Massively Overthinking: Are there any ‘blue oceans’ left in the MMO market?

    
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Level Up Labs’ Lars Doucet recently penned a blog post practically begging people not to try to compete with ROBLOX by remaking it as ROBLOX-but-with-one-special-thing, like better graphics or higher maturity. I’m glossing over a really detailed article here, but that’s because I want to get to the part that sparked my attention: the part where Doucet suggests pivoting to a “blue ocean strategy” instead. The phrase comes from a 2004 book that encourages entrepreneurs to create demand in untapped spaces rather than try to fight over heavily contested zero-sum game markets.

That’s what I want to talk about in this week’s Massively Overthinking. The MMO market is absolutely stuffed full of games that are basically some other game but with a twist. We don’t call them WoW clones for nothing, after all. But the most successful MMOs from the last decade don’t really have all that much in common with WoW. They have a lot more than a twist, and in some cases, they’re going after new types of gamers who might never have considered an MMORPG before.

Are there any “blue oceans” left in the MMO market? What are the untapped spaces, ideas, and playerbases where upcoming games could really make a mark?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Yeesh, where to start! I’m obviously biased, but MMOARGs are practically none. Most are IP-based, few are worth your time unless you enjoy advertising. Part of this, in my opinion, is because doing something highly combat-based is just a bad idea, as it makes people stand still or (with some companies) act in weird ways that could get them in trouble with local law enforcement. As most games are about combat, clearly few devs have the imagination to create something in this field.

VR is quite similar, except that it also has the burden of a higher cost of entry plus risks of motion sickness. But damn, we could probably have an Animal Crossing-like MMO. There are tons of virtual chatrooms, but none that I can think of where we can go fishing or catch bugs while NPCs look on, hoping we give/sell them our hauls. The best chatrooms do have interactive set pieces, but often lack polish and allow for all kinds of immersion-breaking craziness. Please, deformed Sonic, don’t stand so close to me.

But I think you can do combat in VR better too, and without making everyone run around all swords and wizardry like. Experiences like Star Trek: Bridge Crew or the multiperson ships in Elite: Dangerous immediately come to mind, but so does Sea of Thieves to a degree (though all that running around and being on a ship probably isn’t good for a VR game looking to avoid motion sickness). Fantasy isn’t going to give you anything smooth to ride in, especially as a group, but sci-fi will. Even in non-VR, this kind of play is uncommon, which is why the loss of Star Wars Galaxies still hurts and people still support Star Citizen. You don’t even need to do space, necessarily. One of my favorite VR games is The Time Machine, where you play a kind of virtual prehistoric animal biologist.

Lastly, there’s just traditional turn-based combat for MMOs. Some people just aren’t great at action combat but still want to play with their friends. Final Fantasy XI isn’t quite turn-based, but the fact that it’s still around when its bigger brother’s doing very well helps show there’s a market, and it’s not just a thing of the past. I think turn based cooperative combat is a big part of the reason why Pokemon Sword and Shield attracted additional attention and even had people get “stuck” early on by hyper-focusing on group battles for obtaining pokemon. It’s a big reason why I think Monster Hunter Stories 2 got a lot more attention than even I was expecting.

There’s so many genres out there, but we really don’t tackle them. Group story-based MMOs a la SWTOR, diplomacy games like A Tale in the Desert, GM-initiated games like the Asheron’s Call series, crafting and econ games, puzzle games, exercise games… devs are very much attached to the simplicity of making games about combat that they forget there are other kinds of conflict. There’s so much out there, and so much interesting tech, it’s frankly boring how similar many “AAA” games are, especially in the MMO sphere.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): The answer to this question might go back to the age old debate of how we define MMO. If you successfully argue that Fortnite and PUBG are massive, multiplayer, and on-line, then you could further take the step of claiming that the battle royale style was a brand new approach to MMOs. If, however, you define MMO strictly by the games that came before, then we’ll never see anything new from the space, only iterations on the same general style. Given enough time and iterations, the modern MMO may very well not resemble the MMO of yesteryear.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Personally, I think the big blue ocean of the next decade has already been scouted out, and it’s probably too late for true newcomers now too, and that’s the social-oriented cozy MMO that we’re seeing in development by everyone from Raph Koster to the folks on Palia. The MMO market is very definitely a red ocean with all the rules established, so the only way forward is to chart a new course. In this case, I feel as if it’s charting a new course into waters that used to be crowded and no longer are. But the demand for social experiences online never went away. There’s money to be made there for sure.

