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.
WildStar 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.