MMO Futurism (Part 1)

This week: deep, brutal cuts at SoE, that bastion of the traditional MMO-as-virtual-world. No one knows what’s happening over there, but it seems bad, and it doesn’t bode well for Landmark.

WoW got a shot in the arm with Warlords of Draenor, continuing the status quo. This is not dissimilar to pretty much all of the last few expansions they’ve released.

FFXIV continues unabated, quietly continuing to up their game and content catering to their existing fanbase.

Every other notable MMO has faltered in some way or another, and the ones that have seen success have been, shall we say, outside of the “traditional” norm.

A slight aside: when I talk about “success” in video game terms, I’m not talking about units sold, or dollars made, or Metacritic scores, or any of the data that people like to trot out when the topic of game success comes up. I’m talking about the one thing that matters to the devs on the inside: “Do I have a job X months from now?” where X is a number from 3-12+, depending on how optimistic you’re feeling. That is the omnipresent question, that is the nagging, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that prevents a dev, any dev, from ever feeling really comfortable.

MMOs should be good at success. They’re not supposed to be one-and-done, there’s supposed to be a continuing trickle of content, that drip feed that justifies the subscription fee. That is, after all, what the subscription fee is supposed to be PAYING for, and for a goodly number of games, that’s what you’re getting.

Don’t believe me? Feel like the subscription is fleecing you? Blame WoW. No, seriously. Take a look at the last year’s worth of content patches– not all patches, just the ones that add new non-trivial things for you to play. I’m using the official site as my reference. It’s currently February 12. The last content patch was November 13, the expansion launch. The patch before that was early September… of 2013. Before that, May 2013, then March 2013, then November 2012, then late August, 2012. Six content patches in two years. This is why you don’t trust subscriptions.

As a point of reference, I’ll use a game I feel like I get my money’s worth out of: FFXIV. Last patch was January 19th. Before that was late October 2014, then July 2014, then March 2014, then December 2013, and before that was the relaunch of the game in late August 2013. As another reference point, I was only just barely caught up with the last content patch by the time this current content patch hit, and that’s mostly because there are a lot of things I don’t bother doing in the game. In some things, like crafting, I’m four or five patches behind, and there are entire questlines introduced in the March patch that I haven’t even gotten to.

I don’t say any of this to compare MMOs, or make some claim about which games are worth subscription fees and which aren’t– that’s entirely a choice people decide to make for themselves; if a game’s content isn’t fun for you, it’s not going to be worth your money no matter how much of it gets made. What I’m more concerned with is what this all means for the future of MMOs.

Massively, now also defunct, posted an article about the “Best MMOs of 2014″, which quite pointedly commented that it was “nothing”. Aside from being an wholly unnecessary potshot at the hard work of a great number of developers across at least seven studios in the US alone, it speaks volumes about the current state of the industry. The tone of MMO reporting now seems to come in one of two flavors: bitterness about the current underwhelming options on offer, or continued gushing about the minutiae of a particular specific game. This, too, speaks volumes about the current state of the industry.

MMOs are stuck in a rut. They’ve been stuck there for years, and the only reason it’s lasted so long is because the MMO industry moves much, much slower than most of the other genres of video games. We haven’t had a quantum leap since WoW, and that’s ten years old. Also coming out at the time of WoW (in the same month, even!) was Half-Life 2. Call of Duty, the original, back when WW2 shooters were new, that was 2003, a mere year before WoW. We have had an entire console generation, one many people agreed was far too long, in less time than it’s been since a major quantum leap in MMOs.

You might be silently (?) railing at me, now, about some feature that really changed everything. Maybe it’s LOTRO’s housing and crafting (Ultima Online, 1997). Maybe it’s microtransactions (Project Entropia, 2003). Maybe it’s Rift’s spawned events (Everquest, 1999). Maybe it’s TERA’s action combat. You’d have a point on that last one, it’s within the last ten years that we’ve had the technology to pull something like that off.

