Massively Overthinking: Old MMORPGs, disco, and pop culture phenomena

A reader named Rob provides this week’s Massively Overthinking topic. It’s a really good one!

“Why isn’t playing an old MMO from a previous decade seen the same as, say disco dancing in 1986? Seems MMOs have a longer shelf life than other pop culture phenomena.”

Is he right? If so, why? I posed Rob’s question to the Massively OP staff and Patrons.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I don’t think MMOs necessarily have a longer shelf life. Justin does The Game Archaeologist column for a reason! Part of the belief that the MMO genre has a longer shelf life might have to do with one’s personal circle and experiences. For example, I was playing Darkfall Online for most of World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion. As much as I liked the Death Knight and Wintersgrasp, I think I was bored with the game within a month or two. While WoW players I knew mocked my game change, the actual game physicals, mounts as items, ammo as something you can pick up, player housing, player-owned land and ships, item decay were impressive. They weren’t new mechanics, but they still blew some of my friends away (while also scaring them off). I even got some of them to try it out, and we’d move on from there.

WoW was starting to become old for us. RIFT made improvements on grouping, SWTOR on narration and updates (though in-game GMs and monthly updates like in Asheron’s Call 1&2 were better), TERA on combat. Even though WoW may influence the most people and the industry, to me, it’s been old news for sooo long. I still read up on it, but I almost always feel like it’s adding features that’ve been done elsewhere and more cohesively (*cough* garrisons *cough*). People stopped asking me if I’m coming back for the next expansion but ask what I think of the changes, since they know I’ll rattle off a list of other games that offer something they think will be cool and they can experience now while they wait a few months for the next WoW update.

It’s all relative, much like pop culture. You have the big stuff (Lady Gaga and WoW), retro people (people who miss grunge rock and EverQuest), and the avant garde (I’m out of touch with western music, having lived in Japan for so long, but for MMOs, there’s Wander). With at least several “big” MMOs or MMO-like games coming out each year now, I feel like the genre really does allow for certain phenomena to become dated, like buy-to-play, subscription based games that don’t go free-to-play before their first birthday.

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): MMOs have only been around for about 10-20 years, and depending on whom you ask, they either reached their peak only a few years ago or are still on the rise with regard to popularity. Most popular culture has actually had a much longer shelf life than that; music can remain popular for decades or even centuries after its peak, and there are hundreds of old TV shows that we still watch today and don’t think it’s strange. The comparison here with disco dancing is basically pre-selecting one element of popular culture that has in retrospect had a quite limited shelf life and asking why MMOs don’t have the same problem. The question then isn’t about why MMOs have a longer shelf life than other pop culture (they don’t yet) but why MMOs aren’t a short passing fad.

I’d like to say MMOs aren’t a fad because they are specifically designed to hold our interest in the long term and are updated over time, but the truth is that people may look back at the traditional MMORPG as a passing cultural interest. Certainly there are signs that standard multiplayer games are taking over the public consciousness, with MOBAs taking centre stage and even big online games like Star Citizen using seamless instancing instead of persistent servers with thousands playing together. Perhaps this is an era in gaming that exists only now and will eventually shrink into a small niche, and maybe in 30 years we’ll all be playing something else and most MMOs will be kept alive on small private shards. When we’re all 90 years old and our grandchildren are flying around with their rocket boots and wiring their brains into the hyper-mega-internet, maybe they will think of MMOs the way we think of disco.

EverQuest

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think he’s right that some people view MMORPGs that way, but I think it’s a problem with the game industry as a whole rather than with MMOs specifically. If I mention I still play and mod Morrowind (from 2002), I pretty much get the same weird looks as when I mention I reactivated my Ultima Online account (from 1997), and the reason is the same: People can’t fathom why you’d play something old when you could play something new because the technophiles attracted to video gaming are governed by an assumption that new is literally technologically better.

New doesn’t mean artistically better, however, which is why disco is still fun even when it’s not in a decadal phase when it’s also cool. The Video Game hasn’t been around as long as music (or dancing, or clothes) to have wrapped around on itself enough times that we’re nostalgic enough for the old stuff to fully bring it back again, although you could certainly argue that retro gaming has been working on that and that the push for indie sandboxes is the manifestation of that in our genre.

For what it’s worth, I like old games, but while no one can stop you from Stayin’ Alive to your heart’s content, when the old games shut down for the last time, that’s pretty much the end of them, and that’s an IP problem our society just hasn’t solved yet.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Hey, don’t you judge me, I would totally disco dance right now if given the proper opportunity. Some things never go out of style.

