Big Changes Haven't Led To Big Player Turnout For Some Free MMOs
Late last year, I questioned whether big MMO updates were really worth it. For all the time, money, and effort put into them, do they serve their primary purpose: to draw new players to the game, or at least stop the attrition of players leaving the game?
To try and answer that question, I took to Steam Charts, a website that uses the Steam API to track active players in a game on a daily, and even hourly basis. I looked at four free-to-play games that all had massive updates over the past three months – when Steam Charts gives daily user numbers – to see if those updates had had the desired effect. Did they greatly increase the number of players in the games, at least in the first few weeks or months after their launch? Or did they “fizzle” and provide only a short-term boost before going right back to the same activity levels as before?
There are some caveats with this data. The most obvious one is that these games can all be played outside of Steam, so the numbers you see below don't represent the entire player base. However, if a game went up by, say 25% on Steam, there's little reason to think it didn't see a similar boost from players using a non-Steam client to play. At least for our informal analysis, these numbers should suit our needs.
Another oddity I noticed was that the jumps in player numbers seemed to come a day before the big update hit. Steam Charts' servers are located in New York, so it's not a case of them being on the other side of the International Date Line. Maybe it was due to some anticipation by players shortly before the update or some other quirk in Steam Charts' process? I'd chalk it up as just a random happening, but it seemed to be the case with every game on this list, so … /shrug.
ArcheAge's Revelation update went live on Dec. 10 – or at least tried to – and two months later, the results are still very positive. The player count on Dec. 8 was 1,444 and that shot up to 4,617 on Dec. 9, with a peak of 5,458 on Dec. 12. Since then, things have tailed off, but they're still much better than they were prior to Revelation.
From July to November, the average daily player count (ADP) was 996. That became 2,688 in December, 2,359 in January, and is currently 1,951 – still nearly double – over the last 30 days. Prior to Revelation, the last time ArcheAge's ADP was over 2,000 was October of 2015. In fact, five of the game's first seven months on Steam were over 2,000, with none happening since. Senior Producer Merv Lee Kwai might not have been exaggerating when he said that Revelation was like alpha all over again.
Orcs Must Die! Unchained (Steam Charts page)
Sometimes, less is more. OMDU removed its PvP Siege Mode in an update on Dec. 6, so the dev team could focus 100% on its more popular co-op PvE mode. Its overall numbers on Steam may be small, but they paint a glowing picture of the game's health so far.
The game was struggling to pull in even 100 daily users before the update; Steam Charts records it as having 11(!) players on Dec. 4. That number catapulted to 866 on Dec. 5 and 1,057 on Dec. 6. The current peak is around 500 per day, with overall averages of 401, 367, and 324 the last three months.
Then again, maybe those pre-patch numbers were a little artificially low. The game's ADP count was in the 300-500 range from June to August before cratering from September to November. So maybe this isn't a case of the game seeing great success from a patch but more being made viable again after a horrible few months.
Marvel Heroes (Steam Charts page)
Less successful has been Marvel Heroes, which went live with its “Biggest Update Ever” on Jan. 19. While its chart shows a similar jolt between Jan. 17 (1,262 players), 18 (2,242), and 19 (3,541), it's been a little rockier since. The last week saw peak player numbers in the 1,500 to 2,000 range; overall, the last 30 days' ADP (1,642) looks to be only slightly better than the five months prior to January (1,245). Worse, it's still not as good as it was in the six months prior, when its ADP was over 2,000 every month.
I wrote about Marvel Heroes' new loot system a couple of months back. While it shared some similarities to Star Wars: The Old Republic's Galactic Command system, I was hopeful that it would be better and less geared for paying players. What I'm seeing on the MH Reddit is less-than-positive feedback, now that the system is live. Maybe it's just the usual grousing about loot and having to learn a new system, and maybe it's not fully responsible for the Biggest Update Ever's lackluster performance, but it probably can't be wholly discounted.
MapleStory (Steam Charts page)
Finally, let's take a look at Nexon's long-running MapleStory. It's plenty huge without needing Steam to prop up its numbers, but since it boasted of its biggest update in a decade in December, I thought it might be worth looking at.
Unlike the other games on our list, MapleStory doesn't seem to have made any fundamental changes. In fact, MapleStory's numbers rose sharply a full week earlier than the Dec. 15 release date for that huge update, going from 1,227 on Nov. 29 to 3,057 by Dec. 2. They came back down, and then there was a small bump on the 15th, from 1,744 to 2,227.
Since then, the numbers have slowly slid back down to actually below pre-update levels: 1,065 on Feb. 19 as compared to 1,262 on Nov. 22. Still, the ADP for December (1,526) is higher than the ADP for any other month of the game since its Steam launch in August 2012.
Venerable as it is, it could be argued that MapleStory players on Steam are more fleeting than hardcore players who downloaded the game 10 years ago, and so aren't sticking around as long after the big update. And just a thousand or so daily players on Steam probably means next to nothing for Nexon. Still, it's a little surprising to see how little time the “biggest update in 10 years” can hold even a subset of players' attention.
Going just by Steam Charts' numbers, I'd paint ArcheAge and Orcs Must Die! Unchained's updates as successful and answering my “Is it worth it?” in a positive manner. That doesn't seem to be the case with Marvel Heroes and MapleStory. It's especially troubling for Marvel Heroes, which had its update just over a month ago and is already slipping back to its pre-update numbers. Maybe, just like with SWTOR, that new loot system still has a few kinks to work out.
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.
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