, it’s a good read, but I think he ignores one aspect of the MMO market; games already released.
The standard trend for an MMO game is that it builds up a player base in its first few months, and then that base declines until it hits its ‘sweet spot’ and maintains for a given period of time. This happened with UO, EQ, DAoC, AC, etc. If the game was a success, it would stay active and live off the player base and expansions, secure in its spot.
Recently however we have seen a different trend, one that clearly reflects the fact that players have a lot more choice now. Now if a game launches and is not ready to go out of the gate its numbers instantly see a decline after the first month. Rumors had it that Vanguard sold around 150,000 copies, but only 35,000 accounts remained open after the first month. EQ2 also had a rough launch, and its player base greatly declined shortly after launch. This of course is partly due to WoW being as polished as it was at launch, but even WoW had its share of troubles in the first few months. Blizzard was smart enough to give generous amounts of extra play time to players whenever the servers would be down, which no doubt went a long way to keep people playing. Remember WoW did not launch with 9 million subscribers, it faced similar struggles when it released, especially with EQ2 being called the MMO juggernaut back then.
However, recent history has shown that even after a rough launch, with enough resources and dedication a MMO can fix its issues and make a comeback. EVE Online continues to grow, despite a rough release in 2003, and as your player base grows, positive word of mouth grows as well. That’s the snowball effect WoW used to gain its amazing numbers. It seemed everyone was playing it, so in turn anyone who had not was more likely to give it a shot, after hearing from all his guilt mates or friends how great it was. While the numbers have not been released, I believe a similar thing is happening with EQ2. Many of the issues that game had have been fixed, and a game engine that was out of reach for most is now playable on more computers. I’m not saying EVE or EQ2 will ‘de-throne’ WoW alone, but if enough games rise up and maintain a dedicated player base, it will pick away at WoW at a slow rate. This is already happening to an extent, as many players tire of WoW and give EQ2 another shot, or wait for a Vanguard trial.
I believe WoW will maintain high numbers for a long time to come, but not anywhere near 9 million. It might remain top dog in terms of numbers, but the gap between it and the #2 MMO might be a million or so accounts, not the 7-8 million it is now. Gone will be the throne that an 800 pound gorilla sits on (WoW), to be replaced with a ‘game of thrones’ of the MMO world, with games that are highly successful competing with each other to hold their spot near the top. This high level of competition will push developers harder, forcing them to give their players the very best each month, or risk losing them to one of a number of other, highly successful competitors.