2021 was huge for MMOs; here's exactly how huge

The winners won big, the losers didn't lose much, FFXIV soared and New World started strong - this is the state of the MMO in 2021.

The Massively Multiplayer Online genre, be it Role Playing Games or otherwise, is akin to PC gaming in a lot of ways - and not just because it was born there. Both have been around for a really long time, both keep going through a lot of changes while also staying sort of the same, and both are constantly "dying" if you ask gamers - yet both are stronger than ever. Let's take a look at how MMOs fared in 2021, by the numbers.

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This past year was definitely a big and busy one for the genre, with new releases, upheavals, controversies and stunning successes. We'll be looking at both some of the biggest events in MMOs as well as overall player counts and year-over-year changes, with data pulled from MMO Populations.

The biggest MMO news

New World launches

Amazon Game Studios has been trying really hard, honest. After a few false starts, it seems like they have a success on their hands, even though teething problems made it very obvious that this is the first MMO the developers are shepherding.

New World Server Transfer Changes
New World was a big launch - bigger than Amazon was equipped to handle.

New World launched this September, and while definitely a success in so far as being profitable and attracting a ton of players, it didn't quite set the world on fire. Somewhat content-bare at launch, New World mostly dominated headlines in its first couple of months with stories about broken economies forcing the developers to disable certain features, rollbacks after gold exploits were, well, exploited and the game repeatedly going down, along with half the internet, during a string of AWS outages.

Big, AAA, hyped up and promising MMO launches are rarer these days than a few years ago - possibly the factor that fuels those "MMOs are dead" misconceptions - which made New World highly anticipated, but it failed to live up to the expectations of being an actual WoW-killer. Once again, 2021 proves that WoW is the only real WoW-killer.

Activision-Blizzard controversy affects WoW

Speaking of killing WoW...

Activision-Blizzard has been in really hot water recently with a major sexual harassment lawsuit, that just kept on revealing newer terrifying and disgusting details about the thoroughly rotten company culture at one of the biggest video game corporations in the biz. The massive and justified outrage in the wake of the lawsuit led to a large number of players boycotting the company and its games, with an exodus of subscribers from World of Warcraft.

Activision-Blizzard has been facing walkouts, boycotts, lawsuits and a lot of justified anger.

The Big One wasn't exactly thriving before that, either. World of Warcraft has been bleeding subscribers for years, with occasional spikes whenever a good expansion launched, but the recent cycle with Shadowlands just exasperated the situation. Questionable story decisions, unpopular gameplay changes and aggressive monetization even in Classic has led to the game losing population faster than before. Year-over-year, it still is in the plus as far as overall players are concerned, but the active population fell.

World of Warcraft has long been thought too big to fail, but it seems like eventually all that weight has to come crashing down. We're not anywhere near that yet, but it's been a while since we saw a decline like this and this time it might stick.

FFXIV Endwalker launches; too successful for servers to handle

On the flipside, Final Fantasy 14 is this year's big MMO success story. The game has long been a haven for "WoW refugees", but the exodus was intensified as popular WoW content creators jumped ship and preached in favor of FFXIV. After a year of this manner of growth, Square Enix also dropped Endwalker, a major expansion for the MMO that also serves as the epic conclusion for a years-long storyline in-game.

Apparently there is such a thing as too successful.

Endwalker released to rave reviews, and that positive reception translated to success quite handily - the game became so popular that the Square Enix servers couldn't handle the increased load. With the global hardware shortage making a server expansion less than viable, the developers made the surprising and unusual move to limit sales of the game and temporarily disallow the registration of new free trial accounts.

It isn't often these days that we hear about MMOs being too successful, but Final Fantasy XIV managed it - as far as yearly numbers go, it managed to dethrone World of Warcraft in 2021, a feat that really speaks to the current status of both titles.

MMO stats

News is one thing, but whenever you log into your virtual fictional world of choice a lot of the real-world trappings of the hobby melt away, and one of the most apparent and important metrics come down to numbers. There are a million and one ways to play MMOs solo, but these games still have plenty of content that is group-only, so the population of your server is the most direct indicator that affects your own experience.

