Long dark winter of the MMO

It isn’t inevitable that MMO blogging dries up if a new AAA MMO hasn’t been released in the last 6 months; people will happily find things to say about their current game of choice as long as they are playing it, having fun, invested, and finding new angles. Also there is no shortage of F2P MMOs out there for people to try, as well as offshoots from the genre like Glitch and some of the Facebook games. But it is true that new players or new games give a shot in the arm to the whole debate — and when the whole debate starts to look tired and moribund, that would be a nice thing to have.

One of the RPGs I used to play was called Ars Magica (AM), and it’s a cult classic of the tabletop world. A game all about playing mages and their sidekicks in a ‘realistic’ fantasy version of medieval europe. One of the cool ideas that AM brought to the table was that for any covenant of magi (it’s their word for a group, including the building they live in and surrounding area) there is a cycle over the lifespan, which they base on seasons.

  • Spring: everything is new, the covenant is likely to be weak, it has few resources but lots of potential
  • Summer: covenant comes to its full strength, everything is going well, the future looks rosy
  • Autumn: covenant may be even stronger than in summer, but there are signs of stagnation, some of the people are getting older (maybe also a bit nuttier and more set in their ways), less open to new ideas and some of the younger magi will go their own way
  • Winter: the glory days are in the past. the covenant is slowly dying. the group has to try to store as much of the old knowledge as they can, in the hope that one day spring will come and it will be useful again

I always found this a very powerful metaphor (our group was a Spring covenant and although we were kind of useless, we were endlessly optimistic and up for challenging our elders – with predictable results, but it was what people expected from a spring covenant, so often got away with it.)

And as Winter is coming in real life (in the UK at any rate), it feels as though MMOs are drawing into a long Winter too. SWTOR and GW2 may be the last ever AAA MMOs as we would know them, and now more than ever it seems to me that we could be remembering lessons from the past.

Gevlon has been wondering a lot recently about raiding, today pondering why it was ever popular. He immediately discounts social explanations, but I have a longer memory than WoW and I do think the social aspect was important to a lot of people at the beginning. There were other aspects too, and there were also always hardcore groups who valued the idea of the group/ social challenge. I think that as the emphasis moves more to the individual challenge than the group challenges, it’s inevitable that hardcore raiding becomes a very minority pursuit — this also means that they really can’t assume an endless pit of new recruits to replace anyone burned out (I don’t think this was ever true except for some of the top guilds but lots of people bought into the conceit).

So actually the social challenge of top end raiding becomes greater, because keeping the raid together and avoiding burnout is absolutely key to a raid’s longevity if it can’t recruit easily to fill gaps. It will be interesting to see how raid leaders try to manage this, or whether people give up trying and shift to a more single player type of MMO.

I also think that while players do enjoy being able to do stuff without having to depend on others, it’s ultimately a fools’ game to pretend that a game based on soloing is going to be much of a virtual world simulation. iRL, we have to accept that everyone needs to both give and receive support at some point in their life and that even goblins need to realise that there are some things people will do for love or loyalty that they will not do just for money.

Do you feel that we’re entering the winter season for MMOs? Will there be a spring?

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20 thoughts on “Long dark winter of the MMO

  1. Oh, there will definitely be a spring after the cold times. This requires, however, that the concept of MMO’s is redefined and retuned. Perhaps making a non-persistent world or limited duration MMO with intied dense plot running in the background, evolving into a final, world shattering confrontation (and opening the scene for the next, more developed, cycle in the world after the finale).

    As I’ve been skimming from a F2P to another lately, it has become clear to me that the persistent, everliving MMOs are a dead concept. Mainly because the players are still trying to beat the game, trying to win a game which cannot be won. That’s why raiding has been dead to me to begin with, shallow imitation of the experiences in table top gaming.

    So the MMO genre needs an enema which any AAA producer could deliver. If only they dared to take the chance.

    C out

  2. Winter Is Coming!

    Could be quite apt, if WoW is brought low (in a boar hunting accident?) and other MMOs scrabble around for the crown, ignoring a graver threat from outside the genre…

  3. @Copra
    “As I’ve been skimming from a F2P to another lately, it has become clear to me that the persistent, everliving MMOs are a dead concept. Mainly because the players are still trying to beat the game…”

    This may be why Guild Wars was always one of my favorite titles. Though many may poo-poo it for its non-jump mechanics and linear path through a story…but, that is also why it worked for me.

    The story had an end. If you did not want to grind for various bits and goodies, you could just finish all missions and move on…without a sub.

    Can Guild Wars 2 capture that magic of a story with en end, but have a never ending field of play to boot.

    I am betting on it.

  4. I can’t say for sure whether Winter is coming or not. The barbarians at the gate in the form of players of Farmville, Mafia Wars, and their ilk are the same people who buy the Ski Tycoon sort of games, so I’m not certain whether those barbarians are very interested in MMOs at all.

    I also don’t think that MMOs’ last best AAA games are Guild Wars 2 and SWTOR, either. The emphasis on Hollywood style bankable franchises misses the point on where we are in the cycle. A property such as Star Wars is a juggernaut, to be certain, but as in pencil and paper RPGs I believe the vitality will be found in the smaller groups trying out different things. To the eye trained on the big franchises, we’re entering Winter. To the smaller guy, we’re in Spring.

  5. Is it summer, fall or winter? I think the answer depends on two things. The first is Titan from Blizzard. If it’s something no one expects but totally engrossing it will still be summer, after a mild cool spell. But if Titan is a WOW rehash then late fall turning into winter.

    The other important part of the equation is the player. If the players of today want to jump in and jump out in a couple of months then it doesn’t matter what the MMO’s offer. Nothing will satisfy their ADD approach to gamming. So maybe it’s not so much the game as it’s a combination of the game and the player.

