This is a topic I’ve had a deep desire to write about for a long time.
While most people who follow this blog are World of Warcraft players primarily, and may not have MMO experience outside the bounds of Azeroth, I know some play a lot of the genre’s offerings.
As for myself, I am something of an MMO journeyman, in that I’ve played the best the genre has had to offer for the most part, and so while I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the genre as a whole, I was pretty firmly into it for the portions I’m going to discuss here today.
So, thesis statement time – is the MMO genre dead or dying?
Part 1: Ancient History
To understand how we arrived here, it’s worth investigating the beginnings of the genre. Born out of the MUDs of the early internet, the idea for a large-scale online RPG experience took root in these early, text-based adventures. The potential that existed within MUDs was only limited to the descriptive capabilities of the authors at work, and the imagination of the player, but there was a clear market opportunity that existed – take the popular RPG genre from being solely local and single-player, and use the visual framework provided by that to connect people, replacing descriptive text with handcrafted worlds and replacing typed inputs with action combat (well, something approximating action). There were a lot of early attempts, including Neverwinter Nights (an online version I’ve never even seen!) in 1991, but the idea of the MMORPG gained traction in the late nineties with the original big 3 – Everquest, Ultima Online, and Meridian 59. Of these, UO and EQ are the ones many people would think of when reminiscing about the genre.
But with dialup internet being the prevailing technology, and many computers still being stuck with only basic graphical capability (these were the days of the standalone 3D accelerator card, after all), the genre would struggle to gain mainstream acceptance for a little while still.
Part 2: Residential Broadband and the Growing Masses
In the early 2000’s, a few advances in technology made MMO gameplay more accessible than it had been before. The biggest advance was residential broadband access. While early broadband looks incredibly slow in 2019, in 2001, my parents getting a 768 kbps downstream connection from the cable company was downright amazing – considering that it was around 15 times faster than 56k, it made sense that it would be! Residential broadband was a game-changer (literally!) for MMOs, and I would argue that it paved the way for WoW and many other games. For both local performance and online performance, most early MMOs used fully separate zones, separated by hard barriers and loading screens. This made it easier to manage on multiple fronts, as the game did not have to render as much detail on-screen, and the game did not need as much data from the server about player and enemy activity, since it was constrained to a single zone.
With improvements to graphical technology came more visually interesting games as well, and the genre expanded out in a few different directions with Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Runescape, and the first console MMO in Phantasy Star Online, which was impressive for its time. Later, we got an additional console MMO in Everquest Online Adventures on the Playstation 2, and the idea of what an MMO could be expanded with the launch of The Sims Online – and was quickly re-constrained by the nearly-immediate failure of The Sims Online.
Culturally, MMO gameplay was translating to more places as well, as the South Korean MMO market grew strong during this era, with Ragnarok Online being one of the big success stories of this time, and the Japanese MMO market taking off with the launch of Final Fantasy XI, which was also unique in that it offered both a PC client and a console client for the Playstation 2.
In 2003, a juggernaut of the genre, EVE Online, launched, and offered another unique feature for the time. Rather than splitting players off into a number of seperate servers, the nature of the game design into solar systems allowed everyone to be in the same universe, since the distances between places would allow logical division into server by solar system, with the gameplay mechanics making that division relatively seamless.
Meanwhile, a massive (ha!) number of other games were released and taking their own pieces of the market – the immensely anticipated Star Wars Galaxies, Lineage II, and the comic-book inspired fun of City of Heroes.
These games, while ostensibly all MMOs, used very different gameplay mechanics, settings, and gameplay hooks, delivering a lot of interpretations of what an MMO could be. However, a shadow loomed large over them as November 2004 approached…
Part 3: Everquest II Takes Over The World (Just Kidding)
November 2004 saw the release of two absolutely massive games in the MMO genre. One was Everquest II, an interesting experiment in playerbase fracture, which offered a similar experience to the original but with updated graphics and more modern game mechanics. The hype for Everquest II would have seemed massive, were it not for the second game that released in the MMO genre that same month.
World of Warcraft.
