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

    
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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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Josh Hayes

Hi, I’m Josh ‘Strife’ hayes, the writer and creator of the video.

The fact that so many knowledgeable and passionate people have watched it is humbling, i’m so happy it’s caused a conversation to happen.

I don’t want MMORPG games to stop being made, because Justin is correct when he says the ‘next great one’ might be just around the corner, it’s just a shame the ‘next great one’ so often turns out to be a cookie-cutter, by the numbers game.

You ask if we have too many fps games as a great contrast, and i’d argue that recently we’ve only had one fps game with several titles and companies behind it, each game shares so many similarities i could spend all day playing 20 games and feel like i’ve played 1, the button layout, graphics, gameplay, voice acting, plot or general feel of them all being interchangable, I wish MMORPG’s would be brave enough to step away from the formula they’ve been clinging too, we won’t create ‘the next great game’ by doing what we’ve always done.

Thank you very much for actually crediting me as the creator and linking the video, that’s a level of journalistic integrity I don’t see often.

Have a great day all, and keep on gaming.

Strife x

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Jim Bergevin Jr

The problem is, any time a game has tried to be innovative or different, gamers complain it is not enough like “Game X” and it ends up failing. The truth of the matter is that the majority if gamers don’t want to have to spend time learning something new, they want to jump in and play something they are already familiar with so they can hit the top if the “leader boards” faster.

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Robert Mann

Yeah, and studios listen to them. There’s a really solid need for companies to learn how to work with feedback, find good testers, and make a quality product. Sadly, the investment in people paying for access hurts us here, because no longer do companies feel the need to pay or select appropriate testers for their games. :(

laelgon
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laelgon

I think there is also a problem where the people who are going to join a games community first are the most vocal and dedicated to their idea of what the genre is. Anytime a company announces they are making a sandbox MMO, the first people to jump in are the people who think UO was the high point of MMOs, and any deviation from that formula will be loudly opposed.

Studios need to be careful of not listening exclusively to the people who are on board years out from launch. It’s good to get some input from people who have played a lot of games in whatever kind of MMO you’re making, but also know that they will quickly jump to whatever title is announced next with vague enough design it can be whatever they imagine it to be.

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Castagere Shaikura

Yeah, this too. This is what killed GW2 for me. Right on the message boards, people were complaining it wasn’t like wow and it needed to be. Truthfully adding mounts really killed it for me because the game didn’t need them.

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Dilly Dolly

The gameplay does need them now.

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Castagere Shaikura

Great vid Josh and the problem today is devs and game companies are gun shy and are afraid to do something different. Its why we keep getting the same thing over and over. That wow money killed innovation.

butterpanda888
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butterpanda888

I actually like having so many. I see where Josh is coming from, I’m just weird.

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Xell

sorry double post

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Xell

Yes, there are many more MMOs then you can ever play in your lifetime (even just to get max level)

Vaeris
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Vaeris

Having a flooded market would be okay if there was any real diversity in the games. Truth of the matter is developers are scared/shy about straying too far from the cookie cutter themepark method of games. They are too afraid of players saying that some aspect of their game “feels like work”. They are too sensitive to making the entire game reward players for not spending or spending as little time in game as possible.

When the person who “doesn’t have much time to play so let me do everything in 30 minutes” stops being the target…if that ever happens…then I think we’ll see a few more games that test the boundaries of a virtual world and include many facets of gameplay that don’t quickly become monotonous.

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Anstalt

I don’t think we have too many MMOs. I don’t even think there are that many MMOs in total, assuming you stick to the proper definition of massively multiplayer.

The problem, as many others have already said, is one of design stagnation.

The MMO market is potentially massive – MMOFPS’s, RTS’s, RPGs etc. Only the MMORPG genre is really being serviced. Even within that, most follow very similar design paradigms. Worse, the design paradigms they follow have been copied from single player RPGs. So, not only is only one very small sub-genre of MMOs being developed for, the designs are already old to us because we’ve seen them before.

I also think that MMOs have a distinct disadvantage compared to single player games: the time frame.

For players, instead of playing a single player game for 20-40 hours, we’re in MMOs for 1000s of hours. This gives us an insane amount of time to recognise what we love and what we hate. This deeper understanding of our own tastes then informs our future purchasing decisions. However, given the relatively small number of games, combined with the similiar designs, this makes it impossible to find an MMO that doesn’t contain flaws we’ve already seen before.

For the developers, it’s just a much longer development cycle so they have less chance to try out new designs. Decisions made 10 years ago will still get in the way today, for example, it’d be too expensive to switch from tab-target to action combat (or vice versa), or to switch from vertical to horizontal progression. I feel like the developers themselves have less opportunity to learn through their own experiences, compared to the single player world, and must instead attempt to learn lessons from those around them (which seems to be hard, given how many mistakes get repeated).

