I initially wrote this as a response to a forum post and after spending an hour on writing it up I thought I’d share it here.

So what does it take to make a successful MMORPG these days?

Taking a look at some of the biggest MMOs gives us an idea of what makes a MMO successful. Just because there’s not really a better figure than active accounts to judge this we’ll have a look at the biggest ones by this number:

RuneScape: 15 Million (free) accounts
Second Life: 11.7 Million (free, non trial) accounts
World of Warcraft: 11.5 Million (paid, active) accounts

Aggregated statistics from here and here.

So what does each of these games provide that attracts so many people to it? Well I’ve had experience with all of these so I’ll give you an overview of why they are so popular.

Runescape is free to play and only requires that you have a web browser to play it. When I used to work in childcare many of the kids there would play it, since they could all play with each other for nothing. The idea of being able to try something out for free with your mates without even having to install something is a powerful marketing tool, and it’s obviously working extremely well. It’s this extrodinary mix of portability, availability and socializing that has made RuneScape what it is.

Second Life provides a massive sandbox for you to share with many other people. It takes online chat that one step further, allowing people to alter their persona and appearance online and then communicate with others. Linden Labs has made headways in marketing the base client for free whilst giving people the oppotunity to buy land or items from each other for linden dollars which can be exchanged freely with real US cash. This idea has attracted several different niche players, some who wish to free themselves from the real world and those looking to turn a profit from virtual goods. Its this combination of sandboxing and real world value that brings people to Second Llife and keeps them there.

WoW has become the benchmark for all new MMOs due to its popularity and dedication in development from Blizzard. Starting out with the phenomenal IP that is the Warcraft universe Blizzard kept on its track record of releasing highly polished games with specifications so that nearly anyone could play it. After keep it in beta for well over a year the hype was definitely ramping up and the launched, whilst riddled with problems on high population servers, showed that Blizzard had the infrastructure ready to handle a massive playerbase and continued to improve their services over the coming years.

Initially WoW focused directly on the crowd that all MMOs traditionally marketed to; the hardcore MMO crowd that would play new content until it was beaten and then eagerly await the next big challenge. This was easily demonstrated by the first few big content patches that released big dungeons such as BWL, AQ and later Naxxramas. Whilst they tried to cater to the smaller groups with things like Zul’Gurrub there was a definite disparity between hardcore players and casuals, leaving many casuals behind in terms of both PVP and PVE content.

The BC set out to address these issues and made large headways in doing so. Blizzard gave up the idea of trying to make horde and alliance balanced, but different and gave Shamans and Pallies to their respective opposing sides. Whilst this initially met with friction it broke down many walls that kep Blizzard from improving gameplay in other ways. Additionally the introduction of Arenas, Dailies and two-tier dungeons (Normal/Heroic) allowed casual users to get a look in at the content whilst giving the hardcores something to shoot for.

Now we come to WotLK and the focus has shifted directly towards the casuals. Why did they do this? Well I can tell you it is the same reason that Nintendo designed the Wii, to convert non-gamers into players. WoW has consistently grown its userbase by targetting the largest untapped market of MMO players, the ones not playing it. With things like Recruit a friend its no wonder people are constantly drawn to this epic MMO.

In short, WoW is targeting non-gamers and as such has a larger target audience then the traditional MMOs. Should they continue down this path they will start to lose the super-hardcore players to other MMOs, but this does not bother them. Their bread and butter is the mum and dads with their 2 kids playing together whenever they have a spare couple hours. They are the ones who will spend $15 a month to play for only a fraction of the time of the hardcore people, thereby increasing their profit dramatically. This lets them develop more content driving up their interest even further.

Each of these popular online games provide a dramatically different experience and as such targets a different niche of the market. The trouble with many new MMOs is they try to replicate one or more parts of these already succesful business models and don’t try to bring something new to the table. Whilst many of them will succeed in obtaining a loyal userbase (which by all accounts is success) none of them will make it “big” until they bring in a paradigm shift as all of these MMOs did.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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