I don’t know exactly why I’ve spent so much time this year fixating on the question about what MMORPGs are meant to be and where their development should lead, but I have. Perhaps it’s not actually surprising. I’ve talked about how the growth of the internet has changed them, I’ve talked about how genre conventions change them, and I’ve talked about how important side activities are to making MMORPGs work. But all of this winds up kind of dancing around an important concept: What is an MMORPG even supposed to be in 2023?
No, this isn’t about a question regarding the genre name or anything; that’s just a symptom of something else. Rather, it’s about examining the ways in which MMORPGs have odd baggage and issues inherited from the past, which can suggest a lot about how the genre will move into the future. And to start my answer, I would like to do what I often do and talk about classic shoot-’em-ups, or “shmups” as the not-even-remotely kids say these days.
Back in my day, after a long school day of learning to identify dinosaurs by looking out our classroom window and reading science books about how man hoped to one day harness fire, arcade games were everywhere. And a large number of those games were shmups, either vertically or horizontally scrolling. They had predictable mechanics. You piloted a little ship or plane or some other flying thing that could move around the screen. A truly astonishing number of things would drift onto the screen and shoot at you. One touch from an enemy or bullet meant death, but you could also fill the screen with your own projectiles, so the game was a dance of absurd bullets flying everywhere.
If you were good at these games, they were not long games. You could blow through most of them in half an hour or so. Really optimal strategies for speedrunning them produces times in the low 20 minutes or so, but even then it’s about maximizing damage rather than movement or major glitches. What made them work as major games was the simple reality that you weren’t getting a ton of practice playing them at home; you played them for a quarter each round and with long gaps between them, so you would often die pretty quickly, so the game felt longer than it was.
Of course, this meant that these games ran into some problems once home gaming became more prevalent and gaming in general moved away from short games that just had punishing failure states. You can’t really make a good shmup that lasts for ages, and so the genre faded in prominence and became far less common just because of that change in incentives.
These days there’s been a resurgence, and for good reason! But the genre needed to shift away from being full-price new boxed releases that murdered you repeatedly on stage 2 of 6 to make the game seem longer than it was.
It’s not a mystery how MMORPGs came about. As online games increasingly became a thing, bringing RPGs into the space came pretty naturally. But this is where we touch upon something that I mentioned in one of those prior columns because in 1997, your MMORPG’s main draw was that it was a place to hang out. It was a chat room with a game attached. That doesn’t mean the games back then were bad; it just means that the concept was novel back then, something you couldn’t get elsewhere.
But now you can, and that means that MMORPGs are in a weird place as an aggregate. We all feel it and the past few years have borne it out as the big five have established themselves in the genre, finding a space that deals with the fact that… well, online games and RPGs don’t actually mix terribly well.
This sounds really weird if you like MMORPGs, but when you think about it, it actually tracks. Baldur’s Gate 3 is a great RPG that came out this year and can be loads of fun when you play with a friend, but it’s an RPG first and an online game second. It doesn’t care how fast you accomplish tasks. It doesn’t need to keep you playing by maintaining servers. It can be a vessel for story, character builds, and singular challenges without having to be an endless game that you keep playing for years on end.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with an RPG you keep playing for years on end, but you also run into the problems of the game getting bloated, losing sight of its original reason for existence, and just simple fatigue. And when you think of your favorite single-player RPGs, how many of them are actually enhanced by having other people playing them? These are usually experiences that you want to have somewhat on your own, choosing your narrative options based on your personal preferences.
MMORPGs thus have an odd tension underlying them: They’re actually kind of terrible at most of the things that RPGs do well, right down to dealing with a genre that has a small group of protagonists vs. a whole lot of players. All of the big five have found different ways to deal with this, and indeed the genre has generally played with the idea that the story takes place parallel to the gameplay portions. This works when done well, but it’s still… you know, kind of weird. And it doesn’t necessarily play to all of the strengths of an online experience.
Does this mean that MMORPGs are dying? I don’t think so at all; we have the aforementioned big five or even big 10 instead of the days of the big one and then the also-rans. As someone who really enjoys MMORPGs, I definitely feel as if I’m eating better now than I have for a long time. Rather, my point is that this pressure and duality is present. The big games and the small ones are all trying to figure out exactly how they can square the circle.
Lots of different experiments have been tried over the years, some of which have been successful and some of which have been… less so. It seems pretty certain that MMORPGs need to have more to them than just a top end of progression content challenging the most committed players, and all but one of the top MMORPGs have really embraced that (the one that hasn’t is basically getting dragged kicking and screaming toward reality). But exactly what it needs to both be a fun game worth playing and justify being an online experience you keep engaging in… that’s going through some changes.
And that is, I think, ultimately a good thing. The old way of doing things worked when it did, just like there was a time when just making a new shmup with new enemy layouts was enough to delight people. Time changed, but we’re still getting new shmups; they’re less ubiquitous and often indie affairs, but that offers freedom to experiment in new directions. We’ve had some growing pains and they’ll continue to happen, but I think it’s interesting to think about the different pressures on the genre as we move forward to 2024 and beyond.