MMORPG Popularity, 1998-2013

Back in my teenage years, I was absolutely addicted to MMORPGs. As soon as I got home from school, I was plugged into whatever virtual world I was currently bent on conquering with my comrades-in-arms. Suffice to say that when I ran across a data set of MMORPG subscriptions over time, I was quite keen on taking a data-centric look at how MMORPGs have risen and waned in popularity over time.

Below, I charted the percentage of total MMORPG subscriptions every month for each MMORPG between 1998 and 2013. You’ll notice that some MMORPGs don’t even show up, and that’s either because they didn’t have a normal subscription-based model (à la Guild Wars) or the games were just an insignificant blip in the history of MMORPG subscriptions. If a MMORPG is missing that doesn’t fall under those categories, then these guys are to blame. (Though feel free to mention it here in the comments!)

mmo-populations-1998-2013

Make sure to click on the image for a hi-res version

It’s crazy to think that only 20 years ago a vanishingly small fraction of people on Earth had access to the Internet. That of course meant that commercial MMORPGs didn’t start popping up in earnest until the mid-late 1990s, when there were finally enough people rocking a 56k modem to actually play the games. One of the first graphical MMORPGs to pop up was The Realm Online, an unforgiving turn-based RPG developed by Sierra. Even though it was short-lived, The Realm Online still holds the bragging rights for being one of the oldest graphical MMORPGs that people still play to this day (even if it’s only a few dozen players).

What killed The Realm Online? Of course, it was the Great Grandaddy of all MMORPGs: Ultima Online. Widely regarded the first major commercial MMORPG, Ultima Online set the standard for what a MMORPG should be: Thousands of people to playing together at once, massively improved graphics, an extensive PvP system, and GMs who interacted with the players (for better or for worse). Noting the success of Ultima Online, EverQuest and Asheron’s Call followed quickly thereafter, forming the “big three” MMORPGs of North America.

Fun fact: EverQuest is infamous for being the MMORPG with the most expansion packs, with 21 expansions released over its 15 years of development.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of (or at least, never played) Lineage despite its overwhelming popularity in the early noughties, that’s because it was mostly popular in South Korea. Lineage holds the crown as the first MMORPG to reach 1 million subscribers, and was the first MMORPG to truly dominate the MMO world until World of Warcraft appeared on the scene.

The early noughties saw dozens of MMORPG releases as game companies tried to cash in on the MMO wave. Dark Age of Camelot, Final Fantasy XI, Star Wars Galaxies… all came and went with mild success until the Big Daddy of MMORPGs appeared on the scene.

World of Warcraft was to MMORPGs in North America what Lineage was to MMORPGs in South Korea. Until 2005, MMORPGs were the domain of hardcore gamers who were willing to dedicate a disgusting number of hours grinding to reach the highest echelons of the game. World of Warcraft finally made MMORPGs accessible to the casual gamer who perhaps only had an hour to play every other day.

And the casual gamer rewarded the World of Warcraft developers handsomely: World of Warcraft is by far the most successful MMORPG in North America, at one point reaching 12 million monthly subscribers. To put that in context: Each monthly subscription costs $15, so Blizzard was raking in over $180 million every month from subscriptions alone.

The late noughties saw several highly hyped but ultimately unsuccessful MMORPGs. (I’m looking at you, Age of Conan and Warhammer Online!) But it also saw the rise of several more niche MMORPGs: Second Life for objective-free play, RuneScape for web browser-based games, and EVE Online for masochists with a penchant for space travel. Meanwhile, Aion became the new Lineage in Asia, marking the third major commercial success for South Korea-based NCSOFT (after Lineage and Lineage II).

So, what does the future hold for MMORPGs? Total subscriptions to MMORPGs have been falling since 2011, but most of those are due to World of Warcraft. Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) showed us that new MMORPGs can still take hold in the MMORPG ecosystem despite falling subscriptions. And if SWTOR and World of Warcraft are any indication, free-to-play is likely the future of MMORPGs as players grow ever unwilling to pay monthly fees to play a game.

