The Changing Face of MMOs
The promotional video for Guild Wars 2 (dated July 19th, 2011) featured below, came up in an online discussion recently. The game as it exists today is radically different to this eight-year-old marketing presentation. It got me thinking about MMOs, how they evolve and those that have fallen from grace. Naturally the spectre of World of Warcraft looms large in such a discussion, because for many years this was the game to beat. Subsequently the market was awash with clones, which proved to be an unwise business tactic. The tumultuous life of Star Wars: The Old Republic along with the closure of Warhammer: Online, Vanguard and recently WildStar indicates that more of the same is not necessarily what players want or at the least, insufficient to keep them engaged. Guild Wars 2 initially deviated noticeably from the perceived wisdom but then contradicted its own ideology out of necessity to remain financially viable. Subsequent expansions have proven far more “traditional”. A decade on from the MMO boom, the genre has had to become far more niche to survive. MMOs exist and make money, but the are no longer seen as cash cows.
So what has changed? Well for a broad overview, I’d recommend watching a selection of episodes of The Jimquisition; Jim Sterling’s show that critiques the video games industry. He regularly explores the main problems that are endemic with mainstream, triple A games publishing. But one particular issue seems to be the root cause. Although game developers may well have artistic intentions and want to create a content that delights audiences, such motives are subordinate to the commercial requirements of the publisher and their shareholders. The industry is primarily focused on what sells and how to monetise any new product to ensure increasing financial growth. Hence after numerous efforts to make a WoW clone, most companies have discovered that such projects take too long to develop, cost to much up front and don’t have the adequate return on investment in the short term. Hence you seldom see such grandiose projects in development anymore. But what about Star Citizen, I hear you say. Yes indeed, what about it, I say in return? I’ll let you know when there’s an open beta and a release date on the horizon.
Now to clarify, the MMO market does have regional differences. In the China and South Korea large budget titles are still produced and prove viable, but this is due to major differences in the core market. The player base often embrace mechanics rejected in the West and monetisation is perceived differently. Hence many titles remain conspicuously absent from the North American and Europeans markets. Therefore, in recent years MMOs have had to adapt in the West to such an extent that the term itself is now being redefined. Older notions about persistent, immersive worlds, filled with group activities and nurturing communities have been replaced with more flexible concepts. Such as any game that supports a large body of players in an open world or instanced set of maps. Thus GTA Online, The Division 1 and 2, as well as the Destiny franchise find themselves as part of ever growing MMO Venn Diagram. Naturally old school purest protest, but from the industry perspective, “money talks and bullshit walks”.
Therefore, I am not optimistic about there ever being any weighty IP based MMORPG projects that are of a traditional nature. Perhaps the last big MMO was indeed The Elder Scrolls Online. The website Massively Overpowered lists numerous MMOs in development but the reality is that many of these are doomed to failure. Crowd funded vanity projects or indulgences by gifted fans or old school development staff who haven’t quite adjusted to the realities of the contemporary market. Titan after all got canned and parts of it became Overwatch. Amazon Game Studio’s New World may not get beyond its recent Alpha Test and could be augmented into something else with a more marketable IP. Hence, we are left with a handful of titles that are established and survive purely on the whims of their playerbase. New content costs money to develop but will bring in some profit. But to reduce content output risks bored players who’ll go elsewhere. If a publisher is content with the realities of their projected revenue, then games can tick over. However, if they seek all the money in Christendom, then things may go ill.
Perhaps the MMORPG has had its day in the sun. A cursory look at other leisure industries shows that trends come and go. Different genres of movies and music rise and fall, proving lucrative for a while and then fading away. When you compare the likes of Ultima Online with Guild Wars 2 there is a considerable gulf in mechanics and systems. Would the former sell well today? Fifteen years of changing consumer tastes may well put pay to such time-consuming games. With time being such a precious commodity these days, is there room for such a genre as the old school MMO? I played The Lord of the Rings Online heavily between 2008 and 2011, mainly because it was a period of my life where I was available to do so. I simply cannot do something comparable today. Furthermore older players who lived through the era of subscription models are often averse to modern monetisation methods. Live services are not embraced by this demographic, where younger players who prefer the quick fix nature of competitive multiplayer games are not so concerned. All of which leaves me increasingly disposed towards the idea that the MMO genre is going to be relegated to the sidelines in the years to come. A few will exist in their own bubbles of fandom, but they will be a relic of the past. Just like cinematic musicals, westerns and “poodle perm” rock.