Massively Overthinking: Is the MMO genre facing an identity crisis?

    
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MMORPG blogger and MOP commenter Isarii (@ethanmacfie) recently published an excellent video positing that the MMO industry is facing a “massive identity crisis.”

“The MMO genre has sort of walked away from the things that made it unique and has faced an identity crisis since then as MMOs have reinvented themselves as these big giant titles trying to appeal to as many people as possible,” he argues. “As a result, you end up with MMOs that try to do things that smaller scale games tend to do better while not doing any of the things that make MMOs themselves unique.”

The whole video is worth a look-and-listen as he pins down what exactly does make MMOs unique and which MMOs have excelled as actual MMOs (protip: It’s everything from EVE to SWG to WoW, so don’t think this is about subgenre elitism at all). What do you think? Is Isarii right? Is the genre facing an identity crisis? And how do we solve it? That’s what our writers will be debating in this week’s Massively Overthinking.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Isarii has a lot of the same concerns I do, but I have to confess that after trying to be an MMOer in two cultures across a few generations, I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the MMORPG may be like the Moeritherium… or Eevee, since I don’t think MMOs are becoming extinct, but it does mean it’s given birth to genres that probably replace several of the niches it formerly dominated.

MMOs, unlike a lot of previous genres, weren’t just online, but hosting large numbers of players in single-ish, persistent worlds (across a few servers, rather than the thousands found in, say, FPS or RTS games). Unlike, say, Tribes 2, MMOs weren’t just ladder matches, but had built in progression systems, especially thanks to WoW. This wasn’t their core pursuit though. MMOs were about role play thanks to their connection to MUDs, another genre that gave birth to multiple genres but now languishes in near disuse. I’d argue that the modern MMO is less about creating shared player stories than it is giving people a sense of progression in a world shared with their friends. Looking at the fact that roleplayers are a minority in their own genre reveals just how far MMOs have gotten from their roots. This is probably why when a lot of MMOs try to incorporate certain play styles, they don’t do as well mechanically as smaller, tighter games.

When games do focus on story though, it’s pre-generated. You get dialogue trees. While it often creates tighter narratives, it’s nothing like the thrill of a well played, spontaneous RP scenario, though those are kind of the (somewhat attainable) grail of the RP experience, which again, doesn’t appeal to the vast majority of MMO players. Like any mass produced commodity, MMO story is streamlined to try to give a homogeneous, and hopefully quality, experience, but in doing so, people are chasing their own stories rather than trying to build a community one.

I’m going to suggest something very radical here. If the very core of the MMO genre wants to stand out from the rest of the genre, that means shedding a lot of the baggage created by being “everything boxes.” Stop chasing World of Warcraft. Embrace the graphical MUDs we started out as. Be story based. Have GM events. Think West World but with GMs instead of robots. Keep progression socially based, or limited to skins at best. Have player councils that vote in active story tellers as temporary GMs to host their own approved events (and or maybe monetize the process if you must).

Community cannot be held by mechanics. It should drive them. That’s why, despite having MMO divorced raiding games like the Monster Hunter series, or self contained Battle Grounds like Titanfall, people still look at MMOs. Our “lobbies” (the non-instanced world) are huge. The graphically visible strife between guilds vying for physical space in EVE is hard to ignore. You’re not going to be World of Warcraft, but you’ll have loyal customers. Find fair ways to monetize your game and reward them. Don’t be afraid to embrace what early Asheron’s Call did. It wasn’t the biggest MMO, but it was long lasting and historically significant in ways World of Warcraft only accidentally stumbled upon.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): The core of this debate is the question Isarii asks early on in the video of the MMORPG audience: Why the hell are we still here? After all these years, all the monetization bullshit, all the “unbundlings” and sunsets and dismantling of the genre, what is it we’re still playing for? It’s the “massively multiplayer” part — the shared community, not just a shared worldspace.

I’m with Isarii: MMOs aren’t dead. The bubble has simply burst, several years ago in fact, or that was my argument in ‘Multiplex monotony’ and the death of the mid-budget MMORPG, which is as true today as it was then. The rapid expansion of the genre following World of Warcraft caused the genre to bloat and chase blockbusters that had little in common with the genre they were based on, then implode to the point that AAA studios aren’t making MMOs, and if they are, they aren’t using the term anymore for fear of being typecast to the untenable definition of the genre they helped create. Along the way, we’ve seen the birth of several new subgenres: MOBAs and survival sandboxes in particular, as well as always-online ARPGs. I see those as good things, but the MMORPG itself has suffered.

