The Perils of Entering the MMORPG Market

The MMORPG market has been rolling along for about 25 years at this point, depending on when you want to start counting.  I like to think of Meridian 59 as the starting point of the things, but you could make arguments that the roots of the genre go back to MUD1 or Island of Kesmai or any of a number of antecedents. 

Live in 95 is you count early access

But M59 was an early, commercial, 3D world MMORPG and, to the point of this post, while I haven’t seen anybody running a server for a while, the code is out there and the game could reappear if somebody felt the need to bring it back.

And that is kind of the problem here.  Fans of the genre tend to bemoan its stagnation and blame WoW or free to play or whatever for the fact that things can seem stale.  But the real problem is that old games don’t go away, or at least not fast enough.

Leaving aside M59, the next game on the list is Ultima Online, which will turn 24 years old come September.  Unlike M59, it is still there, ready to play.  It has been hanging out all this time, holding onto a group of players that might otherwise have gone off to explore other games… or maybe they have and then returned… and generally holding its own in a corner of the market.  I mean, EA owns it (Broadsword just has a contract to run it), so if it isn’t making some sort of return it wouldn’t be around.

That is, of course, a core aspect of the MMORPG space, games as a service, where players have an ongoing relationship with your game as it grows and evolves.  But games that make the transition to success and achieve financial stability tend to stick around forever. 

Scott Jennings gave a presentation at IDGA Austin back in 2014 titled Let It Go – A Modest Proposal, which I would link to if I could find it again (maybe here or here), which suggested that maybe these games shouldn’t hang around forever, that maybe it doesn’t make anybody happier or healthier to perpetuate these games past a certain point, that maybe there ought to be an exit strategy, a denouement, an end to the story.

Wishful thinking.  The only sure exit is to stop being profitable, and even that is no sure exit.  The fans, unwilling to let go themselves, will build their own private/pirate servers just to prolong the experience.  I would suggest that it is easier to list shuttered titles that don’t have some sort of emulator or server project running except that I am not sure I could even list one title.  Club Penguin maybe?  Is there a Club Penguin emulator out there?

We have reached a point in the genre where farming nostalgia for the old days and the old ways and the old experiences is a certified path to keep the fans on board and paying. (Because, it turns out, they’ll make emulators for that too if you won’t provide it yourself.)  So we have EverQuest progression servers, WoW Classic, Old School Runescape, Aion Classic, and others out there serving that portion of the user base.

As Jennings pointed out, these games have come to belong, emotionally at least, far more to the fans than the companies. It is their experiences and histories now and they won’t let it go.  It almost isn’t up to the company anymore because the fans will take matters into their own hands if the developers won’t cooperate.  And if the game is going to be running in some form with or without the studio, the studio might as well keep its hand in and make some money from an official version rather than losing what control they do have.

So the market never really contracts.  Nearly everything that ever was is out there in some form.  Think of all the video games you played over the last 25 years and how many of them are viable and playable still today.  Yes, nostalgia farming has arrived in the rest of the industry and we have some remasters and 4K remakes of older games, but I cannot go back and play every game. Of the ones I can, anything over a certain age that had some form of online support has probably lost that aspect of the game.  As an example, literally every Pokemon DS/3DS title has lost its online support.

But if you want to play The Sims Online or Dungeon Runners or most any past title, there is probably a project out there for you.

Which brings me around, at last, to the point I think I was aiming for when I started out this wall of text, which is what does this mean for new games in the genre.  One of the complaints about MMORPGs is that there is nothing new, nothing interesting, nothing different, just the same old stuff, mostly WoW or WoW knock-offs, along with a few pre-WoW titles.

But, in a market segment where nothing ever dies and the fan base is constricted by the level of commitment the genre demands (a “causal MMORPG player” is almost an oxymoron) where is the incentive to actually try something new, to invest in something in an increasingly fragmented and entrenched field?

I do not have an answer, and the fact that most of the Kickstarted, will arrive some day (just not today), titles that some have pinned their hopes on all seem to be grounded solidly in nostalgia doesn’t strike me as a hopeful sign.  Pantheon, Star Citizen, Camelot Unchained, and others all carry the message “Remember that cool thing we did nearly 20 years ago? We’re going to do it again!”

Thus endeth the genre, drowning in a pool of nostalgia, always asking for something new and never getting it because nobody seems to want it.

I suppose this should be a warning to the rest of the industry, which has been going down the path to games as a service for a while now.  I saw a quote from Chris Livingston at PC Gamer about Grand Theft Auto V about how he had by this point completely forgotten the original story of the game having spent so many years since in the sprawling open world content of the game.  And there it is on SuperData’s digital revenue charts every month.  It has essentially become an MMORPG in all but name.

So the question, to which I most assuredly do not have an answer, is can we get out of this situation?  Has the genre become like the RTS genre before it or, I would argue, the MOBA genre now, where the dominate players have so defined the genre that it is locked into stagnation?  And, were something fresh and new to come along that fit within whatever definition you might choose for MMORPG, could we pry enough people away from the treasured memories long enough for it to find an audience?

5 thoughts on “The Perils of Entering the MMORPG Market

  1. bhagpuss

    Great post. I would say that because it’s pretty much the one I would have written. People will insist on banging on about the mmorpgs that close down without ever recognizing the vastly larger pool of games that just keep on going.