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I’m of the opinion that, at this point, there is nothing new under the sun. Everything is just an iteration on games that came before it, with some new twist added in or mashed together with ideas from a different genre. This sounds bad, but it isn’t necessarily. Are there any “blue oceans” left in painting? At some point, will humanity have created enough paintings and then there will be no more market for them and artists will just have to pack it in and find a different line of work? It’s not like people are clamoring to be the innovator in the next new technological advancement in the field of fine art. Yet there is an unending supply of human creativity that keeps producing an endless variety of creative works. The medium hasn’t changed significantly in hundreds of years, but it’s what people do with it that makes it interesting. The same can be true for games.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Oh there are definitely untapped areas in the market. When you step back and look at the broad history of MMORPGs, the period from 1997 to 2004 was nothing but studios exploring different areas and carving out their own niches. Some were more successful, some had great potential, and some were never realized. But WoW put a hard stop on that kind of pioneering and experimentation for a good while — but happily, not forever.

Video game development tends to cluster around market leaders with an attempt to clone, and that’s never not going to happen. But we always see new ideas or great revitalization of old ideas (with new twists) pop out of nowhere to take the community by storm. It’s happened to MMOs several times in the past, and it will again in the future. It’s just a matter of time and willingness on behalf of studios to create a vision that isn’t a carbon-copy of someone else’s blueprint.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): Well, there’s always going to be “blue oceans” but it’s tough to nail down what those are. At least if I knew what some were I know I’d be busy making and selling them before I told everyone about them! Really though, sometimes it can be a crazy combination that ultimately boils down to hitting at the right place and right time. I mean, even if I thought Fortnite was great at the beginning I certainly never would’ve expected it to become the world wide behemoth that it turned out to be.

And I’m sure there are plenty of great IPs out there that have diehard fan bases that could make big splashes in the MMO space but haven’t been created yet. I always thought a true Pokemon MMO would make for an awesome experience. Something where players could actually create and join player run gyms and hold tournaments against one another. The winner gets to actually take over the gym. Maybe something akin to how a guild captures a keep in RvR games.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I think this can be hard to answer because if it’s a truly new idea, then by definition it hasn’t been thought of yet. Surely there are innovative game designs out there that simply haven’t occurred to anyone yet. You can’t prove a negative, so I don’t think anyone can say that there is truly no hope for new ground to be broken in the MMO field.

Ben is also right to point out that a lot of it boils to definitions. There’s still plenty of innovation in the online space, just not always in the realm of traditional MMORPGs.

But one thing I will say that I feel we still don’t have is a large scale, purely PvE sandbox MMO. For a while I thought New World might be this, but it seems to be going for more of a sandpark vibe, and it still includes a lot of PvP.

I’ve always liked the idea of a sandbox built around territorial control that is entirely PvE. Add some powerful NPC faction — zombies, robots, demons, take your pick — that is constantly threatening to overwhelm player holdings, requiring a coordinated cooperative war effort to hold off. There would probably need to be some safe zones that can never fall to the bad guys, but the best resources and rewards would require capturing territories in the wider world, where the roving NPC armies are a constant threat. Include all of the sandbox trappings — player driven economy, extensive crafting, item decay, housing. Just no PvP at all. Everything is about working together against the greater threat.

I don’t see it happening, but I think the setting of Horizon Zero Dawn would be perfect for a game like this. Imagine player tribes trying to carve out territory and survive against the onslaught of bestial machines. I’d play that.

I’ve also talked in the past about how the world is still lacking a proper, quality MMORTS, which could perhaps be combined with the above ideas.

MOP Patron Adam Babloyan: Neverwinter was my gateway into MMOs. Not the cynical Cryptic cash grab, but the BioWare RPG. Specifically, the persistent world servers fans created. I just loved the idea of an always online world that I could explore and quest in at my leisure that was continually having content added to it.

This new breed of modern online game, where the underfunded and often underhanded developer is trying to peddle people as content to me, simply doesn’t activate the part of my brain that goes “this is a video game.”

What I’ve always wanted from this genre is basically what the genre is very slowly turning into. Elder Scrolls Online is the poster boy of this change, as it started out life as a Dark Age of Camelot me-too but has essentially morphed into single-player persistent world RPG. Sure, you can play it as an MMO, but then, you can also play EVE Online as a purely PvE game too.

