The MMO is Dead

In our last installment we discussed developers playing Blizzard’s game and failing. Tobold’s been arguing for a couple posts that the whole MMO scene is in decline. He has reason to think so, and I’d argue that the only real recent successes in online multiplayer games – and I’m specifically talking about League of Legends here – have learned things from World of Warcraft but found their own path. I’d argue that EVE Online has to some extent done the same thing, by building its own parallel market that, while it’s got a lot of crossover with the WoW audience, also has its own thing going on.

The paths of Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic lead to, at best, second place, in a playground whose borders have been put up by somebody else. Tobold’s right, but the underlying truth that he doesn’t mention is that the default state of everything is decline, and it takes vision, work and innovation (and luck) to overcome that trend and produce growth. Stagnation in the face of attrition means a slow roll downhill.

The only way to break the trend is to grow the market. If we want virtual worlds to succeed, we need to take them in new directions. Ultimately we need to look forward instead of looking to the past, but I think that the present situation, where a single game came in and dramatically inflated the market, is an unusual one. Shared virtual spaces were making great strides in the years between 1999 and 2004. And then, in 2005, the Blizzard juggernaut rolled in and progress slowed to a glacial pace.

You’ll notice that I’m not using the terms “MMO” and “MMORPG” here. Those are a convenient shorthand, but they’ve been diluted to homeopathic proportions. When League of Legends gets called an MMO and Global Agenda and All Points Bulletin are labeled MMORPGs, then I think something important has been lost by those terms. So we need new terminology, but that’s something I’ve discussed before.

We need shared virtual spaces that are bigger and better. More room to expand, more volume to occupy. We need to be able to build something lasting there and let people stay and grow for the long haul. More importantly, we need to abandon the big money dream of chasing somebody else’s audience, and a developer who’s willing to say “no, we are doing our own thing here”. This is hard. We need a group with talent and vision to take a small budget and turn it into something really ambitious that can start small and grow. Code Club AB gets this, and Wurm Online has a lot of what I’m talking about, but their interface is so clumsy that there’s not much farther it can go. Fatten up the action mechanics and character development, let a talented visual designer loose on the world and give it a real user interface and Wurm Online could go somewhere, but it really hasn’t made enough progress over the last couple of years for me to have much faith in it.

We need a Raph Koster or, hell, a Richard Gariott, who for all his nuttiness at least has vision. Or a Brad McQuaid, for that matter. Not literally those guys, of course… we need new ideas, and although I could make a case for Raph, the next visionary on the virtual world circuit is far more likely to be someone we’ve never heard of before. The tools available today dwarf those available in 2000, when everything had to be hand-coded, yet how many are reaching out to make something that looks great, plays well and pushes the frontier of virtual worlds forward? There are indeed a few that are trying, and maybe one of those will manage to do what all of EA’s hundreds of millions won’t.

Meanwhile, we have established properties that at least tried, even where they came up short. We have Darkfall and Fallen Earth, Perpetuum and Wurm Online. Soon we will no longer have Star Wars Galaxies, or, if Tobold is right, EVE Online. If you care about immersive virtual worlds, those are the games you should be playing. If you’re not that kind of gamer and WoW or one of its understudies fills your needs, then that’s awesome. A lot of those are good games, and I’ve certainly clocked many hours in them. I wish WoW’s players maximum fun, the game a long life, and Blizzard lots of ongoing revenue, because I’m not fundamentally an asshole.

Ultimately we have to move virtual worlds forward instead of endlessly circling the same success like sharks. We do not need an SWG or our imperfect, rose-tinted memories of it. We need something that transcends our terminology and shows us that all those words we like to toss around like “MMORPG” and “sandbox” are just pieces of something bigger and grander. What’ll that be? Hell if I know. But give me ten million and I might be able to figure it out. Meanwhile… let’s talk about it.

9 responses to “The MMO is Dead

  1. Tobold is on to something – like the housing crash of the MMO world. Its strange how companies that offered what used to pass for virtual worlds are now selling end game as ‘the game you should be playing’. And what is endgame now? Standing in line to go into a closed off instance. So basically its back to waiting in a lobby instead of trying to survive and thrive while exploring expansive worlds.