Hopefully this has been as fun and nostalgic journey for you as it has been for me. Now, time to load up that old EverQuest CD…

Dr. Randy Olson is a Senior Data Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, where he develops state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms with a focus on biomedical applications.

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  • Would be worth having the graph as a total # users as well, in addition to percentage. That way it puts more into context, as you mentioned, Lineage, which was dominant but the market was only about a million users, vs. tens of millions now.

    It also shows when an MMO grew on it’s own vs. taken over another market. For example, the explosion that was WoW, which I think was mostly organic. And it’s also easier to see when an MMO grew or shrank in real terms.

    Another great post. First I saw the title I read it as ‘MMORPG Mortality’, which would have been even more awesome but I don’t think anybody has that dataset.

    • Bindagag Fargalarg

      Yes, true; this graph is really interesting but it would be even more informative if the Y-axis were the number of customers rather than percentage of the subscription-based-MMO market.

      • While I agree that showing the y axis as total subscribers would communicate more information, the discrepancy between 1998’s & 2010’s subscriber base size is so large that the details before WoW’s growth are mostly lost in the visualization. That’s why I chose the 100% stacked version.

        • Please can we see the non 100% graph, with the Y axis being users rather than %, that would be great

  • Bindagag Fargalarg

    Great graph – but it’s not really “MMO Popularity” as stated in the graphic. There are many MMOs without a subscription model.

  • Randy, you should come join the community at P1999 and play some classic EQ!

    http://lofalexandria.com/2012/12/my-return-to-an-old-classic/

    • That looks awesome! I’ll have to check it out. Thanks, Daniel!

  • PVW

    For accuracy’s sake, Neverwinter Nights (on AOL) was probably the first mmo. That and Meridian 59 came before The Realm.

  • Ferumbras

    How is Tibia never mentioned? It was one of the very first MMORPGS in the mid-late 90s, and is still around today (albeit it’s pretty shit now). It was great, back in the early 2000s.

    • Tibia is in the data set, but it was one of those MMOs that showed up as “nothing more than an insignificant blip” on the chart. I had to exclude MMOs like that for clarity.

  • Someone Someone

    Great article. Thanks for bringing back memories. What impresses me the most and what I am interested about mmo is the culture and community created by these games. Being in the health care industry and dealing with implementing technology (electronic medical records) into a health care system, I would love to translate that vibrant mmo sense of community into what I am doing.

  • Phaera Whisperwind

    World of Warcraft ….accessible to the casual gamer who perhaps only had an hour to play every other day. LMAO has this guy EVER played WoW? And now with the Garrisons….. it’s a TIME SINK!!! But hey I get my 15$ worth. 🙂

    • Alejandro Radisic

      Nope, WoW is for the casual gamer, now even more than before, buy insta 90 and gg. Lineage 2 on the other hand takes a shit ton of time to get to max level, + end-game content almost impossible to reach.

  • JCMarx

    SWTOR is a great game, except for the fact Bioware/EA will not crack down on the cheats. Free to Play really hurts, in a lot of ways, MMOs player base. Sure it may increase it but it also bring in a lot of people who do nothing but drag it down.

    Think current Amnesty Ex Order…

  • PeterCorless

    Randy: Great article! Can you do a similar one just to show the raw numbers, and the size of the market today? I’d love to see how the slope of the mountain looks.

  • grungebob

    I wish this would list all the games, even the ones that are too small to not show. I have to question if games like Rift or Elders Scroll Online were non-registered bleeps or just not accounted for?

  • Pohcca Hodass

    i wonder what it was that WoW did to stop the slide? everyone else makes it about a year then peters off to death. Wow started that same trend, but somewhere 2004 2005 they really managed to shore it up. i am guessing the upticks are expansion packages, i never played wow, did they do a string of expansion packs? Thank You