26 April, 2016
My friend Richard Bartle suggested a topic on Google+: “What’s your most pessimistic (yet realistic) view of the future of MMOs?”
He’s always a ray of sunshine in my day. :) But, let me consider the worst possible case for MMOs.
Let’s get dark for a moment
Honestly? I’m not entirely sure we’re not in the most pessimistic time for MMOs right now. We have games shunning the term “MMO” despite obviously being MMOs. The western MMO industry is moribund, to put it in the best possible terms. The most exciting recent imported MMO from Asia can be summed up as, “far broader than it is deep”. We have a cranky old audience unwilling to accept changes to the business model to keep smaller games profitable. You have potential new players getting their mulitiplayer gaming experiences from mobile gaming instead of MMOs.
Can it get worse than this? Well, sure. I’m not some casual pessimist that simply fears we live in the best of all worlds. I think things can always get worse.
The new imported MMOs could be dramatic failures as well. Not enough players to justify the expense of development and localization. Existing Western MMOs that shun the MMO title could focus on their non-MMO features and turn further away. No new MMOs are released in the next several years.
Can it get worse still? You betcha.
The few small MMOs in development flounder and fail. People eagerly awaiting indie games like Pantheon or Project: Gorgon are disappointed when the games ultimately fail to ship because the finances can’t be justified anymore, even as vanity projects. New games offering multiplayer options fail to learn the lessons of MMOs, and MMOs fade into total obscurity except for a few die-hard fans of Furcadia creating little worlds for their own amusement.
Am I done yet? Oh, no; what came before was the warm-up.
Then MMOs become forgotten, and in a few years when the usual cycle of games should allow for them to come back, nobody cares. When I go to pitch a futuristic Kickstarter campaign to revive Meridian 59 in 5 years, the internet gives one collective yawn. I then go to create AR casino apps with exploitative microtransaction systems in order to stay fed, while crying myself to sleep every night.
Dark enough for you yet? Well, I’ll stop here so I don’t hear the weeping.
How did we get here?
So, what happened? Back in the mid 2000s, everyone was sure that MMOs were going to be an unstoppable juggernaut defining the future of games. I think one important thing happened: World of Warcraft
A very smart game developer was asked in an interview in 2007, “If you could take over control of one major MMORPG – which would you choose and what would you do with it?” His response was: “I’d take over World of Warcraft and I’d close it.” His reasoning was that WoW was sucking all the oxygen out of the room, because investors and players wanted MMO developers to duplicate that success. Another sometime smart game developer quite agreed with the points in his interview.
To clarify, as I often have to do, this isn’t to say that WoW is a bad game. But, it did stifle a lot of innovation as people worked to clone the game without having the fundamentals in place that Blizzard did when they developed WoW. This ended in a lot of money wasted on failures, and thus a lot of investors wary of MMOs. This destroyed a lot of possibly interesting games.
And, yeah, we probably can’t lay that all at WoW’s feet. The original EQ’s massive success focused a lot of people, including WoW’s develoepers, on duplicating that specific type of game while ignoring all the other variations of MMOs out there. The lines represented by games like UO or M59 were not pursued quite as strong as the EQ/WoW lineages were, at least in at the time in the west.
How do we fix this?
Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? And, since someone else asked a question related to this, I’ll hold off on answering this question until a bit later. :)