    Where I would differ slightly is in the conclusion. I don’t see why the continued existence of older mmos should impinge on the potential success of new ones. The simple problem is quality. The new ones just aren’t good enough to push the old ones out. Look at Valheim: no-one’s claiming it’s innovative or original. All people do is compare it to other games – ARK, Rust, Minecraft, a dozen more. With the exception of Minecraft, though, what they also say is that Valheim does what those games do only better. And it loks better than Minecraft, if you have my visual sense. A lot better.

    If Ashes of Chaos or Crowfall want to pull masses of players from WoW or FFXIV or ESO they’re going to have to be better than those games. And by better I mean “have more appeal”. That’s how WoW managed to usurp EverQuest and it’s how FFXIV and ESO managed at least to compete with WoW. Most mmorpgs just aren’t good enough to convince players to move. Is it any wonder they stick with the old games when the new ones don’t give them anything they don’t already have? Except newer graphics, of course.

    As for shuttered mmorpgs with no emulators sadly I can think of a few. WildStar is the most obvious. There’s supposedly a project but it seems to be dormant if not dead. I just saw today that Twin Saga is closing in April. I don’t imagine that will get an emulator. Eastern games don’t seem to attract the emu building crowd. Zentia is another I’d love to play again but presumably never will.

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  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – The problem with new MMOs and the need to be better is that part of “better” means content and systems that games like EQ, EQII, WoW, LOTRO, and others were able to add over the years they have been live.

    This, for me, was part of the great failing of Vanguard (and likely to be part of the problem with Pantheon, since Brad never met a feature he didn’t love), that Brad wanted it to be everything EverQuest or WoW was and more on day one. So there was a mass of features and systems and landscape… much of which was simply not ready to compete. And that was in 2007, when the climb to parity wasn’t as high as it is today. If you launch a fantasy MMORPG today, the general chat in beta will be a constant stream of unfavorable comparisons to WoW. And that is because WoW is right there, up to date, as an option to play

    So you cannot take on WoW and crew head on… but I am not sure I have seen many attempts to do anything beside that. Even Project: Gorgon, quirky and different though it may be, still adheres to the basic formula.

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  3. Virtual Cottager

    Started reading last year, first time commenting. Great article, and great blog!

    I agree that too much effort is being driven into trying to be WoW, etc., but better. At this point, World of Warcraft is a cathedral built over the course of fifteen years, plus all the time of game development before launch. To try and build a competing cathedral of the same style in just a few years seems a ridiculous enterprise, as time is simply too strong a constraint. Paradoxically, perhaps, to best compete with World of Warcraft, MMO designers will have to at least partially ignore it. Dao De Jing, Ch. 22: “The sage does not compete, therefore nobody can compete with them.”

    Anecdotally, I recently started playing an Everquest progression server, after a year or so of playing WoW classic, following an interregnum of no MMOs since I quit WoW during Wrath of the Lich King. I was shocked at how absolutely different these games are from each other. Much talk over the years inured me to a kind of gradated comparison, e.g. “WoW is more casual,” etc. etc. This leads to even broader comparisons, that WoW is better or worse than EQ. I have no opinion here, save that WoW did not “win” the MMO market (if winning is applicable terminology at all here, given the article’s argument) by simply being “better” than EQ, but by being a different style of MMO. If Everquest was an early Christian basilica, World of Warcraft was a Gothic cathedral.

    A new MMO may carve space for itself, but I can’t see it doing so through direct competition – WoW did not really directly compete with EQ, in my view, in the way that contemporaries are trying to compete with WoW. Instead, a new style must emerge, still in the vein as its predecessors, but different, as Gothic cathedrals differ from Byzantine or Romanesque. MMO players are different now, after all. We are all much more experienced “MMO players,” a broadly applicable set of skills appropriate to any of the various MMOs currently out there. This experience did not really exist at the time of Meridian 59, and was barely developed during the time of Everquest.

    Perhaps the new style must subvert and partially confound our skillset, the way Dark Souls (not to use a loaded comparison here), while still very much a western RPG, confounded the skillsets of typical RPG players.

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  4. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Virtual Cottager – It is also worthwhile perhaps to look at the fantasy MMORPG market as having matured, with dominant players and expected standards, akin to the way the auto market is. You cannot simply show up as a new player with something that is simply point for point comparable with a Chevy or Toyota and expect to succeed. You have to bring something new or different to be considered.

    With cars price is often a point of comparison. Unfortunately, with free to play now pretty much ubiquitous, being “WoW but cheaper” is ground that has been taken. So we are left with features, where there is a balance of what the genre expect versus new directions a game could explore.

    I will say that, back in 2005, WoW and EQ were very much in competition, much more so that WoW and EQII ever were. If you look at the old subscription charts from the era you see EQ peaking in 2004, dropping a bit when WoW launches, then taking a huge dive later in 2005 as WoW ramps up and becomes the dominate player. (I put those charts in one of my anniversary posts here.) But that was not so surprising as the team at Blizz that made WoW were all EQ players and deep into raiding and such. They even gave credit to EQ in a BlizzCon keynote at one point. The joke is that Blizz has never made an original game. Everything they have done has been to take their current favorite game and remake it better.

    Today though, WoW and EQ don’t really compete. EQ has a dedicated audience that buys every expansion and sticks with the live game, which has an immense amount of content and systems, along with a large nostalgia crowd that goes back for progression servers and the like.

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