Lifecycle of an MMORPG
The history of MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online RolePlaying Games) dates back to 1997 with Ultima Online. MMORPGs didn’t reach mainstream culture until 2004 with the release of World of Warcraft. The expansive nature of it, the wealth of activities with which players can amuse themselves, and the quality of its execution made it an unprecedented phenomenon. In 2007, its worldwide subscriptions peaked at twelve million players. Then interest began to wane until the release of the newest expansion Mists of Pandaria.
Though its lifespan has been greater than any MMORPG to date, even a powerhouse like World of Warcraft succumbs to the pitfalls and inherent faults that an MMORPG can present. It too will die one day. In order to preserve future MMORPGs, it is vital that game developers and gamers alike understand how an MMORPG gains strength and how it loses it. And while I cannot account for all the variances between MMORPGS, I have attempted to present you with what knowledge half a lifetime of experience can give in this arena.
The life of an MMORPG begins several years before it reaches the public. Because a game of such size requires so much investment capital to create and maintain, public interest must be established early on. This requires advertising and frequent mention in various gaming news venues. Sneak peeks and insider previews abound at gaming expos. And it has been most effective to connect an MMORPG to a previously established franchise so there will be an inherent fanbase. Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, Conan, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Warhammer Online, and a wealth of others are proof of this.
The downside of this is that it puts developers on a tight schedule. In World of Warcraft’s case, they went to press in 2001. It was three years of waiting before the game launched to the public, and a portion of the general public was already so tired of waiting that they did not bother with pre-ordering or heading to the store on the release date. In an extreme case of early stagnation, a World of Darkness MMORPG, featuring the universe from the popular pen & paper game, was announced more than six years ago. Gamers have been waiting so long that boycotts have been established to pre-empt the game’s release (whenever that happens).
Let us say for the sake of argument that the game makes it through development, closed beta, open beta, and people rush to buy it upon release. In the game’s open-world environment, gamers quickly orient themselves and set to work with what they do best: leveling.
You see, there is a significant divergence between the goals of the game developers and the game players. Developers want to produce a game large and intricate enough to keep players busy for years. This way they can keep claiming monthly subscription fees for maintenance and profit. The player is focused on dominance and achievements. This amounts to getting the best equipment, winning in PvP, mastering crafts, and generally showing everyone else they’re hot stuff. While the developer expects the player to indulge in low-level dungeons to obtain rare equipment, invest their money in tradecrafts, and methodically go from one zone to the next as they level, the player intends something else entirely. He would much rather zoom up to the highest level possible, and then spend his time working at cap level instances for the best equipment in the game and use his extra funds to farm low-level areas for faction missions and crafting ingredients. This results in what I can only describe as a zerg rush.