Vague Patch Notes: The wax and wane of MMOs and genres

Time is a flat circle.

I started writing for Massively-that-was in October of 2009. That was 11 years ago. Oh… oh my word, no, that was so long ago. More than a decade. I have been doing this job for too long. My life is pointless and meaningless, this is a nightmare, how do I get out of this horror show that is constantly…

Ahem. In 2009 we were looking at a number of new high-profile MMO launches, some of which did well, some of which definitely did not. I started just in the wake of launches from AionChampions Online, and Fallen Earth… and just around the moment when Dungeons & Dragons Online shifted into the free-to-play model. And as all of these things were going on, there was one profound and constant refrain: MMOs were dying.

Out of those games, of course, three are still running, one only recently shut down (supposedly for a relaunch), and one of them jumped into a massive business model shift before it became dominant. Time changes all things, except that refrain. MMOs are still dying, despite that death now lasting throughout the entirety of my career covering these games.

Oddly beautiful.

Of course, there’s more to life than just my own presence, but I think some context is worth examining. Just for giggles, I decided to go through Justin’s MMO timeline for my time in this field and count the releases by year.

  • 2009: Eight launches
  • 2010: Ten launches
  • 2011: Fourteen launches
  • 2012: Six launches
  • 2013: Ten launches
  • 2014: Eight launches
  • 2015: Five launches
  • 2016: Eight launches
  • 2017: Five launches
  • 2018: Thirteen launches
  • 2019: Eight launches
  • 2020: Five launches

Averaging all that out, we get… about nine launches a year. That seems pretty healthy to me. Obviously, not all of these launched games went on to major success or are even still running today, but the point here is that these are new and notable MMO launches that show… well, a pretty consistent decent number of respectably sized games coming out all the way through.

None of this is even taking into account that of the “big five” MMORPGs; all of them are making more than enough money to justify their continued operations. Final Fantasy XIV, The Elder Scrolls Online, and World of Warcraft are all massive moneymakers for larger company operations. Black Desert and Guild Wars 2 both sustain themselves as companies that haven’t launched many other games yet. (Yes, both of them have subsidiaries and older titles and in-production titles that are a bit more complicated, but you get the idea.) In the larger MMO space, I don’t even need to tell you about Epic Games.

So you might think that this is just “ha ha, stats don’t back you up, you’re wrong” kind of column. But it’s not. I think the sense of “MMOs are dying” does genuinely come from an organic place even if it is ultimately a counterfactual claim. A lot of new MMOs are not MMORPGs in a traditional, recognizable sense. There does seem to be a real paucity of new MMORPGs coming out compared to things like survival sandboxes, battle royale titles, and so forth. So I think there is a genuine worry and wonder about why the genre no longer seems to be at the heights it once was, at least in terms of brand-new titles.

And to discuss that, we should talk about… adventure games. I promise I’m going somewhere with this.


Adventure games were an early staple of PC gaming in particular, and going into a whole history of them would take time and space that I don’t have here. While they were never games I particularly liked all that much, titles like The Secret of Monkey Island, the King’s Quest series, Maniac Mansion, and countless other titles took the more robust control options available to PC gamers and provided a more elaborate experience than something home consoles could provide.

But as time went by, something… changed. Several things changed, really. Home PCs went from desperately struggling to do quick action graphics to being able to do them deftly. The ubiquity of PCs went up. Console hardware got better. And adventure games – once a staple of PC markets – started to be criticized for unfair and persistent deaths, unclear objectives, insane developer logic, and overly fussy interfaces.

Once-loved series languished and stopped. Other games stepped into dominance. Over time, the point-and-click adventure became a relic, something no designer would ever bother making again. And so we stand here now, with the adventure game a dead genre completely devoid of new titles.

“Wait a second,” you say. “That’s not true, there are lots of new adventure games these days.” And you’re totally right! That was a trick. I tricked you. Sure, the genre’s popularity decreased, but the lower cost of producing a new adventure game, the popularity of mobile phones, a resurgent indie scene, and a new batch of designers with a love for the genre have revitalized it once again.

Adventure games are no longer the assumed genre for new titles on the PC, but the genre is still going. It never really went away. It just diminished, then bulked up once more.


It’s easy to forget how big a deal Ultima OnlineEverQuest, and WoW were when they each launched. The first literally kicked off the genre, with such a notable commercial impact that there was a pressure upon studios to figure out why they weren’t trying to get in on this online game money train yesterday. The result was a rush of games quickly aiming to jump in and get a slice of this pie, a burst of creativity and new titles of varying degrees of success.

