Working As Intended: The fate of the MMORPG genre

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that this past weekend was a strange one in the MMORPG community, when gamers across the wide expanse of MMO worlds came together to collectively mourn, fear, rage, and regroup after a day that shook the foundation of the genre.

Daybreak, itself one of the founding studios of MMORPGs, finally admitted what many gamers already believed: that EverQuest Next, one of the few inbound classically inspired Western AAA MMORPGs and heir to the venerable EverQuest franchise, had been canceled after so many months of stalled development and media stonewalling.

And just a few hours later, we confirmed reports that dozens upon dozens of WildStar’s developers had been unceremoniously sacked in the wake of the cancellation of the game’s Chinese launch, which we’d presumed was one of Carbine’s last hopes for shifting WildStar’s downward trajectory. Even now, rumors contradicting NCsoft’s confidence in the game persist as gossip of a planned sunset seeps out.

Given how many letters we received this weekend on this subject, and having had a few days to think it over myself, I have a few words I’d like to impart about the fate of our beloved MMORPG genre.

wildstar1WildStar and EverQuest Next were already lost

This is harsh, I realize, and my heart always goes out to those who lose jobs in these messes, but I see no reason to think the genre will be affected by the loss of either of these games as much as people fear.

Based on what I know, I don’t believe EverQuest Next was dead the day Columbus Nova inked its deal to rescue SOE. I believe it fully intended to publish it if Daybreak could actually deliver something worth playing. But it does seem likely that last fall’s playtest may have been poorly received and that the decision was probably made around then to divert efforts to the existing franchise entries and finish Landmark for publication. When Russell Shanks says EverQuest Next wasn’t “fun,” I might mock the very idea, given that this is the same studio that once insisted “no one” wanted to be Uncle Owen, but I also believe him. I’ve seen Landmark; I know its many troubles were Next’s too. And more than that, I’ve become convinced the heart and soul of Next was ripped away last winter. EverQuest Next’s ambitions simply weren’t going to be realized on a beleaguered skeleton crew stretched thin over too many games, no matter how talented and overworked they were.

In other words, cancelling Next before gamers realized it was a fail fiasco riding on a disaster trainwreck spared Daybreak from shoveling good money after bad and spared us from several years of a tedious and entirely predictable news cycle. Is there a point to prolonging that agony, when no one’s actually losing a game home (or a job) over it? Do you want to be standing here three or four years from now talking about EverQuest Next’s subscription plummets, Daybreak layoffs, and the fate of the MMORPG genre with EQN tanking? That is the least interesting part of my job and the most unpleasant part of this hobby, so I’d rather avoid it. I wanted EverQuest Next as it was imagined so ludicrously via sand art, not as a smoldering clusterfudge.

Cancelling Next before gamers realized it was a fail fiasco riding on a disaster trainwreck spared Daybreak from shoveling good money after bad and spared us from several years of a tedious and entirely predictable news cycle.
As for WildStar, it was given three chances to alter its course: its free-to-play relaunch (the relaunch being the critical part, not the F2P), the Chinese launch, and the Steam launch. The first wasn’t strong enough, the second is canceled, and the third? They may yet pull it off, in spite of those sunset rumors. But WildStar’s problem is much deeper than its model, its territorial scope, or its platform. WildStar’s problem is that it tried to be Space WoW in a world where WoW still exists — even if it’s a shadow of its former self. That is not something Carbine can undo with an underpaid maintenance crew regardless of passion and skill. Carbine’s leadership chose the game’s foolhardy path before launch; it’s too late now for a full do-over, and NCsoft won’t give them the money or time to save it.

And if you don’t believe NCsoft would deal with WildStar so callously, I’ve got a superhero cape in Paragon City to sell you.

All of this is to say that both EverQuest Next and WildStar have been effectively “dead” for a long time now, and the sun still rises every morning. It’s tempting to panic over the fact that the last big western themepark to launch is floundering and the last inbound AAA themepark has now been scuttled, just as we panicked when Blizzard transformed Titan into a shooter, but our obsession with a “blockbuster or bust” mindset is literally part of the problem, part of why the genre bubble formed. If you were already counting those games down and out, nothing’s really changed. If you weren’t, then don’t worry: The only thing that’s changing is your perception.

Mead mead mead mead mead mead.

Historical perspectives on bubbles and busts

Like many of you, I began playing MMORPGs in 1997 just as the word “MMORPG” was enjoying its first minting. At the time, and notwithstanding those titles we’ve shoehorned into the genre anachronistically and posthumously, the world considered there to be only one MMORPG.

One.

