Monday, August 18, 2008

Defining Critical Mass in MMOs

I've used the term "critical mass" before in posts, but I don't know if I've ever given a full explanation of what it is or how I arrived at a specific number for it. The term is based on the trend of MMO players wanting to see and be around other people when in game. Players might not always want to group, but there seems to be a general appreciation for the background noise made by people. As much as we hate hearing the latest Chuck Norris joke, its better then listening to NPCs continual running through the same dialogue. There also appears to be some component to human psychology that makes things seem more interesting if a lot of other people are watching or playing it.

In MMO's there seems to be a point in subscription numbers where there simply aren't enough people on at the same time to maintain this critical mass. Players start to feel like they are in the game by themselves and start to question spending money on a monthly fee. Games that have just started to fall below the critical mass level can slow the fallout by quickly merging some of their servers. However, this is only a stop-gap measure and it won't help bring more people into the game. It seems that critical mass also applies to advertising and word of mouth. Thus a game under critical mass just doesn't have enough players recommending the game to friends to make up for those leaving it.

I didn't originally put much stock in the idea of "critical mass" when I first heard about it. But then I started looking at MMO subscription numbers and I noticed that EVE Online didn't look like most other games. Instead of of sharp increases and drops in subscription numbers it has a much more stable growth rate over its lifetime. EVE Online is one of the few games not to split their players across multiple servers and I think that directly correlates to their steady growth. I would be willing to bet that EVE Online maintains a much higher critical mass then similarly sized games by keeping everyone on the same server. This has to boost the number of people that get to play the game with friends since no one has to worry about getting everyone on the same server.

I arrived at a number for critical mass by watching what MMOs were shut down and which ones were able to stay afloat. There are some factors which interfere, but in general if a MMO falls below 50k players then it never grows back. There simply aren't enough people playing the game and talking about it, to drum up interest. Depending on the publisher they may decide to close the game down right away or wait for it to not be worth the server costs. SOE has made a habit of collecting failing games and sticking them on their all access pass. This seems to provide a sort of dispersed critical mass for the all-access pass and it keeps the games up and running. A game on the all-access pass is never going to have enough money to get an expansion made, but it does produce enough for some new content.

If you're interested in knowing what the actual number is for critical mass then I suggest looking at the charts provided by In my opinion critical mass is around 50,000 players for a subscription based game. MMO's that fall below this number are almost always closed or picked up by SOE. About the only instance where this is not true is when a company just released its first game and has no problems running it as long as it turns a profit. If you want to see the phenomena in action just keep an eye on Tabula Rasa. NCSoft is a very experienced studio and doesn't keep dead weight around. I would be willing to bet that unless Tabula Rasa can get above 50k in subscribers they will be cut by the end of the year.

Games that went under 50k
Auto Assault - closed
Vanguard - all access pass
Asheron's Call 2 - closed
Sims Online - closed
Matrix Online - all access pass
Planetside - all access pass


Openedge1 said...

Whats interesting is DDO is calculated right now on the DEAD mmogchart site (man that site is being inundated with crap, and Bruce has yet to do any updates or deletes of comments) under 50k.
Yet, development continues...
With even new additions like DX10 and Henchmen.
Was the infusion from LOTRO and Time Warner enough to keep even dead games afloat?
Could the accuracy be that much off?

DDO has potential, and maybe the new fixes will be a boon. I hope so, as I never hated that game...but, how does it continue?


iomegadrive said...

This has a lot to do with networking, and even the social networking everyone seems to talk about.

Metcalfe's Law states that the power of a network grows in proportion to the square of the number of its nodes.

In other words, the usefulness (or in this case fun of a game) grows in proportion to the square of the number of members.

This is true for any "networking" product and it seems like it's obvious it applied to MMOs as well.

Relmstein said...

Well in all honesty a smart company can still make a lot of money off a game in the 40-50k range of subscribers. That's still between 600,000$ and 750,000$ a month. Most small companies can live off that quite well and still develop the game. A large studio like EA or NCSoft would probably kill anything that small and consider it an embaressment.

The big studios do have a point by doing this. Once a game has fallen that low in active subscriptions you never know how many people will buy a expansion. Thus games that small are limited to subscription revenue only. A big studio with a lot of potential projects might calculate it's better to move developers to something that has a chance to be more profitable.

Llew said...

It's odd, because MMO's really don't often get a second chance to make a first impression.

After having played DDO shortly after launch, I gave up on it because it was soooo solo-unfriendly, and frankly, I had WoW.

I've recently re-tried DDO and it's a ton of fun. I brought a friend over with me from WoW and we're having a blast doing content just the two of us. The game looks fantastic, runs smooth as butter and is very accessible now.