Massively Overthinking: The golden age of MMORPGs


This week’s Massively Overthinking is a serious one from our dear Patreon patron Duane. Here’s the jumping off point for his topic:

“There has lately been an attitude on various sites and videos lately regarding MMOs falling out of fashion, and the latest news from Turbine is quite a hefty blow, confirming many a confirmation bias. The sentiment is that the ‘Golden Age’ of MMOs existed back in 1999-2003 and that MMOs are currently in a downward spiral both in quality of content and quantity of viable options. The thing is, since 2010, 20-50 MMOs have been releasing in the west every year, and 2017 is already looking to be a pretty big year for MMOs. In addition, many of the MMOs that launched a decade ago are still playable (even if they may be in a zombie/maintenance mode), and more people are playing MMOs than ever before. There have never before been such a vast selection of available playstyles and unique worlds to explore.”

And here’s what he’d like us to tackle: Was the 1999-2003 era really an MMO golden age, or are we in it now? Are the best days for MMOs behind or ahead of us? I posed all these questions to the MOP writers this week!

EverQuest II

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I keep thinking of my personal experience vs. the mainstream, but I still have this strong feeling that the Golden Age of the MMO has passed. If anything, the fact that more people are playing “MMOs” (more on that in a bit) across so many games may be more of a sign that the genre has lost it’s uniqueness and just become another genre.

MMOs were originally these big, social, long term environments that had complex social systems. This is what researchers were really into as well as regular players. However, as the (sometimes unintended) meta-systems that used social skills were streamlined to make the game aspects more accessible, the genre became more game than virtual world, and the large number of new games spreads fans across each world and encourages them to move at a fast pace, preventing a lot of meaningful social connections from developing.

That isn’t to say the concept of the MMO is dead. We still have RPers, 10-year-old guilds, anti-PK guilds, and other socially driven social structures beyond the often toxic competitive groups that feel like such a mismatch within the genre. The problem to me is that they feel less visible, and I’m someone who often joins or runs these groups (and now reports on them).

It’s why I think, in a lot of ways, Raph Koster’s recent comments on AR are spot on. It’s also revealing that the MMO term is being stretched to include social based games now, rather than just large multiplayer games. To me, it shows an emphasis on those two pillars of the genre, but “large” numbers of players were being over emphasized in place of the social systems for too long in my opinion. I really don’t care if a game lets me play on a server with a million people if it means a million people are doing their own thing.

I’m still in Japan, and my students (and some teachers!) keep asking me questions about Pokemon Go, even though (at the time of this writing) we still don’t have it. Yes, they’re excited about the game, but the social impact is what we discuss. People are concerned about people not paying attention to their surroundings, but also the socializing they see and hear going on in other countries, and there’s a tangible longing to have that here too. This longing for meaningful social interaction via virtual worlds, even if dictated by real world limitation, mimics what drew me to the genre as a kid but feels like its disappeared with the recent big name MMO launches.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t entirely agree 1999-2003 was the golden age of MMORPGs. I think we’ve had two time periods that were peaks for the genre in terms of creativity and popularity: one in the 2003-2004 period (Star Wars Galaxies, EVE Online, City of Heroes, EverQuest II, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars) and one in the 2010-2012 period (WOTLKGuild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Final Fantasy XIV, and the rise of F2P). Check out Justin’s timeline for more context there. 1999 was a small blip by comparison (and in fact I still strongly believe that EverQuest in particular derailed and slowed the genre’s MUD-inspired creative trajectory).

That said, it’s true we’re getting lots of new titles here in 2016, but most of them are MMOs, not MMORPGs. MMORPGs are not being made at the same rate and not for the same audience. That bubble has burst, and it becomes more and more obvious come awards time at the end of every year. We have a limited trickle of foreign imports right now and a lot of effort being spent on content in established MMORPGs instead. Studios that once would have been throwing money at MMORPGs are now making MOBAs, online shooters, mobile strategy MMOs, VR worlds, survival sandboxes, OARPGs, and yes, even ARGs. This is frustrating for core MMORPG players, but it’s better for the gaming industry on the whole, especially when MMORPGs can adopt new players, new territories, new ideas, and new platforms along the way.

