Massively Overthinking: Niche MMOs vs. everythingboxes

Let's fight about Raph Koster's new game!


Earlier this month, veteran MMORPG designer Raph Koster announced that he’s finally making a new MMORPG, with a suite of top devs and a fat stack of cash to do it. While the pitch has been a little vague and maybe more designed to attract investors than fans right now, some of the goals are pretty clear: It’s being built for a “broad range of players […] whether their preferred playstyle is exploring, adventuring, socializing, crafting, or player versus player combat.” Says the official blurby, “These diverse communities can each play the game in their own way, or cross over with one another, delivering diverse play experience and enriching the world.”

Nevertheless, the announcement brought up an old argument here in the community, an argument we characterized as niche vs. the everythingbox as far back as 2014. While some MMO gamers want a game with everything so lots of different types of people can play, others are absolutely convinced that only games that – to quote one commenter – “stay in their lane” and focus on doing one thing well have a chance. It’s a topic we’ve touched on several times through the years, but it seems like a good time to muse on it again, especially since Koster’s a developer who’s not only done the research on really broad games but actually built a few successful ones.

So let’s fight about Raph Koster’s new game! For this week’s Overthinking, I’ve asked the staff to weigh in, first on how they feel about Koster’s pitch and chances in the MMO market, and second on narrowly focused MMOs vs. those with much broader appeal and content.

Andy McAdams: This is an interesting question. I think if anyone has a chance of pulling off a successful everythingbox, Koster is the guy to do it. The pitch is too vague to say much more about right now, so we’ll just say that he likely has the best chance of making it work.

Now as the for everythingbox vs. niche — I think the everythingbox is the way we are moving… as a general rule. The most consistently successful MMO on the market adopts this approach with a little bit of everything for everyone, but maybe not necessarily everything that we would want from it. That being said, it’s also completely unreasonable to expect any new MMO to burst onto the market with everythingbox creds on Day 1. I expect a more narrowly focused initial release that gradually expands into an everythingbox. If Raph tries to deliver the world on Day 1, assuming he ever gets to release, he’s very likely to create a less polished and more unsatisfying experience. I think he, and anyone developing an everythingbox, has to start with a narrow focus and expand out to make sure they an enjoyable, sticky experience to fund the rest of the box.

I don’t think there’s much value in “staying in your lane”; niche games will always be a one-trick pony. That puts a lot of pressure on doing that one thing well, without any other things to entice people you have to be one of the best at that one thing consistently to remain relevant. If you fall out of favor with your singular crowd you are courting — well, ya boned. It’s a risky strategy for long-term success of a game.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I don’t mind that MMOs sometimes try to appeal to everybody. In fact, it’s nice to have a wide variety of things to do in a game. Sometimes you want to be the hero. Sometimes you just want to pick flowers or poke around at the crafting table. There is one thing that I wish more MMO’s would do with respect to narrowing focus, though: either be a PvP game or be a PvE-focused game. As a mostly PvE player, I find it’s incredibly irritating when your character gets nerfed because of balance problems that have nothing to do with the way you play the game.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think I will be a forever fan of MMOs with broad appeal and lots of different types of content. Can one game attract everyone? No, of course not; people whose goals directly conflict (I want to kill you, but you want to not be killed by me) will never be happy all in the same game. But the majority of players like to dabble in a couple of different gameplay types that can easily overlap with other player groups in an ecosystem designed for them to do so. It’s not that I mind small or niche or indie games that do their thing; it’s that I am skeptical when people insist full-fledged AAA MMORPGs must also “stay in their lane” – that leads to poorly fleshed out virtual worlds and very narrow (and risky) playerbases being catered to.

Koster has long been one of my favorite developers who put together two of the best games in the pre-WoW era of MMOs, both of which were virtual worlds with broad appeal and diverse playerbases, which is exactly where I like to romp. He’s stayed MMO adjacent all these years, watching and predicting and yep, learning. When we covered the Ultima Online chapters of his most recent book last year, the two parts that struck me most are the two that seem most relevant here: First, that Koster learned a lot about player behavior and PvP design over the course of the early years of UO, and he seems unlikely to make the same mistakes. And second, that it was always the tech, not the vision, that held back MMOs. “At some point, reality will catch up to our designs from 1995,” he wrote. Maybe we’re there now.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): One of the reasons I like games with a cash shop and open PvP is their reputation. Games like that turn off a large chunk of players, and a lot of those players are the type that I find pretty annoying. Having that niche lets me play with more like-minded individuals. I know I’ll be in a group that enjoys the same type of gameplay and accept the reality the game sets with its system. I remember a player complaining in Black Desert chat about how he and his girlfriend kept getting PKed and how it was ruining their night. He then went on to say how it’s unfair that he couldn’t unwind because players wouldn’t let him. Server chat basically laughed him off pretty hard, telling him to go play another game or something more forgiving. I agreed with the playerbase on that call because the game’s designed for a specific type of player.

