MMOs are hard to make. But despite the difficulties, we’ve seen some real gems over the years. They’re also difficult to run. But the exemplars of the genre prove that it’s both profitable for the company and meaningful to players. From my perspective here in MOP’s Four Winds column, it seems like every freaking eastern MMORPG die here! First there was TERA – a game that at least had 10 more years in it. BAM! Dead. Then there was Elyon, a game that I felt had some legs to it and I honestly thought it was going to succeed too. POW! Dead. And now the bell tolls for Swords of Legends Online.
What a shitty feeling.
I’m frustrated. I advocate for these titles because it’s different. Sure, this sub-genre often skirts awfully close to pay-to-win territory, but sometimes there’s a diamond in the rough. Black Desert Online and Lost Ark both show that games like these succeed if their developers/publishers really take care of the product. And just as the old adage goes, “If you build it, they will come.”
No matter how nice and cool and fun an MMO is, if there is no effort to create a community and keep it engaged, then the game is in for a bad time. The opposite also applies: If a game has jank coming out the wazoo but the developers and publishers nurture their community, then the game will have a higher chance to succeed.
Case in point: Black Desert Online. It’s very easy to talk about the game’s issues. From the crazy amount of RNG and monetization to the aging engine, there are many angles of attack when criticizing the game. But when I attended BDO’s 2022 Calpheon Ball and met all the passionate players and devs for the game, none of that mattered because ultimately the players and community enjoyed it. And this community didn’t just pop out of thin air. Pearl Abyss went out of its way to bring in new blood, support their streamers, and actively encourage community engagement by rewarding players with useful in game items. And when I sat down with Jaehee Kim and Jesse Joo for an interview, it was clear that they put a lot of love into their work. And it paid off, as BDO is still among the biggest MMOs in the west.
Swords of Legends Online could have had that too. Unlike some other imports, the game is a solid MMORPG. It had great graphics, the movement was fluid, and the theme was unique. I wrote a whole lot of good things about it when it came out. It was such a solid experience. It wasn’t perfect – what MMO ever came out of the box perfect? There was a little bit of jank, and sure translations weren’t always clear, but that could’ve been cleaned up over the patches. It could have used a little bit of streamlining, but once again, that could have been covered in a later update. And that was the problem. After the first year or so, the only updates that came for the game were related to the cash shop!
Man. What a shitty feeling.
I actually checked into the game the other day, I wanted to play a little bit of it. Ghost town. The game told me the last time I had logged in was in August of 2022. And since then, it felt like nothing had changed; indeed, the last sizable update was that fall. You know that feeling of logging into an MMO after a few months of hiatus and find the game completely changed but a little better? Yeah, no, it wasn’t here. There were no new dungeons to do, no new features; it looked like the game hadn’t been touched. That was disappointing.
But you know what was annoying? The incessant tiny red dots in UI elements. That usually indicates that there’s some kind of update I have to look at. I hate it. Clutters up the UI. This is a huge problem in many mobile MMOs; sometimes the sheer amount of those tiny red dots get overwhelming and it’s enough to turn away players who thought they wanted to play the game. I pushed through, clicked every element to clear the dots (understood maybe about 20% of the things it was trying to tell me). Except for, wait for it, the red dot on the cash shop. For some reason I couldn’t get rid of the thing. It took 4 minutes of scrolling and clicking on random parts of the shop to finally get rid of it.
When I started playing again, I killed a few monsters and did some quests to get the feel for the game back. But the lack of players and chitchat made it feel lonely. Oh so lonely. Interestingly, there was actually a developer stream going on while I was playing. I didn’t tune in because I wanted to play the game; however, I did see that as a hopeful sign that maybe the game still had a fighting chance and that the devs actually did want to make something of this game. I enjoyed my time playing! It felt good to play; the animations were entertaining to watch. My character fought with the grace and flow of water. The effects were cool, and combat felt punchy. I legit enjoyed myself.
Dang shame nobody else was there with me.
This game was a wasted opportunity. Swords of Legends Online is/was a legitimately great game. It was a themepark MMO with dungeons and a solid PvP experience. And I guarantee that if the studios had just put in time and resources towards building community, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion in the first place. People were rooting for this game’s success! But it’s far too late to start a community now. MMOs need momentum to maintain their playerbase. And as soon as players think a game isn’t going to do well, they’re not going to stick, which is exactly what started happening last year when updates started drying up. They’ll feel that it’ll be a waste of time to play a game that might end up sunsetting in a handful of months. Just what the hell did Gameforge and Wangyuan Shengtang expect to happen when the only updates were for cash shop items? Sheesh.
Swords of Legends Online took inspiration from Taoism. Its seminal text, the Tao Te Ching, provides advice on how to lead a fulfilling happy life in harmony of the universe. It also warns about the folly of desire and going against that harmony. And I can’t help but think of the following quote for the companies behind this game:
Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.