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.
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.
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.
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!