MMOs with mass appeal attract all sorts of players, and there are players I simply don’t like playing with. Having a niche doesn’t completely solve it, but it’s a good enough stopgap to make sure I can play with the players I like to/tolerate playing with.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Mmm, this crunchy old chestnut again. My feelings haven’t diverged too much since March, though Koster’s experience certainly brings some new things to the table. I suppose his idea of what an everythingbox MMO would look like would certainly be guided by all of his experience, but the proof will ultimately be in the actual pudding instead of describing how creamy and delicious said pudding is planned to be.

Otherwise, my feelings are generally the same in that having a clear and concise vision of what your MMO is and what types of players it’s meant to draw in always seems the best bet. That said, having a wide-scope game be successful isn’t completely beyond the pale (looking at you, Final Fantasy XIV), it’s just harder to pull off with so many divergent desires for a game to cater to and the general perception that an everythingbox is just another WoW clone. Still, if anyone can “pull a Yoshi-P” it’s possibly Koster. Time will tell.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I have played games Raph Koster had a hand in and have long admired his writing on game design. And I like games that are both complex and complicated. That should make me hopeful, right?

I hope it turns out to be the interesting and complex virtual world many of us have been waiting for. It is just so hard to get the “everything burger” right, and it is hard to look forward to something that might be 5+ years away.

Note that I am steering clear of saying “sandbox,” opting for “virtual world” instead. “Sandbox” means different things to different people, and sometimes it is shorthand for “we skimped on content.” I understand that the players can be the content, but they have to be given the tools to do that.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): With a name like Raph Koster pushing it forward, the game is bound to get up to the “pre-alpha,” “early access,” “give us money to help test” phase at least. Past that, though, who the hell knows? We continue to have old-school devs pop up out of the woodwork and claim they are now going to make the game of their dreams – and our dreams too. I’m honestly tired of it. With the wealth of games in existence that I can play today, I just don’t have the willpower to care that much about what might, someday, in the future, possibly be a good game. When you’re ready to show me a game – and I mean a game, not a few renderings and concept art, not a bunch of systems loosely tied together with bubblegum and duct tape – but an actual game? Then I’ll be ready.

Now, the everything box versus the highly focused game – I’m actually leaning toward the everything box. In the recent past, I would have said that a more narrowly focused game is the future. Yet, having played games like Crowfall, I’m just not so sure anymore. The original concept of Crowfall really pulled me in. I thought, “This is going to be exactly what I want!” But now that I’ve played it, I don’t see it anymore. As I’m playing, I constantly wonder where the real game is going to manifest. I read the game updates and news about the next big system the team is adding. I look at the roadmaps of how it plans on everything coming together – and it just feels empty. Now, this could be a result of Crowfall being a PvP-oriented game, where the thrill arises from GvG and similar combat, but it still feels empty. I see how there can be crafters and gatherers in the guild, but I just can’t see it expanding to the point that I would feel like I’m immersed in a real, living world. I am beginning to feel like I need the everything box, where players of all types come together to do their own thing independently (doesn’t make sense, but it does!).

Tyler Edwards: I don’t have enough personal experience with Koster’s previous games or knowledge of his current project to have an opinion of it one way or the other, but I can comment on the issue of narrow versus broad-focus games.

I have been pretty clear for a long time that I am very strongly in favor of MMOs becoming more niche and focused. It’s simply common sense that a jack of all trades is a master of none. The more different types of gameplay you try to include a single title, the more shallow and less enjoyable each one will be. In the days when subscriptions were the norm and playing only a single game was the way most people approached MMOs, it made a bit more sense to try to have a broad appeal to prevent people wandering, but now most things are free to play and almost no one plays only one game at a time, so there’s really nothing to be gained by trying to be all things to all people.

Of course you can go too far to the other extreme and make a game that’s too one-dimensional — a little variety of content is good — but having a clear focus is important if you want to deliver truly quality experiences.

And do note that there is a difference between a game with a clear focus on one goal — like story or PvP — and a game that has a variety of options on offer but heavily privileges one over the others. World of Warcraft focusing on raiding while making only a token effort toward catering to other playstyles is not an idol to emulate.

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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