For a a few years now, the release of MMOs has followed a predictable pattern. There is 2 years of excitement and anticipation, people stake their claim as to whether they are for or against it, and then it launches with high numbers. Those numbers take a huge hit at the end of the first month, and they continue to drop over the next 3 months, at which point the population begins to stabilise. That’s normally about that for a game without a change of business model which can rejuvenate a game at best, or keep it going longer at the worst. Essentially, most games are managing decline from the moment they launch. You’ll basically never be a more popular MMO than the day you launch.
There are many reasons why this cycle may seem so typical. It could be that people are bored of the genre, it could be there’s too much competition, it could be because so many launch with subscriptions, or any other number of points you can think of. Personally, I think MMOs just became to big a business. We have safe games, more of the same games. Give people what we know they like games. I’m not saying I hate MMOs, because clearly I don’t, I just think it’s a little hard to argue that the genre, at least the mainstream genre, hasn’t gotten a little stagnant. I think it’s possible we could be moving to a more encouraging, albeit smaller scale, model for making MMOs. Games which are designed to appeal to a small player base, but offer something truly different, or at least different from what is on offer now.
If you take a look at titles like The Repopulation, Camelot Unchained, or Shroud of the Avatar, these are games which are clearly not intended to draw a large audience. Mark Jacobs, the lead developer of Camelot Unchained has been saying since their crowdfunding campaign that they intend to have a playerbase in the tens of thousands. I’m convinced this is a real alternative for making games, and recognising that you’re developing for a niche, and catering purely to that niche can lead to success over the long term. It is of course never going to lead to triple A games (except for Star Citizen maybe?), but my hope is that these smaller titles can shake up the landscape a little and coexist with larger titles, offering some new ideas to reenergise things.
Ever since playing Eve I’ve appreciated what launching small can do for a game. You can start with a small playerbase, build a game entirely for those players, and hope that it draws in more likeminded people over the course of its lifespan. Eve has never compromised on its core design choices, it has never made any apologies for being a difficult, hard game to learn and play. Yet it has grown steadily over a decade. I have high hopes that some of these new and smaller titles will be able to utilise a similar design path, and perhaps bring us something different from what we’ve seen so much of recently.