Hotly anticipated and in development since 1999, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft aimed to take the real-time strategy mainstay into a more focused view. Gone were the commanders, peons, and resource management, and in were the RPG mechanics, exploration, and sense of discovery. The game took advantage of player familiarity with the Warcraft setting to deliver what was otherwise a fairly standard MMO experience – with a few exceptions.
To this point, MMOs could often be mind-numbingly punishing experiences, with death penalties to experience gained including de-leveling, unforgiving world mobs that required parties to just play at all, and endgame content that was largely delivered in the open world, meaning that raid bosses, for example, could be sniped from you, PvP could ruin attempts on those same bosses, not to mention mob kiting and training onto your group. Boss spawns were unpredictable and often big guilds would have rotating spawn watchers to alert the group to when a boss had become available – which could happen at any time.
WoW stripped away a lot of that artificial difficulty. You could quest and level alone, if you so desired, although early group quests did really need a group! Death merely incurred a gear durability penalty and required you to run back to your corpse to recover – although you could also take a large penalty to durability and a stat debuff to resurrect at the graveyard instead. Nearly all of WoWs group content was instanced, meaning that dungeon bosses could be farmed, raids were available on your schedule, and while WoW world bosses in the early era were often similarly difficult to farm, they were typically more available and offered those classic world hijinks that could only be had via friction with other players. Still in place were the social mechanics – you had to spam chat for a group, and you could build a reputation, good or bad, among players with whom you shared a server. That knowledge would color a lot of interactions, and remained in play until 2009 when the Dungeon Finder was added, at which point the social dynamic began to matter less and less.
To say WoW changed the genre would be an understatement. For almost 15 years, the gold standard of what an MMO is and what people think of as an MMO has been defined single-handedly by WoW, with most people’s only touchstone to the genre being WoW. The game achieved an incredible number of players, beating most established MMO playerbases by 10x (compare peak EQ at 500,000 to vanilla WoW’s 5,000,000) and finally penetrated the mainstream, with ads featuring major celebrities and several appearances as the main plot thread in TV comedies (both the infamous South Park episode “Make Love Not Warcraft” and an early episode of The Big Bang Theory using the game as a plot device).
Thus begins the next era of MMOs…
Part 4: The WoW Killers Get Killed
The late 2000’s were dominated by MMOs aiming to dethrone WoW, with a large number of contenders beginning development around 2004-2005 and a steady stream of releases that began around 2007. Nearly every couple of months, the cycle would repeat – a game would be released, billed a “WoW Killer” and would pop a low seven-digit subscriber count, only to deflate rapidly due to varying holes in content or design, just in time for the next release. I don’t say this to defame these games either – many of them were excellent conceptually and offered fun early gameplay, but struggled to keep the endgame relevance that WoW has usually done fantastically, meaning the staying power of these games was constrained by level cap and they would often not be able to pull players back in with updates, since they were already on to the new, shiny toy.
Here is just a partial list of releases in this era, off the top of my head:
Age of Conan
Star Trek Online
City of Villians
Dungeons and Dragons Online
Star Wars The Old Republic
DC Universe Online
The Lord of the Rings Online
Pirates of the Burning Sea
The Secret World
Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
There were more, but you get the idea. Games on this list aren’t bad, I should say – I played many of them (Aion, Age of Conan, RIFT, SWTOR, LOTRO, Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Guild Wars) but most of them just lacked the staying power, for one reason or another.
There are a few high-level failures/problems I wanted to discuss separately from the list – although both come much later than the late-2000s.
The first is Final Fantasy XIV. Yes, I know – I like the current game and find it an excellent distraction from WoW doldrums, but v1.0 of Final Fantasy XIV was an awful game at launch. It kept the spirit of its predecessor in Final Fantasy XI, with high complexity jobs and gameplay, slower mechanics, that usually excellent Final Fantasy world-building, and a high level of visual fidelity for the time, but past the initial portion of the game, cracks showed almost immediately. Gameplay dragged on, its travel mechanics were clunky, the poor optimization of the game meant that even a top end PC could barely play it at full detail (I had a Core i7 920 with 12GB of RAM and a Geforce GTX 285 when it came out, top end hardware, and couldn’t play it on high), which was compounded by baffling art decisions like using the same amount of geometric detail to craft props like potted plants as were used in character models, and a crushing lack of endgame content all added up to make the game seem destined for death. At release in 2010, it also failed to conjure up the PS3 version that was supposed to launch at the same time, which was in many ways vital to the game being able to grow in its home market of Japan, as while PC gaming does have some popularity there, the Final Fantasy MMOs are largely for the console audience at home.