Like Isarii, I have hope for the next generation of MMOs, most of them being built by fans and old-school devs and crowdfunded to avoid the investor-driven game design that crippled the industry in the first place. Buy them. Support them. I don’t think the first seven years of the genre before WoW were a fluke. They made huge mistakes (sup, forced downtime), but they also made magic because they tapped into something legitimately special: the online community. I want to see that magic return.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): When I first started listening to the video, I was told ahead of time that I would probably be nodding. I was not. Well, my head might have moved forward at some point. That might have been construed as a nod, I guess. Mostly I think I’m just tired. And if I wasn’t tired before, seeing the same thing trotted out yet again after seeing it at least twice a year for eight years now would have made me more tired. (I was already tired, though. I sleep really badly.)

It’s probably more often than that, though, because this is all bracingly familiar to me. It’s the same stream of arguments about how MMOs have lost their way, about how the genre no longer caters to the stuff that once made it unique. There’s more to go into there, but for the moment I’m going to focus on the core idea that MMOs have lost sight of what they’re uniquely suited to and what only MMOs can do. Which is, ironically, not so much missing the forest for the trees as it is missing the fact that it’s only a forest because of the trees.

MMOs still have a sense of what the genre does not just better than any other genre, but uniquely. And that’s found in EVE Online, and in Star Wars Galaxies, and World of Warcraft, and Final Fantasy XIV, and The Secret World, and Destiny. All on down the line. It’s persistence, but first and foremost it’s not persistence of world. It’s persistence of character.

I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over in my mind recently why it took me so long to get back into Final Fantasy XI. Obviously, a lot of the changes made to the game to remove frustrations have a major impact on that, but the reality is that many of these changes have been made steadily and are changes I brushed up against before. So why do I own three accounts for the game, but I never really got back into the game until last year.

Because, I realized, last year was when I put the time and effort into getting back my original character, the first character I ever made in any MMO, the character who I had assumed was pretty irrevocably lost. I spent a bunch of time on the phone with Square-Enix customer support, we dug up my character, and lo and behold there she was again. And suddenly everything clicked, because that was my character.

There’s a uniform ownership and persistence in MMOs that you don’t get with anything else, and it transcends things like community-driven markets or community-made history or raiding or organized PvP. I’ve been playing the same character in FFXIV for seven years now, since the game first launched, and that character is not a PvP character or a dungeon character or a quest character or a crafting character. She does lots of things. She’s persistent, she’s existed, she hasn’t just ceased to be at some point. It’s a persistent character and persona.

And unlike any other game, these characters exist as part of a community wherein the very sharing of community is accomplished by playing the game together. I was excited to have a friend coming back to FFXIV just because it’s a chance for us to share and do something together. We can both play Mass Effect: Andromeda, but we can’t share in the moment-to-moment experience in the same fashion.

There’s no crisis of identity; there’s a continual process of refining and exploring the genre, discovering what can work to improve the experience of playing the game while removing frustrations. This was the whole reason instancing was initially created, to solve the (very real) problem of walking in to do content only to find an entire zone had been cleared by other players. It’s something that was being explored back in 2006. It’s still being explored by several games. There’s design space there, something worthwhile to mine out, a real examination of the difference between accessibility and disposability.

So no, I don’t think there’s any sort of identity crisis to speak of. After years of watching different games tackle different problems with different approaches, seeing problems and trying to solve them in new ways, I’d say the genre’s doing exactly what living and vibrant genres do. It’s just a bit slower than genres where new releases come out four or five times a year, because… well, an MMO is a lot of work. That’s pretty straightforward.

And no, the reason really has nothing to do with pandas.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): When I look back at the first decade of graphical MMORPGs, I’m often struck by the scary freedom that these games and their designers had in pioneering these new types of games. Figuring out how to take single-player settings and make them work on a larger scale presented all sorts of challenges and difficulties, yet it also forced the teams to be creative and imaginative in their solutions. However, when the industry shifted away from a variety of pioneering projects to a more standardized format. The risk aversion that came with big-budget, multi-year projects further encouraged teams to hew to the “proven” success.

Now that we’re past the WoW clone bubble, several interesting things are happening (and not all of them good). Some MMO studios are ditching the genre entirely, while brand-new start-ups are jumping right in to fill the void and demand. Some games are becoming more specialized and more limited in scope, while other indie projects are finding themselves free to be ambitious in a way that hasn’t been seen for many moons. We’ve also seen the term “MMO” become watered down from overuse (and misuse) as well as tarnished by bad games, bad business models, and notable failures.

