Massively Overthinking: The undeath of the MMORPG genre


Last week, there was a provocative thread on the MMORPG subreddit that subverted the tired idea that the genre is “dead.” It’s not, u/Selphea argued – but it is undead.

“What if MMOs have the opposite problem of dying? The real problem seems to be that MMOs are undying because the genre is built around neverending updates. There’s no incentive to innovate because most players are locked in to existing games. There’s a lot of 10 to 20 year old zombie MMOs, big and small, lurching around with niches of PvPers, space simmers, raiders, solo farmers, sandboxers and so on. They’ve all accumulated decades of limited event collectibles, pets, costumes, done their homes up nicely, have stable Discords, guild buddies and all that.”

Cue a long discussion thread, in which people debate whether the MMO genre needs to die fully before it can be reborn, like pretty much every other game and genre except ours: “MMORPGs didn’t fail, instead they became so successful that they broke the cycle.”

You know we’ve gotta talk about this. Let’s Massively Overthink it.

Andy McAdams: I don’t think they need to die – that implies a hard break between what they are now, and what they can be. MMOs thrive on persistence. It’s one of the hallmarks of our genre. I can go back to Anarchy Online, resub, and pick up my Metaphysicist right where I left off – in a world that’s familiar to me and has been around for decades. We have virtual spaces that have existed longer than some towns (and still we treat the digital spaces as not mattering, as not-real because everyone knows digital is fake… but that’s a topic for a different time). But that’s our strength: Our worlds have existed and evolved and we have a thousand memories tied to Tamriel, Rubi-Ka, Azeroth, Tyria — the list goes on and on.

MMOs need to find a way to wrap their bloated, ungainly caterpillar bodies in a cocoon and burst forth as a pretty rainbow butterfly that sheds the obsolete constraints, keeps the best aspects of what it was before, then flies off to places previously completely unreachable.
I think the “death” of the MMO genre to be reborn would be a huge tragedy with the loss of that space we can never go home to. What I think needs to happen is that MMOs need to metamorphose. I think we want them to maintain a part of what they were, but to be more. My sense is that many of the current, successful games are still as successful because of player inertia with the sunk cost fallacy. I’ve spent years in WoW collecting things, growing my character, so to have all of that ripped away for something new — that’s not a good thing. It’s the same reason that Blizzard will probably never create WoW 2. I think Ion and friends know their game is lagging in design, philosophy, customization, graphics that would all be easier solved by scrapping and starting over. But I would bet that a hefty number of people either 1) wouldn’t want to leave WoW at all, or 2) would leave and not want to put that 15 years into another game.

It’s a weird place for us to be. The death of the MMO game means more loss than what we expect – look at CoH and the furor around people being able to “go home.” MMOs need to find a way to wrap their bloated, ungainly caterpillar bodies in a cocoon and burst forth as a pretty rainbow butterfly that sheds the obsolete constraints, keeps the best aspects of what it was before, then flies off to places previously completely unreachable. But there has to be a continuation there: If player habits have shown us anything, it’s that we care very deeply, with very real emotions about these virtual spaces we call home. MMOs need to find a way to bring “home” along with us into our new world, not just burn our old home to the ground.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): This thread jumped out at me on Reddit because it wasn’t just another “RIP MMOs” thread. The metaphor and language for describing the genre grabbed me, and so did the historical introspection. I’m just not sure I agree with several of the points.

For example, I don’t agree that there’s been no innovation. There most definitely has been, even in recent years, in both old and new MMOs. It’s just not toward the virtual worlds that I prefer. I don’t think the genre is struggling because people are locked into old games, either. I’m playing old games, but it’s because of a lack of new things I prefer, not because there’s nothing that could make me uproot. So many people are waiting for something better, not just something new. Not to mention something viable long-term! And I think part of me resents the idea that older games are zombies in the first place. They’re plenty alive. You’re just not in them. We don’t need a great purge of old games that are doing just fine with people who are happy playing them just to seed new games. New games need to have their own draw to attract players young and old, not just rely on desperate refugees who’ll settle for good enough.

