The MMO is dead in America—so says PC Gamer, so says Ten Ton Hammer, so says Rock Paper Shotgun—indeed, so says the Fresno Bee, and if the Fresno Bee is running your obit, you’re pretty damn dead in the world of gamers.
But all these eulogies of dubious regret are merely a confirmation for me. You see, the deceased was a good friend of mine.
My first MMO was World of Warcraft. I was introduced by friends and immediately sucked into the vivid, living world. It was a particularly fraught period of my life (graduate school), and my relationship with the game was definitely unhealthy in its intensity for a time, but it also felt somehow special and magical.
And even though my relationship with MMOs was unhealthy, I can honestly say it was a place of solace during a difficult and confusing time and hardly the worst addiction I could have developed. After a few years, I stopped playing seriously, but MMOs still remained a fun way to escape the real world now and then.
But sometime, maybe in early 2015 when I finally logged out of ArcheAge with a sense of equally mixed regret and relief, I knew I was done. That ArcheAge was my final hurrah is perhaps telling—it was, in many ways, a very badly-designed game that I sometimes called “Choretime: The Game.” But the grindfest ArcheAge offered was only a peculiarly potent expression of the way that almost all MMOs seemed to end up merely a series of repetitive tasks, devoid of wonder or excitement. I could never again be a blithe young night elf running through Teldrassil with stars in my eyes. Now it was all dailies and gear-farming, more entries on an endless to-do list.
Plummeting subscription numbers in the industry’s major players as well as a growing list of cancelled MMOs told that I wasn’t alone in turning away from the games I’d once loved, and it became clear that that game we all hoped for, the one that would turn all the MMO genre’s problems around just wasn’t coming.
Everybody’s eager to work out who killed the MMO—was it the failure of Everquest Next? The free-to-play model? The way players’ social attachments discouraged exploration and made less-than-satisfactory games an acceptable repository for their time gaming with friends so that great new games went ignored? Were we the real monsters?
Whether it was any, all, or none of these doesn’t really matter. My friend is gone, eulogized, and the wake is more or less over.
So where’s the after-party?
Here’s where we come to the caveats about declaring pretty much anything on the internet actually dead, because obviously some people are still playing World of Warcraft, some people have joyfully jumped into Black Desert Online, and others are still devoted to Guild Wars 2, Everquest, and newer, mostly Korean-produced MMOs. We’ll call them the mourners at the tomb. What about the rest of us?
And to answer this question, it’s instructive to ask what we got from those MMOs in the first place—why were we there? Folks who enjoyed the combat gameplay of MMOs, especially arenas, are already thoroughly entrenched in MOBAs like League of Legends or Overwatch. These distill the inter-personal competition element perfectly without any frou-frou.
For people who wanted a fun thing to do online with their RL friends, co-op play is increasingly the answer. Divinity: Original Sin has been quietly mining this niche for a while now, offering classic RPG play that you can share with a friend.
Very few games with co-op mode offer the kind of rich immersion that was the hallmark of the old-school MMO, but with VR technology gaining fast, that’s bound to change as studios sense the opportunity to knock our socks off with beautiful worlds that we hunger to explore with our friends.
But RPGs are also presented with that new opportunity, and let’s face it, a studio like BioWare, creators of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, with a lot of experience in developing sticky singler-player narratives is probably best-poised to begin answering our endless, pitiful pleading for a holodeck. And if RPGs take advantage of AI development rather than sticking to scripted characters, the kind of living world that MMOs once specialized in could be recreated without incoporating any other humans.
The old-school MMO was something unusual—it was designed to be all things to all people, which is something that almost never works. That it did work unexpectedly well for a few years is a testament to the hard work of countless devs and the often really lovely spirit of the gaming community.
The fragmentation of the MMO community in its wake therefore isn’t surprising. Players are digging into their preferred niches.
There’s still a loss—MMOs were an amazing opportunity to try out other gaming styles within your core game, so that a lot of MOBA-style players discovered a new love of roleplay, or RPG story hounds found pleasure in grouping up with friends, strangers, or in the best-case scenario, strangers who became new friends.