Through the years, video game genres have had their ups and downs. Their rise and fall often dictated by the capabilities of the current gen hardware or the engines available to the developers. Platformers aren’t as popular as they were in the ’80s, and shooters have seemingly evolved into a mixture of shooter and RPG. Many other genres have appeared in recent years, such as the battle royales that now seem to permeate every game franchise. Square Enix even announced a mobile battle royale game for their Final Fantasy VII remake line-up of sequels and spin offs.
However, there is one genre that, despite being ever-present, seems to have begun a slow decline over the past ten years: MMORPGs.
For the uninitiated, that acronym stands for Massive(ly) Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Your most famous example is World of Warcraft. Even if you’ve never touched a video game in your life, you’ve heard of WoW. In the ’90’s and early ‘2000s, it permeated pop culture. South Park even had an entire episode dedicated to it.
The appeal of the MMO genre is the idea of a vast open world where you can play with a large number of players, friends, and unknowns to, more often than not, fight your way through large scale battles and more intimate monster filled dungeons. Typically set in some version of a medieval fantasy world, you start as a lowly individual of a variety of races, slaying vermin and fetching things for NPCs too lazy to do their own chores. The real sense of fulfillment is borne precisely in the progression from glorified gofer to hero of this fantastical world—slaying gods and dragons and defending entire nations.
This is all very enticing, however, the genre isn’t without flaws and common pitfalls. Many a MMORPG player will point out how often quests are inane and inconsequential to the overarching world and story. Did you just kill a literal god? Congratulations! Here’s a bit of gold and a shiny sword. Now fuck off. The NPCs need to have a cinematic scene— in which you don’t get a say.
Others will point to the repetitiveness of the content, or that players will burn through the content faster than the game developers can produce it. This leads to players blazing through new patches and expansions, only to be left devoid of meaningful content for months on end. Forced to repeat the same daily quests, in an effort to farm certain resources that allow a player to purchase the best gear in the game. Only for that effort to be negated when the next patch or expansions are released. Other games simply seem to punish the player for not having the ability to spend 24 hours of their day playing the game. Endless grinds force people towards the prevalent monetization systems, where you could spend thousands of whatever currency you’re using. Others simply have terrible game mechanics or poorly designed worlds and contents, leaving those worlds barren as a player exodus ensues.
Another important issue to address in the decline of MMORPGs, is perhaps the faltering of the first M in the acronym. Few MMORPGs nowadays actually feel massively multiplayer. Perhaps more of an indictment on today’s society, but you could easily play through an MMO without ever speaking to a single other person in the game. This breeds a certain comfort in players who perhaps suffer from various degrees of social anxiety. However, it also harms the core and soul of what an MMO should be.
There used to be a time when entering a dungeon with a party of players would require you to go into a town or city and yell through the in-game text chat that you were looking for people to run whatever dungeon you wanted or needed to run. You would then interact with the players, responding and adding them to your party, before traveling to the dungeon together. Now you simply open a menu and click on the dungeon you wish to queue for, and you will automatically be paired up with other players looking to do the same. While very considerate of your time as a player, it makes the world feel small. It makes the world feel like it revolves around only you and a number of other players who might as well be AIs. Also, for how massive some of the worlds can be, it matters little if you can just travel from one end to the other in a matter of seconds or minutes. You lose that sense of awe and adventure you have at the initial stages of the game, where you’d need to walk or ride a mount from point A to point B.
So, what have we ended up with? A seemingly small world, filled with unimportant people doing unimportant things, with no lasting consequences, done in bursts of a couple of weeks—before waiting for another three to six months for the next piece of content. Bleak.
So what elements would it take to redeem and rescue the genre, you might ask? Well, one of the biggest elements that makes it so that players remember their experiences in an MMO is often the player-borne content and stories.
Allow me to illustrate this point with an example from the MMO EVE Online. You might have heard of it, but you’ve likely never played it. Admittedly, EVE Online is a fairly obtuse game about space faring corporations, pirates, bounty hunters and mercenaries, and whatever else can be done with spaceships and gargantuan space stations. It’s a game where players spend a lot of time tabulating data for optimal benefits of their player-made galaxy-encompassing corporations. Space-shipwrighting is paramount, as it allows the alliances to defend themselves and to better grow their businesses and influences across entire sectors of galaxies. Political intrigue and machinations are a daily element of the game.
You should always be careful of those you spurn. Especially in a game like EVE Online. That’s a lesson that the leader of one of EVE’s biggest and oldest alliances, Gigx, learned when he logged in one day to find that overnight his second-in-command had stolen essentially everything they owned. At the time, it was the biggest theft in EVE Online history. But, even worse, all of it was an intricate revenge plot from Gigx’s former allies, whom he had betrayed a year earlier.
