The words success and failure are tossed around often when talking about MMOs on blogs, especially here. And usually, someone will ask for a definition of success/failure, so here goes. Note that this ONLY applies to MMOs, not games in general.
To me there are three general categories of success for an MMO, which I’ll call ‘suits’, ‘devs’, and ‘players’.
Suit success is simple; did the investors or company behind the MMO make money? Was a profit turned? And was that profit a good return-on-investment? The tricky part of suit success is we generally can’t say if something was a success or failure unless it’s an extreme. WoW is a success, The Sims Online was a failure. But almost everything else is some shade of gray. For instance, SW:TOR likely hasn’t made back its original cost + ongoing expenses, and EA generally trying to distance themselves from the title on earnings calls is telling, but we can’t definitively prove SW:TOR is a failure, only make an educated guess based on what we know. Another odd example is Warhammer Online. The game is shut down, but (at least according to Mark Jacobs, who at this point I don’t think has anything to gain by lying) WAR was profitable overall. To a suit, WAR was a success.
Dev success is defined by whether or not the devs still have a job working on said MMO, and the rate of content being generated. This is a bit of a sliding scale metric. A game like LotRO has lost most of its devs, but it still has a skeleton crew updating the cash shop, so while not a ‘it’s shut down, everyone is fired’ failure, LotRO is heavily towards that end. WoW or EVE have kept their teams employed for over a decade, with steady and consistent content, so obvious success. This metric is important because unlike other genres, an MMO is only getting started at release, and ideally should be going strong for years, so keeping the core team around, interested, and paid is critical. Layoffs are a clear indicator of failure here, as are cutbacks in content delivery (no more expansions, patches being rolled out slower, etc).
Finally we have player success, which can roughly be identified by “are people playing?” and “are people playing the MMO they expected to play?”. The first one is easy, if your MMO is gaining players, that is success. If it’s losing players, that is failure. If an MMO has achieved a stable, supportable level of players, that is also success. Growth is always nice, but if you set out to build a niche MMO, and you hit and retain your niche such that the dev team is paid and providing updates, that is indeed success.
The second part of player success is more interesting IMO. An MMO changing drastically (UO Trammel, SWG NGE, sub->F2P switch) is almost never good for the players who bought into the original version, so for all of those players said MMO is a failure, even if a second group comes in and enjoys the newer offering. This can also apply to pre-release hype (GW2 manifesto) vs post-release reality (GW2 itself); while what was ultimately delivered may work for some, failing to meet the expectations you set is to some degree failure.
A fourth factor, or perhaps wildcard, is time. How long is it fair to judge an MMO? For instance, EQ1 was a huge success all around in the first few years of its existence, while isn’t by some metrics (player retention, original ‘vision’) anymore. Is it reasonable to say EQ1 is a failure? That sounds a bit crazy, but why can’t all MMOs be judged related to WoW and EVE, two titles that remain successful by all measures, and are as relevant today (if not far more so) than they were at release? If you loved EQ1 back in the day, would you not still love it today if it had been properly updated and kept relevant? Isn’t that a core feature of the genre; constant updates? “Getting old” shouldn’t be something that happens to successful MMOs, should it? And if indeed ‘getting old’ is acceptable, then after how long? A year, 5, 10? If a game is awesome for everyone who plays it for three months, and then everyone leaves, is that three months of awesomeness enough to call that MMO a success by player standards?
Ultimately what I hopefully have gotten across with this post is that when the words success or failure are used around an MMO, it’s usually more of a personal opinion or partial view than a definitive and unquestionable fact. Very few MMOs are all-around successful, while very few are also outright failures.
But it’s also horribly boring to always write in shades of gray, or have to pre-empt everything with “I don’t like this, but others do, so that’s cool too”. So with all of that said, SW:TOR blows, LotRO is a failure, WoW ‘accessibility’ was a horrible mistake (ok, that is a fact) and EVE is the greatest MMO eva!