I watched a video the other day about how to save the MMORPG genre. It was an hour reasonably well spent if the topic interests you.
The video brings up a lot of problems and contradictions that the community has long discussed and argued about, such as the importance of community, servers, end game content, and a whole package of other items that will no doubt sound familiar if you’ve been part of the discussion over the last decade and more.
And I will say that there isn’t anything critical that I disagree with when it comes to the discussion. It is largely a quest to get back to the things that made the genre exciting and fun back in the early days without necessarily throwing out every single “accessibility” feature that has shown up since EverQuest was the booming vanguard of the genre.
The result, which is necessarily a bit vague, can charitably be called a tightrope walk over a pit of knives, suggesting as it does some sort of balance between contradictory goals.
In the end, it seems unlikely that anybody is going to come up with a perfect and sustainable mix of features that will bring back the early joys of the genre, if only because much of what we were willing to put up with nearly a quarter century ago will no longer fly now that we’ve experienced better, easier, or more relaxed versions of virtual worlds.
The novelty of the experience has passed for many of us and, while we want a lot of what virtual worlds bring us, the price we’re willing to pay in what can seem like sheer bloody minded inconvenience is nowhere as high as it used to be.
Yes, you can run a special server now and then catering to the nostalgia of the good old days. But that is no more sustainable than it was the first time around. People will clamor for the quality of life changes, only much more quickly as one of the quirks of redoing a game for nostalgia is that the experience runs in fast forward mode because the whole thing is already a solved problem.
I don’t think MMORPGs are dead, but they aren’t going to go back to the dawn of the 21st century in anything but indie niche form. The mass market voted with their wallets for WoW in droves… and then asked for the rough edges to be smoothed down to the point we have arrived at today and the dichotomy of the whole fun vs effort thing. In the end we do seem to favor low friction entertainment.
But I also wonder if the edge has been worn of the MMORPG experience by some of the alternatives.
Back in 1999 you couldn’t even run two EverQuest clients on a single machine. Multi-boxing meant literally having two machines. So the idea of being able to run your own personal persistent world was out of reach for most people.
That changed. I think Minecraft gets some serious credit for popularizing running your own world for just you and your friends. I am sure there are other games titles that pre-date it for that sort of thing, but Minecraft created an industry around hosting worlds, a big enough industry that Microsoft felt it was worthwhile to run part of it.
Minecraft isn’t the ideal replacement for MMORPGs. It can lack that sense of purpose, which is why I have Valheim in the title of the post. Sure, you could substitute in something else for it… there are other options… but it is the one that resonates most with me at the moment.
Having your own Valheim server with your friends gives you a lot of what MMORPGs offered back in the day. A persistent server to share with friends, monsters to find, a major quest to follow in order to win Odin’s favor, a world to explore, bases to build… and you even get that holy grail of online adventures, the ability to change the world and have it persist.
Which leads me to wonder where the future of online gaming in the MMORPG sense ought to be heading.
Valheim is imperfect… and largely so right now because it is incomplete. It is currently impossible to gain Odin’s favor and win or otherwise finish what you started.
But the promise of it? Now there is something. We have twice now spent three months and more going through the content of the game… and in a rapacious manner, throwing many hours into our efforts to explore and move ahead… when it isn’t even half done yet.
What happens when there is a year of content for an industrious group? What happens when there are multiple titles such as that?
I don’t think the MMORPG is going away. There is still something to be said for the big game with many people playing in parallel. But the smaller world, the shared persistent space you and your friends can share… that feels like it has a long ways to go before it seems over populated as a genre.
Of course, that might be why Blizzard is looking into the idea. Or maybe the devs there just liked Valheim as well.