Vague Patch Notes: What does the future of MMORPGs look like?

Sure, great, very efficient.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the history of MMORPGs as a market and PC gaming in general, suggesting at the end that we’d next talk about the future of that market. Let’s do that today.

In that piece, I acknowledged that MMORPGs have made it clear that they are big, expensive projects that take a long time and are a major commitment for any company undertaking them. However, the successful ones are also basically a license to print money. A good chunk of what made Blizzard a desirable studio was the lengthy time period when World of Warcraft just constantly provided stupid amounts of money for the company, and even if that has faded, the game still earns its keep. Nor is it any longer a case of “well, Blizzard is the only one that can do it.” Square-Enix, for example, has done all right with Final Fantasy XIV. So why aren’t we awash in MMORPGs?

Well, it’s that “successful ones” note.

A while ago, MOP’s Bree and I were talking about why there are still companies trying to spin up new battle royale titles that will almost inevitably fail. The reason, which seems pretty obvious to us, is that the upfront costs are pretty minor, and the potential payday is pretty substantial. After all, if you look at the history and you realize that Fortnite‘s battle royale mode was an almost out-of-nowhere huge success, why not try to recreate it? You can do this again, right?

The obvious response is that no, you can’t, and that’s because the success of the battle royale spinoff was basically a combination of being in the right place at the right time and the window has now closed. But so long as it’s fairly cheap to start a new one up, it looks good on investor reports.

But a battle royale can be started up with some new models, some basic frameworks, and maybe some ham sandwiches for the programming staff. It’s a little different when you’re talking about a whole dang MMORPG from scratch, which requires a slightly different degree of infrastructure and development lead time.


For many years it seemed as if there were basically endless piles of investor cash for new MMORPGs, but a lot of those titles did not actually turn into the endless money fountains that were expected. Some of them certainly did, but even ones that basically splashed out all the money (Star Wars: The Old Republic, for example) turned out to not actually offer the returns expected. A lot really depended on the quality of the game released, and it was possible to release something that was really successful with a niche audience but wasn’t a major hit.

Right now, my sense is that a lot of the bigger western studios that could effectively fund an MMORPG are functionally gun-shy. It’s clear that you can make a lot of money in this genre, but it’s also clear that you can’t just throw money at it and expect to make something good. It also doesn’t help that the budget that you need to bring in order to build a competitor to the big five is big, the sort of thing that is hard to justify from a development side unless you have a reasonable assumption that it will move a certain number of units.

The days when MMORPGs could launch to mid-tier numbers and grow through solid, steady word of mouth are, unfortunately, kind of past us now. This is not really a good or bad thing, but it is a thing, and we have to be realistic about it. That means that if we’re looking for the Next Big Thing, we kind of have to look outside of that arena and speculate about where the big money may come from.

It’s obvious that neither crowdfunded MMORPGs (which in large part cannot get their act together) nor western companies are going to front for this. It’s also obvious that the business model for Chinese and Korean games does not really match what most people are looking for here. Even aside from the focus on mobile games (which has a lot of reasons that are too complex to go into here), there’s a clear difference in how games are built and operated. Crossover successes are not unheard of, but they’re more limited.

Here’s where I feel like this year might prove very educational because there is a region that’s home to a pretty robust video game industry that has heretofore not been terribly involved in the MMORPG industry, and at least one of the current big titles come from there. Another one is due out this year… but how successful it will be remains to be seen.


My point here is not that Blue Protocol is The Hope For The Future. I’m excited about the game, yes, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have gotten over like gangbusters in its home country just yet. But I think that considering the size of the studio backing it, it’s a reminder that there is a country that obviously can produce a wildly successful MMORPG and one that has the money and development studios capable of doing so.

While every year we look forward to what we expect to happen in the coming year, I do think that within the next few years we’re going to see a push from a few different places to start developing new MMORPGs. The audience is there for these games, and it’s clear that when one goes over successfully, it is a product with a really long tail. The chasing of live service games is effectively an effort to get the success of an MMORPG without the high cost of one, and it only takes a couple of studios saying “maybe this would work better if we just gave it a bigger budget and went for broke” to get some major projects going.

This is especially true when you look at how the big games are all getting long in the tooth but still bringing in money. The addressable market is big, and it just needs someone to take the gamble and make something with wide-ranging appeal.

But… that’s the trick. The problem isn’t necessarily footing the bill or even the potential upside; the problem is that it is possible to sink a whole lot of money into developing a new MMORPG and just wind up with something that doesn’t go over. It’s a pretty big gamble, game development in high-risk high-reward mode. And the boom years made it clear that you could sink a lot of money into that gamble and still not wind up with very much.

This is all a long and roundabout way to say what I probably could have left with “this field is expensive and thus hard to break into.” But I think it’s worth considering the way the industry has changed and seems poised to change in the future.

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.
Previous articleCrema Games says it is ‘still working on Temtem’ following Temtem Swarm backlash
Next articleCorepunk boss says early access launch in 2024 is ‘very realistic’

No posts to display

Subscribe to:
oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments