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How Long is an MMO's Life?

Beau H Posted:
Columns A Casual, Cornered 0

I’ve been playing some Wildstar lately and it’s been really nice. I have always absolutely loved its art style and get such a kick of its animations and character creation (although some of the female characters need way more options) that I find myself playing it just to look around or take screenshots. I was playing this weekend with my Gamer Hangout co-host Eboni, and she commented at one point that leveling “takes a long time.” I was surprised; I felt like there was no way I should have leveled twice within a few hours. Then again, she was probably just impatient to get her player house, which happens at level 14.

We ran around and killed things and at one point became separated. I found a severed hand with a note attached, fell into a secret science lab and finally made my way to the bank. All in all, it was a great session of Wildstar but mostly because I was playing with someone who had almost the same amount of patience that I did.

I’ve played with other people who will click a quest, hit accept and run to the point on the map that was required. They grab and run as though their real lives depended on it. I cannot do it that way; perhaps it’s the fact that I rarely get to spend so much time on a single MMO or perhaps it’s just because I thought the entire point of an MMO was to become immersed in a virtual world and its story, but I do wonder how long MMOs are designed to last.

When they were making Wildstar, surely they knew that players would burn through the content as quickly as possible. This has to be the topic of at least one meeting for every linear MMO developer:

“So, how long before someone hits max level and complains about the lack of new content?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’d give it, like, four months. We better get ready.”

Even after all of these years spent enjoying MMOs, I am still shocked at how many of them make any cash. Think about it, honestly. Sure, running servers are a part of the cost, but any non-indie MMO will also have to pay for customer service and a team of people to continue making new content out of the fear that players become bored. Even when an MMO raises a few million, it’s easy to see how the money could run out almost as quickly as players can burn through content. It’s an amazing and scary way to make a buck.

Even though Wildstar recently announced its move to free-to-play, did the announcement add on years to its life? Months? Decades? Weeks? It’s so hard to say. I see no reason why a game like Wildstar cannot stick around for decades. Why not? We still play MUDs that are literally just text on the screen, so surely the animated-cartoon-quality of Wildstar will help it from looking too dated for a long time?

OK, so let’s say you buy the Wildstar game and log in, happy to find a new MMO. You start off at a few hours per night. Within a few weeks, you could be halfway to max level. Within a few months, you could be max level. Then what? You start another character and start the process over again, and continue to log the main character in to do quests, raids or adventures with friends or to check out new content. By the time you feel “done” with the game, it’s been a year. Let’s say you did not use the free-to-play option and spent $100.00 on the game over the course of that year.

That’s still a helluva’ deal.

Still, I remember a time when players played MMOs for years and years on average, not months and months.

Of course, these older players didn’t have flying ships (well, OK, SWG had it all and did it pretty decently) or mounts or scripted movie-like encounters or more than a handful of MMOs to choose from. I remember those times and they were hard on an explorer like me. If you wanted to go anywhere in an MMO pre-2002 or 2004, you had to slog it out, die along the way and then quit because you had work the next morning. Was it often fun and rewarding? Yes, but it was also annoying and clunky much of the time as well.

Were players more dedicated to their MMOs in the old days or were MMOs more demanding? Probably a bit of both. Does this all add up to modern MMOs matching the lifecycles of standalone console titles, thanks to players who no longer have a place for such demanding virtual worlds?

I’m going to be optimistic because the proof points to the opposite. MMOs are still the longest lasting genre out there. Name me another category of gaming that allows players to literally own characters for 15 years (like I do with my Ultima Online character) and to exist in a world that remains largely the same for that entire time.

MMOs should last as long as people want to explore them, and there is almost always a new player lurking.

I love it when I write about some older MMO and someone comments “This thing is still around?” because that means they are vaguely interested in it. (They could also be trolling, but I am trying to be positive, remember?) I’ve witnessed countless readers of mine expressing their joy in returning to an older MMO to find that the same glories – and characters – were there and were often improved over time. Sure, these older titles might have skeleton crews that work slowly, but that means there’s something new for a returning vet to discover, at least once.

An MMO’s lifetime should be based on how many people play it versus the cost of maintaining it. It might seem like a simple formula, but it must be a heartbreaking decision to shut any MMO down.

In the end, we’ll continue to see an emphasis on grinding in order to slow down gamers. The grind isn’t that evil and can be quite fun if it’s done with a group of friends. It’s also probably much easier to plan a system that will keep gamers busy than to plan for massive, sweeping content like new chapters or raids or expansions.

I’d love to see all MMOs kept alive as long as technology allows it. Someone has to pay the bill, but I think we could crowdfund a virtual museum that allows all MMOs to go on living – even minimally – for all time.

Wouldn’t that be something?


Beau H

Beau is a writer, artist, PR/CM, game designer and pro moderator, and he's been blogging since 2002. He lives it up in Austin, Texas with his community manager wife. He's also the author of Anna the Powerful, a sci-fi book about the world's only superhero. Buy it here: https://store.bookbaby.com/book/anna-the-powerful