From the disappointment over The Elder Scrolls Online to the steep decline in subscriber numbers for Star Wars: Old Republic, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: the time of the traditional MMO is drawing to an end.
It's not done. There are still ten million people playing World of Warcraft, for example, and millions more playing titles such as Lord of the Rings Online. But on the whole, it's a dying genre, a product of a time in gaming that's come and gone, and upon which we'll one day look back on and say...boy, aren't we glad they don't make games like that anymore.
To be clear: I've always hated MMO games. From Everquest, whose addictive tendencies tore apart my one and only online community experience (an X-Wing clan, of all things) to World of Warcraft to everything that came along and tried to beat World of Warcraft, they seemed like the absolute antithesis of everything I found enjoyable in a video game experience.
Veteran designer Warren Spector, whose credits include Deus Ex and System Shock, puts it best when he said in this 2007 interview "I'm one of those people who doesn't find anything interesting at all in leveling up, finding a +3 sword or paper-dolling a character with a purple cloak. That doesn't appeal to me in any way as a human being. Put that all together and the play experience of MMOs is on par with roleplaying back in ‘87."
From cooldowns to instances to collecting ten of anything, most MMOs were, and still are, chores dressed up in the livery of a fictional universe. Aside from the basics of exploration and the lure of collecting loot and levelling up, there's been only one thing keeping people playing them, and stopping them from realising there's little difference between the banality of their daily grind to that of, say, a Farmville player.
That's the community aspect, and I'll concede this, if you went down that rabbit hole, I'm sure the social experience was a blast. World of Warcraft has done so well not necessarily because of its mechanics but because of its accessible and enjoyable lore, which keeps people invested in the game's universe long after the appeal of the gameplay has worn off.
The same goes for EVE Online, a game whose real-world approach to economics and politics means it can be a nasty place to hang out in, but at the same time a fascinating one. Ask an EVE player what keeps them coming back and they won't say mining or trading, they'll say its the context those actions are given by EVE's wonderful fiction.
You can say most MMOs fail because they fail to match the appeal or longevity of those fictions, sure, but I think in 2012 that's only part of the problem, as even the strongest fiction can eventually wear out its welcome. The more important thing causing this decline, I think, is that people are sick of playing the same damn games over and over again.
Everquest was released in the 20th century. World of Warcraft came out in 2004. Yet when Old Republic, the most expensive MMO of all time, hit shelves in late 2011, it was structured...almost exactly the same as World of Warcraft. Joel's great post on that game last year sums up my own thoughts on that crushing disappointment: in seven years, and with the most popular fictional universe on planet Earth as a hook, the best BioWare could do was copy WoW?
It's a sentiment many other people obviously share, because in only a few short months the game's subscriber base has dropped by around 25%. And while its decline is far from as dramatic, World of Warcraft has also been steadily shedding players over the past year. Other traditional MMO games in recent years have either died off or been forced to adopt a "free to play" model (which admittedly in some cases has been a success for developers!)
And who can blame them? There's only so many times you can grind, click and level your way through the same basic structure before it gets boring. The reaction to The Elder Scrolls Online's reveal last week only hammered this home. Going by people's comments not only here but across the web, it seemed people were very disappointed that such a successful singleplayer RPG would, for its online debut, revert back to tired old design ideas rather than try something new.
They didn't want to play World of Warcraft with Elder Scrolls skins. They wanted to play an Elder Scrolls game against human beings. Whether that's technically feasible or not (hint: it's not) isn't the point. The point is Zenimax could have tried something, anything differently, and it would probably have been received more positively.
This insistence on using established MMO tropes rather than attempting genuine innovation in the genre has long amazed me. It's as though publishers and developers looked at World of Warcraft's subscriber base and thought, wow, that game had 10-15 million players, we should get in on that action.
Um, no. How about thinking of a way to get the hundreds of millions of people who don't play MMO titles interested in the genre? I'm no game designer, so it's not like I'm sitting on the perfect answer, but surely there are hints to be found in the way non-MMO games are structured that could point them in the right direction?
Games like Red Dead Redemption, ArmA and even Mount & Blade can show, in different ways, how large worlds and/or large numbers of players can co-exist on the same server and provide fresh gaming experiences that don't simply revolve around clicking until you collect eight goat's tails.
Upcoming games like Tera and Guild Wars II are even better reference points: both MMOs in that they're designed to be played by large groups of people, but both offering radical departures from Everquest and WoW's tired old formula, most appealing of which is Tera's use of actual combat, which is enough to get me excited despite my track-record with the genre.
People walking away in large numbers from a Star Wars game and reacting indifferently, even negatively, to a new Elder Scrolls title are about as clear a sign as developers and publishers are going to get that hey, it's 2012, we're all getting a little tired of playing the same old MMO. It might be time for everyone to try something else for a change. Something new.