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Jack Pipsam

The thought often comes into my mind.
There are so many sweet titles in the past, that waiting for the next one isn’t always going to bring what people want, that BIG next game, in a broader marketplace which finds the MMO word as an off-put.
Elder Scrolls Online was the last big chance to get everyone on board with an MMO I reckon just because of the IP attached to it. They blew it by releasing a shunty game out of the gate. If they released what’s now, it could have been huge. Not just huge to us, but huge to gaming. Often during E3, people snigger or sigh during the ESO bit I tend to find from broader gaming, the perception is still the game which launched, not the game which is now.

In fact, I have another dangerous idea comes into my mind. While I find every game that closes sad, even ones I couldn’t give two rats about. I often wonder a hypothetical scenario where a bunch of MMOs shut down, would all those players pour into the remaining ones, boosting their numbers?
The answer, of course, is no. If a bunch of loli-anime games close, that isn’t going to suddenly boost Dark Age of Camelot or visa-versa.

I dunno, but it would be better if there was some better way to direct people to things of the past. There’s a lot of MMO YouTube channels who get big numbers, it would be great if they were encouraged to do a special once a month or so promoting a game from the past, or a game which nobody talks about and stifle the temptation just to talk about the graphics.

We have plenty of new games coming out, but not an influx in players. I think it was a couple of years ago I wrote in saying how the lack of tween/teens currently interested in MMOs would dry-up the well sooner or later.
I enjoy waiting for the next shiny too, but there are so many cool games in the past, that waiting for the next disappointment isn’t going to help. What are people waiting for anyway? Kickstarter titles three years off? Amazon? If you’re counting on Amazon, that might end badly IMO.

The fact the most hyped, big deal release which it seems ‘everyone’ is looking forward too is WoW Classic should say it all. Even I, Mr. was seven-years-old without intenret at the time and have no serious connection to vanilla WoW personally am finding the WoW Classic to be the most exciting thing in the MMO horizon.
It used to be Camelot Unchained, but as time goes on, I dunno’ about that one now despite my previous excitement, years ago now.

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Paragon Lost

Yup, I think Hayes is on to something here. Nothing much to add beyond that, but I did want to join in posting a “yepper”.

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NeoWolf

As the MMO genre itself has many sub genre’s not just of type of MMO playstyle wise but setting wise I think it is in a somewhat unique position of not really ever getting flooded per se.

Sure it has a lot of game and many of them are a hard miss but players/consumers are pretty good at filtering out what they don’t want with what they do in order to keep potential candidates within the genre to a relatively small number.

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MassivelyMacD

First, there is the paradox of choice. Go to your local supermarket. If they offer three different kinds of jam/jelly (not sure what the correct word here is), you got no problem deciding. If they offer thirty, you don’t know what to do, because the choice makes you feel that whatever you picked something else would have been better. In that respect less can really be more.

Now add to that the fact that with regards to MMORPG it seems that the majority of them seem to clone one formula (successful for one of those games) over and over again, sometimes better, sometimes worse; that MMORPGs are not really the mainstream games but a niche with a niche player popularity; that in these games a lot is about community and that is is potentially bad when such a relatively small community is spread over so many games; that the original player base gets older with less time available and there is not so much new blood, since other genres are more interesting to the younger generations; then the answer is clearly: yes, too many of them.

And this is not factoring the quality of those games in. If they were all brilliant, the problem would not be smaller.

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Schmidt.Capela

The way I, personally, am affected by those issues is:

– Analysis paralysis: doesn’t quite affect me when it comes to choosing what game to play, in particular when the options are F2P (i.e., with no entry barriers). Analysis paralysis tends to only be a problem for me when going back on my choice is hard, onerous, or impossible.
Caveat: analysis paralysis can actually be an issue for me inside an MMO. If I get to a point where I need to make an important choice in how my character will develop, and going back on that choice is hard or impossible, I might be unable to make the choice and stop playing until I can finally decide on a course of action, with the end result being that I often never make the decision nor come back to the game.

– Fear of missing out: as long as the game has no time-limited content or rewards this doesn’t affect me at all. I’m the kind of person that often starts playing a “new” game months after it’s released simply because I wasn’t willing to stop whatever I was already playing or push it up on my backlog. And trying to trigger that response on me by artificially limiting any piece of content or reward actually has the opposite effect on me; not only I won’t jump onto a different game just because I feel like I’m missing out, but after I missed the limited content or reward it makes the chance I will ever give the game a try close to nil.

– Vote splitting: yeah, I kinda agree with this. It’s the reason forming a new community similar to what pre-Trammel UO had is close to impossible. But it doesn’t influence me that much because when playing MMOs I don’t seek a community, I seek ad-hoc multiplayer; in fact, if community “features” are strong enough, if other players can influence my gameplay even against my wishes and force me to acknowledge them, I’ll likely stop playing soon after that first happens.

– Illusion of the ideal: I’m certainly more picky than I was a decade ago, but this is with regard to games as a whole, not just MMOs. If I don’t have a choice among MMOs that tracks my preferences closely enough I’ll just go play non-MMO games instead. And those, due to the possibility of modding and cheating, can often be brought closer to my preferences regardless of how the devs intended them to be played; my current time-sink is Stardew Valley with about 50 different mods, one of which is a bunch of tweaks and minor features I programmed myself.