Economics, The WoW Killer
There are two major MMOs for which we know their subscription/active player base numbers. One is World of Warcraft, which was recently reported as having 8.3 million subscribers. That's significantly down from its last report of 9.6 million and way down from its peak of 12 million.
Then there's EVE Online, a.k.a. The Little Spaceship That Could, which recently boasted of 500,000 subs and seems to announced a new milestone every few months. Can it keep going? I think it can, I think it can...
Now, nobody will confuse “8.3 million” with “500,000,” but it's pretty clear that one game is going down while the other is going up. WoW might rebound with the next patch and certainly with the next expansion, but it's on a generally downward trend for a few years now. The cause, I think, is the much-fabled “WoW Killer,” which has finally come into being.
And what's the WoW Killer?
It's all based around a simple economic principle that we're all at least moderately familiar with: supply and demand. And I think it's at the heart of WoW's plight.
Economics 101, MMO-style
Put simply, the demand for MMORPGs has flattened – few new players are entering the hobby – and the supply – new MMOs – is always increasing, which means more people trying to carve a bite out of a constantly sized pie.
Pre-WoW, the biggest an MMO ever got was around 500,000 active players. I'll consider this to be a roughly five-year period, from the debut of EverQuest in 1999 to World of Warcraft in 2004. Five years later, WoW had over 10 million subscribers.
(RuneScape, which is often considered to be bigger even than WoW, had one million paid subscribers – and an unknown number of free players – in 2007.)
Obviously, people can pay, and subscribe to, multiple MMOs. However, unless there were 20 EQ-sized MMOs in 2004, each with a completely unique player base, then it's a pretty safe bet that the total number of MMO players exploded in the wake of WoW's launch. As most people know by now, World of Warcraft attracted a more casual gaming market that previous “hardcore” MMOs had all but ignored, becoming pretty much the only game that catered to this large, hungry, virgin (ahem) player base.
In other words, there was great demand around the time of WoW's launch, but minimal supply.
Expansion without justification
You probably know how the story has gone since then, and how it continues to go today. Prospective MMO development houses see the mind-boggling success of WoW and want a piece of it. A few might even try to attract people who aren't currently playing MMOs, thus increasing the total active user base, a.k.a. the “demand.”
This happens most often with properties based off of popular licenses, like Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings, attracting naturally geeky fans who might be experienced video gamers but have never leaped headlong into the MMO world. I personally know of two people for whom Star Wars: The Old Republic was their first MMO. Yes, even in the year 2011, there were adults who had never played one.
But that seems to be the exception these days. As more new games come out, many offering the same things as the last generation, companies are competing for the same core group of gamers, which takes us back to our original statement: There's a greater supply of MMOs than there is a demand for them.
And when a game fails to be absolutely, unquestionably 100% perfect? No problem, you can just cast it aside and go back to something else because you've got tons of choices. It's already happening with Neverwinter's rough launch, but it can also be applied to WoW. When that last straw finally snaps – whether it be a nerf to your class, technical issues, or you're just tired of the old graphics – there are loads of other options out there.
(That's why so many have gone free-to-play in recent years: the need to lower or eliminate the barrier to entry to make it as easy as possible for you to try them because they know you have a plethora of other options.)
This is what World of Warcraft – and every other game on the planet – has to compete with. Not one game, not that fabled “WoW Killer,” but an entire universe of games. With relatively few new players entering the hobby, every new game has to take from an existing game's players.
Maybe Guild Wars 2 only took 1% of WoW's audience. That's not so bad and hardly earns it the “WoW Killer” label. But did The Secret World also take 1%? Did TERA? Did Neverwinter? Did SWTOR? It all adds up.
The Roman Empire didn't collapse for one simple reason. There were a plethora of problems, and they all combined to bring the most powerful state on the planet to its knees. Barring something truly cataclysmic, like an asteroid impact or alien invasion, the same will be true if America goes down in flames. It won't just be the economy, or war, or weak morals, or whatever. It'll be a combination of factors that, over time, wear down the #1 player in the game.
Defying the odds
So why does EVE Online keep growing, against all odds? Maybe because it's a different experience, very much unlike the traditional grouping-and-dungeon-running of virtually every other MMO in existence. It offers something different, and there aren't many alternatives if you don't like it.
While it does theoretically compete with every other game out there, it's in the unique position of being large enough to be a significant force in gaming while also being small enough to still have room to grow. There are still a lot of people who haven't played a game like EVE, or anything like it; CCP controls the very limited supply and there's a small demand, but one with room to grow.
As mentioned, though, EVE still has nowhere near the subscribers that WoW does, and that's why I think no other sandbox-style game has risen up to take its place alongside EVE and offer real competition. These days, we expect our MMOs to be big deals, and even a successful mid-level one like EVE has to operate on a budget that's a fraction of its big-time MMO competition. For a brand-new game to be able to balance its limited budget with the expectations of a finicky market is a nearly impossible tightrope to walk.
No, World of Warcraft isn't “dead” yet. It's still insanely profitable for Blizzard, who won't be shutting down the servers for years, if not decades.
But it's hard to see how it will rebound back to its previous heights. Unless there's some revelation, some new pack of untapped MMO players that it can appeal to – similar to how Nintendo's Wii console and various mobile games have targeted an even more casual sect of the population or how WoW and other games try to establish themselves in foreign countries – the best it can do for now is tread water, while every other game slowly “kills” it, the classic definition of “death by a thousand cuts.” And it's all based around a simple economic principle that people have understood for centuries.