The massive multiplayer online roleplaying game genre — MMORPG to us old guard, or MMOs to the slightly less old guard, or World of Warcraft to the kids — is alive and well. It’s also dormant. It’s also dead. Like almost anything, it depends on who you ask, and what stake they have in wanting a particular answer.

MMOs used to be my bread and butter; of the four main blogs I have maintained in my lifetime, two were dedicated to the genre for a good period of time. My first blog was a generalist gaming blog, my second two were all about MMOs and less about other gaming, and this one dedicated more to my other hobbies with the occasional game-related thing thrown in. This kind of mirrors my feelings about the genre. When it was young, I was only involved in a handful of titles like Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies. Then I went through several years of in tense MMO immersion with popular titles like World of Warcraft, EveryQuest II, and Warhammer Online, as well as games most folks might not have heard of, such as Istaria Online (ne Horizons) and NeoCron. Now I content myself with the occasional MMO dip, like Secret World Legends during the Halloween season, or Guild Wars 2 when nothing else I have installed is really exciting me.

For me, the current MMO landscape is…tricky. The history of the genre isn’t really all that different from what we see in other genres. We went through “this is the next big thing” to “here’s a specific formula for success so everyone copy that” to “we’re oversaturated, let’s pull back the reins a bit and see how things suss out” to “we see an opening that’s not being filled by the traditional players so let’s throw our hat into the ring” to our current situation of “what constitutes an ‘M-M-Oh’, exactly anymore? /shrug”. We’re at a point now where the type of MMO that was being made in the heyday of the movement has fallen out of favor [1], which leaves it open for different kinds of games that are vying for the mantle…many of which we might not be interested in.

As I speak from a Western perspective, we are now in an age of imports. Final Fantasy XIV is probably the highest-profile Eastern MMO right now in the circles in which I personally travel, and there have been several others in the past few years. This situation is rather confounding to me; I can’t remember any of them by name, which tells me that I am not interested in them, or that maybe they have tried to tap the Western market but have failed to reach a critical mass. That Eastern MMOs (from Asia or even Eastern Europe/Western Russia, which seems to be a hotbed of development in general these days) are stabbing Westward is possibly a result of Western developers just not giving shit about the genre at this time. Nature — and game development — abhors a vacuum, especially when there’s the potential for money to be made.

We’re also in an age of serving the underserved. PvP in MMOs has traditionally been a second class citizen or when it wasn’t, quickly sidelined. The “golden age” of the MMO was built on the backs of “WoW Clones”, PvE games that chased Blizzard’s Magic Formula that showed there was more of an audience for co-op than co-mpetition. WAR closed (which might be due more to Games Workshop than popularity; I dunno), and although Dark Age of Camelot is still running, it’s an older game. Obligatory shout-out to the Granddaddy of PvP MMOs, EVE Online, of course. There’s been a lot of other PvP-first titles that have come and gone than I can remember, but now that the PvE landscape has settled down with the elder titles still tent-poll’n that sub-section, games like Ashes of Creation and Crowfall — primarily PvP with a dash of PvE included in the hopes of pushing those players into competitive gaming — are what the Western developers are working on these days. As I have said several times in the past, I don’t begrudge this focus on PvP; despite the general surliness of the PvP crowd when you give them a podium, I believe that they deserve to have games they enjoy.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve fallen into a period of ill-defined boundaries, which I think more than anything might signal the actual disappearance of what we old folks consider to be an “MMO”. MMO stands for “massive multiplayer”, and one could be extremely generous when trying to enumerate “massive”. Destiny and Destiny 2 can have hundreds of players on the same server, but you’ll only ever see a handful at once in the Tower/The Farm, and fewer still out in open world areas. Same with Tom Clancy’s: The Division or Tom Clancy’s: The Division 2, where safehouses tend to be the hubs where other players can mingle with other players until leaving for the city. On paper, these kinds of games fit the “massive” bill by having a massive number of players available, but in spirit — the spirit of the Old Guard — doling them out in ever-smaller parcels is not what an MMO is all about.

I don’t personally lament the end of the First Phase of the MMO. We still have half- or a full-dozen examples of these games in operation and some in development which are below the radar (all the heirs-apparent to the City of Heroes throne, specifically). I think many people who do decry the lack of new MMOs are finding that what’s left in operation just isn’t doing it for them (ever, or anymore), which is of course sad, but in the games space everything old will be mined for nostalgia at some point in the future. I’d bet your left kidney that we’ll someday come back around to PvE themepark MMOs in spirit, although transformed in a way that adds a liberal dash of lessons learned in their absence. Of course, like many in my circles, I’m not getting any younger and hoping that we come around again in time for me to be able to play them without too much difficulty (or at all, let’s be honest) might be a lot to ask for.

[1] When I say “fallen out of favor” I don’t mean “no one plays them anymore”. People certainly do. WoW, FFXIV, Star Wars:The Old Republic, and The Elder Scrolls Online are still at the top of their respective games. I see plenty of people in Star Trek Online and Guild Wars 2. However, there hasn’t been a significant, high-profile — for lack of a better term — “traditional” MMO announcement or launch for several years here in the West.

1 Comment

  • Tipa

    August 19, 2020 - 12:04 PM

    It’s hard to define just what an MMO is. The first wave of MMOs were just meant to be living worlds in which you could take part. Ultima Online and EverQuest didn’t have quests or raids as we think of them today when it started. EverQuest didn’t even have formal raids, just boss monsters hundreds of players threw themselves at. WoW defined the MMO, as you pointed out, for awhile, but even in WoW’s heydey there would be unique MMOs around the edges — one of my favorites was one where you played as a unit in an RTS, getting upgraded and promoted during battles.

    The players get to define what an MMO is, I think. Forcing games into a box just means not seeing the games outside of it. Certainly people are getting the same sort of social interaction in Fortnite that they used to in WoW.

    Pantheon is still coming out sometime, and Old School Runescape is undergoing a bit of a renaissance right now…

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