The Secret World, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Final Fantasy XIV all have helped push the genre to this shift as a response to changing player priorities. It’d be a fair point to say what I’ve always wanted wasn’t quite an MMORPG, but if all the MMORPGs change into MORPGs, that’s going to be a difference without distinction.

I’d argue the biggest untapped playerbase is the gamer that plays an Assassin’s Creed or Witcher game for 500+ hours. The pseudo-MORPG gamer – and let’s make no mistake, that’s exactly where these open-world RPGs are heading. It’s just a race now to see who gets there first, the MMO developers, or the Ubisofts/CDPRs. I mean, Rockstar’s already there to a degree.

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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Lunganor

Man… I’m still waiting for a MASSIVE game on land. Is it Elite that has a procedurally generated universe where you can travel for months in “direction x”? Give me a land mass that never stops expanding, that I can mine for resources, that I can discover, that I can settle and develop into towns and cities, that I can perform “jobs” that arent always directly tied to combat…

The biggest untapped mmorpg concept is the actual living world. An existence within a game world that allows me to explore “life” in ways i cant do in our physical realm. It’s the scifi dream since forever, to exist in the digital realm, and be exposed to an enormous amount of activities. It’s what SWG was hinting at, at a time where the tech couldn’t meet the ambition. But we’re getting there in terms of tech (procedural generation, voxel tech, etc).

If any AAA company can find a way to market THAT experience, watch out.

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Bannex

A traditional MMO is a blue ocean. Hasn’t truly existed since EQ2.

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Ozzie

I think there’s a huge untapped demand for straight-up social MMO games. Ones where the absence of combat opens a huge gap in the current design philosophy, and it’s ready to be filled with ideas about social interaction through forced creativity. I’m talking social deduction like Werewolf/Mafia/Among US. I’m talking politics, spying, and basically all gameplay that’s rooted in social interactions. I think a sizable studio could take on the challenge and risk of a non-combat MMO and create something truly new that flips the genre on its head.

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Anstalt

The MMO space is almost entirely untapped, there is soooooo much potential there!

On the massively multiplayer part, this is a feature that has been almost entirely ignored, despite being the only unique selling point of the genre. For most MMOs, the only truly massively multiplayer feature tends to be PvP. For the rest of it, the mmo part is just seeing others running around in the background.

So, what can you achieve if you scale up the multiplayer to massively multiplayer?

Well, first, you can apply that feature to other genres. Lets take CoD, Battlefield etc and scale it up to massively multiplayer numbers. What would it feel like to, for example, do a Battlefield map with 250 v 250 players? That would be massively multiplayer, and something we’ve never seen before. What new gameplay systems would the devs need to invent to make it fun, and not just a zergy mess?

What about a racing game? Sure, you’d never have an F1 race with 300 cars, but you could do somethign like the Dakar Rally or Gumball Rally as a game at massively multiplayer numbers. Riders Republic is heading in this direction, but isn’t massively multiplayer.

How about an RTS? We’ve never had an MMORTS (tho some have claimed it) and there are definitely huge challenges in scaling up a strategy game to massively multiplayer numbers, but im sure it can be done.

On the roleplaying front……..

Well, the sky is the limit when it comes to roleplaying. The MMORPG genre has definitely been regressing on the roleplaying front, with less and less roleplaying available to players. Combat roleplaying has gone backwards, becoming shallower and easier w.r.t. roleplaying. Other types of roleplaying tend not to be supported much at all. And devs seem to have convinced the latest generation of gamers that story = roleplaying, but it’s not.

The current generation of MMOs has yet to match the roleplaying potential of the first gen of MMORPGs. The sorts of roleplaying that I’d like to see expanded / better supported:

1) Combat Roles – this is 2021, why are we still limited to the trinity?!?!? 3 roles? Boring! Give me moar! Either add more roles to the trinity, or change the roles completely to something new.

2) Personality Roleplaying – this is the type of roleplaying we see in games like The Witcher. Are you selfish? Are you helpful? Are you law-abiding? Do you stick to your code, or are you flexible? Closest I have seen this in an MMORPG was SWTORs lightside/darkside stuff, but that was shallow and meaningless.

