What is a Niche MMORPG?

A Massively Overthinking topic came up at Massively OP last week that struck me as… well… a bit silly.  Not that every post has to be razor sharp intellectually, but this one was almost the straw man fallacy illustrated, as the staff was asked whether they would prefer a niche MMORPG that focused just on on a couple of strengths or an all-in-one MMORPG that covered all the bases.  Somehow, that became a measure of features as everybody weighed in.

Unsurprisingly, the entire staff decided that they would prefer an MMORPG that had it all.  It was like asking somebody if they preferred a lover who only satisfied some of their needs or one who satisfied them all.  Absent any other details, why wouldn’t you choose the latter.

Left completely out of the post, except in the minds of those opining on the topic (something I wouldn’t swear to even that in court given some of the responses), was any sort of attempt to define what niche vs. all-in-one comparison even looks like.  You know, some details that might serve as illustration.

It is very easy to say that you’d prefer an MMORPG that did 10 things pretty well than one that did 2 things better than anybody else, or that you’d trade graphical fidelity for features (Is graphical fidelity even something niche MMORPGs offer as a comparative feature?), but what does that look like in the real world?  Where is the comparison?  Show me that niche MMORPG that does 2 things so well and compare and contrast it to you favored jack of all trades.

Sure, World of Warcraft, the one live MMORPG that gets a mention,  can stand in for the “does everything” title I suppose.  But what about the niche side of things?  Where is that?

My first thought went to Project: Gorgon.  That is as niche as it gets in the MMORPG world, right?

But I would be hard pressed to declare that Project: Gorgon has focused on doing anything “better” than the rest of the genre, unless you count being weird and quirky.  I mean, graphic fidelity certainly isn’t on the list.  And it does a whole bunch of things… whether they are better or worse than you want seems to be pretty much up to you.

Basically, its niche status is set more by its low production values and departure from the beaten path than anything the MOP staff was railing against.  Maybe of its 10 things, some are you wouldn’t suspect, but it does them.

Then there is Pantheon: Shadows of the Past.  But that hasn’t shipped yet, so while it has been declared niche, we cannot really be sure what that means.  Given Brad McQuaid’s enthusiasm in embracing any feature that gets brought up, I wouldn’t bet on the focus aspect.  And, in any case, I think its niche status is less about features and more about being old school, for whatever value you care to assign to that.  Is walking to school uphill, in the snow, both ways a feature?

Likewise, Camelot Unchained is still under wraps.  It could be the chosen niche game, being focused on RvR and crafting… and building… and housing… and a few other things I think.  Can it be more than 2 but less than 10 features?  Anyway, it isn’t an option yet, so it doesn’t count to my mind.

Shroud of the Avatar came to mind as well, but that doesn’t fit the bill either.  It is niche in its approach I suppose, but it does many things… many of them badly… does being bad make you niche?

Anyway, as I trotted down the list I started to suspect that you couldn’t really be an MMORPG… and my definition of such means worldly online games like EverQuest or World of Warcraft or EVE Online or Star Wars Galaxies, and not instanced lobby games like Diablo III or World of Tanks or whatever… without focusing on more than a couple of features.  Being a two feature MMORPG is like being a two legged tripod, something that just doesn’t work out well in the real world.

In the end, I couldn’t really come up with a live niche MMORPG that met the seeming criteria of the post.  I could, however, come up with examples of MMORPGs that went too far with features, to the detriment of the game.

So I am left with some questions.

What is a niche MMORPG?  Is it something defined only by features?

What defines an all-in-one MMORPG?  I mean, WoW is the easy answer.  But is it?  I suspect that people on that panel would argue against it because it lacks some feature they feel a “real” MMORPG needs, like player housing.

When does an MMORPG have to have all those features?  The response “at launch,” or even “on a detailed roadmap at launch,” seems unrealistic.  EverQuest, which I dare anybody to tell me isn’t as full features as they come, shipped with a feature set that would probably be considered inadequate in the context of “all-in-one.”  But it grew with expansions.  Then again, it also came from an era where MMORPGs didn’t peak on launch day and fall off after that.

Finally, what counts as a feature in any case?  Seriously, how granular can one go before things count or do not count?

In the end I remain unconvinced that features are the defining benchmark that post suggests.  There are plenty of MMORPGs out there with a lot of features that do nothing for me.  I certainly go back to WoW time and again in part because of the feature set it offers.  But there is more to my affinity for the game than that.

Of course, we could dial this back another step and start in on what an MMORPG really is.  I may be defining that more narrowly than others.  But, then again, I am not sure comparing and contrasting World of Warcraft against something like Occupy White Walls leads us anywhere fruitful either.

13 thoughts on “What is a Niche MMORPG?

