CAN there be another MMO success?

While Syncaine laments that the MMO genre hasn’t gone anywhere in 12 years, I was left pondering a different question: can the MMO genre go anywhere? Can there be another breakout success?

I would suggest the question is less straightforward than it might seem, for a few reasons.

The first reason is due to the nature of the genre itself. Even if you are a super-fan of Half-Life 2 and believe it to be the best game ever invented… you still likely bought and paid for other FPS titles in the past 12 years. The same is not necessarily true of MMOs. I’d wager that most people that stick with the MMO genre long-term generally find one game and settle in. And why wouldn’t you? Someone would move on from Half-Life 2 because eventually you would run out of content to explore. That is much less likely in MMOs, because they are updated regularly, expansions are released, other players generate content, and so on.

The above generates the curious (and fairly unique) phenomenon that a lot of MMO players – possibly even a majority – are still actually playing the most influential MMOs (Ultima Online 1997; EverQuest 1999; EVE Online 2003; Second Life 2003; World of Warcraft 2004). If the market for FPS titles is 40 million people, each new FPS has 40 million potential customers. Meanwhile, the market for MMOs is X – Y, where Y is the number of people currently satisfied with their present virtual home.

The second issue is one of definitions. While it might not seem so at first, “MMO” as traditionally defined is rather restrictive. For example, most people would suggest that Crowfall is a MMO, despite its “persistent” worlds having an expiration date. That sounds more like a long-lasting lobby to me. But why is Crowfall an MMO and Destiny not? Or PlanetSide 2, which is arguably more persistent than either? A game like Fallout 3 can be said to move both the FPS and RPG genres forward in specific ways, but MMO-ish games often fall outside the standard MMO purview, thus limiting potential genre-changing titles. In other words, experimental MMOs can innovate themselves right out of the genre.

Third, a given game can only really be considered influential if it, or its derivatives, are a success. Consider the glaring omission from the Top 50 list: Star Wars Galaxies. I would have thought that with the amount of name-drops SWG receives in just about every MMO dev design sheet, it would be a shoo-in contender for sure. But if you think about it, not only has SWG shut down, but I don’t even know if any other game claiming its mantle has survived or even been released yet. Anyone know of any? Regardless, this means a given game must both shake up the genre and be successful in a general sense to count – just the first is not enough. Which leads me to the next point.

Fourth, not to be alarmist or anything, but… I’m pretty sure the MMO genre as we know it has peaked. As recently as 3-4 years ago, over half the MMO market was just WoW, and WoW has lost half of said playerbase since then, and is still top dog by a factor of 3-4, minimum. Where did all the bodies go? Not to other MMOs, for sure.

This leads me to the question in the title: CAN there by another MMO success? FF14 has come the closest, but is there anyone out there that seriously believes we will see a second WoW-like coming ever again? I personally doubt it. There was always an element of “right time, right place” to WoW’s meteoric rise, and not only has that time passed, but there is pressure coming in from other genres co-opting the traditional MMO strengths, in the same way we see “RPG elements” everywhere today.

So, basically, I do not see that list of late 90s/early 00s-only influential titles as a deficiency of development testicular fortitude, but rather a simple systemic and semantic issue. Other genres can take greater risks because they need only make one sale, not twelve per year in a F2P environment, while also maintaining a healthy population. Even if smaller MMOs were released and did innovate, chances are they remain too small to be “Massive” or just shut down after a few years and thus no longer be influential.

It is lose-lose-lose for everyone, but there it is.

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Posted on January 26, 2016, in Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I’ve always found it problematic to define MMO successes in terms of WoW. For what its worth though, I am personally convinced that yes, there will absolutely be a next great era for MMO play, a third coming that we currently cannot perceive just yet. My bets are out for VR – 2016 marks the beginning of VR hardware for the mainstream and once that new branch of gaming has been fully established, there will be an MMO title that will rule supreme, somewhere between a Second Life and WoW. It’s bound to happen, even if it may take another year or two.

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    • I kind of talked about this before, but especially with VR, I think we might “miss” the 3rd coming simply because the game will not be recognizable as an MMO. It will have to be first-person, no? With a controller and voice-chat because goggles. At that point, it will likely bear too striking a resemblance to PlanetSide 2 or Destiny or whatever other innovations occur in the FPS genre when/if VR goes mainstream.

      I dunno, maybe Star Citizen will shift the perspective of the genre enough so that the derivatives are recognizable as MMOs.

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  2. I too believe that the great success rides on the wave when new technology dawns.
    One of the major factors of WoWs sucess might have been the broadband revolution, it happend just has majority of internet users moved over from 56K modems to a stable, fast and cheap connection.(for long time constant use)

    I too predict there might be something VR related becoming a huge hit in the future when VR evolved enough. -> (Anime: Sword Art Online )
    2016 is way too early however. VR is still way too expensive and the hardware to support really good VR just isn’t here yet. But who knows in a few years from now.

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    • Speaking of future MMO and Anime.
      I saw you had at least seen the first Sword Art Online and planning on seeing the 2nd.
      But!… I couldn’t spot Accel World anywhere in the lists.
      It’s an anime taking place in the same world as Sword Art Online but 30 years later, there are even a few references to SAOs technology. Its a really inspiring anime that shows what might be possible in the future, how VR can effect the real world even if a neural interface is ever made possible. :)

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  3. I’m with Zalamander. The MMO story is far from over but the next chapter requires either a social or technological great leap forward. WoW coincided with mass-market penetration of fast, reliable internet access and mass-market acceptance and adoption of online social networks. Prior to that MMOs were a specialist hobby.

    The next breakout MMO will need to ride a similar wave of public interest driven by innovation from outside the genre. I don’t believe for a moment that WoW attracted 25 times the number of players EQ had because it was 25 times better. Mostly it was able to furl its sails better to the prevailing winds.

    Also, I know that list is of PC games in general not MMOs in particular, but if we’re using it as jumping off point to look at the big MMOs of the past, Runequest and Lineage are going to need to be mentioned. I bet those two still soak up a good deal of the potential market, even now.

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  4. I think the main problem is that socializers moved on to Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, you name it. But sozializers are the glue that keeps an MMO an MMO. Without sozializers the game, while still technical an MMO, transforms into a single player game. And starts to play like a single player game. (There isn’t that much difference anymore between WoD and Witcher 3 with a chat client of your choice.)

    Sozializers don’t care if they get the latest tier set. They probably don’t even play that content. But the remainder of your player base does care and without sozializers it leads to the situation where everyone gets epics because everyone plays the content that rewards epics.

    But then, achievers have no one “to look down upon”. They have to compare themselves with out of game web pages or statistics or something. But that’s “gamey” and no longer supports the fantasy of a game world, which turns an MMO into a single player RPG with a ladder.

    Sozializer don’t care getting killed (within reasons), achievers do. Achievers avoid world PvP. Killers have less easy prey. They will be pushed more and more into instanced PvP content because that’s the only PvP left. Which turns the MMO into a “moba” where the world is a lobby. (Bonus point if the world you actually play in is reduced to an instanced area.)

    You can’t have an MMO without a healthy mix of all 4 Bartle types. And sozializers left the pool for Facebook.

    I don’t know how we can get them back. But I’m sure it doesn’t happen with having only raids as endgame or marketing the game as extra hardcore. Back in 2004 WoW’s competition was ICQ, todays competition is Facebook. And the game companies know that. Why do you think Blizzard integrated Twitter into WoW?

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    • The social media component is a really good point that isn’t always immediately obvious. Facebook didn’t even start opening up registrations for non-college students until 2006. I don’t necessarily think that people went from hardcore raiding straight to Facebook, but I do believe that they no longer felt the need to be playing the same games as their online friends in order to stay in touch.

      I know I definitely kept playing WoW for at least a year longer than I probably would have otherwise simply because I didn’t think I would ever “see” these people again. Turns out Steam and Facebook and, you know, smart phones are pretty good at keeping in touch with people.

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      • With the social component moved to services outside of the game, the game itself becomes a single player game you play online, alongside other player. Other player in an MMO are like the people you meet every morning in public transportation on your way to work. You recognize their faces, but you don’t know them and don’t care about them.

        And with mega servers and dungeon finders it’s more like the metro in a big city. The only thing you remember is the terrible smell.

        MMOs are one of these outdated technologies like Usenet or IRC.

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  5. “Fourth, not to be alarmist or anything, but… I’m pretty sure the MMO genre as we know it has peaked.”

    Is there really debate about this? It’s not just the numbers, pop culture interest in MMOs is gone. WoW lingers around as a mom’s-basement punchline, but that’s about it. Investment dollars are gone, the tepid performance of TES and Wildstar more or less sealed that. It’s Kickstarter or bust now for new MMOs.

    It’s certainly possible for something like Star Citizen to shake things up, and no one knows the future, but from where we sit now MMOs are yesterday’s news.

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  6. The thing is, the genre doesn’t need another WoW-level success. At all. Look at what CCP has done with EVE to push the genre and the technology of the genre with 300-400k subs. Hell, what did Blizzard do with those 12m subs to move the genre forward? Zero, if not negative 1000.

    Plus did the WoW tide raise all boats? Again, not really. We got a bunch of WoW-clones, but basically all of them were meh at best, and most were total trash. If WoW peaks at 1m instead of 12m, is the genre today worst off? Because I could (and have) argue that it would be much better.

    So this isn’t about the next WoW. It’s about the next DAoC, or UO, or EQ1. It’s about an MMO that is successful-enough to progress and improve, while entertaining its core audience for longer than a damn month. FFXIV is doing that in the themepark space, but where is today’s UO, AC, or DAoC? Hopefully by the end of 2016, we have at least some answers.

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    • Who is going to bother making games with sub-smartphone app graphics in a genre that’s hemorrhaging its playerbase? Because that’s what we’re looking at, when decent-looking MMOs cost tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars to get out the front door. And like I mentioned earlier, every new MMO that comes out is competing with other titles that have a decade’s worth of updates and polish.

