Massively Overthinking: Are MMORPG players a minority in their own genre?

Oh my.

Deep in the comments of the MMOs-vs.-survival-sandboxes thread from last week, reader miol_ produced a beautiful comment about how MMO players have become a minority in their own genre, which he then expounded upon for us in this provocative email.

“I’ve reached the opinion, that since the launch of WoW and its clones, the ‘original’ MMO-playerbase became a minority in their own genre. Before, we were but hundreds of thousands of MMO players, but then came Blizzard with WoW and its legions of fans in the dozen of millions at its peak, starting to dictate what the new success of MMOs should look like. Even if we others tried to vote with our wallet and feet, we became a minority, having only a fraction of our initial influence, while many devs tried desperately time and again to find ways to get at least a portion of the new Blizzard playerbase.

“Am I wrong with that perception of history? Am I totally missing something? Or are ‘we’ are slowly becoming a majority again, now that WoW and its clones are seeing steadily declining numbers (instead of us winning more players to ‘our side’)? How do we lobby better for ‘our cause’? Or can we only wait and see, until the genre is small enough again? Or is it too late? Have we ourselves grown too far apart into our even more niche corners of personal taste since SWG, while production costs and our demands for production value have skyrocketed at the same time? How could we come closer again?”

Let’s tackle miol_’s questions in this week’s Massively Overthinking.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think miol_ is on base with some of these perceptions, though I may be a bit biased as a pre-WoW era MMO enthusiast. Those of us who like the older style of MMOs are probably in the minority these days, that much is true. However, I think most of us have evolving tastes. A lot of old MMOs had, essentially, time sinks, to ensure that people were always playing. New MMOs don’t exactly lack this, but they’re much more guided now (hi, daily quests!). While putting together dungeon groups and recruiting people by hand helped me learn a lot of socialization skills as a teen and young adult, these days, I just want to be able to jump into a game and have some fun. Features like regional conflicts have totally different meanings to me these days, as I’d previously stay up whole nights to help my guild protect their base, but these days, I’m fine with pre-formed landmasses that essentially change hands every few hours with little reward.

The only way I can really see that might allow you to “lobby our cause” would be to draw massive attention to pre-WoW era MMOs. I say this as a member of the Earthbound/Mother community, in that we campaigned for, yeesh, at least few decades to get Nintendo to focus on our favorite cult classic. Even then, we still haven’t won (only 2/3 of the series staples have been released outside of Japan). Things like fan art, petitions, and letter campaigns may seem old fashioned, but I’m sure taking things to social media can help, especially if your fan community acts as a cohesive unit. Hmm, maybe the Asheron’s Call community needs to figure out an AC day or something and use it to bombard Turbine/WB so it feels like we’re relevant at least once a year…

Oh, but back to the topic, no, I don’t think it’s too late for anything to change. I think that’s one thing that’s great about our site. Studios can see from the comments section how passionate people are and how big their crowd may be. Reddit’s another outlet people can use to gauge the community. As long as people organize themselves and make an effort to produce something to show studios the value of their fandom, you’ve got a fighting chance to, at the very least, get studios to not sue fans that want to keep a series alive.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I get what miol_ is trying to say. But every time I try to answer it, I keep running into the problem that I don’t really know who “we” are. Is it people who played any MMORPG before the tipping point known as WoW? Because that includes such a wide range of people who have very little in common, everybody from the Asheron’s Call Darktide ganker to the EverQuest uberguild raider, from the dude who ran a roleplaying tavern in Ultima Online to the girl who led keep assaults in Dark Age of Camelot. And it includes me, who roleplayed a smuggler and a moisture farmer and sold crates of foodstuffs out of a tent in Star Wars Galaxies. And some of those folks are still being served and served quite well by the modern AAA MMORPG.

Not all of them, though.

I think it’s fair to say that the “virtual world” ideal of MMOs has been eroded, “unbundled,” heavily, and that millions of new gamers entered MMOs with WoW and became MMO gamers just as “we” are. MMORPGs might be a minority under the MMO umbrella now, but the MMORPG playerbase just keeps swelling as the genre’s overall mainstream popularity increases. I don’t think we should venture down the “truefan” path. The genre belongs to everybody, not just those of us who got here first.

Well-told, but not well-planned.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I’m going to do my best to avoid cursing here, because I don’t want to make Bree edit all of that out. And I don’t think miol_ was actually trying to push my berserk button but stumbled on to it by mistake, so I’ll also do my best to keep that in mind. But the whole “are we the minority in our own genre” thing ticks me off because the reality is it’s not our genre. We don’t own sweet eff-ay. We just play video games.

