Massively Overthinking: The undeath of the MMORPG genre

    
39
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!

No posts to display

newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Reader
Ben Stone

I think the problem is that none of the big budget attempts to dethrone WoW tried anything innovative. So the industry has used the failure of small budget innovative MMOs as the reason not to try. Everyone chasing the safe WoW bucks also failed because there was no reason to play them over WoW, and they generally failed on a few key items.

The wave of Kickstarters will have their own niches (and I am hoping both Pantheon and Crowfall do well enough to stick around), but we just need a large developer to take a chance on something new.

Reader
Bruno Brito

there isn’t a pressing need for many new MMOs because we already have such a great selection of current ones

lol.

Reader
Castagere Shaikura

And that’s also an issue there are just way too many as it is.

Alyn
Reader
Alyn

It takes time to create a work of art. Yes, for me a well written and designed mmo is artwork.

Reader
Robert Mann

There is PLENTY of demand for innovation. The issue is that when business executives look at games they want what has made money before, not some ‘risky thing’.

This leaves gamers less and less satisfied in general, and is why essentially every break-out success is indie at this point.

This isn’t even an MMO issue. It’s an entertainment issue as a whole.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

It’s how the industry works. No one will sink the resources needed for an AAA game on an untried idea. You first need smaller budget games to prove that the idea is a solid one before big money will invest in it.

BTW, before indies were feasible, that role was fulfilled by smaller, cheaper projects within large studios. So, no, big budget games were never innovative.

MurderHobo
Reader
MurderHobo

It’s an issue in many engineering disciplines as well. R&D is in the shitter from aviation to industrial machinery. Major firms no longer invest in actual prototyping and iterative design. They just generate reams of paper around some top-down-driven self-defeating bullshit.

Reader
Danny Smith

The biggest issue of MMORPG’s is that ‘massively multiplayer’ isn’t a novelty when you can be screeched at by 100 tweens high on their energy drank and their step dads NOS bottles in fortnite. When thats not the selling point anymore they need to find something else. For some companies its easy “oh its star wars/elder scrolls/warcraft/final fantasy… but online all the time!” but when you dont have a monster brand to ride off? that takes a little more creativity that the user numbers, time and resource investment and profitability just doesn’t really allow for.

I see it as analogous to the state of tabletop miniatures games. For a long time there was WARHAMMER, the all caps grand daddy who ruled everything the light touches. Other companies tried to also be games workshop but it was a large time and money investment to make and buy on both ends for a system where you need a table of terrain on like a 6×4 feet scale, two armies at least of a hundred or more models, paints, supplies and so on. Many companies tried and many failed.
Then in recent years came the rise of the ‘skirmish game’. Take the concept of moving units and reduce it to moving people. Instead of grand armies replaying the battle for helms deep its 6v6 back alley gang wars or something. Cheaper to make, far cheaper to buy into and thus not feel like you are being limited to one system and they exploded in recent years.

Take that to online games. Once mmorpgs were the big deal. Nowadays i see and hear far more stuff about things like rocket league, dead by daylight and even less succesful stuff like hunt: showdown or shit even garrys mod prop hunt.

Thats the thing thats true in both games and tabletop thats a huge slight to the bigger project: The bigger project wants you “trapped in our storefront ecosystem” to make significant profit. But the little games are ala carte experiences. Play a little of Dead by Daylight tonight, play some Apex Legends tomorrow. The progression is largely ranks and cosmetics rather than an epeen purple fever number to chase so you can pick up or put down any number of games because its not asking all your time and cutting into time you could spend in other stuff.

When an MMORPG can get around that its got a winning formula. But if it were easy people wouldn’t be saying MMORPG’s were a dying genre would they?

Reader
Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor
Blake

Great analogy and points.

Reader
hooby _

I fully believe that a MMO could work – having just one single server, and just about 1000 players. No player will ever need more than Dunbar’s Number of friends/guild-mates/acquaintances in a game – and then throw in a few hundred more to populate the “background” – so that the world feels alive. Anything more than that, will not actually be noticeable ingame by the individual player. And if designed with that in mind, a game could be able to financially survive with such low player numbers as well – there are examples of games out there managing that.

Even if you push up the limit by an order of magnitude, and say a game needs at least 10.000 players to survive – there still is enough of players out there to fill hundreds if not thousands of games running in parallel.

So, yeah, some players stick with the same game for a decade or two. But others don’t. Even if the mainstream has moved on to Mobas, Survival Games and Battle Royales – there is still a remaining audience of millions, which is enough to populate hundreds of games.

Even if every single one of those millions of players finds their favorite game and then sticks with that and only that for 10 years – we could still populate hundreds of MMOs – and still get a handfull of new MMOs each and every year to replace the old ones shutting down.

But I believe that many people just grow bored of the same old formula eventually. We need MMOs to do something fresh, something new. Something that’s not just “follow the quest arrow” – “grind all the gear”.

Something that’s more of a dynamic, simulated, evolving, player-driven society – wherein there is an actual point of what you are doing in the game – beyond making numbers go up. Where the things you do actually matter to others – like in an virtual economy with a net of widespread dependency chains.

Reader
Robert Mann

The true virtual world has always been what I have wanted. It is also the thing that seems least aimed for by the big money.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

My bet is, a lot of potential MMO players actually dislike some common elements of virtual worlds. I, for example, utterly hate the idea of dependency chains; I don’t mind being more efficient when dealing and trading with others, but only if it’s still feasible to do (and craft) anything I want completely by myself.

Reader
hooby _

That’s okay.

Because if there are lots of different games – those games can and should target different player audiences.