  1. Telwyn

    The newer crop of MMORPGs seem niche in the audience they are chasing more than anything. PvP focused, old-school focused, grindy survival focused. If anything older MMO aimed to be for a broad set of players (whether they succeeded or not). I don’t see many games doing that anymore – maybe that’s for sound economic or viability reasons but it still saddens me as even among my own small set of online gaming friends we have overlapping but different tastes.

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  2. Archey

    My examples would be Eve and WoW.

    WoW does everything, but most fairly shallow: pretty good PvE, but limited PvP, simple crafting, a shallow economy based on the auction house, and progression.
    Eve offers PvP like a fine wine, an incredibly detailed and engaging crafting and economy, but dismal PvE and progression that takes place mostly in the background.

    Personally, based on that categorization, I would go for the niche game most of the time. Everything games are ok occasionally, but usually there are only one or two aspects I care about at a given time.

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  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Archey – I think the all-in-ones are pretty easy to spot. But what are the niche MMORPGs that suffer from such a feature deficit? Name names on that front!

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  4. bhagpuss

    I’d say OWW is very definitely an MMO. I could make a pretty good case for it being an MMORPG, too, what with its increasing focus on character progression. It’s also “niche” in the sense you’re using the term, which is to say “specialized”.

    I think the reason OWW almost seems to dismiss itself from contention is because it’s the very exception that proves the rule. You’re quite right that almost no other MMO(RPG)s fit the criteria. As defined in the MOP discussion, though, those are some pretty odd criteria in the first place.

    When I see someone talking about “niche” MMOs I don’t for a second think of the feature set. I can’t imagine many people do. What almost everyone seems to mean by “niche” is “unpopular”. NIche MMOs are, by definition, those that most people wouldn’t want to play. They are going to have to settle for a niche audience because that’s all they can get. I can’t remember ever hearing anyone say an MMO is going to be “niche” because it’s deliberately and intentionally reduced its feature set. It almost always means the developer is short of money and can’t aspire to meeting the quality demanded by the mass market.

    The term “niche”, when used in other cultural contexts, often “unpopular”. Niche bands are ones who play to small audiences in small clubs but it doesn’t imply anything about their sound or their style. Niche movies play in small cinemas for short runs but they could be any genre. Niche publishers would be the exception: they do tend to produce books on very specialized or limited subject ranges, which you could equate to offering limited features in an MMO, I guess.

    Anyway, I agree with you. I think its a spurious argument. I also think the MOP team basically began with a false premise and then doubled down on it.

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  5. Esteban

    I’d argue that niche status (as opposed to just trying to be conventional, failing, and lingering on life support, obviously) is like the cult classic status in any medium. You’re not universally great, but you have something that a smaller subset of the market finds really appealing. That lover might not know all the tricks, but that one thing they do, you can’t quit it.

    Like Archey, I’d consider EVE a niche MMO by that definition. It has things that translate roughly, if boringly, to all the features of a standard MMO if you really want them, but it also has the layer of meaningful PvP, amazing economy, and player politics that people adore.

    Lotro is a niche MMO because it does most of the things required of an MMO in a dated, mediocre way, but it is very atmospheric and it’s got the unique advantage of being the beneficiary of Tolkien’s magisterial world-building.

    Darkfall, had it bothered to tick all the required boxes to be an actual MMO, would have been a fine contender for a niche offering distinguished by clan PvP, uniquely clever mob AI and realistic-ish medieval action combat.

    The strawman is the conceit that you can dispense with a full set of features if you’ve got those killer one or two and as you point out, that is impossible. But you can definitely emphasise one or two selling points and use them to carve out a viable space for yourself.

    Oh, and of course walking to school up the snowy hill both ways is a feature. That’s Classic in a nutshell: inconvenience disguised as challenge. :)

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  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – “Niche” as a substitute for “unpopular,” something to add to the list of terminology that we abuse. Now I feel like I should have opened with the Merriam-Webster definition of the word. Looking it up, I kind of like the one that fits. It is just, “a specialized market.” Works for me… and for Project: Gorgon and Occupy White Walls. Certainly the feature set doesn’t enter into it. It is more about the target audience.

    I brought up OWW because in what passed for a discussion in that post I was amused by the thought of trying to line it up against the obvious bias towards the traditional open world fantasy (and Star Wars is just fantasy with lasers) MMORPG that they were so clearly favoring as soon as the question was asked.

    @Esteban – I think if you leave WoW out of the picture, or at least accept it as an outlier unrepresentative of the mainstream, games like EVE Online and LOTRO are not niche. They served a population comparable to other staples of the genre at their peak. LOTRO is clunky due to age. I think that makes it “retro,” which is another form of niche I guess. But it wasn’t limited from the get-go.

    And, honestly, I think EVE Online could be the peak example of a western open world, non-consensual PvP MMORPGs. Who else has done better, lasted as long, and stayed true to that form of game play? But that is something for another post I have on the back burner.