MMOs arguably aren’t the only games with long shelf lives, as a lot of online games and competitive titles can be played for years on end without anyone treating it as odd. There are old-school fighting games that still have a great deal of popularity (Super Street Fighter II Turbo still has competitive chops) and sometimes newer games are notable more by finally dethroning older titles (the XCOM reboot succeeded in making people finally play through that instead of old-school XCOM). Nor are games unique in this; there are movies from the past decade and before that are still seen as must-view bits of cinema, my favorite movie of all time is from 1990 (and still holds up marvelously), and very few people would argue that you’re weird for doing so.

What is a bit different is that MMOs are almost all designed with a certain bit of endlessness to them, and as a result they have a certain extended nature right from the start. For many people, there isn’t the usual rise-forget-rediscover pattern that you get with older media. It also helps that MMOs take a long time to develop and have a constant improvement path, so the stuff that you’re playing on launch day in 2016 may not feel all that different from a game that was launched back in 2009. Ideas develop slowly.

Last but not least, worrying about something being out of date is something you only do if you’re cool. If you are playing MMOs, you know in your heart of hearts that that’s never been a serious consideration. I will never be cool and thus do not care.

Dark Age of Camelot

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think he’s absolutely right: MMOs as video games have enjoyed much longer shelf lives than equal-aged contemporaries. I mean, how many of you are playing a game from 1999? Maybe some, but there’s still a small legion out there playing EverQuest and have been for a decade and a half. That’s crazy-awesome.

It’s the game world persistence and the continual updates that keep these games going as long as they do (as well as the communities). I mean, we’ve seen this sort of thing with a few older games that have enough of a following to get drawn-out updates and visual overhauls (sometimes by the fans themselves).

I keep wondering how many of these games might be available — archived or live — in another 30 years. I hope quite a few. I think it would be incredibly special as a retired guy to be able to go back and play the games that I enjoyed in my younger years.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Well, you can think of it this way: MMO gaming just continues to grow in popularity, so it hasn’t fallen out of favor in order to surge back again! So you nailed it — the shelf-life is still good. Usually at least a couple decades need to pass past the heyday in order for retro to become cool again and make a comeback, but the MMO genre doesn’t even have multiple decades under its collective belt yet let alone have lost its popularity. Basically, this genre is still a youngin’, enjoying a prime that has yet to fall away.

Though, to be honest, I think the fact that retro servers have been cropping up (both studio-sanctioned and emulators — EverQuest, Project 1999, EverQuest II, and Star Wars Galaxies spring immediately to mind) speaks of the desire of folks who really do want to relive that gaming experience from yesteryear. Add to that things like 8bit games, retro graphics, and 2-D games that aren’t necessary with the technological advances that we have but are still receiving developmental focus also tells that there’s a bit of the retro going on even within the genre.

Will any of this be as big of a fad as some other pop culture stuff? Gaming has to become less popular first, and right now it is still soaring. I mean, hey — there’s an MMO movie coming for crying out loud. We’re going totally mainstream baby!

Your turn!

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26 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: Old MMORPGs, disco, and pop culture phenomena"

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Tsiya
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Tsiya

I just hope my favorite games are still around when I retire. It’s not like you can play an mmo like you can an rpg or old console game.

Koshelkin
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Koshelkin

Uh, while I can see the good sides of some of the older titles, and adore their closer kinship to the tabletop RPG, I can’t stand playing older games because: blocky graphics, clunky controls, ugly and, sometimes, unintuitive UIs. They are also less dynamic and mostly really one-dimensional in their gameplay.

I’d take D3 over D1 any day, I’d take Everquest 2 over 1 and I’d take FFXIV over WoW.

RagnarTheDrunk
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RagnarTheDrunk

It might be because ancient PC games, mechanics and graphical styles have arrived on mobile as the current standard. To use the disco (ish) analogy – It’d be like a new type of dance floor was released and everyone got one, but they were really slippery so the only thing you could really do was breakdance. Breakdancing would still be “in” and there would probably be some breakdancing bleed-through on standard old dance floors as a result.

Detton
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Detton

CloakingDonkey Yeah, but… those are two different people.

ManastuUtakata
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ManastuUtakata

BryanCo Apollymi 
We pick out the most cheesy bits to define why we don’t like something, get’s tiring though. So allow me to counter with something that absolutely kicks ass. Take it away, Donna…

ZenDadaist
Guest
ZenDadaist

I dunno, I get a lot of shit from some quarters for going back to an ‘old, outdated and uncool’ game while they’re all paying obscene amounts of money to pre-alpha the newest thing which they’ll explode from hype over until after launch, at which point it’ll be THE WORST THING EVER. 
Hm, where’s the spidey meme when ya need it?

