Multiplayer Online Games: Let in the Cannibals

Multiplayer Online Games: Let in the Cannibals

Paid subscriptions to massively multiplayer online games may be leveling off in recent months even as the market gears up for some major new releases later in the year. The latest release of Bruce Sterling Woodcock’s tracking of MMOG active subscribers among the major game worlds suggests that while fantasy titles continue to be the only reliably successful genre for this platform, the segment is saturated and new subscribers to one world are coming at the expense of another.

“I think it is certainly true within North America and Europe that any new game that comes on the market is taking away a lot of subscribers from another game,” says Woodcock, MMOG analyst. “The overall trend is growing, but it is very clear that it is slower. The big variable is that we don’t know how many people subscribe to more than one MMOG at a time.”

Final Fantasy XI has been the impressive success story of 2003, rocketing to half a million subscribers even before the North American release of the PS2 version, and finally displacing EverQuest as the MMOG king. Anecdotal evidence from retailers we queried suggest that the $99 hard driveFFIX combo has been selling very well for the price point. This will be the first test case for an online game subscriber base being fed from both console and PC sides. Sony’s console MMOG EverQuest Online Adventure has not fared as well as many expected, however, with merely a tenth the subscriber base as its famous namesake EverQuest, which itself experienced some shrinkage recently.

But along with FFIX’s success we see slight pull-backs among the other major titles, including EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, and Ultima Online. In fact, despite efforts to expand the market with other genres and play styles, fantasy role playing remains the only successful MMOG style to date.

Space Opera and sci-fi titles Eve Online, Earth and Beyond (soon to be closed), and PlanetSide are not even in the ball park of classic fantasy titles. Attempts to grow the base into female and non-core gamer audiences with The Sims Online clearly have not gained traction.

Beyond Fantasy?

Here at EGB, we continue to think that fantasy drives the genre because the demands of MMOGs best follow the classic appeals of fantasy fiction: immersion in relentless detail, length, taking on alternative identities.

These tendencies simply are not present among broader audiences. Just as pen and paper RPGs tried to leap beyond fantasy subject matter unsuccessfully in the 1980s, online MMOGs seem to have discovered that fantasy fans has a special affinity for the needs and rewards of MMOG designs.

Nevertheless, Woodcock remains optimistic that the potential remains for growing MMOGs beyond the fantasy genre. “We’re seeing a natural peak, but I don’t think it’s a question of market size as much as product positioning,” he says. “I think it’s more of an indictment of MMOG designs. A lot of puzzle games like Bejeweled are very popular. If you could come up with a massively multiplayer version of something like that you might be able to get people to pay a monthly fee.” In fact, as EGB reported recently (EGB, 3/24/04), a breakaway success at has been the addition of card game tables that can be set up and played among the avatars. We could imagine an intriguing environment that combines RPG elements with casual game play.

Many upcoming MMOGs will continue the fantasy trend (Worlds of Warcraft, Ultima Odyssey, Middle Earth), and Woodcock expects that many of these titles could cannibalize current favorites. Some superhero titles are also poised to explore new audiences.

One recent trend in MMOGs involves sales patterns. Rather than the slow audience growth that characterized EverQuest and Asheron’s Call years ago, new MMOGs have much steeper adoption curves. “They are being adopted very quickly, with tens and hundreds of thousands of people buying in the first couple of months and then you see no growth or decline.” Rather than expect a game to catch on and grow organically by word of mouth, MMOGs must then rely on multiple release windows worldwide to grow their audiences.

Woodcock compiles his list from both official subscription reports, which are often sparse in this competitive and secretive sector, published quotes from company executives, and inside sources among MMOG staffs. His detailed breakdown of subscription levels is updated regularly and his methods fully annotated at


MMOG Subscriber Levels

TitlePublisher Q3 2003 Q4 2003 Q1 2004

Final Fantasy XISquare-Enix 280,000 450,000 500,000

EverquestSony 445,000 430,000 420,000

Ragnarok Online (Japan)Gravity Online 237,000 (237,00) 300,000

Star Wars GalaxiesLucasArts-Sony 275,000 300,000 275,000

Ultima OnlineEA 250,000 (250,00) 225,000

Dark Age of CamelotMythic 220,000 250,000 250,000

Sims OnlineEA 97,000* -97,000 80,000

Asheron’s CallMicrosoft 80,000* -80,000 -80,000

PlanetSideSony 60,000 60,000 -60,000

Anarchy OnlineFuncom 40,000 40,000 -40,000

ShadowBane (North Amer.)UbiSoft 50,000 40,000 -40,000

EverQuest Online AdventureSony 44,000 40,000 -40,000

Asheron’s Call 2Microsoft 50,000** -50,000 25,000

Eve OnlineCCP 40,000 30,000 -30,000

HorizonsArtifact NA 32,000 35,000

WWII OnlinePlaynet 12,000 12,000 12,000

Numbers in parentheses indicate the subscriber updates were not available for

this quarter and are carried over from earlier reports. *Last updated April

2003**Last Update March 2003

[Copyright 2004 PBI Media, LLC. All rights reserved.]


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