Above: Star Galaxy, the MMO with a passionate if niche following
Nick Yee of game research firm Quantic Foundry has a fascinating new blog post which helps answer a mystery that's been bothering me for roughly 15 years: Why do we rarely see any science fiction-themed MMO/multiplayer game become a mass market hit?
It's true: Sci-fi MMOs like Eve Online and Star Citizen have passionate but very niche user bases in the hundreds of thousands, whereas fantasy-themed MMOs like World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls Online attract players in the millions. Even MMOs based on super popular sci-fi IP — i.e. Star Wars and Star Trek — have rarely (if ever?) succeeded at bringing in millions of users over an extended period.
One key reason could be based in demographics. Summarizing findings from Quantic Foundry's survey data of 1.25 million+ gamers, Nick bluntly puts it this way:
58% of Strategy genre fans rated Sci-Fi as a “very” or “extremely” appealing thematic setting for a Strategy game. Here among Strategy genre fans, we do find a strong gender difference in terms of the appeal of Sci-Fi. Male Strategy genre fans are about twice as likely to rate Sci-Fi as an “extremely” appealing thematic setting compared to female Strategy genre fans (31% vs. 15%).
[O]lder gamers (especially those 35+) are much more likely to rate Sci-Fi as an “extremely” appealing thematic setting for a Strategy game. This suggests that the Sci-Fi age trend is the more stable, cross-genre effect whereas gender differences depend on the specific genre.
This particular Quantic Foundry data set focuses on player preferences with shooter and strategy genre games; but, Nick tells me, we could potentially apply those results to MMOs:
"It's interesting in our data that Sci-Fi appeal doesn't correlate with the key mechanics of MMOs these days–Completion and Power or the Social elements like Competition and Community," as Nick tells me. "We didn't specifically ask about Sci-Fi setting in MMOs, so I'm extrapolating a bit from the data we have."
One key challenge is that MMOs tend to require much longer time commitments:
"Older people like Sci-Fi more, but likely have less time to play MMOs, especially the kind of time demands that MMOs place (contiguous uninterrupted play time)," Nick adds.
In other words, the very nature of the MMO genre (leveling up over long/many play sessions) makes them less appealing to older gamers who often have just a short time to play after work, commuting, family demands, etc. When sci-fi games are popular, like the recent Cyberpunk 2077, they tend to be single player, allowing gamers to play at their own pace.
For younger gamers who do have much more time to play, MMOs with high fantasy themes (i.e. Tolkien-esque) are more appealing, partly because they're easier to "get":
"I've always wondered if it's also because High Fantasy is the most generically well-known alternate world with a variety of avatar options," as Nick speculates. "Everyone understands orcs and elves in a way that would take far more time to introduce new alien species."
I think that sounds right; in a similar way, the other most successful theme of multiplayer games tends to be realistic and modern day — think Grand Theft Auto Online and the various Call of Duty games. Again, settings that are simple to immediately understand and relate to.
In any case, anyone thinking of launching an MMO/metaverse platform that's heavy on sci-fi themes should look at this data with caution. I had a lot of hopes around Dual Universe, for example, but despite its great ambition, it's failed to gain mass market traction.