ManastuUtakata
Guest
ManastuUtakata

Apollymi 
Bowie proved we could have both.

BryanCo
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BryanCo

CloakingDonkey BryanCo Apollymi  Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap.

CloakingDonkey
Guest
CloakingDonkey

BryanCo Apollymi well to be fair, until last year, half the star wars movies were complete garbage :P

CloakingDonkey
Guest
CloakingDonkey

guys speedrun 20 year old nintendo games on twitch for the billionth time – totally fine and normal.

Someone plays a 15 year old MMORPG – “oooh you’re just suffering from nostalgia, you’re being silly, you’ll be back playing <insert bland, boring forgettable FOTM game here> in no time at all!”

BryanCo
Guest
BryanCo

I haven’t played pong in a long time, but that doesn’t mean sports simulators are a dead video game genre.  I don’t play them, but some sure does.

BryanCo
Guest
BryanCo

Apollymi BryanCo  I was five when Disco Duck was released, so I wasn’t involved in the contemporary arguments.  But there’s a lot of disco I do love.  If “Disco Duck” is “I hate sand” then “I Will Survive” is “No, I am your father.”

Apollymi
Guest
Apollymi

plynky12 BryanCo Apollymi You mean like the radio station in Philly that physically broke that 45 on air New Years Eve ’76?

plynky12
Guest
plynky12

BryanCo Apollymi Well, I love Disco, and the record-burning Redneck Nuremberg rallies of the Disco Sucks movement made me very, very uneasy.

But I do have to say, Star Wars does suck because of that, and has never really recovered from it in my eyes.

Apollymi
Guest
Apollymi

BryanCo Apollymi Lol, were you around back then?  It was a whole thing we’d get into arguments about. heehe

BryanCo
Guest
BryanCo

Apollymi 
That totally unfair to disco.  That’s like saying that Star Wars sucks because:

Apollymi
Guest
Apollymi

For the obvious reason that DISCO SUCKS!! Rock rolls.  Yeah

voydd
Guest
voydd

Don’t know why but I read Disco Polo culture… but you’re not Polish aren’t you?:)

Leviathon_lx
Guest
Leviathon_lx

devin007 That reminds me of how I loaded up Aion for the hell of it the other day and couldn’t believe how dated it looked.

ManastuUtakata
Guest
ManastuUtakata

I couldn’t disagree with this more. As disco which house music became the evolutionary offspring is still live and kicking in the underground parts of the world…along with the dancing. Maybe even when I am typing this. But none of the less, since it pre-dated MMO’s..it is significantly older. And the classics still occasionally hum on radio stations and music sites across the planet. Again so is the dancing.
…but this isn’t entirely to dismiss MMO’s as the new kids on the block as pop culture is concerned. As long as it still has soul, it will be humming timelessly as well. <3

FacelessSavior
Guest
FacelessSavior

The comparison to Disco, for instance, I don’t think works. Because disco is a static form of music. Mmo’s are constantly changing, and most that are still around play nothing like they did when they first started.

devin007
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devin007

Yea I remembered warhanner really fondly. I started up on the new rmated server and I can’t believe how ugly it looks. It actually makes me realize how far WoW has come because I remember Wsrhanner looking better when it came out.
Ever Quest I loved to death I used to sit and play it on a 56k modem tying up the phone for my parents. Tried to play it and after spending 5 minutes each mob shooting off one spell and then sitting for Mana I coukdnt figure out how I ever found that game fun at all. Daoc same thing couldnt stay interested anymore.
Only old mmo game I’ve gone back to and still find fun is ff11. That game still looks passable and the dual classing still keeps the combat fun

Liandreth
Guest
Liandreth

John Bagnoli So do my kids and I!

John Bagnoli
Guest
John Bagnoli

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I still disco dance.

JaredBuck
Guest
JaredBuck

I love older games :)  in an age where companies overcharging you for tiny pieces of DLC didn’t exist and game expansions actually FELT LIKE MASSIVE CONTENT :) i still play a lot of older games for this reason. Purity perfected.

jhuynh405
Guest
jhuynh405

I think one large reason is because people have invested so much time into these games (grinding, social bonds, etc), that, and because of the nature of constant updates in MMO’s.

wpDiscuz