      Realistically, nobody intelligent is making the next DAoC because they’d be better off doing anything else with that money, up to and including another cynical F2P cash-grab. Hell, all three of those games you mentioned are still in circulation. Go play them if you want, because we ain’t getting anything else in 2016 or the near future that’s likely to be still around 12 years later.

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      • None of that made any sense man.

        How will FFXIV ever compete with all those years of WoW, LotRO, Aion, etc, etc content and polish? Oh right, all those years have made WoW and company worst, they replaced rather than added content in many ways, and FFXIV is doing just peachy because a good game will draw players.

        What is Crowfall really going to competing with? GW2 PvP, WoW PvP, SW:TOR PvP (it has PvP right?). Scary… And yes, someone is making the next DAoC, right now, and it generated a hell of a lot more money on Kickstarter than most other projects. Plus neither CU nor Crowfall is going to end up costing hundreds of millions to create. SC will, but mostly because people keep throwing money at them.

        I mean really, literally nothing you wrote is remotely based on what is happening RIGHT NOW. Not tomorrow, but literally RIGHT NOW.

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      • I was saying that you wouldn’t see another FF14 starting development A) in this current, dwindling environment, and B) ever, in the case of a WoW peaking at 1m subs. FF14 1.0 came out in 2010, back when WoW was sitting above 11 million subscriptions. Even the re-release came out in 2013, when it still had 7-9 million. How many other game companies could even have survived that first failure?

        FFXI “broke even” at 200k subs. That’s basically the level a AAA MMO has to maintain without failing – we’ve seen similar numbers tossed around for other MMOs. Is Camelot Unchained going to see a sustained 200k? Nope. CU will likely survive on much less considering it’s using the aforementioned sub-smartphone app graphics and a $6m or whatever budget. Crowfall similarly is aiming for sub $10m development costs by procedurally generating all the environments, having zero PvE, race-restricting classes, and basically cutting all the corners. Neither one will be moving genre forward in any appreciable way with their tiny, Darkfall-esque (if they’re lucky) populations.

        If these sort of tiny games are the “successes” you’re looking forward to in terms of the MMO genre, then you basically already agree with me.

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      • Crowfall’s characters in alpha already looks better than my WoW character, so wtf are you talking about when you say sub-mobile graphics? Does WoW have sub-mobile graphics?

        If your point is that we are going to see more titles on the success range of UO/EQ/AC/DAoC (200-500k), then yes, you are agreeing with me. If you define success as “WoW or bust”, then nope, we won’t, and like I said above, we don’t need that.

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      • Reading comprehension, dude, I specifically mentioned Camelot Unchained graphics. Pre-alpha is pre-alpha though, so I suppose I can’t be too critical until release. As for Crowfall, it’s amazing what you can do… with lobby-based gameplay. Definitely got the free-camera Torchlight look going on though.

        A 200k “success” range is such a low bar, usually cleared only with F2P whale-hunting these days, that the genre is almost not worth discussing at that point. And when it’s that low, the odds that we’re going to see as much experimentation is reduced as well. Outside of these two Kickstarters staffed by the refugees of the zombie MMOs they developed in the 90s, what do we have? Korean imports? Shit is looking bleak.

        I dunno, man. If you think it’s better this way, then… okay. Let’s circle back two years from now when you’re not playing these Kickstarter (or possibly any) MMOs.

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      • Crowfall is a ‘lobby’ if you don’t think of it correctly. Its a world if you do. The world is your character and the living kingdoms, as well as the overarching ‘everything else’ that keeps going (player/guild reps, gear, skills, rivalries, etc), which is what is important to PvP players in an MMO. The battlegrounds that come and go are just that, battlegrounds. Only this time those battlegrounds have better rules and tie into the entire game/world in more meaningful ways than a simple zero-value scoreboard at the end.

        Whether you want to call 200k subs a low bar or not, its been proven to be more than enough to fund the ongoing development of an MMO, which is really all that should matter to both the devs and the players. That’s why the WoW 12m thing is nonsense in that regard. I don’t really care how happy some suits or a stock price is, especially because that 12m proved to do ZERO for the betterment of the genre. If WoW was EVE in terms of progressing the genre, and it did so because of all its money, different story, but that was never the case, and is even less so today.

        The genre has been in a bad state, yup, but your point here is that in order to improve it needs another WoW. My point is it will improve with titles far smaller in cost and playerbase, just like it did in the past.

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  7. Opinions seem to be divided into 2 camps among ex-MMO players:

    1) MMOs have not changed enough. The format has dried up. Other genres are innovating more. WoW killed the genre by cementing a certain kind of PvE/PvP hybrid that has not changed in 10 years.

    People saying this are likely to be playing MOBAs, or whatever is fashionable these days.

    2) MMOs have changed too much. The ‘world’ has been lost, casuals and hockey moms get free epics and all my guild have quit because Blizzard ruined something beautiful.

    People saying this are likely to be playing on legacy realms/private servers. Or just live through the forum rant metagame.

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