And there was no reason to panic. We never felt as if the genre was on the precipice of abandonment, never felt ourselves standing on the edge of doom. Within a few years, we had half a dozen more western MMORPGs, the populations of all of which would have easily fit inside of World of Warcraft’s much-contracted modern population with room to spare. Each was relatively small, the largest peaking with far fewer players than the majority of the AAA MMOs that have launched in the last few years. We just forget about that because World of Warcraft reset the bar for what we consider an MMORPG success — so stop falling for powercreep.

“I can’t tell you how many times we were told that between [EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, and Ultima Online] that the market for online games was saturated and there was no room for Dark Age of Camelot or games like it,” industry vet Mark Jacobs quipped last week. “And, as usual, such projections were of course wrong.” There are now more MMORPGs than anyone can count, some coming and going before we can even mention them, as the market works its way through the post-WoW bubble. Make no mistake; our genre has been through these crises before. Remember the last year or two before World of Warcraft launched? Or worse, the few years after it launched when Age of Conan and Warhammer utterly bombed? The genre was a wasteland in those years if you weren’t a WoW fan or content with an “old” game, and yet studios decided to give it another go anyway, pushing into that 2010-2012 peak. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again. Here’s Jacobs again, commenting on the state of themeparks, but he could as easily been writing about MMOs on the whole:

“[A]s always, our industry is a never-ending rollercoaster of fun and frolic. […] Themeparks will return, the only real questions are when, and whether they will have evolved to be a better version of themselves. And, just because this generation of MMO gamers are a little disappointed with the current gen of themeparks, there will be other generations to follow who won’t have the history of MMO successes/failures behind them. […] I doubt I’ll be in a position to try to make a next-gen themepark, but other people will and my guess is that a few somebodies will do a great job and maybe we’ll have a major success story. And when that happens, people will declare the indie/sandbox dead forever, just as many writers/publishers did when WoW dominated the industry. The cyclical nature of this industry is undeniable, especially to those of us who have been playing/making games forever.”

And he’s right — sandboxes, thought to have been killed off by WoW, came back. We have everything from Camelot Unchained and Crowfall to Star Citizen to look forward to, to say nothing of passion projects like Revival and Project Gorgon. Just those five games alone demonstrate a staggering talent, creativity, and quality to anyone willing to shun graphics snobbery or AAA puritanism. We must end squabbles over western vs. eastern, AAA blockbuster vs. indie niche, themepark vs. sandbox. MMOs that launch may not have every single thing you want in a dream game, but neither did the classic MMOs. Quality MMORPGs do exist. Go play them.

wildstar2

The genre’s going to be just fine

Online games are never going away. They are one of the most remarkable, revolutionary, and downright human inventions brought on by the ever-widening internet. Create a way to communicate and we’ll find a way to turn that communication into something fun, something imaginative, something that breaks down the barriers of time and space and lets us all be kids again. MMOs will shift and change, adapt and endure, and yes, at times, unbundle and then be bundled back together as the sum of their parts. We may never see as many massive-scale games as we did a few years ago. We’re clearly into a phase of lower-budget indies, many of them helmed by the original captains of classic MMOs, with a focus more on originality and individuality rather than mass-market appeal, not unlike the dawn of the genre nearly two decades ago. There may not be a dozen such games catering to you, specifically, at all times, but there will always be MMORPGs to play, so don’t ever worry about that.

If that’s too sappy for you, consider that the industry is obsessed with money. As our genre ages, so does its players — and our disposable income grows and grows. Someone will sell us what we want eventually, and everything old is new again.

I’ll be the last person to say I’m not worried at all about the genre; I worry every day, constantly wondering whether some event or other is the tipping point, the moment in time we’ll look back to and say, “Aha, that is when everything changed.” It’s absurd, of course; step back far enough and you’ll see dozens of peaks and valleys on a long timeline getting longer by the day. My worry is a selfish one. My favorite MMORPGs were already murdered, taken down by license bullshit and bean counters. Survival in this genre is rarely about artistic merit, and that’s something I’ve had to come to grips with in the last few years because I’m in this for the long haul, all of it, and you’ve got to take that longer view too. The genre will come back around again, and there will be games, studios, ideas, and yes, even journalistic outlets that may not survive what one commenter dubbed our “dark ages.” Many beautiful things are destroyed in a brush fire so the wilderness can begin anew. Yes, the cockroaches surely live on, but many wonderful new things are born in the flames, so don’t succumb to despair.

And we won’t either. I cannot say with absolute certainty that Massively OP will survive whatever comes next for MMORPGs, that we’ll still be here when the spiritual-successors-to and improvers-upon Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest and yes, even World of Warcraft are finally launched and our genre has its day once again.

But I’m confident that day will come.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

paragonlostinspace mysecretid Ceder 
The “one size fits all” approach doesn’t quite work with me for a different reason.
I’m a completionist. I hate leaving a game without doing everything it offers, seeing all the lore and the story. But, at the same time, I decided that I won’t do anymore any activity, in any game, that I don’t find enjoyable.
An “one size fits all” game, thus, is nearly always going to make me frustrated. It’s bound to ask me to do activities I don’t enjoy in order to either see part of the story or to get a piece of equipment that is useful, sometimes even essential, for doing some other part of the game that I do find enjoyable.

