Massively Overthinking: Tackling the ‘big four MMOs’ meme

    
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Over the last couple of months, there’s been a meme floating around the MMORPG subreddit. Someone will ask that the community recommend a game, and the responses will all look like “WoW/ESO/XIV/GW2” referring to the only four games that really matter according to the meme: World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy XIV, and Guild Wars 2. I get why the sub would resort to this, given how many “what game should I play” threads they see every week. But I wonder if it doesn’t do the genre an injustice, since obviously there are far more games out there, and successful ones, at that.

So for this week’s Overthinking, I’ve asked our staff to reflect on the “big four” meme. Do you agree those are the biggest MMOs, or the four MMOs most worthy of consideration, anyway, and which other MMOs should be on the list?

Andy McAdams: The four games listed are the “safest” choices of the MMO world – they have reached a population that makes them viable as a service game, and are relatively easy to get into. But the only one’s worth of consideration? Hardly. Games like EverQuest and EverQuest 2 still bring a lot the table and are arguably fuller-developed games than WoW or GW2. A game like Wakfu adds a radically different MMO experience. Even Secret World Legends, approached with the right expectations, is a game that should be listed on “things you should play.” Then there’s LOTRO, RIFT, Trove, TERA, Blade and Soul, ArcheAge, Black Desert Online – – and that’s just what I can think of in two minutes here. There are far, far more games worthy of being played than not. The big four meme is just .. lazy and uninspired, to put it charitably.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I completely understand why those four MMOs top the list. The vast majority of MMORPG players have probably played one or more of them and would be quite happy continuing to play one or more of them. They’re the obvious picks when a stranger is asking you which MMORPG to play. They’re statistically safe.

But it seems to me there are plenty of other titles that belong on this list. Black Desert, certainly; Pearl Abyss and Kakao are making money hand over fist. RuneScape too, though I realize it’s a confusing demographic for some of our readers to grok. EVE Online has been no slouch lately either. If you count Warframe and Path of Exile and Pokemon Go as non-traditional MMOs or MMO-adjacent titles, they should make the list.

I think we’re all pretty sick of garbage-fire temports and mobile MMOs crowding the bottom of the market, but I don’t want us to lose sight of the middle of market, the mid-budget market where so many solid MMOs still live and operate successfully – LOTRO, SWTOR, TERA, Neverwinter, Star Trek Online. You don’t need to be at the tippy top of the market to be a quality MMO. The trend toward thinking otherwise doesn’t benefit MMO players whatsoever, and we should defend against it.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): One of the major reasons I play Black Desert is because it’s not part of the big four. But I’ve been playing MMOs for almost 13 years now; I know the genre and I know what I like. I was lucky enough to grow up in an age when the MMO was the magical genre. Times have changed. The MMO genre is a niche, especially in these times. The “big four” that we’re talking about is an essential part of our ecosystem since they’re gateways to the genre and its more esoteric games. I’m a guy about balance. We need these games to exist. Am I saying that Black Desert and Blade and Soul depend on these games? Absolutely not. But let’s be honest here… those games are so much more difficult to digest compared to the big four. Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft help players develop their taste for genre. Let’s be realistic here; the modern middle-schooler will not even consider playing the big four when compared to Fortnite. So even with those absolute titans, I think we need every game we have in our stable to keep the genre going.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): My first reaction is to immediately reject nearly any opinion that comes out of that subreddit, but maybe not this time. Having a choice of four “major” MMOs makes sense in that they are generally safe choices; they have healthy populations, active update cadences, and overall solid gameplay that’s well-liked by most (though that’s obviously up for subjective scrutiny on a case-by-case basis). In fact, one of the reasons I voted for last year’s MMORPG of the Year award winner was because of its consistent update cadence. So, yes, by those criteria, I do agree with those four titles as the biggest and most noteworthy games in our genre.

Lookit that, here I am agreeing with an opinion from that subreddit. Will wonders never cease.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): While I can’t entirely attest to where the “big four” meme came from, I think it’s actually a good thing that has a positive net effect… at least, if you look at it having the same purpose that I do. The point of the meme isn’t really to recommend games; it’s to cover your bases.

See, the hard part about recommending games is that a lot comes down to personal preference and experience. If you just ask me to recommend “what MMOs are good,” I don’t know what games you’ve played before, what you liked and didn’t like, what your overall goals are, or any of the above. If, on the other hand, I know that you’ve played World of Warcraft but want something with better storytelling, better crafting, and actual housing, I can start pointing you in the direction of games that might actually scratch that itch.