  2. I always see folks mention Raph when they want “innovation” but realy what the hell has he done? Nothing. Richard and Brad yeah… they brought us two of the earliest graphical “MUDs”. Raph? All I ever see him doing is speaking a lot of nothing and producing a lot of nothing.

    • His title is a bit exaggerated but he goes on to describe things today as “stagnating”, which is 100% true. A spectacular fail is exactly what the MMO industry needs, and hopefully TOR will be that example, proving that even big budget copycats aren’t the answer. Hopefully among the games you mentioned there is a gem. Heck, Minecraft is making millions – hint hint.

  3. I second Bhagpuss. The Sandbox scene is just gearing up. And since we are checking definitions, we need to check and re-check what success means. It seems like every MMO ever has been deemed a failure…so what exactly makes it a success? I couldn’t say for sure, but I can tell you what doesn’t determine its success, and that is by counting the number of millions of subscribers. If that is the definition of success, then, yeah, close up the MMO shop, because nobody is going to hit WoW-level subs again I don’t think.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with Bob, bhagpuss and HarbingerZero. I don’t think MMO games are dead, we as gamers need to stop defining success based on WoW’s numbers. That game is a freak of nature when it comes to subscribers and I don’t believe we will ever see a game reach those numbers ever again.

    I do agree that the term MMO and MMORPG have lost their original meaning.

  5. The MMO(RPG) is dead? I think it is far more a case of players either moving between all the recent MMORPG games to have come out in the last few years (including hordes of F2P titles), a resurgence in single player titles taking up gaming time (thanks in part to the big sales run by Steam, GamersGate, GoG, etc., at least in my case), and a big success of whatever genre League of Legends is. The gaming options for MMO style play have really expanded in the last few years and I think a lot of what we are seeing is the player base just being spread a bit thin amongst everything out there.

    WoW is still hanging in there, same with Lineage II (still #2 based on financials?), Aion is slowly growing at either #2 or #3 worldwide, Rift was a minor hit, at least by Western game numbers, before it faded, even if it didn’t hit WAR or AoC type 1 million sales. Hybrid and F2P titles are doing big business. Almost weekly new releases or announcements of MMO games coming out. Games like Free Realms (with a constant turnover of kids and teens) are as busy as ever, which is very busy based on my time in it.

    SWTOR will do well for those looking for KOTOR 3, and if they don’t mind the ancient EQ/WoW style combat (yawn). Guild Wars 2 looks to be doing just about everything right and if nothing else will easily be even more successful than GW1.

    To me MMO games are doing very well indeed! What is missing is a GOOD AAA sandbox / virtual world MMO. One with great graphics, smooth game play, total player economy; and NO stupid open world gankfest PvP mechanics; which means instant niche game, or DOA like most such recent titles.

  6. Okay, a couple of things. First, the title (while of course suggestive,) taken in context with the article and riffing off of Tobold’s recent talk, is meant to imply that the words “MMO” and “MMORPG” are dead, diluted beyond any possible utility by trends in the games themselves and by vacuous posturing by marketing folk. Lots of games with the label still have plenty of life left.

    Second, the list I gave wasn’t meant to be comprehensive. I mentioned Dawntide, The Repopulation and ArcheAge in the previous related article (I’m going somewhere with this,) and even John Smedley has mentioned coyly that SOE still believes in sandbox gaming. The successes of EVE and Minecraft are suggestive that what we’re calling a “sandbox” isn’t dead at all. The point of the article is that for several years we have barely moved forward on immersive virtual worlds because development has been stuck on the dead-end path of trying to follow the example of WoW.

    There’s one more “here’s what’s wrong” piece coming (I think,) and then I’ll be working out “here’s how to fix it” (in my opinion, of course) over the course of the next few articles.

  7. Yep, as far as the actual terms go, they are getting to be meaningless these days. I still cling to the term MMORPG for games that stick close to old single player RPG style, at least for now.