Here’s the point I’m getting at: MMOs are stuck, badly, and the most recent highly successful model (WoW) is the last quantum leap that MMOs have had (in WoW’s case, making MMOs accessible to the mainstream) and is anchoring both the community and the development of new MMOs. There’s a nasty duality to MMO development right now– make it too much like WoW and people will complain that it’s a clone, diverge too much from WoW and players won’t find your game familiar– they can’t settle into it like a well-worn chair. Ask Bel what frustrated him the most about Elder Scrolls Online: I can tell you he went months being frustrated that he couldn’t set the game up just like WoW, like he’s used to.

There’s not a lot of MMO on the horizon. Eastern MMOs continue development, but are brutally cutthroat and rarely make it West (and are catering to a somewhat incompatible audience when they do arrive West), and Western MMOs are being pretty quiet or slowly fading into the ether. I only see a couple of paths out from here. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to engage in a little MMO futurism.

One of three things is going to have to happen for us to see new, successful (see above definition of success) MMOs:

1) One possibility is that people could start embracing new releases for what they are and start sticking with them for more than a month or so at a time. Seems unlikely.

2) Another possibility is that one new quantum leap — a breakout hit — could usurp the current status quo and usher in a new era of MMOs. I think this is what a huge portion of the MMO-playing community has been hoping will happen for years, and it’s why the trend of MMO-hopping became big in the last five or so years. It also hasn’t happened in more than a decade, and attempts at making it happen have fallen harder and harder as the expectation of quality rises and the games get more expensive up-front to create.

3) MMOs change significantly, alienating a significant portion of the community and catering to a different audience, shifting focus. We’re already seeing this in games like Borderlands, Destiny, Diablo 3, and others. They’ve taken all the key features of MMOs and removed all the rest, and many of them are excellent games, but they don’t satisfy that MMO itch for many.

I think #1 isn’t going to happen, not on a broad enough scale to help anyone. #2 might possibly still happen, but is a really dim hope. #3 is already happening, and it’s mostly games pulling from the MMO genre and adapting features and concepts to fit a different type of game.

Here’s the thing. MMOs were founded on the concept that it was really cool to be able to explore a really big, open world with your friends, and playing with your friends was as easy as logging into a central server, you didn’t need to set up your own server, invite only people you knew, or any of that. You could log in, meet new people, fight monsters, and when you got back the world had moved on without you so you wanted to catch up.

Nearly 20 years since the first major MMOs, it’s no longer special to have a game you can easily play with your friends. That’s a pretty basic requirement of every video game now, to the point where single-player-only games on major platforms are a novelty. Exploring really big, open worlds is old hat, we’ve long ago decided that the quality of content is worth more than the quantity, and filling up big spaces means lowering the fidelity of content from sweeping The Last Of Us masterpieces to “kill ten rats”. We’ve even found that, in an MMO, making content more complicated than “kill ten rats” comes with a whole slew of complex interactions that put a brutal quality cap on the content– something like The Last Of Us just isn’t possible when a thousand other people are doing the same thing in the same space as you.

It’s that last part that we’ve lost. MMOs have spent a decade chasing the single player, and after years of the occasionally dissonant approach of catering to players who want to play in a massively multiplayer world by themselves, some games have just gotten more honest– here’s the MMO experience distilled into something you can play exclusively with people you know, none of those pesky strangers clogging up your game. MMOs themselves have turned the idea of “more players” into a detriment rather than a benefit. If you’re in a space in an MMO and see another player, you’re not happy, because instead of being a potential ally, that person is competition. You don’t need them to succeed, so if they’re in the same space as you they’re taking your stuff. We no longer like forced grouping.

I’ve ranted enough for tonight about what’s wrong with MMOs right now. Tomorrow (hopefully!) I’ll talk about what’s right, and what a new, modern persistent-world MMO might look like.

Source: Digital Initiative
MMO Futurism (Part 1)

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