Chris at Game by Night argues that the MMO demographic is getting older, and acquiring real life responsibilities that preclude the time commitment of older games. It makes for a great quote, and I don't disagree with the sentiment - I wrote about the push for transient content last week - but I wonder about the premise.
Those of us who have been playing MMO's for 5-15 years have obviously gotten older during that time, but has the audience as a whole? Or, is there some other factor, such as entry barriers to even getting into an MMO, that is letting the dreaded WoW Tourists into the genre?
Back in the day, even a CD-ROM's worth of data was a hefty download and a game that required an always-on internet connection was tying up the only phone (a landline) in your house. I would suggest that there was no possible value added for the solo player demographic that justified going to this degree of trouble; the early MMO's focused on multiplayer because that was the only thing that would make it worth the bother of being online.
Maybe the demographics of being online at all skewed against people who were 30-40+ in 1998, and this in turn kept them out of the MMO market. Even so, I would suggest that this aspect of the audience was incidental to the era, rather than a conscious decision by people with mortgages, jobs, and families to spurn the genre.
Flash forward to today, where it is feasible for the largest of games to be delivered digitally and for single player games to require an always-on internet connection (to the chagrin of various customers) because it's safe to assume that even your television has its own broadband connection through one or more consoles. Today, the "cost" of a solo player going online is greatly reduced. In 2004, this trend opened the door for Blizzard to support solo play - albeit at a much less "supportive" level than what we see today - and started the genre down the slippery slope towards including as many paying customers as possible.
The barriers continue to come down
In some ways, the point of this point sounds self-apparent - making it easier to get into MMO's has allowed more people to get into MMO's. Then again, it seems to have taken a while for the model to catch up. It's now late 2011, and we have MMO vets like John Smedley and Scott Jennings proclaiming that the free to download, non-subscription model is the way to go because this is somehow still news to the people who write the business plans.
Streaming client downloads are the new standard, until it moves even further - Runes of Magic is developing a Facebook client that runs the full game. Companies have to be starting to hear the message that their game needs to be a special product indeed to cross the hurdle of having customers pay $50-60 for a one-month trial that lets them decide if they want to charge $15 to their credit cards every month from now til they quit.
Did the aging of the EQ1 and WoW 1.0 players bring the age (and life/responsibility) balance of MMO players closer to the general population? Perhaps, but those numbers are also swelled with the younger players that studios are eagerly courting. I would argue that we have players who only want to play easier games in the market today because it is getting progressively easier to actually get those games in the first place. Here, I agree with Chris' bottom line - this is one trend that won't be rolling back.