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How massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) became a stagnant genre

Bless Online

Source: Pompadeux Ming on Steam.

Bless Online is but one of the latest massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) to launch and be poorly received by the community. It represents the genre as a whole, which has failed to modernize itself and entice players to return to the classic system of exploring massive worlds, completing daily quests, and rolling around with guilds of other gamers.

But how did this colossal beast of a genre become stagnant?

World of wonders

The game everyone immediately points to when the term MMORPG is thrown into the mix is World of Warcraft. It's the title that has been around for over a decade, has endured numerous updates, DLC launches, and competitor games.

Blizzard has done a stellar job at keeping a community alive after so many years, while other companies seemingly fail at the start line.

An issue with World of Warcraft, which itself has seen declines in players, is being part of a traditional, old-school system. Games like Runescape, Ultima Online, EverQuest, EVE Online, among others is the fundamental mechanics don't alter through updates. Sure, graphical improvements are made and new systems can be added in later releases, but how the game feels and plays is usually unchanged.

An MMORPG can launch and survive or fail and be forgotten.

This leaves it to hardcore fans of each game to continue logging in. Newcomers will arrive as they find out about MMORPGs for the first time, but as the gaming industry has evolved since the early 2000s, it's no longer the only genre that offers addictive multiplayer gameplay. Take a look at PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and League of Legends as two fine examples of multiplayer games that swap out the massive world for competitive, addictive gameplay.

MMORPG launches are generally met with varying degrees of success (Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy 14: Realm Reborn) or failure (AEON, Warhammer Online). Does anyone remember WildStar? Said titles attempted to take the World of Warcraft formula and adapt it slightly to make it seem fresh without being too unfamiliar. Guild Wars 2 is usually brought up as a fine example as to how to take the MMORPG as everyone knows it and make some meaningful changes.

Still, have we lost the Massive from MMO and simply prefer Multiplayer Online games?

Modernizing the MMORPG

The Elder Scrolls Online

Big games aren't unique to the MMO genre anymore. The Witcher 3, Skyrim, and even Zelda: Breath of the Wild all have massive worlds ready for exploration. It's no longer a selling point for new and old MMORPGs. No longer do you have to subscribe to a single title to enjoy a sense of scale and realism in just how long it can take you to walk from one side of the world to the other.

Playing with friends was another big bonus of these massive online games. You felt like you were part of the world, and so was everyone else. You'd trade with other players, set up shop, take down beasts, and more. You weren't simply reading text on a screen from an NPC with zero personality. But no longer is that the case in single-player games. Again, The Witcher 3. Fully voiced actors with incredibly realistic graphics and animations make the world appear to be alive.

Features that made MMOs unique are no longer rare drops.

Most games also receive some kind of post-launch support too, usually in the shape of DLCs and free content. Traditionally, it was the big MMO budgets that allowed for some creativity without needing to charge a full $60 a second time around. The same goes for most genres now. Take Cities: Skylines, which has a number of DLCs available, and more are likely to be on the way, for a game that came out in 2015.

It's difficult to see where the MMO genre fits into how gaming has evolved to this very day. Is an active player count of a million people really that uncommon and restricted to online games with big worlds? Not anymore. Path of Exile runs on sessions, which are created as you enter a map. You can run with friends, random people you meet or go it alone. Sea of Thieves allows you to meet, greet, and defeat others too. One could argue that the very idea of an "MMO" has been diluted.

Not quite an endgame

Runescape

I don't believe the MMORPG (and MMO genre as a whole) as we know it will die out anytime soon. There are plenty of games still doing well and pulling in the numbers. So long as there remains a demand, the supply will be kept open. Will the massive online games have to adapt and change to how gamers want to enjoy games? Absolutely, and it's something developers will need to get right in order to better compete with other genres for time.

Combat is something developers have attempted to get right. I'm sure you've seen the countless memes about the typical MMO UI with a massive array of skills and abilities to choose from. Certain titles have tried to distance themselves from this approach, by focusing more on a select few skills per class and combat movement, which makes it more engaging in battles where enemies have telegraphed attacks. Blizzard's upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, Battle for Azeroth, includes advanced enemy A.I. in some cases that attempt to mimic less predictable player behavior, rather than the cannon fodder monsters the game is typically known for in its leveling experience.

