Massively OP reader ichi_san has a burning question about the state of the industry.
“Lots of people seem to be looking for an MMO they can get into – consider the rush into Bless as an example. Lots of games are being released, but most (or even all) have some glaring issues, like pay-to-win, lockboxes, ganking, poor optimization, heavy cash shop, horrible gameplay, and so on. There’s the WoW model and other semi-successful formulas, and a lot of unexplored territory. The market seems hungry, and there is a bunch of history to build on and new territory to explore, but either gaming companies don’t understand their customers or greed/laziness/expediency get in the way, such that we see release after release that fails to scratch the itch. Am I missing something – are there fun MMOs with good graphics and fair monetization that I’m missing? Or is there a gaping hole in the MMO scene, and if so, why isn’t someone filling it?”
I’ve posed his question to the writers for their consideration in Overthinking this week. We’re long past bubble-bursting here when all of the still-major MMORPGs are four years older. What exactly are we looking at? Why is the obvious demand for MMOs not being met?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think a big part of it is that other, non-MMOs are in the online multiplayer space filling a lot of those needs. Survival and battle royale games are just one type in a long line of PvP options that have grown out of the MMO (at least in terms of Fortnite and its building play). Monster Hunter scratches the raid itch. Sea of Thieves has been my more “MMO”-y go to, unless you want to count Pokemon Go, since my neighborhood is basically a PvP zone that’s dealing with faction politics lately. For socializing, it’s generally Overwatch or something free to play someone’s suggested we play together (like Fortnite).
That’s without the monetization issue. On the one hand, free to play gets you more entry-level players. On the other, the monetization is rough. It gets gambley, and that’s looking like it’s under siege. If I were making a game today, I’d probably do a vanity store, but that hurts crafters and tests whether or not players may want to play just for maybe a slight variance on an item they can just buy. You’ll notice I don’t play anything subscription-based because, at least in my circles, it’s too hard to find a single game everyone plays that’ll be worth it.
To note, I’m also leaving out the impact of social media. For me, as a kid, the biggest allure of the internet was meeting new people who didn’t share basically the same worldview as people in my town. Games in particular helped introduce me to that. Forums that made you sign up and the need to upload and link screenshots created a tech knowledge barrier of entry for the unwashed masses. Now, you take a picture and just hit a “share” button. You swipe for dating. You share links to asynchronous browser games or mobile apps that have social media baked in. The social and persistent nature of the non-gamey aspect of MMOs has been streamlined. It’s why I’m feeling like the next “big” MMO is either going to be VR, AR, or a graphical launcher (think Steam, except your icon is also a playable character). The genre just needs to reinvent itself in a visceral way to get beyond one-upping the last trend and back to creating trends.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Part of it’s down to how long it takes to build a really good MMORRPG. When investors and publishers aren’t funding a genre for five years following a bubble collapse but its games take five years to develop, there are no games coming out for a long time. The games that are being made are smaller versions of MMOs. We’ve talked about the unbundling of MMORPGs before, and it’s basically what Andrew is talking about above me, so I won’t do that again, but that’s what we’re looking at: a bunch of MMORPG concepts, now spun out into their own limited but extremely popular genres like survival games and MOBAs, bleeding MMORPGs.
But the MMORPG players didn’t actually go away. They’re just camped out in older MMORPGs waiting. Waiting for MMOs they desperately Kickstarted to actually come to fruition. Waiting for somebody to take up the AAA MMORPG mantle again. So it’s no surprise that when a company shows up and claims to be the messiah, people are willing to follow. But of course, when that game sucks, or the monetization model sucks, or both, people just go back to the existing older MMOs that still reliably churn out content. Right now, those failed messiahs are all coming from the East, from where existing MMORPGs are being teleported across the ocean to see whether they’ll gain traction here. There are even some big-name Asian companies focused on building MMORPGs specifically for the West. But nobody, arguably save Amazon, is currently making a AAA MMORPG in the West.
Obviously there’s demand, but the question for investors and publishers is whether it’s worth the risk and money and time to try meeting that clear demand and still possibly fail (because making good MMORPGs is still hard) when they could instead chase the flavor-of-the-month and definitely make some easy cash. As we’ve written before, every industry goes through these cycles of not being willing to take risks, or rather, being willing to take only one risk over and over as the actual art shrivels up and dies beneath it and then eventually is born again. Investors and publishers do not care about art. They do not care about the genre or innovation or communities or longevity. They do not care about the dream of the Holodeck. They are here to make some money off us and flee with it the instant things might go south. And nobody runs successful MMOs that way. MMOs require nurture. Nothing planted in a broken greenhouse will survive winter.