Some games could offer dependency chains, and interconnectedness, and players indirectly depending on each other, and having to work together – and other games could allow every player to do everything completely on their own, no need for anyone else ever.

But if every game tries to be exactly like WoW – identical in almost every regard – like it was definitely the case some years ago – then of course many players will stick with fully upgraded WoW rather than some other, lesser WoW-copy (even those who aren’t 100% happy with how WoW handles things).
And the low successes of those WoW-copies are what led to most western publishers moving on and stop making MMOs.

But that doesn’t mean, that there could not be any demand for some fresh type of MMO, that does some things differently.

Reader
Robert Mann

Yep, there’s many on both sides of this. I believe that we need more diversity in offerings, and that will drive people to play more in line with what they actually like instead of just grumbling and being unhappy. It’s kinda like how most games follow trends, and leave everyone not part of that trend grumbling…

Reader
aleccia_rosewater

i want to say something about shared areas but i cant find the words to explain it

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron
Ashfyn Ninegold

ESO was the last major western studio MMO release. In the the last 5-6 years most of the MMOs coming our way have been of two flavors: Asian MMOs or indie MMOs. Asian MMOs have either been retreads hoping to make it in the western market or extremely popular, well-established Asian MMOs that have taken years to come west. The indies have mostly fallen into the niche to extremely niche designs with limited appeal, primarily PvP-focused titles.

We’ve either had Asian retreads or indie PvP sandboxes since ESO’s release.

I’ve now played enough Asian-made MMOs to know they don’t really suit me and I’ve basically stopped playing them. And PvP sandboxes have never been of interest to me. One might think I’d conclude that MMOs are dead because there hasn’t been a single new MMO in the last 5 years that got my attention for more than a week or two.

But then I pick up ESO again after spending much of last year playing SWTOR and Destiny 2 and by Khenarthi’s sacred flight feather, it absolutely nails all the things I enjoy about MMOs. Rewarding open world exploration (something that has almost entirely disappeared from MMOs), useful, attainable crafting, terrific solo play, challenging landscape group content, vast build customization, engaging quest lines, good housing and shiny fluff.

I’m done with Asian imports and most indie MMOs, no matter what they promise, but the solid titles of the genre keep me gaming.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
NeoWolf

The MMO genre is like a pair of old, comfortable slippers. Each night you come home, you slip them on, and you give a little sigh of relief and gratification at the fact they’re there.

The genre imo isn’t something which dies or needs to be reborn but it does face the problem of stagnation due to it just being comfortable.. there isn’t a lot of innovation that goes on in MMO land, there is however a whole mass of rinse and repeat (not all of it bad).

But sooner or later as with the comfortable slippers an mmo gets bland and samey and you start craving a new one, to get that shiny newness and fresh feel back.

A lot of issues also come from expectations failing to be met and communication between developers and communities being hit and very miss.

Nevertheless it would be nice if every so often someone would shake sh** up with something out of the box for a change something that doesn’t fail to meet expectations but instead surpasses them.

MMOland needs a No Mans Sky of the genre to shake it up and get people paying attention again. I want MMOs to give me those butterflies in my stomach over the expectation and excitement they promise to deliver again.

Reader
Dean Dean

This is an old discussion. MMOs don’t innovate as quickly as other genres because of the investment required to create them. MMO developers will never risk huge amounts of money on drastic changes to a proven formula.

You won’t even see much innovation within the confines of successful MMOs, because players can’t tolerate changes to systems they’ve spent years getting to know.

MMO’s aren’t undead, they’re just turtles.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
NeoWolf

I don’t agree with the notion that they do not innovate because investment is required. Indeed someone innovated when the first MMO was made and some investor took a chance.
Almost every aspect of this little blue and green world and our lives upon it was built on the back of people with vision not those who play it safe and someone always rose not only to meet the challenge but to pay the bill.

Never forget investors can have vision too ;)

Reader
Arktouros

To a degree. For example if you look at Ultima Online it had the backing of a proven, successful game series behind it. That helps create an example that shows there’s a market/demand for that kinda game and which can help newer games get funding or start projects doing something similar.

However I’ll never forget my conversation with a Turbine dev while I lamented LOTRO was just a WOW clone he told me, “When someone hands you a big sack of money and tells you to make a WOW clone you make a WOW clone.”

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
NeoWolf

Even UO was a risk, sure it came on the back of a successful game series, but that games series was ALL offline single-player RPGs, UO was an online MMO that was essentially PVP based a complete departure from what had been in MANY ways.. they didn’t really have that much in common other than setting. But someone still took a chance on it and it payed off.

I’d also also say I would imagine it is fairly rare that an investor is given a creative input in any significant fashion, rather being presented with an already pre-designed creative idea/plan from a studio and then deciding whether it is worth investing in or not based on looking at a variety of factors (at least that is how it work in almost every other industry, I don’t see this being much different as a rule of thumb).

I’d say that was more an exception than the rule. I mean Lord of the Rings in name alone does a lot of seeling in itself coming from a book series that are literally the most read books in the world after the bible lol

Reader
Dean Dean

I didn’t say they don’t innovate, I said they don’t make drastic changes. The first MMOs weren’t insanely expensive, nor were they based on some crazy deviation from normal RPG gameplay.

The most innovative games these days are kickstarters, just look at Star Citizen. SC is going to redefine the genre because its developers are swimming in free money.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
NeoWolf

[quote] This is an old discussion. MMOs don’t innovate as quickly as other genres because of the investment required to create them. MMO developers will never risk huge amounts of money on drastic changes to a proven formula. [/quote]

You literally DID say innovate, not drastic changes its in your OP TWICE in fact lol

If SC ever releases it will innovate sure, but that is by no means guarunteed and I say that as someone who backed it hehe