Of course, 3 years later (which is incredible to think about), 2013 saw the release of A Realm Reborn, which salvaged the framework and world of Final Fantasy XIV v1.0 and used it as a jumping-off point for what is an almost entirely different game, which has succeeded to a level where it may be the top MMO in the world (Square Enix claims 14 million players, although how many of those are currently active is unknown). Since then, the game has seen two expansions, with a third set to arrive in early summer of 2019, and is probably the best case scenario for a “WoW Killer.”
On the other side of the fence is the recently shuttered Wildstar. Beginning development in the late 2000’s, with an unveiling in April 2011 and a long development timeline up to its release in June 2014, the game was being developed by several former WoW developers, with the original founders of Carbine Studios being 17 key personnel from the WoW team, and it later absorbing developers from other Blizzard franchises and other MMO developers like staff from City of Heroes and Everquest. It had the pedigree behind it to potentially deliver a WoW-killing experience, as it also saw fit to focus on new gameplay styles, with more action-oriented combat. While the gameplay was fresh for the genre, offering movement mechanics like double-jumps and dashing, and telegraphed attacks that could be actually dodged by player input rather than passively via RPG stat gaming, it suffered a similar problem to many MMOs that rose in the post-WoW world – the endgame content was not strong and the end result of that was a loss in player interest. Despite efforts to add more content and shore up the problems that were present, it was not enough, and in late 2018, the game was shuttered after only 4 years of active service.
So as we come into the modern era, WoW is still arguably on top in terms of mindshare, while it has several competitors that managed to survive the late 2000’s and retain playerbase interest, like FFXIV, Guild Wars 2, and some refocused versions of the old WoW killers, like SWTOR, LOTRO, and Neverwinter.
Part 5: The Modern Era of Free To Play, WoW Waning
Our modern era of MMOs is defined by only a few large players, with a few small ones alongside. WoW continues on as probably the most recognizable MMO in the world, although its playerbase is far down from the peaks of the WoW Killer era. Final Fantasy XIV has a large total number of players, but actively encourages people to unsubscribe between story quest patches. Guild Wars 2 uses the living world story to hook players in for stretches at a time, but the model it offers for content is not quite as robust and the engine underpinning the game is in dire need of updates. Elder Scrolls Online came out with a huge hook similar to WoW at launch, with the ability to settle and exist in an established world, this one the Elder Scrolls franchise, hot off the heels of Skyrim peaking player interest in the franchise. Lord of the Rings Online offers an interesting gameplay experience with some content updates, but does not seem to be as popular as you might imagine. EVE Online remains a hardcore experience for the hardcore, but it has its adherents and will not relinquish them.
However, while this era boasts the largest number of relatively healthy offerings ever, with millions of players playing one or more of the titles mentioned, and others I didn’t call out (Black Desert Online, Bless, etc), it also has the dubious distinction of having a relatively anemic number of paying subscribers.
During the WoW killer era of MMOs, many games began to give in not by simply dying off, but instead by first converting to free-to-play mechanics, offering the core experience at no cost, and charging instead for either story content at endgame or for cosmetic items. Some games went with a hybrid model, offering free content updates and perks to those who subscribed on a monthly basis, while also offering a free-to-play model with content and cosmetics available for purchase. In many cases, this saved games from a quick death on a subscription model – Star Wars: The Old Republic, while not highly successful, did manage to stabilize under its F2P model and persists to this day. Guild Wars 1 and 2 were both buy-to-play models, meaning the box purchase was all you needed, but Guild Wars 1 handled this by offering a ton of expansions for purchase, where Guild Wars 2 has offered both expansions and a large amount of purchasable cash shop items.
