written by Alastrom
There’s a perennial question plaguing gamers of what some would now consider a bygone age. “Is the MMORPG dying?” It’s a fair question and most people only pose it to hear what they already know to be true. There’s a strong argument to be made that the genre has ceased to be and for older gamers that grew up on G.M.U.D.s and early form M.M.O. games, it may be a difficult pill to swallow. The problem stems from our expectations of these titles specifically as it relates to the nature of how we identify them. The very term “MMO” stands for Massive Multiplayer Online RPG, FPS, RTS, ETC. We’re using this acronym attached to other terminology to invoke a paradigm that these games should strive to achieve. This acts both in accordance and against human nature, specifically our desire to define things. Once a thing is defined it has a tangible set of meanings that it should fall into. We’ve defined the MMO not as a massive multiplayer online game, but instead a set of principles that match the early gameplay of titles like Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot or Ultima Online. If the genre is going to survive, we need to discard this useless terminology and re-brand it with what players are actually looking for.
The early stage of MMOs were defined as games that featured a large set of players interacting together in an online setting. These games featured character progression and the ability to work together with fellow gamers to achieve a larger set of goals. By this definition, nearly every online game on the market is an MMO. Rust is an MMO, World of Warcraft is an MMO. Fortnite might be the largest MMO to come out in the past ten years. Many gamers will resist the terminology being used so freely to describe any online game, instead giving preference to a very specific set of characteristics. Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game where you can team up with a group of four to tackle in game dungeons and obtain loot by defeating enemies. This game is an MMO. Diablo III is a game where you can team up with a group of four to tackle in game dungeons and obtain loot by defeating enemies. This game is not an MMO. We’re lead to believe that because The Old Republic has many of the traits of early titles we called MMOs that it too falls into this category. Both Diablo III and The Old Republic have around the same player base. They’re both online and they’re both multiplayer. Why call one an MMO where the other doesn’t fit the bill? It’s because The Old Republic has what the game designers would refer to as a living world. A group of players existing outside of the primary content that help the game take shape.
Living worlds are what players are looking for when they establish themselves in an “MMO” genre game. These players are seeking to develop a character in an active environment where their choices have some lasting effect on the landscape around them. That’s not an opinion by the way, it’s been the primary drive of these games from the early days of ARPANET gaming. It’s a large part of the reason that players may be upset with games like Sea of Thieves or Destiny 2 being called an MMO, even though the terminology fits. A massive multiplayer game is really just a multiplayer game that features a larger set of people. No one knows how many more people you need to reach that title, so we throw the terminology around whenever a subscription based game comes around that somewhat reminds us of World of Warcraft. If developers were to redefine their current MMO games as “Living World” games, we’d see a drastic shift in the perception of what these games have to offer. A living world, after all, perfectly defines what these games are looking to achieve.
There are developers currently expanding into this philosophy, even if they don’t realize it yet. Take Star Citizen for example. For those familiar with the project they may have asked at one point or another if the game is an “MMO.” What they’re asking is if the game will feature character progression, quests or missions, a large scale economy and interaction with other players. This question is hotly debated within the community from two sides of the same coin. Both sides are looking to define their expectations from the game with supporters of the MMO tag hoping the game will mimic the nature of previous MMO games and critics of the definition worried that it’ll fall into some of the traps of current MMO games. For those discussing the game in good nature, both effectively want the same thing; a living, breathing universe to call home. It may be part of the reason that the head honcho himself, Chris Roberts, is so reluctant to refer to the game as an MMO but still describes it with many of the traits that we’ve come to expect from these games.
Part of the failing of the modern MMO is a lack of innovation. It’s easy to look at more successful titles like World of Warcraft and suggest that successor projects are simply imitating what they know to be successful. There may be some truth to that statement but it’s more accurate to say that these developers are simply mimicking the “idea” of what an MMO should be. The players of these games then have a problem of conflicting interests. In one capacity, they’re looking for a fresh and unique experience. On the other, they’re looking for a game that matches their previous expectations of a description that lost all meaning years ago. It’s no wonder that the current genre that we refer to as “MMO” is dying. They’re trying to achieve an impossible goal. Don’t discard the massive multiplayer term, instead use it where appropriate and use something else when that fits. The Elder Scrolls Online is a massive multiplayer game. Life is Feudal MMO is a living world. These games share very few similarities and asking them to share a common description is confusing to all parties involved.
The developer/publisher team at ArtCraft understands this concept from a marketing point of view as well. Their upcoming game, Crowfall, is being described as a “Throne War Simulator” with other people attaching the term “MMORPGRTS” alongside it. While most players are content referring to this game as an “MMO” it seems like the company wants to break free of that mold by finding other terms that fit their project. Certainly, Crowfall doesn’t fall into the general category of MMO based on what we’ve seen of the gameplay so far and perhaps it does a disservice to the level of innovation they’re offering to call it such. As a result, the common discussions that follow the announcement of typical massively multiplayer games seems to fall away with Crowfall, with players less interested in “endgame” and “raid content” and more interested in how they’ll experience the game themselves when it reaches the market. While ArtCraft could do more to distance themselves from the narrative of the common MMO, they’ve taken the right steps to be successful this far; their Kickstarter campaign successfully funding in March 2015.
The MMO description is constricting and forces developers into a mindset that their game may not reflect. It convinces players to expect one style of game when they may actually be looking for another. Most importantly, the term has lost all meaning in a world of interconnected players who jump from one game to the next. Humans are creatures of habit and our desire to define the world around us has allowed us to create order out of chaos. The gaming world is one constantly in motion and expecting things to change while staying the same is an exercise in futility. We’re ready to abandon the dogmatic tenets that comprise the singular definition of MMO and expand them into something much greater. At one point you may have asked yourself if Massive Multiplayer Online games are dead. The label is nothing more than a sinking ship and if we don’t abandon it soon, the ideas that represent those games may soon be.