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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Castagere Shaikura

I never understood relying on others to tell me what MMO to play. I always found it fun to research a game myself to see if it would be something I like. That’s just me I guess.

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Anstalt

I can fully understand the meme, even if I don’t like any of the big four.

1) Massively multiplayer….the entire point of the genre is to play with a massive amount of other people. So, when recommending, it makes total sense to chose games with large populations. It means there is a higher chance of the new player getting to experience everythign the game has to offer and also a higher chance the game will be live for years to come.

2) They’re all fantasy games, which fits with the RPG part of the genre, but the big four give you a nice spread – childish high fantasy with WoW, low fantasy with ESO, eastern fantasy with FFXIV and whatever you wanna call GW2 (i havent played it)

3) Two are shallow action combat, two are deeper tab-target combat, so again you are giving players a choice.

4) Reddit (and this meme) is mostly for the western audience and whilst some asian MMOs have had success in the west, by and large we prefer western developed games and their aesthetics, which is why 3/4 are western. Final Fantasy, whilst asian, has always seemed to translate better to the western market. If it wasn’t FF, it wouldn’t be in the big 4.

5) The MMO market is stagnant, so even though there are a lot of them out there, compared to other genres there aren’t many and most MMOs are pretty old. FFXIV, ESO and GW2 are pretty much the only big releases of the last 5 years so there just isn’t anything else to recommend except asian grinders or old, low pop, poor graphics games. As many developers have pointed out, its impossible to sell a game based on the mechanics so it stands to reason that we’d have just as much trouble trying to convince new players to pick up something like EQ, LotRO etc.

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Anton Mochalin

This topic and others like it are what I dislike most about “MMO community”. Why “big four”? Why not “big one”? WoW is THE MMO. Others are WoW-wannabes. Oh wait Dungeon Fighter Online is bigger than WoW. WoW is DFO-wannabe.

I hope there’s special hell for “MMO community” where they discuss “the big four” until the end of eternity.

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IronSalamander8 .

I know WoW and FF14 are big , ESO I’m not really sure about, and GW2 seems to quietly simmer mostly. I know the main Lineage games were/are huge in Korea but not so much here in the US, BDO is pretty big isn’t it? I got sick of it in a hurry despite it’s impressive visuals but last I knew it was big.

I’ve played a ton of MMOs, not as much as the staff here I’m sure, but a ton; WoW, EQ, EQ2, PotBS, SW, AoC, WAR, SWTOR, DCUO, CO, CoX, Allods, Marvel Heroes, Asheron’s Call 2, Vanguard, AO, BDO, Wildstar, and some others I’m sure I’m forgetting. I would never tell someone only to try those 4, but to look around and find something that fits them.

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Yaner

Guild Wars 2 has started to falter as of late. Its player base is shrinking, but that being said it is F2P so there is no loss giving it a try. It has a decent business model and nothing is really bad about the game. I got a ton of time in GW2, but I haven’t played it in about a year now. It’s just not really healthy with all the rocky development it has been having.

As for ESO. Problem I, and many of my friends I talk to about it, have is the game is just so expensive to get into. I don’t understand why ESO gets a free pass with being a B2P game AND having a very aggressive cash shop. Any other game that tries to do both of these just gets slammed. Tons of DLCs if you want to get the full experience, better mounts, lootboxes, shortcuts, etc… All of these are really big in ESO.

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IronSalamander8 .

Not big into ESO myself. I tried it again recently (it was awful in beta) and still just don’t find it much fun. The combat feels decent but that was about it. The business model is atrocious as you say.

I did finish the human starting area in GW2 with a friend around launch but never went back. Not a terrible game but just not gripping either.

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Yaner

I could never get into ESO either. I got to around level 40 and stopped. Tried playing again with multiple friends, but I just couldn’t enjoy it. The game feels clunky and the combat stiff to me. Cash shop put me off a lot too.

GW2 is honestly just not worth going back to in my opinion. They need to move on and try Guild Wars 3 at this point instead of trying to milk a 9 year old game. That being said GW2 has a lot of whales, and that’s why it’s still alive.

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Baemir

It’s just fanboys being fanboys. Critical thinking goes out the window as soon as a group of brains decide they really like a particular game. And this blog’s writers are clearly susceptible to this too, it’s not just us.

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Terry Holland

The Elder Scrolls Online <3 Supporter of ESO & Beautiful Tamriel. Browsed through this article & didn't see ESO mentioned :/ Gonna read more closely soon & share at Twitter if ESO mentioned with good words :) https://twitter.com/TESOnline #LoveTamriel #LoveESO

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Michael18

The good news is that no one who might have the right mind set to be able to enjoy games like EQ or LOTRO in 2019 will choose her/his games based on such a short list circulated on reddit :)

So, not much harm done, hopefully. And I agree with Eliot that the wish for such a simplified list is somewhat understandable.

But I’d definitely add BDO. And ideally they should put up a sticky post (if such a thing exists on reddit) that also presents the mid market MMOs Bree mentioned.

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Utakata

The only MMO memes I follow is whatever Mr. Schlag throws out there… o.O

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h4

I think Eliot’s response is spot on. People who ask a lazy, generic question of “what should I play?” deserve a lazy, generic answer. On the other hand, if they provide some insight to what they’ve played before, and what they liked, didn’t like, or what they are looking for, then I think people will be more willing to recommend something other than the “big four”.

Its somewhat news to me that ESO is one of the big four though, I would have imagined Runescape unless its disqualified for some reason.

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Cypher

I’m actually surprised GW2 is in that list…

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Well, the only good thing about that list is that they are all sufficiently different from each other that anyone unfamiliar with MMOs and playing these would certainly get a nice sampling of the different ways developers approached the same issues and how differently quality of life is addressed in each of them.

But, good grief. It’s like going into a supermarket and only buying the stuff at the end of the aisles.

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Arktouros

I see this answer as someone asking for ice cream and people recommending 4 different flavors of chocolate. Chances are pretty good they’re coming from one of these or have already played one of these and weren’t looking for yet another version of what is basically the same game.

Far more efficient version would be some sort of flow chart showing game mechanics. For example Tab Target combat vs Action Combat. End game Progression dungeon loot based vs Other based. So on and so forth.