Generally — 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.