Is the industry ready for a strong rebound? I certainly hope so. While we are certainly not seeing big studios taking on new MMOs, there have been plenty of smaller companies spring up to take on this challenge. Scores of projects that are rethinking the MMO tropes and designs have come into being, and there’s hope that at least a small handful of them will prove to be breakout hits. Plus, with the Kickstarter success storie we’ve seen from Crowfall, Chronicles of Elyria, and Ashes of Creation, we know that there’s still a hunger and a passion among gamers to see ambitious and varied games being made. So I kind of feel like we’re holding our breath as a genre right now, not quite sure what’s over the next hill — but it could be pretty exciting. I want to see the term MMORPG earn more respect and acclaim over the next decade, and it might take but for a single smash hit to do that… or a dozen smaller, modest success stories.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I’m as nostalgic as anyone for the “good ol’ days” of Star Wars Galaxies and even Tabula Rasa that were mentioned in the video, but the truth of the matter is that those gaming models are not sustainable in today’s market. Even the biggest of the big, World of Warcraft, has had to change up its model in order to sustain itself over the years. In fact, I would venture to say its flexibility is what has made this genre sustainable in the first place.

There are some things that would be nice to see again in another MMO: a more persistent world or a skill-based progression system. But I don’t think that’s what defines the MMO as a genre. I believe the ability to play the game online with a group of friends or strangers is the biggest factor defines the MMO genre. The other parts are kind of secondary — important, but still secondary.

Secondly, I believe that we still have games — AAA games — that are attempting to accomplish what the old MMORPGs were trying to accomplish. I believe Elder Scrolls Online is probably the best example of this. When it launched it was the furthest from what we would want to call an old-school MMO. But with the addition of One Tamriel and more skill lines, it’s really turning into an amazing blend of modern MMO and old-school MMO.

Just like a living language, the definition of MMO is ever evolving. I’m not sure that I would call a game like Overwatch an MMO, but many of the players who really love MMOs are the same players that are attracted to Overwatch. And if the audience is the same, there is probably some core element that Overwatch is pulling on that attracts the the MMO player, so calling it an MMO wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

The bottom line is that we should love the past games and the communities there for what they were, but if we live in the past, the genre will never move forward. If we keep saying that we wish the MMOs in today’s market were just like some MMO in the past market, then the genre will eventually die. I want MMOs to keep living, keep growing, and keep expanding.

Your turn!

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Anstalt

The unique selling point of MMORPGs was and always will be the ability to play with more people at the same time than any other genre.

On that front, I do believe that MMORPGs have lost their way. It used to be common to see 200+ people hanging out in the same zone, be it a large scale pvp fight, or an open world boss, or just a hub where people crafted, traded, socialised and formed groups.

Now, that hardly ever happens. Between instanced content, solo content design and technical limitations, large groups of people are now prevented from playing together. Even when nothing in the game design prevents it, large gatherings still cause problems due to technical problems, a result of chasing after superior graphics without investing in proper game engines to support massively-multiplayer.

The negative effect of this change is also easy enough to see. Social interactions increase retention – friends don’t let friends quit – and so it is easy to see that with a greatly reduced focus on multiplayer, and no focus on massively-multiplayer, social networks within games just aren’t forming, so large portions of players simply get the game, play through the content and then move on.

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Rottenrotny

I would agree that too many MMOs try to please everyone at the same time and as they spread themselves so thin the game ends up watered down. I suppose this is an attempt to rake in as much $ as possible, but often they probably make less $ due to the game failing to draw the player #s as a result of said watering down.

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Sally Bowls

Is it really the genre or the players who frequent fanstites that are having an identity crisis? The MMOs” identity seem fairly stable to me.

MMOs are what they are; some companies are keeping on, some are getting out of the business and almost all companies are not making large AAA MMOs. The size of the market has evolved but I don’t think MMOs are fundamentally different now than five or ten years ago, TBH, what Real MMO Players think Real MMO Should Be has not evolved much either. The Next Big Thing has changed from a specific game to Asian whatever to Kickstarter du Jour. (None of which seem credible or at least of interest to me. Who knows, could happen.)

It could be there is a Minecraft of MMOs and/or a MMO is a disruptive technology [q..v.] Mobile?
VR? But if I had to guess, I would see MMOs in five years without much change in identity: MMO market smaller, WoW and some others, upcoming Asian imports, dozens of Kickstarters with “old-school”, “community” in their pitch.

