Empty store shelves in a store aisle that reads "MMORPGs"

Where Have All the Good MMORPGs Gone?

Thanks to COVID, I’ve been living a very stripped-down, monotonous life for nearly a year now. I rarely leave the house for non-essential excursions, day-to-day novelty is sparse, and my sense of community is dwindling.

In response, my subconscious is yearning for a new place to call home — but not in the real world.

Instead, I’m craving an MMORPG: a video game genre with robust game worlds that offer a sense of belonging. They do so by replicating many fixtures of real life, including in-game economies, communities, and social progression. Some of them even let you build and decorate your own house. And for these reasons, the genre seems like the perfect digital remedy for a dull life in quarantine.

But there’s just one problem: the MMORPG genre has grown stale. There hasn’t been a big-name MMORPG release since 2013-2014, and the genre’s biggest, most populous titles (World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2) have been out for more than a decade.

If you teleported 14-year-old me from 2008 to 2021, he’d be terribly disappointed by today’s MMO landscape. Instead of new titles that push the genre’s boundaries, we have old titles with minor tweaks and content updates. Instead of growing interest in the genre, we have plummeting subscription numbers. Instead of WoW2, we have a re-issue of World of Warcraft: Classic.

Where have all the good MMORPGs gone?

We Can Make Them Bigger, Stronger

What really burns me about the genre is that the technology required to power the next-generation of MMORPGs is already here, and it’s been here for a while.

For proof, look at the explosive popularity of the battle royale genre (Fortnite, PUBG). In both games, 100 players duke it out within a shared game space simultaneously, with their game engines rendering thousands of dynamic projectiles and player-built structures a second.

Obviously, MMORPGs are much larger and have to render player activity in the thousands, not hundreds. But World of Warcraft (WoW) supported massive player battles in 2004. Warhammer Online pushed the envelope even further in 2008 by scattering capturable forts and objectives throughout its game world. Why can’t developers leverage today’s massively-multiplayer tech, add additional progression systems, and create the next generation of PvP/PvE MMORPG titles?

Camelot Unchained seems to be the only game with this goal in mind. But it’s been nearly eight years since that game was successfully funded through Kickstarter, and there’s still no release date in sight.

A Losing Bet

From what I’ve gathered, many developers — including top-dogs like Blizzard — might be reluctant to create next-gen MMORPGs because of money.

Given their size and scale, MMORPGs are extremely expensive to make, and the market is highly competitive. Post-release, it’s almost always sink-or-swim, with juggernaut titles like WoW and Guild Wars 2 sticking for decades while other titles are almost immediately put on life support and cancelled a few years later (WildStar, FireFall).

Those factors (and many more) make entering the MMORPG space a risky proposition.

A Lack of Interest in the Genre

Another explanation for the lack of new, innovative MMORPGs is a lack of market interest. But I think game design stagnancy is to blame here.

When WoW landed in 2004, it was largely a refinement of the existing MMORPG formula pioneered by games like EverQuest (1999). And since then, that monotonous MMORPG formula still hasn’t received a significant overhaul. You can still expect to complete hundreds of dull, linear quests; tab-target enemies and cast abilities without aiming them; and take a backseat to an overarching storyline that isn’t shaped by your decisions.

Compare that game experience to battle royales, which are arguably the most popular massively-multiplayer titles. They offer faster-paced, high-stakes gameplay that’s immediately more engaging for most players than the slower burn of the traditional MMORPG formula. You can’t blame today’s gamers for wanting to jump into tense, dynamic game lobbies to challenge the ever-changing strategies of other human players instead of killing ten, predictably boring rats controlled by rudimentary AI.

Where Do I Go from Here?

For now, I’m keeping cautionary tabs on Camelot: Unchained, but there’s a chance that the game will never release and dissolve into nothingness.

In the meantime, I might try to find an MMORPG to fill the void in my heart. That might be WoW: Classic (as dull as it is), or retail WoW, which I recently swore off, or nothing at all.

But regardless, it’s easy to see that the genre is in a rut. And until we see new MMORPGs that build on the foundations of their progenitors, embrace new technology, and retool their formulas in-line with market trends, I expect it to stay that way.

Featured image by John Cameron on Unsplash

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