I don’t think that the people crying that MMOs are dying are necessarily wrong. If you compare the early rush of MMORPGs with the current market, it’s easy to see the genre has gone in a very different direction and a lot of what’s coming out is much more of a narrow MMO than full-featured titles of the past. But this is not actually unusual or unique to MMOs. These things wax and wane, ebb and flow, with interest spiking, diminishing, and then coming back over time once again.

Online gaming is not the revolutionary new concept that it was back in 1997, when UO coined the genre’s name and set the wheels in motion. (And given the titles that launched in short order around that time, it should be clear that a lot of people saw this was going to be a big deal.) Development teams are trying different things. Heck, I suspect some of why we’ve seen a fair amount of MMORPG development coming out from Japan is that FFXIV is in part a major success and one of the first MMORPGs to really break into the mainstream.

So I’m not worried about the genre dying in the slightest. We’re not in my early days of working for this site, when there seemed to be a larger variety of MMORPGs launching… but then, in those days we also had different business models dominating, and a lot of the MMORPGs that launched didn’t hold up all that well. Heck, that was a time when the field didn’t have a “big five” lineup, it had WoW and then everything else.

We might be going through a slightly lower pulse at the moment. But that changes over time, in a regular ebb and flow. And I look forward to seeing what the next big thing might be… because there will be something.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Jon Wax

i wouldn’t say dying but i would say that gaming is going to face the same evolutionary challenges that most things face. currently it has failed to evolve. it has mutations, variations on successful dna that already exists, but it doesn’t have new dna being spit out in the form of ideas or constructs.
it was always going to morph based on commercial opportunity, whether that was new market groups or new revenue streams. that was inevitable. all industries tend toward streamline over time.

as it stands right now, most of the people who think gaming is healthy are in the younger demo. They weren’t here for what some of us went through gaming in the late 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. They can’t see how the mechanics haven’t really changed. They can’t see how the stories really need more hollywood influence in their depth and creativity. Which is understandable since their time with the medium is so limited. But it doesn’t negate the fact that all this tree chopping and rock smashing time sink stuff is just a dodge for legit gameplay.

The devs have run out of ideas. Look at Dayz. That was a mod. That was what id consider one of the last true “innovations” in mmo, the survival game done “right”. But that thing quickly became rote and now… nothin. SC is trying to build the type of game that most folks have been dreaming about, but the time between ideation and execution can make a dream less and less vivid. DU is basically doing NMS with ship crafting. Even with an average of 9 game releases a year how many are “swords and magic and animal taming, etc” copies of each other? so we get…really, 2 or 3 games a year and then a reprinted menu of the same items from last year with new fonts and fresh lamination. of those 2 or 3 games, how many pull what would be considered a big crowd vs niche?

there needs to be a website for those with the ideas for new games to pitch said ideas in a format that can be accessed by devs of all levels and backgrounds while also being legally protected from rip offery by same website. A brokerage firm for gaming ideas. If an idea gets picked, at best the creator could expect maybe what $1 per sale which would still be more then deserved. This would be a win win for everyone: people get their ideas out, successful ideas rise up, companies have a bucket of new choices for release and everyone gets new games. No guarentee a game will be a hit but at least there’d be some movement in what could vaguely considered a forward direction.

if things stay as they are now, over time the endorphin pops will wear off and more and more folks will start to see that most of these games are lacking. will folks age out or just sorta dull down to accept lower standards? or will some random company bumblefuck on a new idea that can be bled dry for the next 15 years, putting this whole question off til it comes up again?

Bruno Brito

I don’t think MMOs are dying. I think good MMOs are really hard to do, and the scene is fated towards a cesspit of mediocrity.

I find that MMOs, specially MMORPGs are labors of love. They suffer too much under bad monetization, bad design choices can literally slope into complete chaos territory ( GW2 and it’s idea of taking of the trinity showed how badly thought out the PvE experience was in that game ), they cost too much to even think about making one…it feels like MMORPGs are something you make when you want to actively make a game out of love.

And as long as we keep making games out of need for them paying themselves off ( which is understandable, there isn’t such a thing as a free lunch ), we’ll keep having to figure out how to better monetize the games and ending up affecting the way they’re designed, for the worse.

Jon Wax

game dev in general needs some sorta overhaul. the engines need another layer of ez moding so the coding gets dumbed down. these engines take too long to crank out stuff especially with the tech pushing things to higher and higher quality.

if anything needs a huge change its less the mmo industry as a whole and more the game engine concept. if we had easier to access engines, we might have more games?

of course, thered be a lot more shit games too, so… 1 up 2 down


I liked Quest for Glory series too which was a hybrid adventure game series.

By the way people say mmos are dieing cause most people(especially those that didnt start mmos before WoW) were used after a point to have AA/AAA launches almost every year. What seriously has changed is how most games are played – majority of the games, are played closer to a solo experience and the rate of actual player interaction is reduced, which may have among its causes the higher average age too as people who are busier just want to do their “things” fast and logout to get back to responsibilities. I think overall more people play mmos than the “gold” ages for anyone, but whereas server global chats for example could feel very active with around 500 people online per server, now they dont with 10k+ online on a single server. Its one of the mmos social evolutions


Looking through that MMO timeline, I see a lot of games included that are not massively multiplayer, especially recently.

Once you remove the standard multiplayer online games and only leave behind the massively multiplayer games, the situation looks a lot worse.

Finally, if you look at the balance between east and west developers, the situation is dire. Western devs have pretty much stopped making new MMOs. Not a problem if you enjoy the types of games coming out of Asia, but if you prefer the sorts of IPs and mechanics that western devs used to deliver, you’re screwed.

Patreon Donor

Exactly my thoughts.


WoW/MMOs r dying/dead grew a long-term meme in gaming culture, a very utilitaristic expression of ignorance.
cuz the meme ignores history, evolution and status quo – so the meme couldnt be more wrong, as the opposite is the factual reality.

(the history)
gaming culture soon integrated the net (Compu Serve, AOL, etc, Halt And Catch Fire as a gourmet observation of the net-era), became an online hype more than just IRCs and mail lists: the MUD.

the MUD installed a quantum leap in gaming culture, as a consequential continuation of the net-process: a transformation into a new genre.
(this Digital Antiquarian article series for an overview on the net-era of gaming culture:

(the evolution)
but the technical and esp. the economic limits strangulated the evolution, the focus swapped back to Single-Player.

but broadband tech and expanded connectivity of the New Economy era overthrew former limits and raised new opportunities, online gaming once again started to reign surpreme. CS, Quake, Meridian 59 and ofc UO (the 2. gen of MMO) established a new self-understanding of gaming.
in the net-era online-services couldnt grew viral, due to the technical and socio-economic limitations, but now everyone (even his mum) wanted to be online.

a very challenging cultural process, though, as Personal Computers, online-technology and esp. gaming culture was still complex and strange to most users, so MMOs (and online-gaming in general) still stayed a niche for geeks, but the popular acceptance grew.

as the third gen (Everquest, DAOC etc) still struggled to compete with SP (Daggerfall, Deus Ex etc. r very complex, detailled and content-rich) and consoles (Playstation, N64, Saturn etc), it was the fourth generation introduced by WoW (although Neocron was the avantgarde vanguard) that completed the popularization of a not simply a genre, but a new self-understanding of gaming culture: gaming finally grew sexy!
it was WoWs convenience and tech (net-code) which appealed to gamers tru all generations (, for this time, today i would not define Classic as convenient) and inspired new takes on the genre, which lead to many quantum leaps in the evolution of gaming, like MoBas, MineCraft and “new” features for SP.

(the status quo)
MMO is everywhere (like RPG), MMO (and RPG) design parameters like accessibility, replayability, F2P (dont hate me), lootboxes, games-as-service etc. evolved into an industry norm, the most successful SP IPs in gaming culture reference given (MMO) features as an upgrade to gameplay. AC, D(ragon)A(ge), Kingdongs of Amalur, GTA V play like a MMO, but for SP.

but with this overall acceptance the signature features of MMO became overused, the user grew tired of no-lifing the next WoW, the demand evolved for many more reasons (i wont analyse here).

as gaming culture as popular phenomena always adapted new tech opportunities, so also socio-economic reason: thats y esp. WoW wont die, as long as it evolves with its user-base, it is going to sell big. cuz thats what MASSIVE MP does.

(i didnt mention the sociological aspect of the market interactions (esp. the competition aspect of MMO evolution), the niches (classic MMOs r still quite pop) and some minor details on the wax and wane of MMO evolution for the reason of text-volume).

the last but not least i survived times, where i looked upon these (pop)stars of gaming culture and wished to be one of them.
the lesson learned is simple: NO ONE IS GOING TO CHANGE ANYTHING (IN UR LIFE – positively, cuz desasters happen anyways). NO ONE. BUT U. (there may be a little help from friends and kind folks, but no one can life for me, its my life, my decisions and my fkn responsibility to take (whatever) action (necessary))

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I wouldn’t be surprised if the next big thing is done by a smaller studio that is then copied and polished by a bigger one. Usually bigger companies copy rather than innovate. And boy oh boy, could this genre use some innovation right about now.


life is pointless and meaningless

Finally something I can get on board with.

Bryan Correll

My life is pointless and meaningless, this is a nightmare, how do I get out of this horror show that is constantly…

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What if I told you it isn’t real? o.O

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Dude, no more opening sentences like that, I beg you! In my RSS feed, this looked like the beginning of a farewell note. :O :D