So get comfy in the existing MMORPGs. Find a studio that actually does care about this genre, and give that studio your monthly fee because we’re gonna be here a while. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better. But it will get better.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The short answer is “yes” with a “but,” the long answer is “no” with an “although.” Unfortunately, we have only time and space for the short answer, so you’ll hopefully forgive me for just giving that. (There’s a lot to unpack here.)
See… part of the problem here is that MMOs aren’t like other video games. You don’t get 2-3 new entries in the field every year or so, you can’t just quickly pop out another one based on a similar engine. They’re not Mega Man games, in other words. You’re supposed to be playing these things for several years, at least in theory, and that’s what they’re designed around. So on that level, it’s totally understandable that studios with existing MMOs that are doing all right aren’t rushing to pump out another one.
At the same time, people are people. Some of us really crave that novelty, and that doesn’t go away just because you’re throwing your hat into a field where the games are designed to launch and run for a really long time. We all want something new sometimes, and over time the little bits of discontentment with your favorite title start to add up and feel like insurmountable problems. Sure, there’s an element of never being satisfied, but there’s also the very real problem of just wanting something new to try.
And we’re coming off of a few years in which there were new MMOs coming out on a very reliable basis, deep in the midst of finding out all of the aspects of business models that don’t work well… and so you wind up with a certain population that’s going to rush to the New Thing because it’s the New Thing, and is not going to really be heedful of any warning signs up until they become impossible to ignore. Bless Online in particular seems like a title wherein the writing was on the wall for a long period of time, but there were people with enough of an interest in “ooh, something new” that all of the warning signs got written off until they could no longer be ignored.
Of course, the follow-up part of the question is when you get into the messy stuff. “Are there fun MMOs with good graphics and fair monetization” is a question that relies on a lot of prior assumptions to answer. I can think of three off the top of my head, but in order for you to concur you have to find the same things fun that I do, enjoy the same graphics, and feel the same way about monetization.
It all speaks to a certain breed of player discontentment and search for shininess that is, sadly, too long of an answer for this format. But the short answer is that yes, there’s a hunger – but it might not be one that any developer could ever fill.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think “hungry” is an excellent word to describe the community. We are hungry for new MMORPGs, but good ones, full-fledged ones, and ones that aren’t trying to rip us off. That’s a tall order.
We’ve been hungry for a while, since WildStar launched and perhaps going back to Guild Wars 2’s launch. It’s been a long time since a western studio with big chops and a budget to match has thrown its weight behind an MMO, which has left the community without obvious candidates to anticipate. So instead, we’re getting indie MMO projects, semi-MMO titles, and eastern imports these days. None of those are bad, mind you, and it’s my great hope that we’ll see some breakout hits from those indie games, but I’d still like to see more.
Look at the gobs of money that players threw at Crowfall, Chronicles of Elyria, and Ashes of Creation during their Kickstarter campaigns. Look at the fervent hopes of Star Citizen fans that are pinning everything on this game. Yes, there is hunger.
There’s also a good indication that the online gaming genre is in transition right now and struggling to find its identity and the next big thing going forward. Virtual reality still doesn’t seem quite ready for prime time, but that’s one avenue that studios have been exploring. Figuring out monetization is key as well, because studios need the money and have to get it in a way that doesn’t make the consumer feel ripped off or abused.
Another thing that could really save and revive the MMORPG industry is for technology, such as SpatialOS, coming along to help developers to create big budget-looking MMOs without having to create the engine and infrastructure from scratch.
I think there’s a lot of exciting developments ahead and some great gaming in our future. So stay hungry, fans!
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I know I want a good, deep, immersive MMORPG virtual world, and I keep waiting, hoping, and watching the horizon. But to play devil’s advocate here, is that really what the masses want? I worry a bit that we are afflicted with the malady of our words not matching our actions. And by we, I mean the gaming populace. Yes, it seems like we all want a great MMORPG, but few — if any — of them seem to do especially well. And the folks watching the bottom line are seeing this, and perhaps surmising that no, we don’t really want MMORPGs. On top of that, all the personalization and variety in gaming is a double-edged sword: I love that folks can find what they want, but it fragments us off into much smaller groups. Developers don’t want smaller groups; they want large masses.
I’d love the answer to be for devs to just get back with the program and make the ideal MMORPG, but that definition is different for so many of us that I fear no developers will find it worthwhile. As a whole, we are a hard bunch to please, and possibly even harder to figure out.