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Brown Jenkin

I think the genre has been going through something for a long while now, and yeah maybe an “identity crisis” is the right way to identify that thing. Fundamentally folks play MMOs for lots of different reasons, but I think the central one (even for those soloers amongst us) is the point made in the video about the world having tons of people and being alive. I’d love to see some of what @dengarsw suggested in moving away from the old MUD/WoW traditions in MMOs, and I hold out tons of hope that it could happen… there are some great games out there at the moment (GW2/ESO/BDO etc) but they’ve all got some sort of weird baggage. What keeps us playing is a good question that folks should consider in the future, I assure you.. it isn’t daily quests.

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Archebius

I don’t agree that the genre is experiencing an identity crisis. An identity crisis is a time of uncertainty and confusion about who and what you are, typically kicked off by a real or perceived change in your situation (e.g., hitting 40, getting fired, kids leaving for college).

The MMO industry isn’t having an identity crisis. It’s a happy, healthy genre that wobbled a little bit when that guy from high school became rich and famous and built a mansion down the street, but has now largely accepted that their life with a house and two cars and a moderate gambling problem is the right life for them. Sure, all the other genres in the neighborhood are doing a little bit better. But life is good – the MMO genre relaxes in the backyard with a beer, listening to the sound of distant traffic and kids playing. Everyone is happy.

Well, almost. We wouldn’t be talking about this if it weren’t for the discontent – and the perception of discontent – within the playerbase. But let’s be clear: MMOs are not undergoing an identity crisis. Older MMO players are experiencing a genre evolving, leaving the parts that they enjoy the most as vestigial organs strapped onto a gear grind and fetch quests, and sometimes excised altogether.

Not that this makes the situation better, but I think the perception is important. The genre itself isn’t in trouble; there are just a large number of players who aren’t happy with the current state of things. And this group isn’t homogeneous – there are some who want to return to the old days of open PvP worlds, there are others who want more of a community (a fragile and difficult thing to grow), there are some who think you need both together. Mostly, though, I think everyone just wants a world that feels more like a real place, and not a game you hop into for a couple hours a week to collect some shinies before jumping into another game.

This isn’t a problem that has an easy solution. People just need to keep supporting the games that are the closest to what they want, and stop supporting games that are moving the genre away from it. Build communities in the games you play, instead of waiting for a game that encourages them more. Engage yourself in the game as much as you can. Form long-lasting guilds with like-minded individuals.

If we don’t have time to support the features we want to see in the games we play, then we’ll never see a AAA company create a new game just for us.

borghive
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borghive

Not trying to sound negative here, but you got to admit the sad state of our online communities are kind of a reflection of the world we live in now. Granted, our games back then still had it’s share of toxicity, but things to me are a lot worse than they were 15 years ago.

I’m not trying to get all philosophical here, but people have changed quite a bit over the years and those good old days, I think are long gone, never to be revived, no matter how hard these developers try to rekindle community driven games.

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Robert Mann

Yeah, that’s a societal problem that we can address… but we have to start doing so.

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Rottenrotny

15 years ago only total nerds played PC games. Now it’s common to see “normal” people playing. There’s simply a lot more players playing online PC games now and with the rise in #s we see the rise in trolls.

capt_north
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capt_north

Those of us who have been with the genre from the start have vastly different opinions on which pieces of the past were core elements and which were horrible burdens that we are glad to be rid of. And we have always argued these points — the developer’s cry of “we’re going to make our own game and we’re going to do it RIGHT this time!” could probably be traced back to variations on prehistoric pebble games.

My take is that there are aspects of classic MMO design that I love, others that I loathe, but the core defining aspect of the genre is that there is are few constants. We’re designing and playing in virtual worlds. Worlds are not static. A world that is too static is a world that is stagnant, and it is a world that is ultimately doomed.

The genre has to evolve to survive, and evolution is a messy process littered with dead ends and fatal errors. I hate the push to mobile, because itty-bitty screens can’t give me the vistas I crave, but it’s part of the process. Maybe it peters out, or maybe the processors and peripherals evolve to give us a better experience than desktop. I can’t predict which. But I know I can’t freeze the MMORPG at any moment in time and play that moment forever. That’s not a virtual world. That’s a freeze-frame, and it is as still as the grave.

Sarigar
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Sarigar

MMOs, at their best, give players the chance to be someone else in an extraordinary environment. I feel like the more content compels people to fill a role, rather than play a character, the farther we all get from the true potential of MMOs.

I think that if MMOs want to be a truly distinct gaming market, they need to start moving away from railroad questlines, gear treadmills, and the trap of “endgame”, and move towards giving players what other games can’t: diverse, interesting environments, player-generated content, exploration with real risks and rewards, and encouragement towards player cooperation and support.

