12 July, 2016
One thing that has struck me lately is how MMOs are everywhere. The trick is that people don’t call them “MMOs” anymore. MMOs have silently slipped into other games, some even very popular. But perhaps we have a hard time recognizing anything that isn’t a Diku clone.
Let’s take a look at where MMOs have gone to now that the spotlight is off of the traditional MMORPGs. You might be surprised where MMOs are popping up these days.
The shunning of MMOs
As I’ve said a few times, MMORPGs are at a nadir. While we have a few new MMORPGs coming along, western game development has slowed down. The last big MMORPG releases were Asian imports: Black Desert Online and Blade & Soul. Asian developers are still making MMORPGs because they’re still fairly popular and profitable. We see a few of those where companies think they can make some money (perhaps even a fast buck) from the U.S. market.
Games that could be considered MMOs have shunned the label. Most famously is Bungie’s Destiny, which continually danced around calling the game an MMO (scroll down to the mail sack section). The section in that newsletter make it sound like a first-person, action-focused game (like… Meridian 59?) can’t be an MMO. Hmm…..
But, there’s a good business reason for this. Destiny came out right around the time when MMOs were losing their luster. WoW had begun to shed users and there was no game there to step in and claim the crown. The pretenders to the throne didn’t quite gather enough numbers to dethrone WoW, even if they did very well for their respective companies in most cases. MMOs were tied to MMORPGs, which have very specific gameplay style (defined by WoW) and business model that people expected. Bungie decided they’d be better off not using the MMO title for their game.
But, that doesn’t mean that Destiny is devoid of MMO characteristics. In fact, I think it is an MMO, but not necessarily an MMORPG.
There were some attempts at mobile MMOs. Some games tried to strip down the typical Diku-inspired MMORPG experience into a few controls for a tablet. The few I remember seem to still be running, and even have sequels, so I guess they were successful enough. Some of the games don’t feel particularly MMO-like, as they incorporate a lot of mobile gaming concepts into the gameplay: energy limits, time gates, etc.
But, more games are starting to incorporate MMO aspects into their games. As I’ve been interviewing, I’ve been talking to a few mobile studios and they’ve all been talking about MMOs and incorporating MMO concepts into their games.
One place I interviewed with mentioned Game of War: Fire Age. (Yeah, the game that advertises EVERYWHERE.) The high level game is a style I saw a lot in browser games: get a plot of land and attack people nearby while building up buildings in your settlement. But, you also have a hero who can go on missions, explore (simple) dungeons, get equipment, learn skills, gain levels… starting to sound familiar? As one developer I talked to mentioned, they kind of “backed into” being an MMO with the focus on the hero.
Some games are more directly MMOs influence. I’ve been quite enjoying Star Wars: Uprising on my iPad. Although the gameplay is a lot more like an action RPG (e.g. Diablo), you have a cumulative character who gains levels, skills, and gear. The gear is rated in rarity, and stop me if you’ve heard this progression before: grey, white, green, blue, purple, orange, gold. Not only do you upgrade your character, but there’s a light crafting aspect where you upgrade existing gear. Add in guilds… er, “cartels” as the foundation for the community and you pretty much have an MMO in spirit, at least.
But, here’s the exciting part for those of us who agree MMOs have become stagnant: the development time on mobile games is much shorter. So, instead of waiting anywhere from three to one hundred years for an MMO to come out and make marginal improvements, you’ll have games released on a much faster iteration cycle making innovation rapidly. This means we’ll see a lot more improvements for MMOs with mobile games as the test bed.
So, let’s talk about the big game of the moment: Pokemon GO. Raph Koster argues that AR is an MMO. Pokemon GO, which is pretty solidly an AR game, is therefore an MMO. Raph’s argument is basically that since the game uses a “virtual world” shared space (which just happens to correspond to the actual world for Pokemon GO), you can treat individuals like avatars in that virtual space. Since they draw data from a central online server, well, you can see where the MMO fits in, hopefully.
Ignoring any semantic arguments, I think Raph is pretty accurate. So, assuming this is the csae, my worry is that these games won’t do a very good job of giving players the tools to develop communities. I played Ingress for a while, even generated a few portals that are probably Pokestops now. And while the game made you pick one of two teams, it did little in the game to foster cooperation. When I lived near Monterey, CA, the enlightened group set up Google Hangouts to organize since the in-game tools were pretty lackluster. (As a side note, I see that Niantic did eventually learn an MMO lesson; Pokemon GO has three factions while Ingress only had two. Three factions provides a better dynamic for competitive games.)
I agree with Raph that lessons we worked to learn from MMOs should not be ignored by AR games. In particular, I think the competitive nature of Pokemon GO needs to be managed very carefully. One of the big lessons I learned from running Meridian 59 is that your community can get away from you pretty quickly, especially when competition is the focus of the game. Adding in the possibility of offline world confrontations in what is arguably a kid’s game is likely to be a big problem. That’s the kind of bad publicity that made MMO developers squirm when reading stories about gangs in PC baangs in Korea.
I’ll repeat Raph’s advice: as companies start doing AR games, you should look for experienced MMO developers to help you get ahead and not have to re-learn the painful lessons some of us already fought hard to learn. Get a competitive advantage, hire an MMO developer today! :)
Here’s some free advice: the foundation of an MMO is the social fabric of the game. Even games that focused on solo play had a strong foundation of social structures, sometimes imported directly from other games. Understanding your game’s social fabric and how to develop your community is important to your long-term retention of players. At the very least, don’t repeat Niantic’s mistake and wait to hire a community manager post-launch. And, don’t be bound just by what MMOs did; it’s important to understand the foundations of why those choices were made and
If Raph is right and AR games are basically MMOs, then the future is looking pretty good for MMOs. AR games will become big within the next few years; we’re already seeing They may not look like the MMOs you’re used to, but if you’re patient I’m sure the traditional MMO will probably make a comeback. And, hopefully a lot of the advancements made in other types of games help push MMOs forward a bit. And, when we have the big MMO renaissance in a few years, we’ll have a lot more options than cloning a creaky, aging game.
What do you think? Have you played Pokemon GO? Does it feel a bit like an MMO?