It’s, for example, why I decided to not even give a chance anymore to any MMO that has organized raiding. For a number of reasons I hate taking part in raids, it makes me feel like I’m a powerless ant trying to swarm over some boring, oversized goon, and the organizational hurdles are just as frustrating as trying to herd cats. I might play a game with raiding if the raiding is truly optional, if non-raiders are able to see all the story elements and get all the rewards that raiders get without ever having to get into a raiding group, but otherwise I’m not going to even bother finding more info about the game.

Single-player games (on the PC at least) are no issue for me because I can always mod or cheat the games to remove whatever undesirable activity the game has while not giving up on any piece of content or reward. Part of why I’m playing far more single-player games nowadays, and thus far less MMOs; I can’t do in a MMO the same things I do in a single player game.

mysecretid
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mysecretid

paragonlostinspace 
Aye, Mark seems like a good guy. I didn’t back Camelot Unchained, because PvP really doesn’t entertain me, but I’ll probably give the game a look at some point after it releases, simply because of Mr. Jacobs’ history of contributing to games I have enjoyed.
I mean, Warhammer Online was probably the only online PvP I’ve ever actually enjoyed, because it was bound into the world and the story, rather than simply playing out as a treadmill of 24/7 “death tag” (“I got you! No, I got you! No touchbacks!) Yawn.

It occurs to me that if Warhammer Online had gone free-to-play, I would’ve supported them like crazy through their cash shop — I just couldn’t justify the open-ended monthly sub for a game I didn’t play every day.

For all its faults, I enjoyed the game, and I miss it sometimes.

But I digress, as usual, :-)

Cheers,

mysecretid
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mysecretid

Qarran 
Thank you for quoting eliot. In a world where it sometimes feels like the English language has devolved into five words, separated by “like” and “um” it lightens my heart to be reminded that the language can still soar, as needed.

Cheers,

paragonlostinspace
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paragonlostinspace

mysecretid paragonlostinspace Ceder                                                        

 Great post and I agree with your points. :) The one size fits all just doesn’t work, in the end no one is really happy. At least that’s how I’ve felt for the past few years.

As an aside I did back CU (as did my wife as well) because I like what Mark is attempting to do. Having known Mark off an on going all the way back to the GEnie days and Dragons Gate I respect him and his passion.

mysecretid
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mysecretid

paragonlostinspace mysecretid Ceder 
I suspect, Paragon, that the “scaling back” of MMORPGs — in the sense that the big-money investors no longer look on MMORPGs as some sort of get-rich-quick scheme, and have moved on to other forms of gaming — may actually work in your favor, before all is said and done.

Big money means that “one size must fit all” and the formula insists that any MMORPG must appeal to the largest number of players possible at all times, to maximize profits, and keep the shareholders happy.

Now that the “profiteers” seem to be losing interest in MMORPGs and wandering off, I suspect the game genre will — in some ways — return to what it was before World Of WarCraft made everyone think that copying WoW would be a license to print money.

I already see “niche” online games coming back in various ways, and I’m sure you do too.

The idea is, once again, to make a game you think can find a sufficient audience of people who will love it enough to pay for it — as opposed to make a game with the expectation of making your publisher and your investors billionaires. :-)

So, we get online games like Elite Dangerous, and Crowfall and Camelot Unchained and (yes, even) Star Citizen, whose insane money-raising is — at least in part — because a lot of gamers want to see that sort of game made, even as the big publishers were convinced no one wanted such a game.

There are other games coming out that I’m forgetting, as well.

My point is only this — I think you have a better chance of seeing the kind of online game you would like to play get made in the next ten years, than in the last ten, simply because the profiteers have moved on …

… online games getting made now are more about finding a sufficient audience of people who like what a given game is offering, rather than trying to make the mythical “One Game To Rule Them All” (apologies to Tolkien).

In some ways, online games already seem to be shifting back to a more “niched” hobby, so the chances of you eventually finding a game which emphasizes the elements you enjoy have likely increased.

Even the idea of games which don’t enforce their terms of service seems like a product of “we must pull in as many players as possible, every quarter, to keep the shareholders happy” …

… niche online games, on the other hand, would be more interested in keeping the dedicated players they do have, so tolerating Johnny Sociopath, is not necessarily desirable, since success is now more than a mere numbers game.

Look, I’m no expert, nor a psychic — I’m just talking here — but I’m only saying don’t give up hope just yet.