I think some of our best days are behind us, certainly; you can invent a new genre on a new internet infrastructure with people pouring money at it only once, after all. But I know that this business is cyclical and see no reason to think that the purer MMORPGs won’t eventually make a comeback. Everything old is new again someday; it’s just a matter of waiting for it to come back around. Just ask Minecraft, Star Wars, and Pokemon.


Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The thing about golden ages is that they’re only assigned in retrospect, not at the time. Claiming that the “golden age” for MMOs ended in 2003 excludes all but one of my favorite games, and it ignores several huge changes to the genre, many indisputably successful and amazing games, and requires a nostalgia for a decade past that overlooks a number of major issues going on at the time.

Realistically, we don’t have enough perspective to say when the “golden age” of MMOs was; we have 20 years, and those 20 years have been also defined by huge upheavals in how online connections work. We’ve gone from dialup in 1997 to having the internet in your pocket at all times, without a whole lot of opportunities to see how those changes will affect games and our interactions with them in the interim. In 2003, launching an online game had a limited audience simply from the fact that not everyone even had an Internet connection; in 2016, a game requiring an Internet connection isn’t unusual. I don’t want to say we’re in the golden age now, either; there are lots of interesting projects on the horizon, but it’s entirely conceivable that all of them could be messes. It’s also entirely conceivable that in a decade, we’ll be looking back and saying that this was the period when SWTOR, WoW, FFXIV, Crowfall, and Camelot Unchained were running, not like our 2026 “modern” lineup of WoW 2, Star Trek Eternity, Final Fantasy XVIII, Shadows of Camelot, and Asheron’s Call 3. Or whatever we’re actually playing then.

The answer, then, is “too soon to say.” Maybe the first days of MMOs really were the glory days, but I tend to doubt it; I think the first days of MMOs will wind up looking up a lot like the first days of comic books, where “Golden Age” doesn’t mean the best of times so much as it means the earliest and least grounded stuff. There are some great things to come out of it, and it’s fascinating to read as a comic book fan, but it sure doesn’t look as good as what came later.


Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): The EverQuest, pre-World of Warcraft era was indeed noteworthy and special for many reasons (which is one reason why I like to cover pre-2004 MMOs in The Game Archaeologist!), particularly for the diverse array of MMOs being fielded and the “new car smell” of the genre. To my knowledge there isn’t any official or popular distinction of MMO eras, so I bet that the “golden era” was whatever years strikes any player as the highlight for game releases and experiences.

I have a healthy respect for older MMORPGs, but by and large, they weren’t games I played. They looked too obtuse and user unfriendly to access, so I generally stayed away from the genre until MMOs started coming out that made an effort to be more accessible and refined. So while older games certainly have earned their place in the history books, my golden age was City of Heroes… through today. I love MMORPGs. I’m not going to be beholden to a time frame in which a grouping of years was somehow better than others. I love the variety, the price point, the accessibility, and the refinement that has emerged in more modern games, and I am never starved for a choice of entertainment. I’m also very glad many classic MMOs are still around to experience today, because they have gotten better and offer unique experiences to a modern crowd.

It’s like appreciating music. You can choose to get slavishly devoted to a specific time period, but for me, I’d rather just like what is good out there, period, no matter when it was made and by which boy band. #onedirection #nsync

My beloved Dark/Ice Tanker, Mirror Maze. RIP, City of Heroes.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): MMOs are not falling out of fashion, but I believe the idea of “one game to rule them all” has. To be in fashion means to be a prevailing custom (I think of it as the cool new trend), so MMOs are actually more in fashion now than ever. They are more mainstream, with more exposure, more options, and quite simply more players involved. The demographics have expanded to include nearly everyone and not just the niche of computer geeks (and I use that term very lovingly to refer to myself as well!).

