This annual column always inspires a certain amount of debate, which is intentional. Outside of the office, a good chunk of that debate is usually about whether or not these titles are all supposed to shut down, which means that it’s a debate about a point the column is not actually making. The title there is not “MMOs facing an imminent shutdown,” but MMOs with uncertain futures. Which usually includes at least a few titles that are at once perfectly safe from shutdown and also really unclear in their outlook.
So it’s not meant to just be “what game or studio has the stormiest future” or anything (we do that as a separate thing). No, this is just a look ahead at the games in some playable state that feel like their future is… unsure. Maybe they’re circling the drain, maybe they’re just at a weird crossroads with a very near horizon for the future, or maybe there’s other weirdness going on. Uncertainty is multifaceted. Stop freaking out.
1. Guild Wars 2
This isn’t a ranked list, but I put this one first specifically to make the point. If you’re already hopping down to the comments to protest… well, you won’t read this line, but for those who stuck around slightly longer, relax. This isn’t “the game might shut down this year” or anything even adjacent to that. It’s doing fine. It’s making solid money. No, the uncertainty comes from the fact that last year’s layoffs were a huge disruption for the game’s business-as-usual, and there’s a whole lot of confidence in need of restoration and actual, like… content plans needed for the longer-term future.
ArenaNet has been playing its cards really close to its chest for a while now, which means that the forecast for Guild Wars 2’s future is intentionally very short and there’s some debate about whether the current saga format is meant to be the new normal, a stopgap ahead of a new expansion, or what. We just don’t know what the future holds for the game this year. It could be really good… or not. But we don’t know.
I can’t help but be reminded of how many people said the best possible future for the EverQuest franchise would be taking it away from Daybreak.
2. Z1 Battle Royale
Look, H1Z1 by whichever name it’s known was a complete trash fire mess that had exactly one major success to its name by jumping into the battle royale genre accidentally before it became a whole thing. Now it is a whole thing, and more to the point, it’s debatable how much it really qualifies as a genre rather than just a couple of titles sucking all the air out of the room.
The game made Daybreak a lot of money… years ago. Now, the game’s console version seems to still be limping along, while the PC version is far less healthy. But maybe it’s healthier than we know. Maybe there’s some second (all right, fourth or fifth) wind in the game’s future? It feels, well… uncertain.
3. Astellia Online
This one kind of stings because I’ve played and like Astellia Online. It’s not transformative, but it’s a solid enough game that has space to grow. Except it, er… might not have space to grow. It’s long since had people comparing it to Bless Online (and you don’t know how close Bless Unleashed was to a spot on this column because I don’t know why that ever sounded like a good idea to someone), it’s been shut down (by an admittedly messy publisher) in its native country, and it has the feeling of a title placed on life support as soon as it launched.
At the same time, its shutdown in its native land had more to do with Nexon’s slow-motion implosion and it has the advantage over Bless by not actually being atrocious to play. So maybe this one does have more space and time to develop after all. I’d certainly like to see it.
The thing about RIFT is that it’s a solid game struggling under the weight of mismanagement. That’s kind of been its persistent history. We all joked about how Gamigo didn’t buy Trion for this title, but it feels like the studio only belatedly realized that the game actually does have a solid user base that, with proper updates and development, would be ecstatic to keep supporting the game.
It’s a pity that the game’s development staff seems to have been thoroughly gutted before that was realized.
I’m really not sure what’s going on with RIFT this year. I don’t get the feeling Gamigo totally knows, either. Obviously it wants the game to be a success because unlike certain studios (like, say, the one that shows up here twice), it really does try not to throw away existing money on the table. But restoring confidence and a playerbase and a gutted development team is a tall order with lots of potential outcomes.
5. PlanetSide 2
So let’s recap. Daybreak, through no real intentional moves, stumbled into battle royale and success with H1Z1. Sure, all right. Once that star started to fade, though, the developers needed to do something to keep things moving. The choice was thus made to… make PlanetSide Arena, which is the sort of thing that PlanetSide 2 fans were probably dreading as soon as the first part of this story happened. And surprising no one, PSA was basically dead on arrival and left PS2 with a gaping wound.