3) Economic Roleplaying – we see crafting in most mmos, but its usually under-supported and made mostly meaningless by the focus on loot drops. Plus, its very rare that crafters are able to differentiate themselves from other crafters. When was the last time you heard “I’m gonna go buy a new sword from CrafterX because he’s the best weaponsmith near me”???

4) Social Roleplaying – this is pretty much limited to guilds and the structures inside the guild. Other types of social roleplaying tend to be community-invented and supported, rather than being supported by the game. I’m thinking things like event coordinators, maybe town planners, political leaders etc. In other words, roles that change the way you interact with the community on a social level.

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Robert Mann

There’s quite a few, actually. Perhaps the most obvious is that sandbox PvE MMO that was mentioned. Second most obvious is the era/theme/reference of the game, since there are only a few really to note (so things like steampunk, different cultures than normal, etc.)

There’s so many people who literally are not playing, because their interests don’t align with the PvP or PvE static background MMO where nothing changes, not to mention the lack of diversity in the offerings of that… how can we even begin to think we’ve got a beach going here.

It’s not that we are missing blue oceans, but that everyone is tied onto a couple piers and looking doubtfully at the expanses around them.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

If there is a blue ocean out there, I want to get there before the rest of you pogues arrive and trash the place.

In fact, that’s where I consider myself to be. I don’t play in filthy themeparks anymore. I have no interest in games being accessable to the mass market. The masses ruin my frontier.

Hell, by the time a game leaves early access I’m typically done with it. It’s innovation I care about, and always have.

The ocean is big and scary and wants you to fail, and that is a good thing. This business should not be for the risk-averse or the faint of heart.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Why rail against what works? I want a WoW clone with a hard sci-fi setting run by somebody competent.

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Dug From The Earth

For awhile I wanted that to be Starcraft themed

And then WH40k themed

Now Ill just be happy for ANY hard sci-fi themed setting.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

I’d really love one based on the meta-human mechanics in Morgan’s Altered Carbon or the Eclipse Phase RPG. Race/Gender/Skills can all be swapped.

One of my biggest gripes about Fantasy RPGs is that the “because magic” excuse is used way too often to explain away lazy writing. For that reason I’m not a big fan of games that are exclusively post-apocalytic or sci-fantasy like Shadowrun or Wildstar (hated the lore but loved most of the rest of the game).

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IronSalamander8 .

It’s hard to say as until someone does it, we can’t really see it. For example, until Magic: The Gathering took off, no one had done that before, at least not at that scale and success level, and it’s ubiquitous to the tabletop game market today and back in the 90s in inspired an insane amount of clones, some of them were decent, some not, but in a way WoW is the M:TG of MMOs.

Technology may decide the next blue oceans as gaming hasn’t changed that much overall recently. VR is still largely relegated to tech demos or alternate ways to play games that also play normally. The potential is massive, but we’re just not there yet.

As far as IPs, I’m going to be extremely predictable and say that I’d love a PvZ MMO. GW2 and BfN, while being shooters have a lot of MMO trappings already (a living if limited world, PvE quests, and other such things). They were working on an adventure game that got cut sometime not that long ago, the screenshots were shared in the community, so the idea has merit and I’d love to play such a game if done well.

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David Goodman

I’m honestly in the “no blue ocean” category.

Don’t get me wrong: I would plug myself in to the first megacorp who could provide me with a Shadowrun MMO, but I don’t think that changing the IP really makes it a unique thing.

When I think of a blue ocean, I’m thinking of something more than just “Like WoW, but with deckers.”

The only ‘unique-sounding’ game to be announced recently to me was Palia, but I think that’s less of a blue ocean and more of a developer trying to encourage more socialization in an existing ocean. (and games like A Tale in the Desert are running still with their dedicated populations.) Still, I wish them the best of luck as a team that’s trying something against the grain.

VR I don’t really count or think of. Assuming the VR MMOs take off, ultimately what you are going to look at is a new interface to connect to existing oceans and tested ideas. The innovation IS the interface, not the game. (not necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t think that makes it new.)

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Schmidt.Capela

I don’t think there’s any blue oceans left in the MMO space because just about everything you could cobble up together would be drawing inspiration from (and competing for players with) other pre-existing MMO games and genres. So, while there are kinds of MMOs still left to create, they would most likely be just a remix of what we already have.

Now, there likely are blue oceans left in the gaming space, and those could include MMO features. But I suspect any such new game would be more defined by its non-MMO innovations than by its MMO features.