If you believe the Internet, StarCraft II has been dead for a long time. The precise time of death isn’t quite clear, but there’s a subreddit about it, so we can safely conclude that it now exists only in post-mortem. It is dead despite ongoing tournaments, a recent major expansion, and continuing support from the developers. Dead is dead, and the community has proclaimed it so.
StarCraft II isn’t the only online game to be struck by such early doomsayers. Some proclaimed Heroes of the Storm dead before it even launched. Every MMO I’ve touched since World of Warcraft always has a legion of players carrying on an endless death chant. Inferred statistics about player numbers get thrown around. Players seem desperate to know and speculate about just how popular their game of choice happens to be.
But it seems an odd thing to be concerned with. After all, if you enjoy the game, why do you care if 500,000 or 50,000 other people are playing the same thing? Is there a good reason to be worried that when the numbers are low the developer is about to turn the lights off? Are we worried about online queue times? About a weak player economy? Do we just want to be doing the thing that everyone else is doing? And why do we feel the need to call games dead before their time?
To analyze this question, we have to recognize that the vast majority of games are divided into two fundamental types: (1) the single-player or co-op campaign-based game, and (2) the online multiplayer game. Many titles include both elements, such as StarCraft II or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. But in a real sense these are meaningfully separate experiences, and most games prioritize one over the other. When people talk about the two aforementioned titles, it’s rare they want to talk about the single-player or co-op campaigns. Multiplayer is, by-and-large, what they care about.
The difference between these two types of games is both obvious and deeply meaningful. In the campaign-based game, you play through a story either alone or with friends, and achieve some sort of end goal. The game ends, the credits roll. The online multiplayer game, by contrast, has no apparent end. It may take the form of individual matches, like in Street Fighter IV or Dota 2, or it may be a persistent universe in which players interact, like World of Warcraft. Despite great differences in playstyles and genres, these games are unified in setting no internal end-goal, and offering endless play.
The division is meaningful because it defines not only the elements of game design, but also the social universe in which they’re played and the economics of their respective field. No one talks about the death of any given single-player game. With a single-player game, there’s an experience to be had, and it doesn’t matter if you play through it now or 10-years from now. The game lives for the span of time it takes you to play it. When you’re done, in most cases, you move on.
The economics of the single-player game are, for the most part, equally straightforward and match with most other consumables. You buy a game, you play it, then you buy another, and so on. Developer and publisher revenue is a function of units sold. The importance of competition is also minimized. So long as they’re released in slightly different launch windows, there’s no reason to assume that a player who played Far Cry 4 won’t also play Just Cause 3. In fact, a player who plays one is probably more likely to play the other than someone who hasn’t.
But the world of online multiplayer games is very much the opposite. Competition is high, because here games are designed to have near-constant longevity, requiring players to either build their own skill or spend countless hours developing their characters. Player investment is rewarded, but it also comes at the cost of the time to play other games. Few players play two MMORPGs during the same period of time, or excel at more than one MOBA or fighting game.
But it seems an odd thing to be concerned with. After all, if you enjoy the game, why do you care if 500,000 or 50,000 other people are playing the same thing?
That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t explain why player numbers matter. Why can’t we all be happy dumping our time into whatever little online game we choose?
To answer that, we must recognize the most fundamental difference between online multiplayer games and single-player games: that the value of an online multiplayer game is largely dependent upon the number of people playing it. This simply isn’t true for single-player games. It doesn’t matter to me if no has ever played The Witcher 3 before or ever will again. My enjoyment of the game will remain the same. Sure, it’s nice to be able to talk about it with other people, but it’s not going to bother me too much if I can’t. However, I do care if I can’t find a match in Heroes of the Storm or if I can’t get a party together in World of Warcraft. If an MMORPG doesn’t have lots of players, it’s just an ORPG.
You’re probably thinking right now that this is all quite obvious. You know very well that you need lots of players to play an online game, so question answered. But it’s not the end of the story. The economics and the behavioral impact of the situation are far more insidious.