    Over in the single player RPG world people talk about the glory of BG2 and the 300 hours of playtime. I loved it but those days are gone forever. Too many want to rush through the story and then brag how they beat the game in 10 hours or so. I see this also happening to MMO’s. It’s one thing to quit WOW after playing for 3 or 5 years. It’s another to get a MMO and then PLAN to quit after 3 or 6 months. No MMO could ever survive in the market with the player’s attitude already limiting their time even before it comes out.

    So if it is indeed winter then it’s winter mainly because of player’s attitudes and not the game.

    • An MMO dev team shouldn’t focus on the gaming equivalent of the big opening weekend –luring the transient group of players who want to approach gaming in ADD fashion– because that is the approach to long term disaster.

      Instead of gunning for a huge splash and hoping some of those people stick with you, an MMO should instead shoot for the niche market and gather a loyal number of subs. Start with that, and build from there.

  6. I think we have a ways to go before winter sets in. You also forgot The Secret World, another AAA title that is making quite a few waves. That being said, this might be the winter of subscription-based MMOs, but certainly not for the ever-popular F2P modeled MMOs.

  7. Total side note – I’d love to see an MMO with an Ars Magica sort of flair. And I’ve always thought RuneQuest (if you remember that) would be perfect for an MMO.

  8. I just can’t understand all the doom and gloom. After a dozen years playing MMOs I’m more involved and excited about the whole thing now than I’ve ever been.

    There are slews of really great MMOs here to play right now. Many of them are even free. The one and only real problem i have is that I can’t decide what to devote my limited time to or what to play first each evening when I get in from work. That and my increasing desire to keep writing about the damn things.

    Looking ahead there are loads of thrilling possibilities. I personally have no interest in SW:ToR, Tera, World of Darkness or Prime, but lots of people do. I’m eagerly anticipating GW2, ArcheAge, The Secret World, Planetside2 and WildStar. And of course, more than just about anything imaginable I’m anticipating EQNext.

    Really, the MMO thing is just getting better and better and I don’t imagine that’s going to stop anytime soon.

    • I think you can pretty much remove WoD from the list now given CCP’s latest announcement on it. I think any enthusiasm for EQNext is based more on heart than head too, I’ll put money on that never happening.

      Not trying to rain on your parade or anything but I have doubts. Also we don’t mention Tera here, I’m still scarred by the panty screenshots :P

  9. I suppose it depends on the term AAA. Is the subscription-based MMO dead? Has there been a single one that succeeded after WoW and before Rift 6 months ago? 5 years without anything that survived more than a few months is telling in itself.

    To use your analogy, I think we’re at the end of winter and moving into spring. There are new takes on the MMO (TOR is not one of them) and the player market has shifted from “play 6 hours, 4 nights a week” to a more casual environment.

    Instead of a saturated market with a small player base, games are changing their focus to accept any type of person, gamer or otherwise. The player base is expanding from a couple million to a couple hundred million. It’s a cool place to be.

    • I’d say LOtRO was a success as a subscription-based game… and really it still is, the hybrid model they use is subscriptions for those who want to commit, and a way to play casually without a sub for thgose who might not do so otherwise.

      Rather than the spring/summer/fall/winter model, I see the MMO industry more in terms of evolution. I think it’s entirely possible that the WoW-alike dinosaur era is coming to an end, that they’ve reached a tipping point of player apathy and boredom that is an extinction event for anything that reeks of “WoW clone”… which could be bad news for SW:ToR, Rift and Tera. The question is whether the mammals scurrying in the undergrowth will step into the empty niche and grow to achieve greater heights than the dinosaurs ever did, or if the extinction is just too big an event and takes the entire genre with it.

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  12. I know the press and a lot of players are pinning their hopes on SWTOR with all the recent MMOs going F2P and the growing trend of microtransactions.

    Change is coming and people quite frankly don’t like it.

    Having played SWTOR beta, I have to say some people may be left disappointed depending on their expectations. Guild Wars 2, I have enjoyed but there is still a lot we don’t know about the game and of course, “it’s ready when it’s done.”

    The field is static and if spending large amounts of money promotes similar gameplay to their predecessors, I can see recent titles becoming smaller in budget until breakthroughs are made and companies are willing to make the risk.

  13. I love the application of the Ars Magica metaphor here; it’s one of those things I ought to have come up with myself. We played it almost exclusively for most of the last decade.

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  15. Very thoughtful article Spinks! I too have pondered whether the MMO industry seems to be headed toward an uncertain twilight.

    The problem as I see it is that the integrity of virtual worlds is being eroded by video game companies that are seeking to mainstream them and profit from them. Good game design shouldn’t be motivated by the need to make money; it should be motivated by the desire to make a good game, a compelling world.

    I wonder what companies like Blizzard and Zynga would do if they were given the task to recreate the ancient game of chess. I believe both of them would mutilate and dumb down the game for their own ends.

    Even the notion of success has been changing. Now to be successful a MMO has to have millions of subscribers. People won’t even consider lesser MMOs if they don’t live up to the Blizzard WoW level of success.

    All we can really hope for is that a time will come when technology will become so advanced that you won’t have to spend $50 million to create a MMO. The problem is that the power is in too few hands right now which limits the choices and options for players.

    • Richard Bartle was thinking along similar lines — I think having all the virtual worlds in the hands of people whose main motive is profit has had the expected result really. And like you, I’m sad to see what I would call virtual worlds die to gamification.

      Especially since I don’t believe it has to be all PvP all the time in a working virtual world. We’ve just never had good MMO mechanics for anything other than fighting or the economy.

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