Ultimately, I don’t think the genre is dead or undead. It’s just evolving to survive. And that doesn’t always mean in a direction we like.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): See… I feel like part of the problem here is the premise. Like, the framing of the discussion is that there are several existing titles of advancing years with bases of players entrenched and enjoying themselves… and that’s a bad thing. That’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Far more often than that, the problem is that there’s an existing and beloved world getting shuttered due to various corporate antics, ranging from profit margins to licenses to changing ownership to who knows what else. People complaining that the industry is dying are as much concerned over the loss of older titles as they are with the absence of new ones. Or, put more succinctly, what the original question sees as the industry being “undead” is what I see as a sign that it is doing what it wants to do.

Yes, there’s ground to say that there is a paucity of MMOs coming out compared to, say, the days when it became clear that World of Warcraft was making all the money (after EverQuest made lots of money, and after Ultima Online turned out to make money… you get the idea). But some of that has less to do with death so much as expense weighed against expected returns. Making a new MMO is costly and time-consuming, and making a new battle royale game is quick… and a lot of places haven’t yet clued in to the idea that maybe battle royale games aren’t a license to print money any more than making a thin clone of WoW was a license to print money in 2008. And people continue to invest in existing games because, well, they are having fun in those games and those games keep getting investments as well. It’s not like The Elder Scrolls Online hasn’t been innovating or improving over its history, after all.

We all need a longer perspective for games that naturally have a much longer lifespan than a lot of other titles.
Do we need a death for the genre to be reborn? Not really; a die-off just involves, well, death. Could we use more new projects in development? Certainly, but new projects alone don’t necessarily translate to everything being ideal; look at the graveyard of ideas that didn’t work out super well. And history has shown that if a new game is well-designed and grabs people’s attention, it can pull people away from existing games just fine. Black Desert Online is only four years old in the west, but it’s done well enough that its owner has been on a purchasing spree, and that’s not nothing.

If anything, I think that what really needs to happen is that we all need a longer perspective for games that naturally have a much longer lifespan than a lot of other titles. Just because any given MMO isn’t like Call of Duty and doesn’t get supplanted by the new version this year isn’t a problem. It’s definitely the case that we have several games that are still going strong a decade or more after their initial release, but the genre itself is only 23 years old or so, and that just indicates the longevity can be there. Heck, there are still people who hold up Super Street Fighter II Turbo as an ideal fighting game; no one is arguing that that genre needs to die off completely in order for new fighting games to hit the market. (Although maybe Capcom should… take a break for a bit.)

There’s less churn for successful MMOs than some other genres, but that’s kind of the nature of the genre itself. And if my options are between several stable and healthy games that people are enjoying right now or smashing them all and hoping that something new comes out of the wreckage, well, I’m always going to err on the side of not destroying things people enjoy.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): Although I think the reports of the death (or undeath) of MMORPGs has been greatly exaggerated, I do think this might be a good time to take stock. While the virtual world (or space) sector has stagnated a bit, the MMO adjacent space has exploded. It is not unusual to see all sorts of games with some kind of large-scale multiplayer elements.

And even within the MMORPG sector, FFXIV, ESO, and even WoW continue to be strong. And they continue to innovate, to some extent.

The question of innovation is a tough one because it can’t be just new stuff. It has to be the right new stuff, something that players want and enjoy.

I don’t think it has to die off to be reborn. I think we just need a couple of renaissance titles to bring it back into the mainstream of gaming culture.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): There is certainly some truth here. I suppose it wouldn’t have gained as much attention if it didn’t. However, I think my biggest gripe with new MMOs is that few are actually doing anything interesting enough to pull players into them in a big way.

Initially, the big push post WoW were all clones. Well, players got tired of that. Now, so many games are just attempting to recreate the past, the pre-WoW MMORPG. For some of the games, that makes a lot of sense. We definitely have the technology and infrastructure to build the worlds that we wanted but were not actually feasible before. My problem here is a lot of them are also copying the bits of those games that were problematic too.

There is room for the current games to continue to exist and prosper while new games can be innovative and popular too. If a game could actually streamline and improve the gameplay experience in a similar way to how WoW did – while also giving players the agency and options that old games did – maybe then will have a new planet-changing game on our hands.

Tyler Edwards: Well… I have argued before that there isn’t a pressing need for many new MMOs because we already have such a great selection of current ones, so I guess I agree with the poster, but trying to frame “we don’t need new games because people are having so much fun with the old ones” as a negative takes some serious mental gymnastics. Talk about seeing the glass as half empty.

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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