The newest member of the Big Five in the MMO space released in the west back in 2015, which was seven years ago now. The oldest one released in 2004, which means that it’ll be old enough to vote this year despite its best efforts to get knocked out of any kind of top spot. There are people who have spent years playing all of these games now, and by “people” I am definitely including myself. My relationship with my wife, which has been ongoing for nearly my entire adult life, is actually shorter than the lifespan of World of Warcraft. And we’ve been together for 17 years.
So you can kind of understand why people want some new games to play. And yet, at the same time, I find that there’s an interesting contrast there because as old as several of these games are, that’s also kind of the intention. You want to be playing these games for years on end, even as you clamor for something new to play. Welcome to the fun world of the natural contradictions between genre and novelty!
Single-player games, of course, do not work like this. Sure, sometimes you’ll pick up a game from a few years back that you never played and be absolutely in love with it, and there are still single-player games that have robust communities playing and exploring them years later. But for the most part, it is an accepted and understood point that you are likely eventually going to move on from games, and barring things like Skyrim where modders are using the game as a framework to build something totally different, single-player games have a discrete lifespan.
Heck, even Skyrim keeps getting updated re-releases and has a near-ubiquity to account for its continued lifespan. At some point you’re going to be able to buy Skyrim again inside of Skyrim itself and then the whole house of cards will collapse.
The point here is that most games have a certain lifespan, a half-life if you will, and when that time is up, most people move on.
But MMOs are not like that. The net goal of MMOs is that they are built without any sort of firm endpoint in mind. Final Fantasy XIV wrapped up the story it had been telling since its relaunch, and now it’s just… still going with a new story, just humming right along like it’s just another day. That doesn’t disappoint me, obviously, but the point here is that despite the reality of many not making it that far, MMOs are built without any real firm ending in mind.
This makes it a little weird that people are also forever clamoring for the next big thing, looking for another new MMO that can replace one of the many very clearly humming-along-just-fine options that are dominating the play space and most of the genre’s attention in terms of overall player counts.
Don’t get me wrong; I understand fully that most of the people who really want something new are also players who feel like the big five don’t really support their playstyle. And to a certain extent, this is broadly accurate. There are definitely player types who are not being totally catered to by the existing big quintet, although there aren’t many. But when you consider that taking a step just beyond those MMOs, that widens the field to games like Albion Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and RuneScape, it becomes a lot harder to argue that what you want isn’t being served at all. The games serving broader playerstyles are just older.
And this, in fact, is part of the problem.
Make no mistake, I am absolutely not immune to looking forward to The Next Big Thing. I was more than a little sad to learn that Naoki Yoshida acting as producer on Final Fantasy XVI did not mean that it would be an online game because my mind pretty much immediately cast ahead to what a game designed from the ground up by him would look like and the sort of characters I would want to play. You know, despite the fact that I’m already playing FFXIV and have a decade’s worth of investment in that title.
But therein lies the unmentioned and yet significant cost of any and every new MMO. MMOs must compete not just with other games but with other games where players already have significant time, energy, and social networking established in these prior titles. Elyon already had an uphill climb when it removed most of what made it sound interesting, but when you consider that it was basically asking players to give up years of investment in an existing title to try it out, that’s a much harder lift.
This doesn’t really happen elsewhere. No one is worried that the players of the last Call of Duty installment will decide not to pick up the newest one because that’s a contained ecosystem where it is pretty much expected that you’ll need to migrate onward and upward. But MMOs are built to be played basically forever, and that leads to a weird situation that leads to, well, EverQuest II, a game that was meant to appeal to everyone who liked EverQuest (which was not an insubstantial number of people) and also everyone who didn’t like EverQuest.
Yes, the competition for that game was not just the rest of the market but the original game. And the fact that the rest of the market soon blew up thanks to another title is irrelevant in noting that it’s kind of weird how players both want something new and want that something new to be the last thing they ever play for years on end.
Again, for emphasis, my point here is not that you should all just take exactly what already exists in the game space and be happy with it and quit complaining. While there are not many player groups of substantial number that can’t find a game to play right now, that doesn’t mean that your choices are flawless or have everything you want. If you really like setting up trade routes, for example, Black Desert is right there, but you might not really like action combat or open PvP areas, and so you have to decide if this thing you do like is worth the stuff you don’t. That’s a complicated (and kind of frustrating) question!
Rather, my point here is just that I find this an interesting dichotomy. We’re forever looking for the Next Big Thing that’s going to delight us and push the genre forward… and yet at the same time we’re in an industry and a genre that rewards things lasting for ages on end. We want a new game that delights us at the same time that we want the old, familiar games we’re already enjoying and investing in.
If you can’t come up with a solution for facing entrenched competition and having your biggest obstacle be the game you already released and are expected to continue supporting even after the sequel releases… maybe it’s not just absurd fears about profitability that have made a lot of publishers more leery of the MMO space at this point.