The idea that we are on a downward spiral in quantity of options is ludicrous. There are certainly a ton more games being produced and released now — I am just hard pressed to call many of them MMOs. But how many games are released each year is only a part of the picture; you can’t judge the landscape totally by how what comes out, you have to account for what leaves. How many of that 20-50 a year since 2010 influx still have their doors open, or expect to for the next couple of years?

Now, if you want to start talking about quality, which is inherently subjective anyways, then my answer changes. I do think as a whole, quality of content is worse. Are there some good games out there? Yes. But are many there feature-rich MMORPGs? For me, I still think of MMOs as MMORPGs, and MMORPGs as virtual worlds. Virtual worlds have certainly fallen by the wayside. In fact, so many games seem pretty intent on removing the massively and even the multiplayer part of the moniker, not just the RPG. So yes, the Golden Age of MMORPGs has passed us by. I personally think we have a world filled with OGs more than we have MMOs, which is where some folks can get the feeling that MMOs are dying off. And RIP the MMORPG.


Patron Archebius: First, define “Golden Age.” Is the Golden Age of something when it has been perfected? When it enjoys the greatest popularity? Whenever we start slapping the Golden Age label on it? To answer that, let’s jump topics. Most people would say that the Golden Age of piracy was in the Caribbean between the 1650s and the 1730s (thanks, Wikipedia!). If I say pirate, odds are good you think of a man with a peg leg standing on a wooden sailing ship with a pet on his shoulder (bonus points if it’s Tim Curry). But that’s not really when piracy ended, not by a long shot – letters of marque were regularly issued for another century after that, and there are places in the world where stealing cargo is still a way to make a profit. Most of the pirates you can name? Probably not that successful. But they are the ones you remember, and your perception of piracy is almost entirely defined by them.

Calling something a Golden Age isn’t necessarily about quantity or quality; it’s about perception, it’s about character. It’s about novelty and experimentation. The early years of MMOs are looked back on as the Golden Age because no one really knew what the heck they were doing. Not every system made a ton of sense. Content wasn’t streamlined. Every game didn’t have a wiki and a subreddit. Just like with Goldeneye or Doom, there’s a good reason why everyone remembers them fondly, but there’s also a good reason why not many people play them any more.

Yes, there are a lot of new MMOs coming out. I play many of them. My fondest memories are still, and will probably remain, from my time in Guild Wars. Do I still play it? No. But that was my first foray into MMOs; that was where I spent hours upon hours trying to find a group to run through some of the harder side missions, where I kept trying to perfect my build for a run to Drok’s. That was where I experienced the magic that is mastering dungeons, coming into the Fissure of Woe first as a recruit, then gradually becoming a solid member of the team, then eventually putting together my own groups whenever North America received the favor of the gods.

Is having your endgame content locked until some other random team of players manages to win a few battles in a row a good design choice? Almost definitely not. But it created pure pandemonium when it happened, everyone rushing to put together a group and get going before we lost favor again. And it’s those moments that I remember, more than any of the fights once you were actually inside the Fissure.

Golden Ages aren’t just there; we create them for ourselves, and they are always in the past. This generation of MMO gamers thinks of older games as the Golden Age because that was what they grew up with. Today’s MMOs may be better; smoother, certainly, and better funded. Group finders ease the struggle of finding content, regular updates expand content at predictable intervals. You can achieve satisfying gameplay arcs in increasingly small increments. The game isn’t a rapscallion; it’s a well-dressed navy officer attempting to remove your money from you, and doing it very politely, on a schedule that works for you. Unsuccessful games fall by the wayside, and new ones rise to take their place.

So yes, in terms of quantity, in terms of quality, in terms of variety, we are at the highest point of MMOs. That point may continue to climb into the future. It may even experience a mass resurgence as indie games start to hit the market in earnest, and as VR becomes more and more mainstream.

Games may be better now. But that doesn’t mean we’ll like them more, or remember them half as long

Your turn!

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