The fall of MMO and the rise of MOBA: using data to track gaming tastes


It’s interesting how game genres come and go as the years go by. Some of it has to do with technology, of course; it wouldn’t have been possible to create a real MMORPG in 1990. But a lot of it just has to do with the gaming world’s collective taste. But could some of today’s most poplar genres be on their way out? Taking a look at gaming trends over the past couple of decades might give us a little insight into what the next couple of decades might look like.

Of course, it’s hard to track the world’s overall gaming taste effectively, but Google has a couple of free tools that offer at least a start. Check out this Google ngram, for example, which searches Google’s vast catalogue of books and displays how various often gaming genre terms were mentioned over time. This approach only works for some genres, of course, because terms like “action” and “sports” have other non-gaming-related meanings that distort the graph, and it’s far from scientific. But even though it includes just a few genres and it only goes up to 2008, it’s still interesting to see how each genre took off, peaked, and in a few cases began to drop even by 2008.

Note, for example, that RTS games got off to a head start but were surpassed (at least in terms of mentions in books) by first-person shooters in the late 1990s. That’s almost certainly not a coincidence, as the mid-to-late 90s was undeniably the golden age of early shooters, producing classics like Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Goldeneye 007, Unreal, Half Life, Rainbox Six, Tribes, and Medal of Honor (just to name a few). And also unsurprisingly, the term MMORPG doesn’t really take off until after the turn of the century, but then it quickly blitzes past both the RTS and FPS genres.

Perhaps more interesting than book trends, though, is what’s being searched for online, and thankfully Google has a tool for that too (although presumably it draws data only from its own search engine). This isn’t scientific either, of course, but the results are quite interesting nevertheless.

As you can see, search interest in MMORPGs seems to have peaked around 2008-2009, and has been dropping rather precipitously ever since. Search interest in FPS games is apparently rising, although not by a huge margin, and there has been some slight growth in RTS (although it’s worth noting that both acronyms also have other meanings, so it’s tough to say for sure whether these results really mean anything substantial in terms of game genres). MOBA, which is a relatively new term for DOTA-style games, obviously didn’t get much traction until its invention a few years ago, but it has been growing steadily since then. My guess is that if we check back in a year or so, given all of the MOBA games that are coming out right now, it will have grown quite a bit, and MMORPG will probably have dropped further.

Of course, the waxing and waning interests of the gaming public are something you probably noticed on your own without much need for charts like those above. A more interesting question than what do gamers like right now is: why do these tastes change? After all, if we can answer that question, we can start to predict the gaming trends of the future.

As I said earlier, technological innovation certainly plays a role, especially for game genres that rely heavily on multiplayer features and thus require a broadband connection. It’s no surprise that the MMORPG genre didn’t take off in 1995, a time when even the United States was, by and large, still not online. But it’s not just technology; I can think of no technological explanation for the decaying interest in MMORPGs while interest FPS games — which arguably haven’t changed a whole lot since the late 90s — has remained relatively steady for more than a decade. Perhaps the explanation lies in the difficulty of developing certain types of games; MMORPGs have proved pretty difficult to make and maintain when compared to shooters with very low online player limits and, often, no dedicated servers. Perhaps we gamers are simply chasing the latest thing, so as World of Warcraft continues to get older without an apparent heir to the MMORPG throne, and as DOTA and League of Legends take the competitive gaming stage, we’re caring less about MMORPG and more about MOBA.


My guess, though, is that genres need to be reinvigorated and reimagined every so often to maintain their dominance. What’s more, that reimagining has to be well-executed in a high profile game. Here’s what I mean: most people would agree that World of Warcraft is the best, or one of the best, MMORPGs ever created. But some of the reason that genre is waning now is that nearly ten years on, that game is still pretty much the pinnacle of the genre. Not much has changed. No one has come along with a well-executed game that really takes MMORPGs to the next level.

Compare that to the FPS genre, where at the turn of the century many of the best shooters were still focused on split-screen multiplayer and corridor-like single-player campaigns. Fast-forward to today and the genre has innovated significantly. Some shooters have aped upgrade and crafting elements from RPGs to make their multiplayer offerings more addictive; others are offering open battlefields, vehicles, and destructible environments that change the way the games are played.

The RTS genre has undergone an even more impressive metamorphosis when you consider that MOBA games all began from the DotA mod of the RTS game Warcraft III. RTS games themselves may not be as popular as they were in the heyday of Warcraft and Age of Empires, but through MOBA games, they’re getting another lease on life.

But what does the future hold? That is more difficult to predict. I think that someone will need to re-invent the MMORPG before the genre can reach the heady heights it attained in the early years of WoW, but whether or not that will happen — and what other genres could rise or stagnate and fall — is difficult to predict. What do you think? Will the gaming landscape look the same five or ten years from now? What genres will grow and, perhaps more importantly, what genres might fade away?

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