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Is The MMO Dying, Or Poised For A Grand Return?

Is The MMO Dying, Or Poised For A Grand Return?

Filed inside: Editorial

When World of Warcraft swept the world back in 2004, it redefined the massively-multiplayer online RPG landscape.

Forget all the arguments about which game came first (Everquest and Ultima Online being among those often cited), what matters is that the genre as a whole was relegated to a very localized space, one that was (by-and-large) ignored by a very significant portion of gamers until WoW came along.

World of Warcraft

Now, the terminology is fairly ubiquitous. Whether it be because they’ve partaken of an MMO of some kind, or encountered some aspect of popular culture that is inundated with jokes made at the expense of the “stereotypical” MMO player, you can mention a popular game here or there, or the MMO acronym and most—if not all—gamers will know what you’re talking about.

World of Warcraft is a special beast in this space. Not only did it define the market as we know it today, but even a decade later it holds the largest share of the subscription-based MMO market—by a lot.

Seeing that success, of course other companies jumped on the bandwagon, offering a spate of similar games that, one after another, either failed quietly or faded into the obscure niche that they were so used to.

But you can ask almost anyone and the answer is generally the same: WoW is tired and dated. There’s only so much that can be done with it without reworking the game from the bottom up. Every year we catch a glimpse of something great—a new MMO that might just be the change everyone silently wants, but never seems to talk about.


First was Guild Wars, bucking the trend of the monthly subscription model, but never quite saw the numbers come in. Loads of free-to-play games tried to infiltrate the space but most fell by the wayside. Aion attempted to introduce flight and three-dimensional combat but was generally forgotten. TERA tried to introduce more action-focused combat to replace the tried-and-true cooldown system of so many other games. Star Wars: The Old Republic stepped in to try to bring greatly increased production values and gameplay that can function for both the lone player and those that run in groups. The Secret World came with a bold and unique concept.

The Secret World

Some of these series are still running, but many have had to make sacrifices to continue functioning. While Guild Wars has successfully launched a sequel with the same subscription-free model, it’s never quite compared to the other big names out there. AionTERA, and Star Wars all abandoned their subscriptions, opting to make their games free-to-play but with optional models to allow for in-game purchases and/or optional subscriptions to unlock the game fully. By comparison, the only major alteration to its business model that World of Warcraft has made is that players can now enjoy the game in a limited sense up to level 20, for free.

Due to the slow stagnation (somewhat confoundingly contrasted by its continued subscription rates) of World of Warcraft and its contemporaries, rumblings have been heard predicting the end of the MMO as an age. Even in the face of fresh releases like the newly relaunched FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn and WildStar, MMO membership is an increasingly exclusive club.

Perhaps players are no longer willing to pay more than one time for the ability to play a game. Perhaps the reason so many MMOs have come and gone since World of Warcraft‘s inception is that feeling of a sunken investment—the unwillingness to depart from WoW since you’ve already put so much time and money into it.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The growing ubiquity of microtransactions in mobile, casual, and (crucially) free-to-play games has seen their inclusion in more and more games. And that of course means that the die-hard players that remain in these games are the ones conducting the majority of those purchases.

As the data included here would indicate microtransaction revenues are stepping up to offset the ever-shrinking subscription revenues. This leads to the supposition that, since the value of the individual player is on the rise, that companies will step up their game in order to better attract and retain these subscribers, resulting in higher-quality content overall and increased competition between developers.

Given the new technologies becoming apparent alongside the new console generation’s finally-growing momentum, this may be true, but I think it won’t quite be in the way the we’re expecting.

EVE Online

Rather than seeing higher-fidelity facsimiles of the games we’ve become so accustomed to in the genre, I’m hoping that the game that does rejuvenate the genre is one that does what World of Warcraft did in the first place: bring the genre back into the spotlight hopefully by being a wholly new experience altogether.

Take, for example, the recent forays into the Destiny beta. I must say, I was vaguely intrigued by Destiny when I first saw the announcements for it, but in the years following had essentially ignored it overall. I had no doubt it would be a high-quality experience, but on the whole I dismissed it as another shooter to be added to the pile of games that I’m sure tons of people would buy, but that I wouldn’t quite be able to bring myself to care about.

I recently caught a brief glimpse of gameplay—the only piece of the game I’d seen besides the trailers that came out of E3, and my previous thoughts on the game were altered enough to seek out a beta key. Imagine my surprise once I’d navigated out of the tutorial area and was placed in a rather well conceived hub along with a sizable number of other players. This was an MMO shooter, in a way, and that was something I hadn’t been expecting at all.


Certainly I’ve played games like DUST 514 (commonly billed in the same way as an MMO shooter) which have a persistent universe, but the game is little more than any other multiplayer-focused shooter—you take contracts and partake in match after match doing little else.

Destiny is a step closer to the game that I’m thinking of. I’m not saying I just want a simple MMOFPS, but rather a game that really does place you in a persistent and reactive world that isn’t necessarily a third-person running, hotbar-having, fantasy/sci-fi romp filled with fetch quests and basic dungeons. It will be the game that actually makes you want to associate with the other players you run into.

My worry is that, in as few words as I can manage, the world isn’t ready for this game. Someone or something somewhere is going to ruin it. Some publisher will get their greasy fingers into it and dumb it down. The players won’t understand it. The devs will patch it poorly or fail to support it properly. While the MMO will be around as long as the subscribers are still there to be wrung dry, I worry that it’s death won’t be a simple climate change away from the genre, but somehow a gross misunderstanding by one or more parties with a great idea that could revolutionize it instead.

Granted, I understand that if the game does miss its mark for any of those reasons, it probably won’t herald the end of the MMO as we know it, nor would that game have likely been as great as I’m romanticizing it to be—after all, a game as great as the one in my head would (hopefully) reach success by virtue of its merit.

I say this as only a cursory MMO player. I spent a few years back after WoW‘s launch with the game before the grind drove me away. I played EVE Online for a few years in college. I tested FINAL FANTASY XIV: A Realm Reborn and for one reason or another garnered a strong knowledge of that game, as well. I have lots of friends who stuck with WoW this whole time, still play Star Wars: The Old Republic and regularly raid in Guild Wars 2. They still speak fondly of these games, but there’s always that “but” in their descriptions.

There’s always that glimmer of “I wish we could do this” or “They really should have done that” to temper their praise for the game. What we really need is the game that truly minimizes the “desire” factor. And, to be honest, I’m not sure we can get it in today’s hyper-critical society. There’s no way we’ll make a game that holds universal appeal, I’m no fool, but if the MMO wants to survive the next few years, it’s going to need a real powerhouse, and I’ve seen few, if any indicators that one is on the horizon.

So is the genre going to die? No. But is it going to be saved? Probably not that either. I doubt any of the results we’ll see are quite as dramatic as all that. But I certainly don’t expect a grand resurgence—rather a quiet shrinking in the Western markets in favor of the more highly competitive shorter-burst games.

But we can always hope for that game. Not the game we deserve, but the game we need…or however that quote goes.

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Written by Ray Allaire -The Reasonable Gamer

Writer, game designer, and gaming analyst. Practitioner of all nerdy arts: Games, tabletop, TCG, and all. Twitter: @mateusrayje

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