You can’t be the only online gamer who wants the kind of online games you describe, and one of these up-and-coming indie developers may well be making the game that’s right for you — especially since they’re no longer expected to labor in the shadow of “big money expectations”.

Cheers,

paragonlostinspace
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paragonlostinspace

schmidtcapela paragonlostinspace mysecretid Ceder I agree with your overall points and tone SC. :) Nothing really to add, just wanted to let know I appreciated and agree with the post. Anyhow off for a ride.

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

paragonlostinspace mysecretid Ceder 
My perception is that the “elitist” label gets thrown around mostly when the roleplayers start insisting that their way is the “one true way”. It isn’t. Different players find fun in different activities, and roleplayers don’t (and shouldn’t) get to hijack the shared virtual space of the game just for their own enjoyment.
As many RPG rulebooks tell, the one true rule for RPGs is to have fun as a group. If your group have fun roleplaying the characters, fine; if you find fun in using the RPG as a tabletop wargame, go for it; if your group’s thing is to joke around and mangle the story in the name of comedy, that is perfectly valid. Even setting the game as an Arena PvP deathmatch can be enjoyable. I don’t have as extensive a story with pen and paper RPGs as you (I started only in the 80s), but I’ve seen very happy and satisfied groups playing in about every possible way.

That being said, intentionally disrupting roleplayers just for the lulz is something only a jerk would do, and I do think roleplayers should get the ability to set their own (instanced) spaces where roleplaying rules are enforced, with those that break those rules expelled.

paragonlostinspace
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paragonlostinspace

mysecretid Ceder paragonlostinspace The Judges Guild stuff while rough even back then was good material for building a campaign to be sure. Hell for that matter so was Arduin stuff that Dave Hargrave did back in the 1970s as well. Though more on the powerful side of things, I still used much of it for ‘base game building” ideas and material.

Here’s the thing, we had the choice as to who we played with and who we didn’t. I  avoided Monty Haul games and games where it was all about goofing off and not about really immersing yourself in the game world with your fellow players. 

 Sure we horsed around in between doing stuff, but while we were playing we did focus on playing and having a good time with our characters and each other. This same applied to how I approached running games by 1978 and onward until I stopped around 2000 to focus only on online gaming. From the start of the 90’s to 2000 I split my time between the two.

 The thing is we don’t have much choice online if game developers won’t enforce policy/tos, specially if that’s the case across the board. Turbine was the best at enforcing policy/tos and even their enforcement is rather half assed at best.

 So if we have no choice but to return to smaller “still around” text based online rpgs (mmorpgs) then we really have no choice. Doesn’t help that when it’s brought up “elitist” gets thrown around just because there are still some players who want to be immersed and in an interactive game world without Chuck Norris jokes or idiots trolling people with politics.

 I guess my real only choice is the one I’ve been doing more and more in the last few months and that’s reading. A full circle basically. It was reading books in the late 60’s and early 70’s that lead to tabletop gaming because I wanted to be a part of the story, interacting with it and being immersed. Which late to online at the start of the 1990s and apparently back to step one. C’est la vie.

mysecretid
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mysecretid

Ceder paragonlostinspace 
Must agree @Ceder

I’ve been gaming for a long time, as well, tabletop and (later) computer, and this whole tension between “kill it and take its stuff” quasi-competitive, objective based gaming, and the more story-based role-playing gaming has always, always existed. It’s not a new development.

Even as far back as the earliest Gary Gygax “tournament-style” D&D death dungeons of one-save-or-die, versus the the Bob Bledsaw Judges Guild “building a campaign world” D&D story adventures.(see also, Dave Arneson)

I’m sure some of you already know that it was the early popularity of the Bledsaw support material which spurred Gygax first to option Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign as D&D content, and then to launch his own in-house Greyhawk stuff.

My point being, these two takes on gaming have always existed, with some form of mutual tension between them, and to suggest that, somehow, “gaming was great then, and now it’s all shit” is very much a reflection of personal perspective.

The only shift I can recall seeing is the shift in what the term “role-playing” means for some gamers. 
Back in the dinosaur times — at least as far as I was aware of it — role-playing was a broad term, which meant (at the very least) that one would attempt to play one’s character in a way which engaged the story, and didn’t intentionally conflict with the fiction of the world as it unfolded.
I’ve noticed that, in more modern times, role-playing often refers to a much more formal, conscious affair — where players gather in a game location and agree to speak and act wholly in character for X amount of time.

In this regard, this newer form of roleplay is almost like staging a play, and is often quite specific about what it will and will not allow. It’s a little too stringent for my enjoyment, but it exists.
Other that, the past is the present, in my experience. These design tensions always existed, and the legendary “golden age of gaming” will change, depending on who you ask, and what gaming styles they privilege.

Cheers,

Adri Cortesia
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Adri Cortesia

Thank you for this article :) I can fully understand your point of view.