Massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMOs for short) were huge during the first decade of the 2000s. Ultima Online kicked things off, followed by games like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies, and The Lord of the Rings Online; the list goes on and on. But something’s been happening in recent years: Players are bailing on MMOs.
Subscriber numbers have been falling for a while now. Back in 2010, developer Blizzard touted its subscriber base for World of Warcraft at around 12 million. Flash forward to today, and the game’s population has dwindled to 5.5 million. That’s still a respectable number for a video game, but it’s a far cry from its previous heights.
Even a franchise as big as Star Wars can’t keep players coming back for an MMO. Star Wars: The Old Republic has only managed to rustle up a few million players in its five years on the market, and most of those registered after the game became free to play. The most recent numbers are from two years ago, but back then only around 1 million players signed in each month.
Most recently, on the same day, developer Daybreak Studios canceled its upcoming MMO EverQuest Next and the team behind Wildstar laid off half its staff. The layoffs for the Wildstar team were due to, in part, “the overall performance” of the game since launch. It’s safe to assume the people financing EverQuest Next saw the writing on the wall and pulled the plug.
If former MMO fans are no longer playing MMOs, what are they playing? It makes sense to look at online games in other genres that have been surging in popularity as MMOs have faltered.
One new genre that has exploded in recent years is the MOBA, or mobile online battle arena. This includes PC games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of the Storm, along with console entries like Smite and the upcoming Battleborn. There’s even a mobile MOBA (try saying that five times fast) called Vainglory that has been downloaded millions of times.
But MOBAs aren’t the only appealing place for former MMO addicts to land. For one, Destiny borrows liberally from MMO games. Like MMOs, it has a clear focus on loot and leveling up, plus it offers “raids” that require teams of online players to work together to complete. The game has been a major success, with 25 million registered users as of the last reporting.
Then there’s the online portion of Grand Theft Auto V, which is essentially a living, breathing digital city that many players find highly enticing. You can race other players, run missions, collect cars, deck out your home, and work together to perform heists. It’s been so popular that Grand Theft Auto V was the second best-selling video game in January 2016 — over two years after the game first released.
Just 10 years ago, people who wanted to have social online gaming experiences didn’t have many options, so MMOs were the obvious place to go to fulfill that desire. Today there are so many options that no one could even try them all. And as these recent online games have offered new and exciting experiences, gamers have largely left the old MMOs behind.