Recently, I read a piece proclaiming the MMO "era" to be over. While the genre has undergone some shifts through the years as both technology and gamers change, the genre isn’t on life support. While certain trends have held and others faded, MMOS are still being made, played, and planned. The genre is evolving, just as it evolved after 2004, and continues today. We seem to be on the verge of a new chapter right now, in fact.
One of the arguments made is that a decade ago, there was no Twitter, no widespread use of Facebook, streaming, and easy online calling. Now that those things are ubiquitous, we don't ‘need' MMOs like we used to. Yes, the social aspect does sometimes suffer as many limit communication to those they already know (friends, guild mates), and put themselves out there less, but that's a product of multiple factors. Failure to combat harassment, spam, offensive chat, and obnoxious community members soured many on global chat. Additionally, support for social infrastructure in these games started giving way to quest hubs where it was every easier to hurry, hurry, hurry through to the gate that opened up to the ‘real’ content.
MMOs have, in all cases, failed at chasing WoW’s success in numbers, and many have included mechanics heavily influenced by or patterned after WoW, but there have been lessons learned in the experience on both sides. In my opinion, most devs realistically stopped chasing WoW's numbers several years ago, counting development time. It doesn’t mean that marketing won’t pull out references to Azeroth once in a while (as with Rift’s “Not in Azeroth anymore” commercial or talk surrounding Guild Wars 2 or Star Wars: The Old Republic) or that devs don’t discuss WoW’s influence upon them, but feet have landed back on the ground. And that is a very good thing.
Yet chasing people who played WoW is important since that game brought lots of people into the genre. That shouldn't be mistaken for trying to attract WoW's players, current and former, because a good number have moved on at any given moment and some are looking for new homes. Sure, the genre has also lost players to other pursuits, but there are a lot of gamers in the world that you might grab with the right hook.
What seems to be a common argument is that WoW has hit its peak and the shadow it casts is too dark, too bold, and too all-encompassing that it’s taken the genre down with it. Some might agree with that notion, as there are a lot of jaded players who don’t appreciate the sense of a fractured and widespread playerbase and the sense of sameness many feel happened during the WoW/dollar sign chase. However, the genre is just that --spread out over different games, and without feeling like they have to illuminate that long shadow with their games, we’re seeing shifts in the genre that show it’s evolving again. Things like user-generated content, the creation of multiple sandbox games, mobile, crowdfunding and community-based suggestion and decision making, and even, yes, subscription games making a run at a return, including all (or nearly) the content for your monthly payment, are all rumbling along.
No, we’re not going to see anything like WoW again, but that’s okay. Every media genre has drawn upon what came before it. Inspired by, evolving from, and refining bits from previous sources have been done for millennia. It’s an often made arguments that the great classical dramatists borrowed from one another’s works. That is one way any medium grows, shifts, changes, and sometimes, goes niche. I'm not going to argue that the peak of revenue is likely over, but evolutions and variations still show life. Star Citizen is an anomaly, but it's an anomaly sitting on $47 million player dollars and counting. And it’s not the only game still in the pipeline that will try new things.
With WildStar, Carbine is trying to capture 2014’s MMORPG gamer that has been through it all before, has experienced what games like WoW have to offer, and want a challenging form of that and beyond. I don’t think for a moment that Carbine believes it’s going to be reeling in WoW’s subscription numbers. Recreating 2004 would mean intending to streamline and trying to create, in hindsight, the greatest influence the genre has seen since. There’s a difference between trying to copy WoW and being influenced by WoW, or seeing those influences distilled over time. Even with WoW becoming easier over time, there’s a certain comfort food quality to the game. It’s just so familiar to so many people.
Some might complain about games with cash shops appealing specifically to the busy player, but choices in the genre do feature some MMOs that don’t require as intense a commitment. This evolution has also included free to play/freemium games themselves, since your ability to log in and play is completely up to your schedule, and you’re not paying for unused time. Even WoW has gotten easier over time. It’s the comfort food MMO, as many even use it for pure casual social raiding since it’s so familiar to most.
In 2004, we could chat online using messenger clients or other programs, chat rooms, IRC, or other means. Many people dislike social media. Twitter is actually not a good tool for real conversations. Voice chat is, but that’s nothing new. MMOs are not, and never were, just a chat tool. Social media and mobile device use put communication to many at our fingertips, sure, but that’s not the same as journeying through an adventure together.
Ultimately, I think that aspect is what is going to propel the genre forward. Social media is conducive to starting conversations, but it doesn’t feel as good as surviving a dungeon by the skin of your teeth together. Or starting up friendships through questing. Or having shared inside jokes years later over losing NPCs to a glitch. The “era” isn’t over, because it’s just the way things go in games or other media. Some parts endure and others fall out of fashion. Most of us don’t drive Model-Ts anymore, but there are cars all over the place, even though we can often obtain transportation via other means. They’ve evolved to keep the features we need and introduce new ones to capture us, all while still keeping the basic idea from the original era.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez