Over at Tobold’s blog, across a number of recent posts, the familiar topic of why MMOs in general have declined has come up again, this time framed in the context of whether it’s the players or the game that has changed. Tobold is very clear that be believes it’s the players, while I’ve always been in the camp that it’s mostly the changes to a game that drive things.
My example, as always (because it still holds), is EVE vs WoW. WoW has declined in popularity overall, and what was once a game players would vacation away from (remember that WAR guild named after the release date of WotLK that was a popular meme before meme’ing was a thing?), is now for many a game they vacation to, consuming the month or so of new content before leaving again.
In contrast, EVE in 2017 is still EVE, in that those who play it are still playing (along with all the new alpha people), and the big names from five years ago are mostly still here and important (Goons, PL, TEST, Brave, etc). There is more stuff, and everything looks/sounds/functions like a 2017 game, but the game is still about PvP, economy, and epic player-driven storylines around space empires.
So now you either believe everyone playing EVE is a special exception, or you accept that because EVE hasn’t radically changed like WoW has, the design still hold and works in 2017 like it did ten years ago. Which isn’t to say EVE in 2017 is the same game as it was in 2003, it’s not, but its core design and principles are. It’s also why looking at a vanilla WoW server today misses the point; yes that server is popular because vanilla WoW is still a better MMO than current-day WoW, but had WoW stayed frozen in vanilla it would have also declined. What Blizzard needed to do with WoW is what CCP has done with EVE; update it to keep it current/modern, but not at the expense of your core design/appeal. Had they successfully done that (no easy task of course), WoW’s ‘decline’ would look similar to that of EVE or Lineage 1 (bigger than ever).
As for players changing, while individually we all grow up and stop being basement-dwelling no-lifers capable of putting in countless hours into a single game (most of us anyway), we are just replaced with the next wave. Ten years ago I would have easily had the time to be a full time FC in EVE, or to run a successful Corp (because, you know, I did that), but that’s just not the case today. Luckily for me, there are other who do those things (thanks Mittens and Asher!), and when they retire, others will replace them as well. The same would have happened to the content-creators in WoW had they in general not been driven away by the changes to the game’s design.
Finally, on the topic of the market today being different than it was in 2005 (or whatever time period you want to use as ‘back then’); that is also obviously true, but it works both ways. In 2005 having a gaming-capable computer wasn’t automatic, nor was having good-enough internet. In 2017 both of these things are far more common, far more affordable, and far more socially acceptable (gaming isn’t just for nerds anymore). So yes, we have Steam and its yearly 4,000 releases, or the whole mobile gaming segment, but we also have a much larger pool of potential players, and the age range of people who ‘get’ gaming is also far larger. A successful 35 year old might not have the same amount of time to play a game as they did ten years ago, but you better believe they have a lot more disposable income, which is why games that tap into that successfully (LoL, EVE) are seeing increased revenue-per-player without sacrificing design principles.
In summary, gaming today, MMO or otherwise, should be in a better state than in years past. More people are interested overall, more people with money are interested, and all of it is more accessible than ever. The fact that the MMO genre is suffering rather than thriving isn’t because the players all suddenly decided they hate this style of game, but instead because today the average MMO is terrible. Bad F2P models and their influence on design are a large piece of the blame pie, but there are plenty of other factors as well. Making a good MMO is hard, but even today if you have one, you will have people happily playing/paying it.