Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) Role Play Games (RPGs) were a huge fad in the late 90’s and early 00’s, with games like Everquest, World of Warcraft, and Guild Wars being some of the champions within the genre at the time. They offered something no other games offered within that timeframe; a living, breathing world in which players could interact with others across the globe. In part they were RPGs, focusing on building and developing characters as players would progress through the multiple stories and areas of these lands. But there also existed another side, a far more important one, that was focused around working together, forming bonds and relationships with other people to conquer their continual and ever-mounting challenges. These features are what set MMOs apart from other games, it wasn’t just playing together, it was working together and getting to know people in a sprawling world and RPG environment that set them apart, and being forced to do so.
But those classic MMORPG philosophies don’t align with gamers as they once did, and we see MMOs time after time buckle under the inability to cater to modern gamers by switching to different models or ultimately shutting down. In the latest in a long line of MMOs closing, WildStar had recently announced that it will be closing permanently in November. It marks one of the more modern ventures of an MMORPG reaching its swift demise even after making several adjustments to stay afloat during the ever changing tide of gamer’s wants. Even making these concessions, such as switching to a Free to Play model, WildStar could only delay the inevitable. For any other genre, lasting four years would be quite a feat, but for an MMO, four years is just the start of things to come.
So why can’t MMORPGs, outside of the select few, thrive in the modern gaming market? Well like most answers, it’s more than one reason.
When someone decides to play an MMO, they are making a commitment. MMOs are large games that require a massive amount of time investment to get the most value out of them. Like many modern MMO designs, there is plenty of content that can be played solo, but it is the content, which requires teamwork, that is both the most enjoyable and challenging.. And not just any group at that; a group that can and does work well together, that can learn, evolve, and better themselves. This is where the majority of the commitment comes from when playing an MMORPG.
Everything is centered on working with and finding other people to play with. The act of doing a quest, running a dungeon, completing a raid, or just finding resources—each partially has that same goal in mind because that is what you need to have in the end to work with other people. Every scenario is a potential touch point for the player to eventually find or grow with a group that they will need later to tackle the current or highest level of content available at a given time. Running through a dungeon to improve your gear is not just potentially about getting more gear, it’s using that gear to enable your character to find and work with other players. The same goes for all the other activities mentioned, they all feed into one another for this same goal, even though it is not directly the goal of each activity.
Because these goals are in part about finding and interacting with people, it also means they are designed in such a way to elicit a need to find a group. Sometimes they are drawn out, other times they require other people, perhaps they are just challenging. In any case, they are positioned for the player to work with other players. For that to happen, you need to have the right environment that enables that commodity to happen, which in a MMO’s case, being forced to in the right situations, which happen to take a lot of time and effort.
When it comes to a modern gamer’s taste, this time commitment can be too great. For players to see these payoffs and form these long-standing relationships a great amount of time must be invested; of which many are not willing to make.
MMOs for a long time were the only place where you could expect to find this certain style of gameplay and to some extent; still are. But a fair majority of the uniqueness that MMOs used to offer can be easily found in other games as well. One of the hallmarks of an MMO was large scale, PvP combat. Dozens if not hundreds of people fighting against one another in the hopes of claiming victory, but, there are now other games that offer this.
Take the whole Battle Royale genre as an example, a literal hundred players playing against each other. While this still pales in comparison to other MMOs, it’s enough to scratch that same itch of large-scale battles. Crafting is another aspect that is another large portion of MMORPGs, but it too can be found in other games and in a better capacity than most in titles such as Minecraft. The same trend continues throughout all the different aspects that exist in MMOs. Pet Collecting? Pokemon. Exploration? The Elder Scrolls series. Fishing? Sega Bass Fishing on the Dreamcast. If you prefer to focus on one of these aspects, more likely than not, there is a game out there already that does it better than an MMO does. Of course, MMOs as a genre is built on the idea of being a master or none, and that it’s the ability to do all these things in one game to grow your character that is appealing. But, if you don’t opt to try all these different avenues of gameplay than another game will work just as well—especially if it requires less effort.
Games and Games and Games
Not only are there multiple different outlets within games as a medium itself to enjoy certain aspects of an MMO; there are just a lot of games out there. Take for example when World of Warcraft launched in 2004, during that year, nearly 700 (according to Wikipedia) games launched during that year. Move the dial to 2009, and there are nearly 1,000 games released in that year. As for what happened this past year? Well, over 7,500 games launched on Steam alone to put things in perspective. The height of the genre was at a time when there were far fewer games being released and announced, but in today’s market, there is more than 10 games being launched a day.
With such a massive amount of variety and sheer volume of releases, why would someone wish to commit to a single game? Especially when that one game requires a large time investment to be able to enjoy all the content that is available. For most, they wouldn’t. When MMOs were their most popular, not every game scratched every itch, it might have done a few things right, but there wasn’t a game to fill every void. MMOs on the other hand, did a very good job of having a little bit of everything in their game design, making them perfect for a large swath of people with various different interests. This wasn’t just a design decision, but almost a requirement for success as an MMO’s health was measured by the size of its community. The only way to pull in such a large group of people would be to cater to their different wants. But with indie games starting to become an ever-growing larger part of the market, all sorts of different niches could be filled; with multiple games at that.
In the end, the MMO genre is dying, in part because of its aged ideas not aligning with the current market. Sure there are always exceptions, and there always will be, but if the MMO market hopes to rise again, it can’t hope to try the same old tricks as before. However, those same old tricks are what made the genre work to begin with. Something completely new is needed, a rethinking of the whole genre, but with the market being what it is, who would be willing to put that sort of risk on the line? No one at the moment, but until then, this genre will slowly be left in the annals of time to wither away.