Massively Overthinking: Does the MMO genre have too many games for its own good?


Last month I saw a video from YouTuber Josh Strife Hayes with an eyebrow-raiser of a thesis: He essentially argues that we have too many MMOs – that a flooded market is making it harder for people to pick a game and enjoy it, driving FOMO, splitting already-small communities, and fostering the illusion that the “right” MMO will come along one day.

I thought this’d be a fun one for the crew and commenters to tackle in this week’s Overthinking. Do we agree? Do we have too many MMOs, what does that mean exactly, and if we do, is it actually a problem the way Josh lays out?

Andy McAdams: I think Josh actually means the issue of Overchoice, which can result in analysis paralysis, but isn’t quite the same thing. This might be true, but is also really no different than a deluge of other choices we make day-to-day already from a functionally unlimited amount of options. So yeah, there are a ton of choices out there, but in almost every consumer decision we make, we face the same potential conundrum but still don’t seem to have a problem spending money.

FOMO might be a thing, but we’ve seen that it doesn’t really last long. We see games all the time that have initial huge numbers, arguably because people are worried about missing out, but then those player numbers fall off of a cliff and people go back to their “safe” choices.

Vote splitting I don’t think applies here either because it assumes single vote — you can only ever become invested in on game at a time, and multiple options only serves to split your community … except we don’t see that happening. I think partially because there’s not legitimate limiting factor to how many games you can be a “member of the community” to at one time, and partially because we just don’t see this behavior where the community splits to detriment of the game. In the fact the opposite seems to be true – games similar to WoW that would “split the community” never actually do. Games similar to RUST or Minecraft don’t actually split the community because ultimately those people return to their “home” games, as opposed to fissioning the community like Josh suggests.

I think the only legit point he has here is the fallacy of the ideal game. We see it every. single. time. a new high profile game comes out that it’s going to be next MMO-Messiah and it just never is. People play the game, realize that it’s not the ultimate experience they had hyped themselves up to, and get pissy and then… again… go back to their home games. He makes a good point in saying that some people find the smallest aspect they don’t like, decry the game as terrible and unworthy, and strut away. We see it in the massively comments all the time.

In short, I don’t think the number of games available is the issue. Even a little bit. I think there’s a challenge with understanding the objective quality of the game, the subjective health of the game, and understanding how a particular games matches personal tastes.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think Hayes has hit on some ideas the genre needs to embrace and is embracing under fire. He’s effectively echoing the Paradox of Choice idea: the supposition that reducing the number of choices we have available to us actually makes us… well, if not happier, then at least more satisfied. (Ignorance is bliss – to a degree – just ask all the people who happily played Ultima Online and EverQuest because they believed they had no other options.) So do we need to Marie Kondo the entire MMO industry? Must we all become ascetic Buddhists? Is deciding between brands of soup and t-shirts equivalent to picking your next house – or your next virtual world? The Paradox of Choice idea fails with more important life decisions, I think, and to the MMO players likely to be reading this article, where you spend your virtual world time is probably pretty important to you, the same way a sports fan wouldn’t just pick a random sport or team to cheer for. The details of it actually do matter a lot.

All that said, Hayes is right about the constant FOMO that comes along with having hundreds of choices when time allocation is a zero sum game – yes, you can play more than one, but you cannot play more than a few in any depth. He’s not wrong that a lot of us become obsessed with finding the perfect MMO, or holding out until it rolls along, not wanting to “settle” for anything and therefore never settling anywhere. And he’s definitely not wrong that we have distinct subgenres – like Asian action combat games, PvP and RvR sandboxes, and themepark grinders – and that they’d be better served (and better populated, and better funded) if they didn’t split their playerbases so thin.

I do want to note here that I have a strong instinct to want a world of choices, of lots of MMOs, of every MMO getting its day in the sun, of letting the market sort it out. But as we’ve seen over the last two decades, the market’s idea of sorting it out hasn’t done the best job of actually advancing the genre. It did give us lockboxes, though, and a whole ton of garbage titles making it hard to find the gems, so, thanks I hate it? The best games don’t always filter to the top.

Either way, the genie’s out of the bottle on this one. Even if half the MMOs we have right now vanished tomorrow, we’d still remember all the ones that came before, remember all the possibilities that aren’t being served. Modern MMOs aren’t just competing with each other but with our memories of old games that we didn’t necessarily want to leave. And that’s something that a mass-extinction event simply won’t address.

I think it was a worthwhile video – it’s definitely sparked interesting conversation here.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): It’s not just a flooded market. It’s a market filled to the brim with rote, color-by-numbers MMOs. It’s how MMO design has hit a wall and its most apparent in the mobile space. I’m looking forward to Black Desert Mobile, and I’ve been playing some mobile MMOs to scratch that itch. I find many of them to be the most cynically designed games I’ve ever encountered. Literally every mobile MMO looks the same with auto-play mechanics, a daily lootbox, and overly designed characters. There is no love in these games. It’s designed to exploit the dopamine hit we get from opening lootboxes and “leveling up.” Quotes used because these games take so little effort… both to make and to play. If a game can let you do quests, kill mobs, and navigate a dungeon on its own, then the game is designed around the autoplay, not the other way around.

The real enemy is complacency here. As players, we should invest your time in a quality game and make the effort to find those games. They still exist, they’re just really difficult to find.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Most of the arguments here don’t resonate with me, particularly as someone who plays a variety of games based on my whim. I don’t really suffer from any sort of overchoice paralysis, I follow what whims I have in terms of the kind of MMO I think will satisfy that whim. I don’t really suffer from FOMO because I am clinically bad at keeping pace with the newest stuff and ultimately don’t really care to do so. I also don’t believe vote splitting is a thing because, hey look, I can absolutely love and support, both fiscally and with time invested, several different games at once.

I will admit, though, that these feelings are a baseline and can surge one way or the other. We all suffer from MMO burnout and I am most assuredly no exception; I absolutely knuckled down and brought myself to a point where I can play the next Final Fantasy XIV expansion at launch, and there are weeks where I focus on a single game no matter how many different ones I like. But again, that’s how I manage choice, not become paralyzed by it. Choice is good. Options are great. I still contend that, no matter how loudly people believe that having so many choices is a dilution of the genre.

What I will see common ground on, though, is people’s propensity for being less forgiving if a game’s feature doesn’t live up to expectations. A lot of the time, it feels like most MMO titles walk on a knife’s edge where one wrong decision will begin the sheep bleating of “DEAD GAME! DEAD GAME!” and that absolutely seems like a result of having so many other options out there. That said, I’d really rather not see One Game to Rule Them All, especially when the “ideal game” is so delightfully different from person to person. As it should be. Which is why we have choices.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Do we have too many FPS titles? Too many WW2 games? Too many CRPGs? Too many Final Fantasy installments? Too many sports franchise entries? We have a lot of all sorts of entertainment, but “too many” suggests a judgment call to guard against some sort of undesirable consequence.

I want more MMOs because there may well be a really good one around the corner. Because these games are finite and aging, albeit with a long tail. Because someone may create or iterate something that hasn’t been seen before. Because we do need new experiences after a while. Because creativity shouldn’t have a hard limit. Because I enjoy covering MMOs and don’t want this great ride to come to an end. Because competition drives better development. Because it’s silly to think MMOs have a zero sum audience in this modern age of gaming.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I have been massively overthinking this question, and my conclusion is that a lot of people would stop playing MMORPGs altogether if their favorite game just disappeared, leaving them with narrower field of choices. Nobody is required to play a game at all, and there is nothing stopping people from all flocking to one single game. Free will is splitting the market. Let’s put it this way: If all there were to play was the Big Four discussed last week, I would go play in another genre or ramp up my other hobbies instead.

I agree with my colleagues who say that a lack of innovation is a problem also. It is hard to grow a following if you keep serving up a slightly remixed version of the same features and stories. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: You are part of a special group sent to be the heroes that save the world…

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I don’t think too many MMOs is a problem. I will rarely fall on the side of limiting choices of anything. For instance, we have more access to music than we ever did before. Does this mean the music industry is struggling and we’ll never find another great artist or performer? No, obviously not. Report after report continue to come out saying that the industry is growing like mad and that revenues are up like crazy. Now, is it possible we are beyond the days of single super bands like Queen, Journey, or The Beatles? Maybe. But that could just mean that people don’t have to listen to the band anymore that everyone is listening to, they can find music more tailored to their tastes, and they can indulge.

It’s the same with MMOs. Give us choices. Give us every friggin’ combination of style, aesthetics, gameplay, and mechanics. Players are going to find something that they fit into, and they’ll play it.

Sure, people will hop around games, but that’s because they are games. They are meant to be enjoyable and fun. The moment the fun seems to be waning, we should play something else. And truth be told, in some imaginary world where we don’t have a lot of choices of MMOs; I suspect players would simply leave the industry and play other game types. I don’t believe we would collectively shrug and think, “Well it’s either WoW or FFXIV. Neither is really what I want to play right now, but it’s what I got so I’ll just play WoW today and FFXIV tomorrow.” No. Way. If that were the case, you’d just play a single player game, or… maybe a battle royale?

Tyler Edwards: I’m not sure it’s a particularly serious problem, but I do think it’s a fair point to make. We have a lot of MMOs, and there are definitely games out there that I would probably have played more of if there wasn’t so much competition.

It also doesn’t help that so many games are so similar. We may have moved past the era where a new WoW clone with a fresh coat of paint was released seemingly every other month (and thank the gods for that), but MMORPGs are still a genre that isn’t exactly known for having a lot of wildly original games. That’s somewhat understandable given the investment and risk an MMO entails, but still, a crowded field would be less of an issue if MMOs were better at distinguishing themselves from the pack.

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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