Whenever one has a conversation about MMOGs these days, the subject matter is always dominated by the big titles - the games that have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. WoW is, of course, the biggest name with its eleven million active subscribers, and EA is clearly hoping for a multi-million playerbase with BioWare's The Old Republic, but we're all familiar with the other (relatively) big titles of Aion, Warhammer, LotRO, and Conan.
There's a reason that the popular titles dominate the discussions - they're the movers and the shakers in the industry. But a game doesn't need to be huge to be successful. Hell, one might even say that a new game that shoots for the stars could wind up just shooting itself in the foot. But there's a common tendency in people to associate pure numbers with success, and that's something that we need to stop doing. It's not that bigger numbers aren't good, but rather that small numbers aren't necessarily bad.
I spent this last weekend in Las Vegas for the Sony Online Entertainment Fan Faire, a gathering dedicated to SOE's various MMOGs. Of these, EverQuest II is certainly one of the bigger games on the market, but SOE is hoping to have two upcoming hits in DC Universe Online and The Agency. But what about the rest of them? The venerable EverQuest may have been one of the grandfathers of the MMOG space - and the market leader in its heyday - but how many people are playing it right now? How many people are logging into Star Wars: Galaxies these days?
As anyone who attends an event like Fan Faire can tell you, a smaller community doesn't have to be an inactive one. The people who are still playing older games like Dark Age of Camelot, EverQuest or even Ultima Online are the ones who really love the games. When most of the playerbase has evaporated, the ones remaining form a small, dedicated, and tight-knit community. The SWG and EQ players were there in full force, and so were the Vanguard players - all twelve of them!
The players support the game, and so do the developers - they just announced the seventeenth EverQuest expansion. So however many people are still playing EQ, it's enough to keep the servers on and fund further content development.
That's the crucial mark for an MMOG: equilibrium. The number of people playing your game ultimately doesn't matter as long as it's enough to cover costs (and hopefully turn a profit). That's the only number that matters. Obviously, this number depends on the game. If you're sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into a game like The Old Republic, you're going to need to make hundreds of millions of dollars back, which means you need millions of subscribers.