The Rise and Fall of the MMO Genre (AKA I Miss You, MMOs)

I miss MMOs (massively multiplayer online games). Now, a lot of games claim the be MMOs these days — but they are pretenders I tell you! (This is the part of the blog where I feel like a crazy person screaming “THE END IS NEAR!”)

Games that sport 50, 60, or even a 100 players can’t contend with the true scope of an MMO. Even MMOs with instances still can give a grand feeling when we know we’re at least in a world with thousands of other players.

But what makes me miss MMOs, other than the large player base? Well, where do I begin…

Persistence is a huge factor in the appeal of an MMO. Building up a character from scratch, leveling them, gearing them, creating guilds, and becoming a legend in Player vs. Player Combat. Dang! I miss that feeling of being apart of something bigger than myself. In a game like Archeage, you gained wealth, created ships, and better housing as you progressed. It made it feel like you were putting down roots and that the world was changing around you (unfortunately, Archeage had it’s other fair share of issues).

Archeage was great…minus all the grinding.

I loved having many different roles/classes in an MMO, which created a reliance on each other to function well as a group. Oh you thought you could handle that dungeon without a healer, huh? Think again, pal! I loved having rely on that natural trinity in an MMO (tank, healer, damage). Throw in some extra flair with a bit of variety to each class and I’m sold! My favorite class was the scout in Dark Age of Camelot. Holding the line in our keep against the endless swarms of players while I rained down arrows? Loved it.

But where did MMOs all go wrong? Why has World of Warcraft been the only dominant and massively successful MMO in the past decade? Certainly others have found some level of success: Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Elder Scrolls Online, Lord of the Rings Online – just to name a few.

Yet, no MMO has really established a cult following like World of Warcraft. In fact, as of late, the genre has felt pretty dead. So why is that? Well for starters: MMOs are notoriously difficult to make. They cost heaps of money and typically take significantly longer to create than the traditional video game. Being able to sustain a 5+ year development process is almost impossible for most game developers. Even ones with big publishers behind them (they tend to get a bit impatient funneling in money with no return).

In addition, some of these pretender MMOs (that sounds a lot meaner than intended!) I mentioned earlier seemed to have taken root instead of a true MMO experience. Why make a massive game with thousands of players in mind when you can make a game designed for 60-100 players spread across individual servers (that the players often pay for themselves)? GG.

Creating an MMO now means going up against the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft. Your game will be compared to a game that has 10+ years of development under it’s belt. That’s hard to compete against. “Man this games end-game content is pretty lack luster.” That’s easy to say of course when World of Warcraft has had over a decade of game development to grow that end game content.

Mind you, World of Warcraft wasn’t always lush with content and things to do. Once upon a time it was basic, bland, and kind of boring. I know. I played in beta. That said, they added to it over time after their initial success.

It’s tough to compete with World of Warcraft.

It’s hard for an MMO to do that when you’re starting from square one. So what’s the solution? Heck if I know, as somebody who isn’t a game designer! But I’m happy to give my opinion and pretend its right:

First: I think any MMO should embrace the idea of backwards design. This is difficult. After all, you need to build a huge ladder to reach the end game in the first place. But if you design out the deep, engaging, and enriching end game experiences first you’ll ensure some method for competing with the big elephant in the room.

Second: BE ORIGINAL! Too many of us have experienced the traditional MMO gameplay. Yep, we’ve collected all those monster parts to make a pointless stew, we’ve grinded monsters for experience points, and we’ve spent repetitive hours in a watered down PvP experience. Stop trying to be World of Warcraft! Blow up the genre a bit! Redefine the experience. Trying to make me grind quests, levels, or whatever is just too generic these days. Put me in a conflict and a struggle for something bigger than myself or some stew you want made.

Third: Ditch the monthly subscription and pay-to-win tactics. We’ve seen time and time again that games that are friendly toward consumers will do remarkably well if the games are well received. Avoid pay-to-win, avoid “free to suffer, pay to suffer less” mentality a lot of MMOs and other free-to-play games encourage. And of course, you should never be able to buy an advantage in a competitive MMO experience. Monthly subscriptions on the other hands are just too much. $15 a month for a single game experience? Meanwhile I get the Humble Monthly for $12 and get 5-6+ games a month. It makes it a tough to convince someone to invest in the monthly subscription. Subscription overload is real too, so try not to add one more thing that we need to subscribe to. Or, try making the subscription a bit more reasonable.

Four: Power to the players. Okay, so, it’s neat having a curated experience in an MMO. However, what really drives interest (for me at least) are player controlled experiences. I love completely player-based economies – Star Wars Galaxies was amazing in this context as I discuss in my other article. EVE Online is another example. The more you let players control the experience, the more fun an experience can become.

Five: Rethink what it means to really be an MMORPG. I think when most people think of an MMO they think of of having more action bars than screen space, mundane quest dialogue they can’t skip fast enough, and generic experience points. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Why not reward players who possess higher skill, more knowledge, or game experience as opposed to just who has he most time on their hands to grind loot/experience/monsters? Reward players who can manage, organize, and direct their guild in an efficient manner. It doesn’t need to just be a fantasy RPG either. A modern day MMO is almost unheard of – but what an interesting setting it could be. Same with sci-fi to some extent.

As much as the game has fallen on hard times, ATLAS – the pseudo pirate MMO might be a model to consider. It is largely based off ARK: Survival Evolved in many ways. They developed ARK, and then they leveraged most of the technology and work in that game to make ATLAS. Now, there’s other issues surrounding this game, but it might be a viable way to create an MMO in this current game market.

I really love MMOs. I genuinely miss them. The idea of being apart of a huge, thriving world was just so much fun. It makes me sad that we now live in an era with micro-MMOs and MMOs that often fail due to scope or lack of funding. In the meantime, I’ll just keep crossing my fingers we’ll get a new MMO to blow up the genre!

So that’s all! Do you miss MMOs too? You should tell me about it on Twitter. Feel free to hop in my Discord to chat about it, and I’d love to see you all swing by my Twitch channel to watch me play video games live! Thanks for reading, friend!

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