Friday, March 10, 2023

When Do Successful MMORPGs Begin Their Decline

On Monday, MassivelyOP's Eliot Lefebvre wrote an article attempting to forecast how Final Fantasy XIV will end. A rather thought-provoking premise considering the game is either at or near its all-time popularity. I won't try to answer Eliot's question today. Instead, I'll broaden out the premise to ask when we should expect very successful MMORPGs like FFXIV to decline and then try to apply the theory to everyone's favorite game under development to hate, Star Citizen.

My memory isn't the greatest, but the game before FFXIV with an incredible starting run was EVE Online. From its launch in May 2003, the niche Icelandic space game experienced almost steady growth (except for 2011's Summer of Rage) until the summer of 2013. The game peaked with an estimated subscriber base of over 500 thousand accounts worldwide, with a peak PCU of 65,303 on 5 May 2013.

For more mainstream games, World of Warcraft is more instructive. The Blizzard Entertainment product reached its peak during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, with the decline occurring shortly after the launch of Cataclysm. As dominating as WoW has proved over the past 15-20 years, the game reached its peak of 12 million subscriptions worldwide sometime in 2010.

But what about story and lore rich games like FFXIV? Does that lead to an extended initial growth period. I'm not sure. The only game I can think of outside FFXIV is World of Warcraft, which continued the story told in Warcraft 3. Admittedly I am not familiar with Warcraft 3, but from all the gaming videos I've watched, the Wrath of the Lich King was the natural end to the story of Arthas that began in the single-player game. The "official" end of Arthas as told in Shadowlands I hear should only count as bad fan fiction.

A ten year story arc isn't just confined to video games. In the movie industry, the Infinity Saga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe ran from 2008's Iron Man to 2019's Spiderman: Far From Home. An 11-year run from what I'm told is one of the greatest movie arcs in history is just a little longer than FFXIV's first story arc told from August 2013 to last year. 

My conclusion is that a very successful game will grow between 6 to 10 years. A game with a very good story might last longer, although FFXIV's initial story has ended. We will find out if Yoshi-P and Creative Business Unit III can catch lightening in a bottle twice and come up with a satisfying sequel that will keep and grow the player base.

I like to test my theories. Currently, the perfect game isn't really a game. Instead, I will use Star Citizen as the subject of my test. 

The story of Star Citizen really began with the launch of its Kickstarter back in October 2012. The story presented by Chris Roberts was that of a plucky independent who decided to fight the establishment and create the game he's dreamed about his entire life. Though all the ups and downs of the process, the players (known as "backers" in the lore) have cheered and groaned over the last decade. Star Citizen's "backers" have become as invested in their way as FFXIV's "Warriors of Light" became invested in Eorzea.

As for gameplay, I would start the clock with the release of Alpha 3.0. December 2017 is the time when Cloud Imperium Games turned the alpha into a live service product. Except CIG cannot call Star Citizen a game until the software delivers a minimum viable product. The company is still years away from reaching that stage of development.

So my answer is that the best games will begin to decline between 6 and 10 years after launch, The very best will reach the 10 year mark. And as a test, I can use the funding page on the Roberts Space Industries website to test my hypothesis in real time by looking at the funds coming in to pay for Star Citizen. The test is not perfect, but is the best I have at the current time.

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