Long story short, a series of people hated Gigx’s alliance because they had somewhat taken over what used to be a large chunk of their once impregnable zone of influence. Through overly complex meta gaming that would put the Illuminati to shame, Gigx’s second-in-command ended up transferring the ownership of all their defenses—blueprints to manufacture other ones, ships, assets, money and even entire space-stations that some thousands of people called home—over to their former allies and enemies.
These are the stories that stick with players. The ones wherein the players themselves shape the landscape of the world through their own political and military conflicts. Stories that affect the entirety of the world and the playerbase, forcing everyone to react and have emotional reaction to the events. Stories, after all, are the strongest weapon in a Role Playing Game’s arsenal. And if you can’t craft them fast enough as a developer, allow the players to write their own through their own actions.
Of course, not all games are currently able to provide this, nor do all of them aim to do so. Some draw their strengths from other aspects of the MMO spectrum. So, allow me to provide a short list of the five best MMOs at this time.
THE 5 BEST MMO’S RIGHT NOW
- World of Warcraft
- The undying leader in the MMO genre. It has seen a steady decline in its population even despite the advent of their “Classic” version wherein you can play the game the same way it was back when it released, before many of the changes that supposedly ruined it for many.
- The lore is rich and the factions ultimately are quite meaningful for the purposes of who you play with and against
- PVP is good but a declining focus over end game raids at this time
- Final Fantasy XIV
- If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy game, you know that one of their main assets is the stories. FFXIV’s story might just be the best Final Fantasy story ever.
- Combat is fun and flashy and allows you to play all the classes on a single character, so no need to play through the entire game from the start just to try a different class.
- PVP is nearly non-existent and honestly not very good. However players seem to not mind when the PVE content is as strong as it is.
- Black Desert Online
- By far the prettiest of the games listed here. You can make some absolutely stunning characters for you to play.
- As is now common knowledge from most Korean MMOs, the story is almost entirely non existent and unimportant.
- Really fun and even challenging real time action combat, with a strong emphasis on combos and player skill.
- PVP is fun but never really balanced. PVE is fun as you get to mow down hordes of enemies without too much issue, but the grind is very grindy.
- The Elder Scrolls Online
- If you’ve played Morrowind, Oblivion or Skyrim, you’re pretty much set to be proficient at this game.
- The story is pretty good albeit a little inconsequential.
- Leveling functions by using certain skills and weapons repeatedly rather than by leveling and obtaining news abilities that way.
- EVE Online
- There is no story in this game. Once the tutorial is over, you’re free to do whatever you want. Which might be a little intimidating if you’re on your own.
- Gameplay is ultimately secondary to player agency. You can make impactful decisions that will shape the galaxy, but don’t expect any fun and engaging combat.
- Requires a lot of meta gaming and knowledge of the economy in EVE. prepare to spend days browsing forums and talking to people online to get an idea on how to progress.
With these out of the way, I would like to highlight one specific game that is currently in the pre-alpha stages and seems to be very promising: Ashes of Creation—somewhat of a hybrid of all the good things from most MMOs.
To start, MMOs can typically be divided into Theme Park and Sandbox MMOs. Theme Park MMOs are ones like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV. You’re in a world that exists, and you’re visiting it and going on certain rides that we call “content”. Often enough, there is a clear path leading you from one ride to the next. Sandbox MMOs are the ones where you’re dropped in a world and off you go. Do whatever you want. There are little restrictions, but sometimes not enough guidance for players to progress steadily.
Ashes of Creation is what developers Intrepid Studios are calling a Sand Park MMO. This means that the game will have specific content that can be played through story quests, dungeons, and raids—but will be subject entirely to player choice and agency. The way they mean to achieve this is by what they call the Node System. Essentially every area of the game will be under the influence of a Node. Questing, resource gathering, monster slaying etc, in that area will develop that Node from a mere encampment to a fully fledged Metropolis. As the Node develops, new content will be unlocked. However, neighboring Nodes will be unable to progress so long as a City of Metropolis already exists nearby.
Enter player conflict.
Guilds and alliances will likely control certain areas and might decide that they want control of a specific area, or of one of the few castles that exist in the world. Thus, players will need to interact to declare wars and sieges, just as others will need to band together to defend their homes and businesses. With open world PVP as a core feature, a total of 64 total possible class combinations, almost no fast travel across the huge world, and the possibility to just play as an artisan—without need to focus on combat content, Ashes of Creation seems to be bringing much of what disgruntled MMO players have been seeking for years.
For a good primer on this upcoming game, you can watch TheLazyPeon’s video on it below, and check it out here.
Long live MMORPG’s.