Imagine logging into a game city in which the inhabitants were all players: shopkeepers, peddlers, craftsmen, entertainers, as well as adventurers. Imagine gaining experience and skill solely by providing help and useful goods to other players (i.e. if you craft a sword, and another player uses that sword in combat, you get some XP if they win). Imagine being able to seek out adventurers in a tavern, send them on a quest (facing content of your own creation), and all of you reap the rewards if you succeed. There’s a lot of untapped potential in MMOs, and plenty of players waiting for something new and different.

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Orenj

MMOs, at their best, give players the chance to be someone else in an extraordinary environment. I feel like the more content compels people to fill a role, rather than play a character, the farther we all get from the true potential of MMOs.

This so much! It also ties into Eliot’s observation about the importance of persistence of character–our characters are so important in part because of who we’ve chosen to make them.

I’m pretty sure I’ve QQ’ed about this at length previously in massively comments, but every time a game (or other players, but that always turns out to be guided by the game’s design) demands that my character have certain abilities or worse be a certain class, I die a little inside. Raiding (or more generally, encounters that are all about combat performance in a very constrained situation) actively undermine the potential of MMOs.

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Melissa McDonald

“PvP sandbox” seems like this nightmare I am living in where all the game devs have been brainwashed to think this is what people want instead of actual content, quests, and other non-sociopathic things to do.
I’m sorry folks I know I constantly whine about PvP, but it’s like the games that I love, and the Kind of games that I love, don’t even bloody exist anymore.

Is it so much to ask that PvP be consensual? Really?

borghive
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borghive

Can you give examples of past MMOs then? I see you complain a lot about PVP gankboxes, but honestly there are a crap ton of games out there that really do focus on PVE. I mean I really don’t understand what you want that doesn’t already exist in the form of the glut of PVE themepark games we already have. There are also plenty of PVE sandbox games as well like Wurm online, Minecraft , survival games that use PVE rule sets.

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Robert Mann

Agreed, although PvE sandbox MMOs are pretty rare right now… well, ones that don’t allow people to do everything and thus not need anyone and thus have no community.

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haishao

How are wurm and minecraft MMORPG?

borghive
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borghive

How are they not?

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haishao

Minecraft is not a Massively Multiplayer Online game and it’s not a RPG either.

I’ve mistaken Wurm for another game but suggesting her this game kinda contradict the idea that there are “plenty” of them. If the only thing you can find is a java game from 2006 that probably doesn’t even have 100k players.

The problem is that there are no modern one. They’re all either PvP or Themepark.

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Rottenrotny

I don’t understand this at all. There are just as many non-PVP MMOs as there are PVP MMOs.
And even within the PVP MMOs there are often PVE servers.

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Danny Smith

Its not exclusively an mmo thing but more and more developers are explaining in interviews that company directors pushing for “wider market appeal” only drives away your core audience and never pulls in a significant number of new customers from other markets. Its somewhat like the modern “i’ll scream for this game to change because it offends me, but what do you mean buy it? i was never going to buy it” idea where games design is more and more treated like a committee design process to please as many people as possible. This naturally means even if you had a core audience you are now squandering it and they move on to greener pastures.

Theres a fascinating book called “the untold stories of japanese games development volume 2” where some developers give long interviews saying things like “you cannot make a horror game in japan anymore. The higher ups will tell you it needs to be an action shooter or westerners will not buy it, so we stopped making horror games because we dont want to make action shooters” and that kind of thing must surely also apply to the “design your mmo specifically like a mobage where drop in drop out whales play a little and spend a lot” and the like.

Because the crux of it is this: the bubble of novelty burst and devs need to learn the core mmo audience is once again all they have. Look at FFXIV. it is considered a success but flip flops between 300k-1mil players and SE judges that as performing more than adequately because thats how none WoW at its height mmo’s have always worked to be considered a success. Its not some survival crafting zombie sandbox buzzword fest designed to serve a dozen masters. Its a niche product that does things some like and others dont. But it doesnt try to change every update to pull in a hypothesised new catchment of a different audience to milk as well. That is really what lead to WoW going from the thing advertised by celebrities and name dropped on tv to what it is today. Make a game for a core audience and if they like it they stick. Keep chasing ‘wider market appeal’ and you are one of many bland melange’ of crap in a sea of white noise mmos like Rift or GW2 that in the greater marketplace have been pretty much forgotten by anyone but the ‘in from the start, out at the end’ die hards.