The four games listed are the biggest games not just because of the particular influences of time and chance, but also because they actually do a good job of catching a lot of the different possible playstyles you could aim for under one roof. Recommending those four as a blanket offering doesn’t cover everything under the sun, but it does help narrow in the stuff that you’re interested in and what you’re not interested in. They’re also the sort of thing that’s less likely to turn people off from the basic premise; while EVE Online has things to recommend it, a lot of people are going to look at the cutthroat nature and be turned off right away, for example.

It’s not great generic advice, but it is generic advice that covers some broad categories, and when given a broad question like “what MMO should I play,” it’s sort of appropriate. Broad meets broad.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think this is reflective of a trend in our culture not to be inquisitive but to rather reduce everything to talking points that “everyone believes.” Say something often enough and it becomes so, that sort of thing. So yeah, Reddit can be a weird echo chamber effect about the “only four games” that matter to MMOs, but you have to take into account that some folks on the MMORPG sub have a long history of verbally hating the games they purportedly love and the the “big four” is lazy and ignorant.

Obviously, there’s a massive field of MMOs and online games out there, and while those are four significant titles, they aren’t the only ones that matter. There are games with equally large populations (RuneScape, Roblox, Warframe, Neverwinter), passionately devoted communities (LOTRO, EVE Online, City of Heroes), large feature sets (Black Desert, SWTOR), and so on. We could also point to MOP’s own metrics that track how much readership particular game posts get, which certainly demonstrates that there is a broad interest beyond those four games.

Those four games are still significant and worthy of coverage, but they’re also significant in a different way — they might be a “gateway” MMO to get people into the genre and then off to exploring other titles. Limiting a community’s focus on four games is not healthy to those titles or to the broader genre.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): The games in the meme are all high quality games that are worth playing. They are a good point of entry for anyone who is new to the genre or for the average gamer looking for a good game to try. I might have put BDO on that list too, if it had been up to me, but it wasn’t.

Of course, as everyone has probably figured out by now, I am all about small, odd, and old games, but those aren’t necessarily the best entry point and are probably mostly of interest to weird people like me.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I don’t give blanket recommendations in the first place, and I would never recite this list. It’s a total disservice to the genre. Besides that, I wouldn’t recommend one of them for any reason. I would hope that anyone asking me for a game recommendation does so because they know my playstyle and are familiar with my tastes so they want to hear about something within those parameters. How would I ever know what might grab someone? I can try to give examples that fit things they say they like and let them explore from there.

Someone asking for opinions likely wants to hear about games and features they haven’t found in their own searches, or they want some first hand experiences. They want a discussion. It’s sad to me that the discussion of MMOs has been boiled down to a meme of those four. Are they the biggest? I don’t really think so, even numbers-wise really. But I am not one to care about numbers in either case. These four are just the most talked about ones in our gaming bubble. They are the ones game hoppers who’ve “tried them all” tend to bring up. Except, they likely haven’t tried everything; there are a number of games that are quietly soldiering on with large and dedicated player bases that aren’t even given a nod usually. In my opinion, the “big four” is just pure laziness. Then again, someone asking a big nasty void like Reddit has got to know that discussion isn’t really on the menu.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I don’t really mind the meme so much. It came about for a reason: These were the four games that were regularly recommended by players. If I were going to use a broad brush to name MMOs, these games likely touch on all the primary themes and features I would bring up.

Now, I also think people who have played MMOs at some point already know these games and for them this meme is a dud. These people likely know those games, so they need a more focused approach, one that takes into account things like if they have specific IPs they already like (DC Universe, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) or specific gameplay features they are looking for.

Tyler Edwards: I am not sufficiently well-versed in hard numbers to judge what the actual biggest MMOs are, but I’m sure it’s more than those four.

At the risk of going off on a tangent, I have long been fascinated by the fact that there is not always a correlation between what are the most popular MMOs and what MMOs get the most discussion in the community. The “MMORPG community” as it exists around sites like, well, us is a specific subset of players, and for whatever reason it doesn’t seem to include everyone who actually plays MMOs. Individual MMO communities are an insular bunch, and we’re not representative of all MMORPG players worldwide.

Take RuneScape. Hugely popular game with a very large playerbase, but how much attention does it get? Or look at how Western players tend to ignore Eastern MMOs. TERA is clearly one of the more successful MMOs on the market, yet the community often treats it as an afterthought – to say nothing of the juggernaut that is Lineage abroad. Cultural divides play a role, of course, but I think there’s more to it than that — Runescape is a Western game, after all, even if it’s owned by an Eastern corporation.

As for whether those are the most “worthy” games… sure, I guess? They’re successful and polished, anyway. But I think it’s the wrong question to ask. Like all art, gaming is subjective. You should make recommendations based on a person’s taste, not based on what the “best” game is. Every game is the best game ever to someone. Well, maybe not every game, but…

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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