The Grouchy Gamer

Yeah, I'm cranky. That's kinda the point...

What Constitutes an MMO Success or Failure?

FAILAs discussion on some of the blogs in the MMO blogosphere seem to be discussing the slowdown of activity in some of the WAR-dedicated blogs recently it occurs to me that there are all kinds of different definitions of what makes an MMO commercially “successful.”  While some companies look at anything less than Blizzard-Level numbers as too small, many companies are looking at smaller niches or alternate styles and saying “yes” to new game development.

So what DOES make an MMO a success in your eyes?  I think that is a complex question.  There are certainly different levels of success.  There are definitely different levels of failure.  When you see a game like Tabula Rasa close down so soon after launch, you have to probably agree that it’s a business and critical failure.  Same for games like Auto Assault.  But what of those games in between?  Certainly I’ve written enough about how big a DISAPPOINTMENT Vanguard turned out to be, but with a dedicated team still working on it and a small but loyal customer base you may be able to successfully argue that it’s not a total failure.  Certainly the economy of scale that SOE has working allows for some marginal games by today’s standards to stay open and running.  Whether the publisher thinks a game is successful or not is certainly dependent on the investment they have in it and how profitable it remains.

I’m also thinking about WAR here in the context of the post above.  When does a game start feeling like a failure to the people who had the most invested in it outside of the company that is publishing it?  I know that Mythic was hoping for a million subs at some point.  That clearly isn’t going to happen.  But does it take a million players to make it a success?  500k? 200k?  I’m sure that financially WAR isn’t ever going to be the game that EA and Mythic were hoping for.  I’m not sure how much was invested in the development of the game, but I do know that it had a relatively short development cycle for a AAA MMO.  It could be that between box sales and subs for the first few months that they are into the black and can now successfully manage the game going forward.  Certainly, no one is making money hats over there though.  As an aside, I think that the first “hit” or truly successful PVP-only MMO remains to be made. This is especially true given what I’m hearing about Darkfall (or as Kill Ten Rats calls it; Darkfail.)  Fact is, given the expectations from the community, WAR is a failure.  It was never going to be a “WoW-Killer” as some had proclaimed but it had the opportunity to take a larger niche than it’s settled into.

What I’m getting to here is that Blizzard has set an unreachable standard to measure success against.  By WoW standards, there is one successful MMO out there.  Many other MMO’s would have to be considered successes for the genre to continue to grow and thrive.  Off the top of my head, I’d list a handful of MMO’s as true successes by any measure.  For me, those are;

  • Everquest (Original) – Continues to hold a sub base 10 years after release. Is on game update 50-something.
  • Everquest II – Still kicking, and has a good little niche.  Worst thing it did was launch early against a more-polished WoW.
  • EVE – It’s the only Sci-Fi game in town, and it’s great at what it does.  It’s one-server model and cost structure makes it work.
  • Lineage II – Not huge in North America, but a player base here.  Millions play worldwide.
  • CoX – Heroes or Villains, a good solid base of players.
  • LotRO – Not huge numbers but an upset winner.  Who knew Turbine had it in ’em?
  • WoW – Duh.

Others have succeeded in the past, like UO, DAoC, and others, but are past their prime.

Who are the epic failures?

  • Tabula Rasa – 2 redesigns and about 10 years in development.  Servers shut down.
  • Star Wars Galaxies – SOE shows how to take a great franchise and manage it into the ground.  Still running, but a ghost town.  Server consolidation would benefit this game.
  • Pirates of the Burning Sea – What happens when your design and mechanisms aren’t completely thought out or tested.
  • DDO – you can’t be completely instanced and have so little content and hold a sub base.
  • Darkfail – Going to go ahead and call this one early.
  • Age of Conan – All hype and level 1-20.  End game mechanisms not functioning at launch, people leave.  Could have been someone, could have been a contender.  Instead, it’s just a bum.

Certainly there are many more that fall in between and could be added to one list or the other. I’d definitely put WAR in that category (neither success or failure yet) among others. Before we discount any game we should think about what it’s trying to do and if it’s hitting that target.  EVE will never get near WoW numbers but for CCP, I think you would have to say this is a big win.  It didn’t start out fast but it’s developed a cult following and a community that is more interesting than most any MMO out there.

We tend to be hyper critical (us MMO bloggers) and in part that is our function in the community.  Any time a developer makes a game that keeps people’s interest and rings the cash register often enough to keep the lights on, there is a success there for sure.  Don’t hold everyone to the highest standard of success because only one game or company can have that at any give time. What I’d really like to see is a battle of the titans some day.  I’d like to see a challenger to the WoW throne.  A game to be the 1B to WoW’s 1A.  You want to see innovation and incentive to improve?  Let’s see 2 great games duke it out.

Who am I betting on?  That’s another article altogether.


  1. I don’t believe at all that any part of a blogger’s job is to be hyper-critical. I see our job as being part of the discussion about a game, specifically, writing from the view of players. And certainly, players shouldn’t be viewing each new game as an accident waiting to happen.

    It’s really the job of the gaming press to criticize. I’d rather see bloggers talk about a game’s good points, unless it plain doesn’t have any. I enjoy reading about people having fun adventures in games, like Darkfall, in which I have no personal interest.

  2. @Tipa- That’s true to an extent. I’d encourage you to read your comments about WAR in particular though, not much positive there.