Online games are defined by what are called, in economic parlance, “network effects”. That is, the value of the game increases with the size of the network that surrounds it. Network effects aren’t only player numbers. It’s stream viewership, eSports status, mainstream media attention, community activity, and really anything else that circles back to provide additional value to players of the game. After all, who doesn’t want their game of choice to be a huge eSport with great production value and the best talent? Unsurprisingly, these things are what most people look at when they’re deciding whether a game is “alive” or “dead.”
But the fallout of this is quite troublesome for the online gaming world. If we assume every players’ enjoyment of a game is contingent upon the number of people playing it, and every player playing a game adds value to every other player, then everyone has the best time if every player plays the same one game. The strange result is everyone is happiest when there’s only one game in town. Or at least one game in any given genre (assuming players have the time to play online games in more than one genre). Any other arrangement is unstable; there will always be pressures on players playing less-popular games to switch to more popular games because of the higher value of that game’s network effects. Of course, the quality of the game matters here, but probably less than it should. And it’s a big problem for innovation in the space. If it’s risky to innovate in single-player games, it’s doubly so here.
To go back to our original question, it also has the unfortunate effect of encouraging the early eulogizing of existing games. The thing is, when someone tries to call a game dead when it’s still quite active, it’s neither a prediction nor a fact; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the effect of gamers trying to force the convergence of everyone into the same place. This game is dead, they say, but the meaning is really: so let’s all go play a different one. It’s trying to force the rapid decline of a game so the online universe can be more cohesive, and so they can enjoy the game with greatest network effects. This isn’t typically a conscious effect, and sometimes players are doing it in order to get a developer to address their issues in the game. But most often, it’s simply a pronouncement, and what other purpose does it serve than trying to get others to agree and leave?
The online gaming world is a deadly environment, with the result that there are only a handful of winners and a whole bunch of losers. It means there are fewer games, fewer ideas, and fewer options. This can be seen in just how hard it is to knock out an incumbent. Consider World of Warcraft, which has now been around for just over eleven years. While its subscriber numbers have dropped from the estimated peak of around 12-million in 2010 to a mere 5.5 million now, it remains unquestionably the dominant MMORPG in the western world. It has repeatedly shrugged off competitors in Warhammer: Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Elder Scrolls Online, Age of Conan, Rift, TERA: Rising, and many others. I’ve played some of these games, and they aren’t bad games. Some I’d say are better from a design perspective than WoW. But it hasn’t mattered, because WoW has the player base, the community, and the mainstream presence. These things more than make up for a slightly better gaming experience in an MMORPG.
It also means that hype matters a lot. At launch, a game needs to get a sufficient number of players into the game to make it seem worthwhile to other players. People need to believe that the game will be popular in order to have them jump in the moment the game launches. If a game doesn’t have players right away, it probably never will.
This, in turn, puts pressures on business models. It becomes harder to justify charging a fee up-front if there’s already a popular incumbent in the space. Developers and publishers need to get people in the door. Subscriptions, micro-transactions, and downloadable content drives much of the online game industry. But for these to work, it’s not enough for players to simply get a game; they have to keep playing it. And for that to happen, there needs to be lots of players. And players are awfully hard to keep when everyone’s calling the dead game from day one.
It makes sense then why some people are so fascinated by player numbers and Twitch viewership, and so eager to call games dead before their time. They do want to be doing what everyone else is doing, and they’re trying to figure out what that is. They maximize their own interests by always being where the most action is, so they seek that out and try to predict the trends. And they don’t like it when people are doing different things, because if everyone just played this one game over here, then everyone would be having a better time. So player number speculation will go on, and ‘ded gaem’ requiems will continue, because it’s in the players’ interest to do so, even if it’s not in the interest of having a diverse and interesting gaming world.
It’s not all doom and gloom. All games die eventually. Even WoW, too, will one day fade to dust. The technology becomes too outdated to look past, people get bored, or the developers move on. There’s opportunity in the gaps they leave behind for innovation and a step forward. And not everyone, of course, likes doing the same thing as everyone else. Some enjoy a smaller community, or finding that hidden gem that no one knows about. Some just care more about the quality of the game than its player-base. It’s enough, at times, to keep some games alive. But it often isn’t, and that’s a sad thing. A game isn’t truly dead until you can’t play it anymore, but calling it dead before its time will get it there a lot faster.