EQ2 being a success by any rational standard? The number of hours the EQ2 player spends in his game is illustrative of that point. Only thirty minutes separates the average WoW session from the average EQ2 session. Both games are equally engaging from the perspective of how long the player wants to (or needs to) spend in the world.
Did you see how I snuck in the concept of "needs to" spend in the game? EVE players, who log into their game on a very frequent basis, manage to accomplish everything they feel they need to accomplish in a relatively short playing session of just under three and a half hours. Again, this is a function of EVE's unique niche(s). You log in, you check the status of the various situations you were following, and you take action. The game is less about meandering around and stumbling into things than it is about missions and concrete goals. That lends itself to shorter playing sessions.
The lack of variance in this chart is the most important thing about it. Take EVE out of the scenario, and the variance is barely more than a single hour. I suspect that this is because we're comparing six subscription MMOs – "all you can eat" for a fixed monthly fee.
An all you can eat restaurant is not the same thing as, say, a short order diner. Asking MMO players to make room in their hearts and wallets for another all you can eat joint is a major marketing challenge. But asking these same players to make room for a regular trip to a food court is much easier. There is lots of room to grow in the "shorter sessions necessary" niche.
We've got proof of that in the "also played" games. To make things simple, let's just look at the games WoW players are also playing.
Now, we've established that WoW's users have very high levels of engagement with the WoW product. They log in at an incredibly frequent rate, and once logged in, they play for the highest average number of hours. 5.3 is an average, which means there are people whose typical play session is much, much longer. The only other thing people do for more than five hours in a row is sleep, for crying out loud. So by only looking at WoW users, I am intentionally looking at a group that has the least "extra" time to devote to other video games.
WoW population that lists them. The first four games are played by 20-18% of all the WoW players who belong to GamerDNA. Fallout 3, Warhammer Online, and Guild Wars are played by 14% of the WoW group. Warcraft III and EVE are 12% and 11% of the group, respectively.
WoW users seem to like cooperative games, where they work together with other gamers to accomplish goals. WoW users are also clearly not getting their PvP itch scratched by their primary MMO, or else they're an unusually bloodthirsty bunch!
What can we learn about available evolutionary niches from this chart? EVE is getting plenty of logins from this group, possibly because it doesn't require marathon playing sessions. WAR is getting a solid amount of action, possibly because the game's niche is similar enough to WoW's to be comfortable for a WoW player, but unique in its PvP options.
But the most popular options as measured by the percentage of the group playing them offer us this most information. MMOs are living worlds, and things go at the pace of real life. Sometimes the action is fast and furious. Other times you're running errands and doing chores, tidying your inventory and repairing your gear. So an available niche is in terms of the pace of the game. Non-stop action, where death is no big deal and there's no need to acquire specialized equipment or even develop a character.
One could argue that without persistent character development, gear acquisition, or slower paced options, the game isn't truly an MMO. I would argue that we simply haven't seen that kind of MMO yet, and as a result, the niche is wide open for anyone looking to seize it.
Finally, there is an opportunity we can only identify from its absence. The six games on our list, chosen by virtue of being the most popular subscription MMOs, are more alike than different in terms of their settings. EVE is the outlier, being science fiction. But nerds like me forget that to people who didn't cut their teeth on Heinlein, Asimov, McCaffrey, and Clarke, science fiction *is* a form of fantasy. If you lump fantasy and science fiction together as so many people in the mainstream do, our six games are occupying the same niche.
There was a recent article on the web about the vast number of historical settings that have so far gone unexplored in the mad stampede for faux-medieval mythology. The possibilities are endless, as well as the opportunities to partner with educational institutions. The niche is entirely open.
MMOs about sports are beginning to appear, but there aren't nearly the number of competitors as there are in the fantasy niche.
What about simulators with underlying recruiting purposes? So far we have America's Army – what about the Navy? Marines? Air Force? Coast Guard? Games from the FBI or the CIA with decision making and ethical issues to explore?
The recent trend for "freemium" games is cracking open a whole new realm of games with multi-tier pricing structures (free content, paid subscription content, and microtransaction content, all pulled together with leaderboards and other community features). SOE's Free Realms is an example of a game grabbing that niche, as well as the "kid-friendly" niche.
All I can say is that the data proves we are nowhere near market saturation. The future of MMOs is bigger than any of us working in the field today can imagine, and believe me, some of us have big imaginations.