WoW itself has not been immune to the march of time, as the game began offering the WoW Token in 2015, allowing one player to purchase a token for $20 and sell it on the in-game auction house to another player, who could trade it for a month of game time (or, with updates, $15 in Blizzard Balance to facilitate other purchases with Blizzard). The in-game sale occurs at a fixed gold cost based on the current availability and sales of WoW Tokens, although the exact parameters are somewhat murky. This model, in effect, serves as a clumsy implementation of a free-to-play model, in that there is a contingent of players who play WoW effectively for free, while Blizzard makes more money selling subscriptions in this way, as the $5 extra in that WoW Token initial purchase goes right into their pockets.
The era we find ourselves in now is an odd one, where MMOs are in something of a decline. While the genre has more successful titles than at any other point in its history, it is also no longer the hotbed of speculation. There was a point where we anticipated that higher-speed internet and faster computers would bring us gameplay with thousands of other people in large worlds. Instead, WoW now struggles more than it has before in dealing with even relatively small numbers of players in one place, Final Fantasy XIV still uses completely separate zones, and gameplay modes remain largely limited to a handful of players, with 72 player raids in EQ giving way to 40 in WoW, which then downgraded further with a peak endgame raid now being 30 players at maximum, with the top-end difficulty at 20 players. PvP remains a small team activity, with only two battlegrounds in WoW offering 40vs40 combat, and experiments with in-game real time voice chat that was positional, in games like APB, dying without having found an audience.
So that leads us to today…
Part 6: Are MMOs Dead?
First, the simple answer – no.
Despite appearances, MMOs as a genre are actually more alive than ever, if you look at the number of games. What has changed – the unchallenged dominance of WoW has given way. In the WoW killer era, it was common to have WoW up in the high millions to low 10 million players, with a contender at around 1 million and several others with 100,000+ players. Now, WoW is in the low millions (estimated), with FFXIV having a big chunk of players (maybe mid-millions if we assume SE is over-exaggerating), and multiple other titles having thousands of players each.
For me, however, what I look at as dead is the hope of MMO mechanics being the new hotness in gaming. There was once a time where we expected to see thousands of other players just in the world with us in any game, with the ability to easily connect to others and jump into gameplay. However, systems that would facilitate that have largely fallen to the wayside, as traditional matchmaking remains the means by which most players are connected to one-another. That is not to say that MMO mechanics don’t have some weight in non-MMO games – Ubisoft’s The Crew 2 will show you other players who are also cruising around the open world at the same time as you, and a few other games have similar sorts of mechanics (the message system in Dark Souls comes to mind).
What has changed, besides the lack of WoW dominance in the scene, is that MMO mechanics did not end up being the slam dunks we once expected. Destiny, while technically an MMO, does not often market itself as such. The Division, while also an MMO, has a standard AAA business model and only occasionally pushes you towards other players. Otherwise, the current state of online gameplay remains much the same as it was when WoW launched in 2004 – the scale of things is bigger and nearly every game released has an online component of some sort, but these mechanics wouldn’t seem all that out of place to someone who was cryogenically frozen in 2004.
So MMOs aren’t dead, but what has died is the hope of MMO mechanics leaking into games that otherwise would not be MMOs. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the current MMOs ended up absorbing mechanics from standard multiplayer games. WoW pushed single-player questing in 2004, and updated in 2009 with the dungeon finder and again in 2011 with the raid finder, removing the need to build social groups in game and with it, removing much of the dependence on reputation. I could tell you about 20-30 players on my server in WoW during the early days, but since Cataclysm, I couldn’t name any but one or two outside of my guild. Most modern MMOs adopt these same mechanical models, so questing remains largely a single-player activity, and most endgame content can be consumed through random matchmaking. In a weird way, while we would have expected MMO mechanics to consume normal multiplayer ones, instead we imported standard multiplayer mechanics to MMOs – removing layers of social interaction and consequence to replace it with convenience and ease of play.
I don’t begrudge these things – I like that I can queue for dungeons and do them quickly, but I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we flipped the script and added early MMO mechanics to Call of Duty – server communities, player notoriety, the social constructs and contracts we all had to engage in to enable us to explore all corners of the game.
MMOs live – but the hopes of seeing their better social mechanics make their way into non-MMO games is dead, and hell, those mechanics are mostly dead in MMOs too.