    I think people DO look to bloggers for honest criticism of a game. In my mind, critical does not mean negative, it means an honest examination and reporting of your findings. I think for a lot of us, it’s taken too far. One particular blog – (obviously not Tipa’s) comes to mind where little or no positive is related. But I agree that bloggers are the “voice of the people” who don’t really have a horse in the race in most cases who the community can look to for an honest opinion without regard to advertisers or publisher reprisal. Being non-monetized is a blessing in that regard.

  3. To me, a successful MMO is one that makes a profit, any profit. If you make enough to cover your development, your operating costs, and to keep your dev team hired and making more content, you have succeeded. As long as your company doesn’t get swallowed in debt and have to close, you are successful.

    The only thing that really seems to break an MMO is if the projected time frame for the recovery of initial dev costs is considered to be too long by the investors.

  4. @Genda well, I have definitely been negative on games. Not just WAR — WoW and EQ were two I have had problems with when I was a player. But I don’t feel people read my blog to see me rip into new games, and in fact, I know exactly what people want from my blog. They want helpful, informational articles that give a good example of a typical user’s play experience and stuff they can use if they decide to play. They don’t want to hear that I dinged 70 and they don’t care if I don’t like WoW. They don’t particularly care about MMO comics, but hey, it’s my blog. I can do them if I want to.

    Other bloggers may have different audiences.

    @Jason You have a point re: success, but it’s hard to get new players if your MMO is considered to be flawed or in danger of cancellation. This has hobbled EQ2 at every turn. It probably makes its money back, but I doubt anyone really calls it a “success” when niche games like EVE Online double its subscription numbers.

  5. I think that at this stage, any game that fails to grow the entire pie, that is, recruit new people to online gaming, will be a failure. I also think that at this point, anyone who’s interested in PvP style gaming, is already playing Halo, Counter Strike, Guild Wars, Eve Online or some other established property. It was unlikely that you’d have a million people out there, who’ve never played a PvP game, suddenly picking up their keyboards and mice because of the Warhammer franchise. The best WAR could hope for, was that their game and infrastructure was so polished that existing PvP’ers would rather play on their platform than any of the other MMORPGs that have been around for years, i.e., DAoC keeps crashing, Guild Wars has too many exploits, Counter Strike has too few servers, Halo is unbalanced, etc. That’s a very high bar to meet and it may even be impossible to exceed that bar with today’s technology.

  6. Why does there have to be a “WoW Killer” at all? Blizzard didn’t create a monopoly out of hand, per se, we handed it to them on a silver platter because despite the problems WoW had at launch, they turned it into a well-oiled machine that was, and is, enjoyable for many people, plus they just happened to launch at a time that was ripe for the picking.

    Look at MMO subs… 250K to 300K is right about the norm for most AAA titles. WoW is the primary exception; it’s in a league all its own. WAR is currently holding right around the 300K mark. EVE just reached 300K. Most guesses are that LOTRO is right around the 250-300K mark, but Turbine doesn’t have to release numbers since they’re not a publicly traded company. I thought EQ2 was in a similar position but Tipa wrote that it was about half what EVE has?

    As for the slowdown in WAR blogs (or any single-minded blog) did anyone honestly not see that coming? Bloggers are rarely, if ever, monogamous with their MMOs these days. A lot of bloggers got caught up in Mythic’s used car sales pitches and hype pre-launch when realistically there was no way most of them would stick it out in the long run post-launch. Casualties of WAR falls into that category as well. Forming a pre-launch guild? Risky, but CoW wisely became a multi-game guild which was for the better.

    A WoW Killer already exists. Time. EQ, AC, and UO are still around after ten years, and they never saw a fraction of WoW’s success so that may potentially bode well for WoW’s players to keep going. Blizzard was never guaranteed a hit with WoW, and they are certainly not guaranteed that lightning will strike twice when they unveil their in-development MMO.

  7. I find that success generally depends on who you are talking to at the moment.

    To a gamer – did it live up to expectations/hype

    To an investor – did it make me money

    To a developer – did it go off without a hitch

    I don’t know of any game that got the trifecta.

    Eve has some competition coming Jumpgate: Revolution and Black Prophecy are coming out. Sony diverged off the norm with it’s Freerealms title. Star Trek is getting more hype from the movie. There is always something new around the corner just waiting to take over or grab a piece of the big pie.

  8. If you’re expecting to kill or compete with WoW’s playerbase number, then you’re over your head. I don’t think any developer sets a goal that high, but I do think they want to compete with them in the sense that they can get a healthy good number.

    One million is a pretty high number for a western company to get, prior to WoW, EQ had around 550,000 subs, and if we exclude WoW’s eastern playerbase they sit at somewhere around 5 million players.

    So, let’s exclude WoW’s numbers, as is wise when deciding what is a success, and I would say, that a failure depends on the hype:

    For example, Vanguard at launch was a huge failure, but the hype died down and it has become a success in terms of what people think of it.

  9. The word ‘fail’ gets flung around a lot when talking about MMOs because people take them too seriously due to the time and emotional investment in them. When people buy a console game, and don’t like it, they just put it aside, they don’t usually scream out the strong word of ‘fail’.

    When it comes to online games, ‘fail’ can only be used in technical terms if the game is shut down prematurely. ‘fail’ should not be used when looking at subscription numbers or features either. Lack of subscribers affects playability for the most part, along with features, so those two attributes should be grouped into the result sets such “This game rocks” and “This game sucks”.

    The only MMOs that have ‘failed’ are the likes of Auto Assault, Tabla Rosa, etc. Everything else either sucks, meh or is pretty fun.

    It would also be correct to say “Tabla Rosa WAS meh”, because you are talking about it in the past tense. However, it is incorrect to say “Canon failed” because it is still alive.

    Class dismissed.

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