The MMORPG genre is based around the idea that, given a world, players will use it to the fullest extent, and the creators have little to no input on how the economic and social aspects turn out. That does not, however, stop the market from evolving around it. Although the MMO has yet to catch up (fully) to the way that AAA games have developed, it is well on its way, and we are beginning to see a new breed of the western MMO.

Despite the typical player ignoring tons of content, it seems people just can’t put down MMOs. To understand why, one need only look at the multiple studies done on the topic. Most notably Game Theorist’s MatPat elegantly explains the reasons in two separate videos. In a Five Night at Freddy’s video, MatPat references the Completion Principle.

Gamers are, essentially, addicted to the current game they are playing through. I wish I could say it’s not in the ‘they can’t stop thinking about it’ way, but, remember the last time you played through a game? It was always in the back of your mind, wasn’t it? Welcome to the Completion Principle. Your brain can’t turn off the part focusing on the game until you complete it. It’s like leaving a puzzle unfinished.

With game in the MMO genre, there is always something left to complete. The idea that you can be ‘done’ when you hit cap level is nothing but a wistful dream. After you hit cap level, you have several raids to complete, dungeons, PvP gear to collect, and mounts to go after.

And after you’ve collected the gear, finished the raids, and gotten all the events done… the new expansion launches. The MMORPG is a game that cannot ever truly be finished.

Put simply, for those that have become entangled in the MMO genre, it can be hard to break out. There are stories of people – or something they cared for – dying because they couldn’t meet basic needs anymore. That isn’t to say that all players are like that. Far from it. We can even recognize there are several needs that can be met through a video game.

Games fulfill several psychological needs for those that play. This is called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with five tiers organized in the form of a pyramid(Think of the food groups). Physiological needs and Safety needs can’t be fulfilled through video games, but the top 3 needs, Love and Belonging, Esteem, and Self Actualization all can.

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Even though video games can fulfill these top three tiers, is the genre seeing the light at the end of the tunnel? Or is it trucking along in the rest of the industry?

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to be using the western MMORPG. The western MMO is typically targeted in these articles, with people rarely bringing up games like MapleStory or Blade and Soul, some of the most popular Asian MMORPGs. An exception to this rule is Final Fantasy, which though an established franchise, has managed to grab both a western and eastern audience. To pick the games I wanted to look I, I narrowed it to ones that have had a subscription based service at one point in their lifetimes, and have had a substantial chance of surviving in genre ruled by World of Warcraft.

Most of the games I’ll list have never shared solid numbers on the amount of subscribers they’ve had. The black sheep to this would be Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. Blizzard shared numbers up until Q3 2015, with that being the last they’ll share for the forseeable future.

The most popular subscription-based MMORPG to ever release, World of Warcraft managed to take the formula that Sony created with Everquest and turn it into something even better. Up until the release of World of Warcraft, Everquest I & II were the go-to games in the genre. Sony’s titles had created something that we hadn’t seen before, and were a huge talking point for the developers at Blizzard.

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This, and Ultima online, led to the conceptualization and creation of World of Warcraft.

The difficulty with comparing hard numbers from 2005 to 2016 are obvious. First of all, World of Warcraft has been around for a long time. Gamers are starting to get tired of the same franchises and, despite them selling well, less dedicated gamers will want to see a change. The MMORPG isn’t pulling in new players, its dealing with the same millions of players it did from the beginning. And maybe their kids.

PC Gaming, and gaming in general, has evolved a lot since 2005. More people own PC’s than ever before – but that doesn’t mean that they’re all going to play an MMO.

The MMORPG genre is based strongly on the community that it builds. As mentioned earlier, developer’s often let what they have created run wild among the fans. A lot of what has happened, and has been remembered throughout the years, is thanks to each game’s fan base.

Several studies have been conducted on World of Warcraft in particular. With the millions of players split up by servers, you can get an idea of how different masses of people would all react to the same situation. The Auction House and the differences across servers have been studied by economists, while The Corrupted Blood Incident has been studied for research on how people will react to real world epidemics.

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World of Warcraft has managed to create a community that Blizzard should be grateful for, even if it looks like the numbers are dwindling off. With a subscription high of 12 million users back in last half of 2010, the numbers have steady declined, with a momentary peak at each new expansion.

