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Riding the long MMO tail

longtailGenerally — generally — MMOs that launch follow a similar patten in terms of population:

  • Strong boost at launch (stronger depending on the game and hype and IP, of course)
  • Growth for a few months as it’s the new hotness
  • Tapering off
  • Decline as the year goes on, with spikes for expansions or business model shifts
  • Then a long, steady, gradual decline after a few years

That last bit is the MMO tail, when a game has passed the point of being one of the big dogs in the room to a workhorse of a title. Doesn’t mean it’s bad — not at all; many MMOs keep getting better with age, patches, and expansions.

But there are definitely downsides to riding that tail as a gamer. You’re playing a game that isn’t being talked about much any longer. Hope for a renaissance fades away. New player influx goes from a stream to a trickle. And you start wondering — as much as you try not to — how many more years this game has left in it.

Not every MMO follows that same pattern or shares the length of that tail. Ultima Online and EverQuest, for example, are still going and even had expansions last year. But it’s a different experience to play those games rather than, say, Blade & Soul, Guild Wars 2, or FFXIV right now. The wider community all but ignores those games while the active community is very defined and insular.

When you’re riding that tail, there is an undercurrent in the existing community of sadness, of a desire for a return to the days of high-profile greatness. It’s definitely like this in LOTRO right now. On one hand, it’s not a ghost town; Landroval is hopping, people still love the game, and folks even still blog about it. There are player events, chatter, and it recently got a mini-expansion of sorts. It’s even on the cusp of heading into Mordor.

Yet there’s no denying that LOTRO is past being on of the, say, top five most popular and talked-about MMOs to play. It was only a few years ago that we were getting huge expansions, that people flocked to this game, and that it held that darling status that is now passed on to other games. Nine years is a great run for a game, and it would’ve been silly to assume that the party would last forever. So we’re now in the long tail phase — and have been for a couple of years.

As I mentioned, playing in the long tail era is kind of like sticking in the past while the future is here! and amazing! It’s grappling with that constant wish for a return to former glory. There’s a lot of nostalgic reminiscing in the community and talk of days past. There’s also the uncertainty of knowing how much longer a game has in it or how often the dev team is going to create substantial content for it.

It’s not all sadness and inner montages, of course. The long tail has its advantages, starting with it representing an MMO that is seasoned and chock-full of stuff to see and do. If there’s enough of a dedicated community sticking around, it can even feel populated and full of life for a long time to come. Knowing that the game won’t be on the receiving end of controversy and huge design shifts and other stumbling blocks of newer titles is a comforting thing.

Right now as there are few massive games coming out for this genre, players are taking more time than ever to revisit older titles to see — and rediscover — what they hold. I’ve been watching in the blogosphere the delight of these experiences, the reminder that there is a wealth of MMOs out there already that can be plundered if you get your eyes off the future once in a while. Lots of long tails out there, twitching for adventure.

7 thoughts on “Riding the long MMO tail

  1. This has been me lately in FFXI, a game I swore I’d never play again because it used to be so unfriendly to solo players. Now, I’m having a ball and making amazing progress doing things I could have never done back then. I would have never imagined it a decade ago.

    LOTRO is one game I’d like to revisit one day. I still have it installed and have lots of characters who need leveling. The lifetime sub I have there was still one of the best choices I made.

  2. I’m glad you wrote about this, as it has been on my mind lately. I’m trying games I’ve never played before and revisiting ones I’ve never progressed much in and LOTRO is high on that least at yet one I never actually end up playing. I’ve started the game before, I think I’m about 12 levels in on at least one character, and I’ve even bought all the DLC through steam, but I keep stalling my return and one of the biggest reasons is because I’m worried I’ll get started on a game that will shut down before I can see all the story.

    Everquest and Everquest II seem to be fine, and FFXI is surprisingly well tended for being in maintenance mode, but Turbine I’m less confident about. Do I start playing now because it might go away in a year or two, or do I forego playing all together for that same reason? Will it be shut down entirely or just put in maintenance mode? Could they even afford that? I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking this way which is in part why I think these “tails” struggle to regain traction.

    And it’s not just the older MMOs, newer titles like WildStar or incomplete games like Otherland and Firefall which have not gotten off on the right foot with their players are also going to struggle to regain momentum. There is an inertia to building an MMO population and once it starts moving on to other games, whether that is due to age, quality, or a lack of confidence in the developers, it’s difficult to reverse once it’s begun.

  3. For me, tails might be ESO and LotRO. Others are either dumbed down (SWtOR) or dead. Sadly. the genre is rather dead than alive.

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