Blizzard broke the news this week that they have cancelled development on the MMO they had in development for the past few years, codenamed Titan.
This news does not come as a surprise. For two reasons.
1. When a project has been kicking around this long, has been through complete redesigns, and the ‘buzz’ we’re hearing about it still doesn’t sound particularly interesting, the chances of it becoming a massive hit are fairly minimal. It would have been an albatross, not the “omg successor to WoW’ that some people were touting.
2. I’m not saying MMOs are finished, but clearly producing huge expensive MMOs is not the way to bet. There are successful games which involve massive numbers of players, which may have a lot in common with MMOs, but they aren’t based on the classic Diku model, or even the less common EVE model. If there is a true successor to WoW, in terms of being a breakout viral hit that involves millions of people then it is Minecraft, not the large WoW-alikes.
So what changed? The games have become more refined, gameplay has improved, graphics have improved (hugely), lots of new ideas have been tried. The players changed. The internet and social media became more mainstream. People learned that there are large downsides to interacting with massive numbers of people. There are also many many more games on the market where you can interact with massive numbers of players competitively, with carefully designed gameplay, in more controlled ways than just throwing everyone into a virtual world together.
This is a post I wrote on rpg.net about why MMOs are not the in-thing any more:
The genre feels increasingly stale. There are plenty of players with enthusiasm to try new games, but they tend to demand very similar features. They also tend not to want to stick with a new game for more than a few months, which isn’t a problem per se, but means it’s harder to form new communities. They also tend to be much less patient than players were in the past when we were all a bit new to the whole idea.
One reason is that people are increasingly likely to see being around massive numbers of people as a downside, not an upside. You need massive numbers for some mechanics: to simulate an economy and support a quick LFG queue and good PvP ladders. But other than that, actually being in a gameworld with that many people can be frustrating. And ultimately the elitist, more abusive elements have tended to have a big influence on the culture (I know not every elitist player is abusive, some of them are lovely) — it’s increasingly challenging to learn a new game when you have a high chance of meeting hostile oldbies in your groups.
Another is that so much of the discovery about MMOs is probably on neat little websites before the game even launches. And due to competitiveness in the player base there is an increasing pressure for players to have read it. That means the content barely lasts any time at all before it is beaten unless there is an unholy grind involved. Not a problem, but the discovery process was a big part of the appeal of the MMO back in the day.
It’s also about the tendency of open world games with PvP and a full economy (like EVE) to become really cut-throat. It’s great for the players who love it, but there’s a limit to how many of that type of game can fruitfully exist. And they tend to drive out anyone else from their games.
I think there’s a huge future in open world games — but they’ll be partitioned neatly between single player elements, co-op elements (like raiding), PvP elements, massive elements (like the economy), large group elements, and maybe even open world server shards with contained numbers. Something like Diablo3 (with better designed economy) is going to be a better picture; you can play solo or with friends, or in LFG, or with the economy, and chat on your friends list and share pictures of your armour — and each of those parts of the game is neatly designed for that kind of group of people.
I think there is still a possibility for a more social open world type of game to become a breakout hit at some point, but it will do so by reaching out to people who are not currently core gamers (like Minecraft did). I think there are definitely still possibilities for huge procedural simulationist/ survival type open world games to become breakout hits. But for the rest of the MMO-type genre I think success will be much smaller scale – the pattern of the big influx of players and then drop off after a month or so is too frequently seen to blame on individual games and the days of the huge investment AAA MMO as we know it are done. There will still be successes and opportunities, but devs will have to design around the steady state numbers.
And maybe, sometime in the future, the MU* model of player run shards – which has been so successful in Minecraft – will re-enter the MMO-type area and the cycle will begin again.
Still, we’ll always have Warcraft.
Here’s a couple more blog posts from other people on similar themes, go read them they are good! (Will add more tonight, feel free to suggest links in the comments).