Luckily, we have ways to track MMO populations, which are generally speaking the easiest and clearest way to keep an eye on game health. It's also a popular way to rank these games, as it is logical to assume that the better a game the more players it will attract. As mentioned above, we're pulling data from MMO Populations.

Let's look at the big ones first - World of Warcraft may have been dethroned, but it's still growing, and at a pace that most games would consider impressive. Compared to 2020's stats, the total population in 2021 bumped up by a whole digit from 89,156,368 to 115,448,832, a raw increase that still beats the competition year-over-year. Active player count has, however, dropped significantly. Going down from 2,540,956 to 2,193,528, we can see how it got beaten by FFXIV for first place this year, and why the game's "activity score" went way down.

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What's next for FFXIV?

Speaking of FFXIV, comparatively this Square Enix title shows the most intense growth year over year. Rising to the #1 spot from third in 2020, total population went from 20,321,820 to 28,935,516. Still way, way behind WoW and the other heavyweight, Oldschool RuneScape, active players tell a very different story. Rising from 1,544,458 to 2,748,874, over a million new active players is night and day for an MMO. No surprise then that 2021 is certainly the year of Final Fantasy 14.

Oldschool RuneScape is the other leader in terms of popularity - these three MMOs shifted places in the top three between 2020 and 2021. Total players went from 26,612,643 to 31,391,994, while active players changed from 2,022,561 to 1,789,344, a significant drop for the game that briefly stole the #1 spot from WoW in 2019.

Fresh faces and straight out of the oven, hype and momentum pushed New World to the fourth spot, a respectable achievement for a brand new, unestablished MMO competing in a market with so many old, well known and popular titles. According to MMO Population, New World closed 2021 with 1,127,604 active and 11,869,520 total players. We're eager to see how the game will grow in the upcoming years.

There was very little motion in the lower rankings year over year, as many of the MMOs below #4 but still high enough to count are long-running games with stable populations that don't really spike or dip, with steady subsistence growth being consistent compared to each other. We're curious to see how some upcoming updates and expansions - like Legacy of the Sith for Star Wars: The Old Republic, which was in at #18 in 2021 - change the landscape in 2022.

2022 Predictions

2021 proved that despite having the air of a stable - or arguably stagnant, if you ask detractors - market, controversy lends volatility to the MMO scene. FFXIV's meteoric growth contrasted by WoW's unexpected decline and the arrival of New World shook things up in ways we probably wouldn't have guessed a year ago.

Nonetheless, we've got some educated guesses for 2022. Amazon is probably going to figure out the initial hurdles of running an MMO in the next few months, and we see New World establishing itself as a long-term major player of the MMO scene. Post-release surges have a way of dropping off, so we don't see the game being a risk for any of the top 3, but it's probably going to cement its claim on #4.

Amazon New World Gamblers X
New World's lasting impact will be decided in 2022.

We don't see WoW regaining the lead - rather, the decline is likely going to continue if not speed up. Oldschool RuneScape knocked it down a peg in 2019 when things weren't as dire, and we predict it'll take #2 next year with WoW bumped down to #3. However, sheer size and momentum will still keep it going and relatively strong - even if WoW is dying, something this big takes a lot of time to die.

Final Fantasy XIV is, almost definitely, going to rise further and further. Not a WoW killer on its own - again, only WoW can kill WoW - but more than capable of filling the throne at #1, we're going to guess that this is the next long-term MMO king.

As for new games on the horizon - things aren't looking awfully busy for 2022. New World has been the first really big, really hyped AAA MMO release in years, and nothing quite on that scale is expected soon. Upcoming MMOs to keep an eye out for are Ashes of Creation and Project TL, NCSOFT's return to the Lineage series. Neither have fixed release dates, and may not even arrive in 2022, but have the potential to shake up future rankings. Whether or not these will be phenomenons as big as New World can only be judged closer to launch.

Aron Gerencser
Gaming at least as long as he's been walking, Aron is a fan of all things sci-fi and lover of RPGs. Having written about games for years, he's right at home reporting most of the breaking news in the industry and covering the happenings of the e-sports world. Graduating summa cum laude from Università degli Studi Guglielmo Marconi with a BA in Media Production, Aron has been a game journalist since 2014. When not writing, editing or playing, Aron is building models which you can find on Instagram.
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