Let me use an example from my own life, here. The first time I played Marathon, I was entranced. This was what the FPS genre could be. This was where it ought to go, this was the sort of game that Doom originally presaged. Only I was totally wrong, and instead of “atmospheric exploration punctuated by gunfights,” FPS games went far more in the direction of constant shooty bang-bang with nary a trace of exploration and mystery. Heck, the original Half-Life was praised as an intellectual game when it was, in fact, everything I had not wanted from FPS games. So was the genre being stolen from me? Were these developers and fans wrong to celebrate these games which went so firmly against what I had wanted?

Hell no. The genre moved in a direction I didn’t like as much. I spent years as a younger and far dumber man feeling as if I had been robbed of something, but really all that happened was I had mistaken potential and possibility for a promise. Development went down another route.

I started playing MMOs with Final Fantasy XI, and if we hadn’t gotten games which moved away from that game’s oppressively slow and unpleasant design axioms, I would have stopped playing MMOs altogether. What World of Warcraft accomplished when it first launched was to give people the parts of an MMO that they liked without the many tedious, unenjoyable, or unpleasant aspects which went along with it. The fact that the game later became responsible for a genre-wide narrowed focus doesn’t change the fact that it was not a unique and unexpected flub of a success; it was responding to a very real perceived issue within existing MMOs, and not solely to problem’s with the EverQuest model of gameplay. (Blaming WoW without acknowledging a lot of the really dumb decisions of EQ seems slightly disingenuous to me, really, but that’s a different lengthy discussion for a different time.)

The original playerbase of MMOs pre-EQ is a minority in the genre, but that’s because those original bases were a minority; it took a while for the genre to grow and diversify, helped along by the increased ubiquity of Internet accessibility worldwide. And it’s not that there aren’t lots of games out there offering big, diverse, fun experiences in new ways, nor is it true that there aren’t tons of options for people who prefer any given style of MMO. What’s happening – and this is something I touched on with my last piece about The Secret World and Secret World Legends – is that the “one route of content forever repeated” model you see in far too many games (which did not, in fact, originate with WoW) only works so long as there’s a steady drip of content and novelty, and until players get bored with that one route. If the game offers no alternative routes, people leave.

UO offers alternative routes. Final Fantasy XIV offers alternative routes. Black Desert and The Elder Scrolls Online and Project Gorgon and EVE Online and the neon block explosion that is Trove offer alternative routes. And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s out there.

So to answer the question: You’re in a minority, but that’s a function of history, not design. And if you’re waiting for the clock to turn back, it won’t… but don’t assume that some developers falling down an easier-to-develop hole means that there’s nothing out there beyond pining for an evolutionary backslide. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that what the genre grew into is no longer of interest, but there’s always something to be said for recalling that the genre is bigger than its most tone-deaf design choices.

Also, I’d like to note that I got through this whole thing without cursing once. So fuck that.

Somebody loves you, and that's good.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I always feel very uncomfortable speaking for a large group of people, most of whom I don’t know personally. Gross assumptions are born then and run rampant through fields of speculation and guesswork. So to be honest, I have no idea what the demographics are of the current MMORPG population and how big or small of a percentage is represented by… let’s call them “old school” players. The pre-WoW crowd, if we need a dividing point.

I think it’s safe to say that there are players who have been in it for the long haul, who have left and come back several times, and who are part of generations now of MMO gaming families. How many? No idea. Couldn’t even fathom figuring out where to start getting that info unless you ran a detailed survey. But from the responses of Nostalrius, Classic RuneScape, and the money poured into some of these throwback-tough-as-nails indie MMOs, it’s not an insignificant crowd. I sincerely doubt it’s anywhere near the size that could threaten the majority of online gamers’ desire for more casual and accessible content, but it’s there.

We throw the word “niche” around a lot in MMOs, especially since we exist in a Russian nesting doll of niches. There are always sub-groups of sub-groups that are looking for very specific experiences, and I guess that the dividing line between it mattering and making a difference is if that sub-group is large enough to make a game viable and financially profitable or not. It doesn’t have to be the majority, it just has to be large enough to make money for the studio and keep the server lights on. And considering how many games are still running and being made, I don’t see that as a problem.

Meridian 59

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I do think the original MMO crowd is definitely a minority, but as much from defection as from the growing MMO population! I’d have to say that I am not even sure the “original” MMO player base is original anymore. Yes, the genre does not cater to the styles that were first introduced way back when. We can all agree on that! But I have my doubts that many of those first players are in the exact same state now as they were then, and would actually love the way MMOs were. I think they have changed: Their tastes, their circumstances in life, etc., have all altered over the years. Even me, as much as I would love to throw my life back into SWG, would find the experience a bit lacking in that the world as it was then is simply not the world it can be now. And I mean that not in the gameplay mechanics of it all but in the fullness of the environment and living world we all created. The magic was in the combination of game, timing, and community. Those three things just cannot be replicated again. New ones combos must take the place. My specific life that I loved in SWG cannot ever be reborn; those stories have already been told. Of course, I can start a whole new set of stories.

Also, I think you can’t really pigeonhole MMO players with narrow definitions.

Your turn!

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