Developers will need to check again to see how gamers are playing popular titles today, both single-player and online-only to see what they can come away with the reinvigorate the classic and well-loved genre.

I'm intrigued to learn your past (and present) experiences with MMO games and how they fit into your current available gaming schedule, so hit the comments!

Rich Edmonds is a word conjurer at Windows Central, covering everything related to Windows, gaming, and hardware. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a device chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

6 Comments
  • Well, for me, as soon as I see something is Third Person, I'm out. I can't stand that type of game. It has to be First Person, otherwise I see no point. Once it passes that first hurdle, I look at why KIND of FPS it is. If it's anything "mystical/magical", I pass on it. If, however, it's like Counterstrike, Titan Fall or Elite Dangerous, you've got my attention. After that, it comes down to graphics, specific game mechanics (if it's built on loot crates, I am SO gone--ignorant choice game design, hands down). All too often, I find that developers ruin that parts I like about a game I'm committed to and end up losing me. Titan Fall was a great example. LOVED the original. Excitedly, I bought the sequel...and was quickly disgusted with how they changed it. These days, I play Elite Dangerous exclusively. The VR experience is fantastic, there's just enough variety in ships, weapons loadouts, internal configuration and cosmetics to not be overwhelming but keep the enjoyment factor up for me. I play in Open mode (meaning I can interact with other real players, not just computer generated ones) but, even then, I can journey out into the farthest reaches of space and never encounter another soul--or soulless--pilot. The flexibility is there. Or, I can mix it up as intensely as I feel like. In the end, the game checks all the right boxes for me. Oh, and I forgot to mention, if the graphics of the game are designed to be "cartoonish", I won't play it. That's probably why I came to hate the last iteration of Team Fortress...the stupid looking characters.
  • I like the concept of real people in place of NPCs, but story comes first to me in a game and ability to play when I have time, picking up where I left off. By definition of the genre, an MMORPG can't have seamless save and resume, or the key to a good story: a single protagonist and a climactic ending. I had read that the Star Wars MMO tried to address this, but I never played it. As a massive fan of the original Ultima games, I had played Ultima Online when it was new. It was fun until it started to become repetitive. For me, without a story, any amount of action just becomes repetitive and boring. I don't know the solution, but if a developer can find a way to give each character his or her own epic story, where other players are effectively NPCs when they interact, that would be a winner for me. Maybe not the best example, but think about how in many Quentin Tarantino movies there are various seemingly unrelated protagonists whose paths happen to intersect. From each characters view, the others are the NPCs. If there were a way to build that into a game, preserve each character's feel of being the core protaginst in a real epic story (not just living in a shared world, which actually prevents the feel of being the protagonist) and I think it could be a monstrous hit, at least for fans of games as stories like me. The onging replay appeal wouldn't come from endlessly playing the same character forever, but rather doing a different story after completing one. The game world would have hooks for several dozen different stories (and more could be added over time), to appeal to different players. In each story, one player is the focus or maybe to appeal to co-op fans, there could be some that require 2+ working together. The other players pass through on their respective stories in interesting ways, maybe themselves on a quest to help or stop a stranger or just doing their own thing, but visibly. The key point is that their actions add interest and color, and may provide a temporary setback for the "core" player, but they can't break the plotline, they can't stop another player's story. After completing a story, the player may retire the game, or start over seeking out a different hook and getting a different experience from the different NPCs (controlled by other real-world players).
  • In my horrible opinion mmos biggest problem in the west is getting enough monetization to support continuous development. In the east just expanding to mobile can help as well as getting involved with icafés. If companies could find a way to lower investment needed to build and maintain a large community for a game we could see another gold rush.
  • a good example of what a good mmorpg could be dips into anime if someone could make a mmorpg like sword art online where there are some npcs but the whole world is essentially run by the players and you can buy houses, shops, etc and make a real economy and world where everything is always changing it would be awesome. similar to runescape but way more emersive and dynamic.
  • Fallout 76?
  • Well, WoW isn't going anywhere, and Neverwinter is still going strong too.