Mists of Pandaria brought in 900,000 more users, only to lose 400,000 the following quarter. Half a year before Warlords of Draenor, in Q2 2014, the numbers dropped to a new low of 6.8 million subscriptions. The numbers hadn’t been that low since the game initially reached 12 million users. Once Draenor launched, the game peaked again at 10 million – only to drop down to 7.1 million after one quarter. (source) Even with all this in mind though, World of Warcraft is still the largest western subscription-based MMO.

For competition, it has several games to watch out for, but all with a suspected active player base under 2 million.

Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, The Elder Scrolls Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, ArcheAge, EVE Online, Marvel Heroes, Neverwinter, and the Everquest games are all considered to be in competition for what Blizzard has created.

Notably though, most of these MMO’s have a free to play format of some kind. A lot of these players are roped into enjoying the game based on the idea of free play, rather then continually paying for the experience.

For a majority of the analysis, this article will be relying on Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and the numbers they have provided over the years. Unfortunately this won’t be able to give us an analytical look at other MMOs, but it may help give us an understanding as to what’s actually going on.

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An MMO game is in the unique position of being a game players want to complete, but relying on a constant stream of new content to make sure they don’t.

For a recent example, World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor had 3 raids. After the final raid launched, there was over a year left before Legion is suspected to launch(September 2016), leading subscriber numbers to fall once again. Even before Hell Fire Citadel released, the final raid, their was already a decline starting in the users who were disappointed by Warlords of Draenor and the direction it took in general. The expansion lost 3.9 million users in three months, and dropped another 1.5 million after six months.

When Legion launches, we will have 2 raids to sink our teeth into. Blizzard’s directional shift is being put onto the 5 man dungeon, with 10 different end game dungeons releasing. The focus on the 5 man team over the 20 man team will help to get groups together, but with the inevitability that it will break up several raiding guilds.

The steady decline of Blizzrd’s World of Warcraft has taken place since beginning of 2011, with late 2010 seeing the release of Cataclysm. The last great expansion (according to most fans) was Wrath of the Lich King, released back in 2008.

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With the fact that MMO’s lose players after each expansion peak in mind, we have to remember that all MMOs are following this formula in the western world. They continue to pump out content in large volumes, but the developers are generally refusing to release small bursts of changes; unless the PvP community needs a hotfix for balance.

With events being catered towards a very specific audience, its difficult to ensure that all of your players will be accounted for. However, from an objective standpoint, and not discussing whether the games are still good or not, its easy enough to see MMORPGs are evolving, not dying.

The reason for the evolution in the MMO genre can be accredited to two major factors. The first being a lack of attention span in today’s society, the second being due to micro-transactions, DLC planned before launch, and general changes in the industry (that have notably all been for the worse).

With the current generation being dubbed the ‘microwave’ generation, it’s hard not to see this in the way that we play games. Clash of Clans, one of the most popular casual games out there, takes only moments to play each day. In general, mobile casual games are becoming the new go to for game developers. And even as gamers have voiced our stances of (mostly) opposition several times, we still continue to play the games, encouraging the industry to move towards that and the freemium/pay-to-win model.

On the note of the pay-to-win model, we have the issue of micro transactions and DLC. At one point, the only acceptable form of DLC was an expansion or a standalone sequel to the game. This ensured content rich add ons to the games that we already loved, and still paid developers for the large amount of efforts they put in.

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Instead, most AAA titles are announcing DLC even before the launch of game. Although it’s causing a rift in the community, it’s an inevitable truth we have to face when it comes to games.

The world of western MMOs reflects this, several companies offering a ‘free-to-play’ model that’s just enjoyable enough. Unfortunately, you can’t experience all of the content without a paid subscription, causing players to get hooked and eventually buy into the free-to-play community they once scorned.

When we begin to accept things like micro transactions, especially in content we have already payed for, we are crumbling to the business practices that we try to fight so hard against. Besides the free-to-play model, we also see the MMORPG moving towards games like Destiny.

By taking out the subscription model, and instead just releasing expansions, Destiny offers what most people want: the MMO experience without any of the RPG, and without any of the extra expenses. Destiny has managed to accumulate several million players, and all of them paying no extra money to play the game. Unless they want those emotes, that is.

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