Great thinking there. Fortunately, it’s not clear how much this all actually affects PS2 going forward, apart from the gutted developer team, but that’s partly because the title already had issues even before all this went down and now I’m wondering why I started this sentence implying this was fortunate. Again, this seems to be one of those situations where fans are kind of hoping someone else will buy this property.
6. World of Warcraft
So we’re in a weird place in Azeroth. World of Warcraft is struggling through to the end of an expansion no one likes, with another expansion on the horizon that has not really gotten the pop that the designers were hoping for. It contains no new classes or races, and it doesn’t deliver on the story promises that the aforementioned expansion made. World of Warcraft: Classic launched to a big pop, but subsequently it has seemingly flared right back down. The seemingly unassailable game now seems eminently… well, assailable.
Is Shadowlands going to behave the way that this game’s expansions usually do, bringing back a good chunk of population regardless of quality? Is it going to be a good expansion, a bad one, or just mediocre? (We’re used to every other expansion being good these days, but that’s not a natural law.) Is there more space for Classic to resurge, or no? The game will doubtlessly still be here, but it’s definitely possible that it has lost its aforementioned unassailable lead forever.
7. City of Heroes
You know what? I’m honestly all right if this one has the worse ending because even if we lost Homecoming and the like, City of Heroes now has a functional emulator that’s out there for all the world to use even on a smaller scale. It’s never going away again. The community will have it forever.
So we’re not expecting any sort of ending this year. But even if Homecoming shut down today, it wouldn’t be a definite ending. And in fact it feels like there’s a very plausible ending wherein a rogue server actually becomes semi-legitimate instead of being some faintly wrong thing.
That’s uncertain, but in the best way. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.
8. Shroud of the Avatar
I really debated whether or not this one deserved a spot because on the one hand, it seems like there’s a pretty clear ending for how things go for Shroud of the Avatar at this point. When Richard Garriott has left the building, it’s… not a good sign for a game that was funded on his name, you know?
But there’s actually a lot of uncertainty here, upon further reflection. Sure, a lot of that uncertainty involves things like whether or not there are legal consequences for some wildly missed deadlines and filings, and there’s also the ongoing claim that the second episode is still in development. I don’t think there are any good endings awaiting for this game, but there are lots of weird bad possibilities.
9. Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen
Whatever you might feel about his preferences in terms of game design, the loss of Brad McQuaid is an absolute tragedy for our shared genre. I remember sitting down to interview him about the game at PAX East one year, and to my intense satisfaction, the man not only understood the way that the genre and needs of social time had changed but was intent on making Pantheon actively respond to those changes. It filled me with energy to see him not attempting to remake the original EverQuest or Vanguard but to actively adapt the model of grouping and slower pace for a modern audience.
And now we’ve lost him forever, and it’s simply tragic and heartbreaking.
The question we need to ask here, of course, is what this means for the future of his game. On the one hand, there’s definitely a lot of people interested in the title pushing forward and there’s a staff working on the game, doing its best to reassure everyone that development will continue with McQuaid’s vision at the heart of it. On the other hand, there’s the loss of the man himself impacting everything. And that’s not even asking questions like how the design might change when the motivator himself is no longer there to guide the ship and what major elements might be different.
10. Chronicles of Elyria
All right, it’s debatable whether this actually counts as a playable game, but the studio is willing to sell you a bunch of pretend land as if it were. Although even that can’t quite get off the ground, it seems. Sometimes being a storm isn’t all it’s stormed up to be.
The natives appear to be restless, the days tick by, and there’s a general sense that all is not well amidst the people waiting to see if this one is going anywhere… especially with the insanely ambitious scope and the fact that some people paid thousands of dollars to be pretend royalty. (And sometimes disappeared altogether after spending all that money.) I don’t know quite how the story plays out this year or even if it ends, but it feels like we should have popcorn for Chronicles of Elyria over the next few months.