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  7. Archey

    @Wilhelm: In case it wasn’t clear, I was calling Eve “niche”. It’s probably the largest niche game, at least in the West, due to a first mover advantage, but its full-drop PvP and de-emphasis on PvE put it there, I think.

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  8. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Archey – That brings us back to more of “what is niche?” Is it a design philosophy that one adopts when creating an MMORPG or does the end result enter into it?

    Project: Gorgon is niche on both fronts. But EVE Online? You would have to prove intent for the former… and good luck telling PvP people that PvP is niche unless it is in a strictly controlled context… or stretch the measure of the latter to the point where EverQuest is, and always was, niche. Both games peaked at about the same number of subscribers. And EVE still gets up to 300K users logging in per month, according to one source who ought to know.

    Now, asking silly questions like means I don’t expect a verifiable answer… sometimes I like to argue about these things just to see where they go… but there are a few possibilities. One is that, within the scope of the MMORPG genre, EVE Online isn’t niche. It got a lot bigger than, say, City of Heroes ever did. Another is that pretty much everything besides WoW, FFXIV, and a couple others is niche, EverQuest, LOTRO, GW2, and Project: Gorgon, included. Seems possible.

    And, then there is the proposition that the whole genre is pretty much a niche segment of the overall video game market and we’re essentially wrestling over who is the biggest goldfish in a tiny bowl.

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  9. Kanter

    It my recollection the voices calling for “niche” mmorpgs were complaining that every one coming out was trying to be a WoW killer. My favorite example of a niche game would be Glitch, a game I tried and enjoyed but was one of many who didn’t vote in favor with my dollars before it shut down. I agree that there are no current niche mmorpgs by the “focus on a few things” criteria.

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  10. Esteban

    On the design-versus-outcome question, surely the answer has to be a bit of both, though I would lean heavily toward design. I can easily envision a scenario (Warhammer IP, better execution of EQ2) where WoW’s good luck never materialised and it ended up a niche game. Conversely, maybe there is an alternate timeline wherein EVE is the mainstream trendsetter, but I seriously doubt that. The game’s complexity and cultivated edginess suggest that it was never designed for broad appeal but instead to cater to a subgroup very successfully. Which is a perfectly valid profile of success.

    You rebut with EVE’s numbers at its peak, and you certainly have a point, but I am leery of defining niche strictly with population numbers because as we all know from countless arguments over playerbases and payment models, it is difficult to compare like with like. The original idea of examining how a game marshals its features (without neglecting any of the standard ones completely) to put its best foot forward has more potential, I think.

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  11. Archey

    I would be more inclined to say niche is defined by current audience rather than intent. I can easily imagine setting out to make a mainstream game and having it be niche instead, either by misjudging the market or having it go from mainstream to niche based on generational differences (Eve falls into the latter IMO).

    You could also set out to make a niche game and have it go mainstream – less common but still possible. Arguably, Ultima Online achieved that: they never expected the concept to take off as much as it did, but it spawned a whole genre.

    To generalize: I think mainstream or niche depends on what the audience wants, which is a guess at best and also changes over time. You can force yourself more mainstream by being all things to all people, like WoW, but that is a hard and expensive balancing act only certain companies can pull off.

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  12. anypo8

    Toontown Online was/is a great example of a niche MMORPG. Focused on kids play, with no PVP and even limited P2P communication. Simple and limited PVE combat system, no traditional quest rewards. Low graphics fidelity, but taking max advantage of a familiar and popular property to make the art engaging. Features that most MMORPGs don’t offer? Engaging casual games as a side activity comes to mind. Housing as a primary offering. (Other MMOs have housing, but it’s pretty next-level here.)

    I have no idea why Disney abandoned Toontown Online. It was always one of my favorites, and I still get on the open version once in a while.

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  13. SynCaine

    Lack of definitions certainly confuses this whole topic.

    Assuming we mean ‘niche’ as how many people it appeals to (players), and we are talking within the MMO genre (not gaming overall, because in that case everything is niche compared to the 400m people playing Fortnite), clearly WoW, FFXIV, EVE, and maybe BDO are the non-niche titles with larger playerbases for a long timeframe, and everything below them is various shades of niche as of today (at their peak, UO, EQ1, DoAC, and likely others were also not ‘niche’).

    And as mentioned above, I’m not sure most games set out to be niche, and even when they do, sometimes it doesn’t matter. I mean, Epic had zero point zero idea that Fortnite would be the biggest game in the world. Hell, Fortnite (the original non BR version) was a commercial failure, and throwing in the BR mode was just that, a tossed-in feature to a failing game. But for ‘reasons’, Fortnite goes mega mass market with its F2P BR mode, which is now what 99.9% of people think of when you say “Fortnite”.

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