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


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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