Over and over again these days, I read forum posts from people who feel that the MMO industry has stagnated. They feel that each and every game that comes out is a carbon copy of the successful ones before them. There seems to be an existing expectation that one day one of these new MMOs is going to launch, suddenly and completely changing the way that we look at the genre.
I don’t think that the genre is going to change in such a grand and immediate fashion. I think that genre will be built over time, based on the small changes in the generations of game before it, the first of a new species. This new species will have improved over its forefathers. It will be stronger, faster, more immersive, more entertaining, but it will not come quickly.
Unfortunately, the evolution of MMORPGs is a process that takes time. World of Warcraft, the recognized pinnacle of the current species of MMO, was successful at least partially because its developers looked at the games that had come before it and chose the strongest aspects to re-create in their MMO. Without EverQuest, for example, there would be no WoW. The “next big thing,” the next link in the evolutionary chain, so-to-speak, will be built on the gradually developing collection of MMOs as they move slowly forward.
How do I know? I can see it happening. Below, you will find five pieces of evidence that show the evolution of the MMO genre. Not a complete list, I’ll grant you, but a solid foundation from which to begin:
#5 The number of games being released
It’s easy to see that the MMO market is constantly growing. Just look at the number on our list.
Since World of Warcraft launched on November 23rd, 2004, there have been approximately 150 new MMOs launched of varying depth and quality. And, just on our list, there are nearly a hundred more games on the way. And those are the ones we know about.
With that many games currently operating and in development, it’s easy to see an evolutionary process at work. The stronger, better games distinguish themselves with large player bases and critical acclaim, while the weaker games flounder and die or carve out their own, smaller niche. It is the games that rise to the top that are most likely to survive and contribute to the evolution of the genre.
#4 Moving beyond just RPG mechanics
Five years ago when someone described a game as an MMORPG, it was easy to figure out exactly the kind of game they were talking about. You knew that it was an online game with a persistent world, probably with a fantasy setting, with all of the standard RPG game design elements.
In today’s MMO landscape, new ideas are more and more often bubbling to the surface as the classic ideas of persistent world, advancing characters, guilds, crafting and the like are beginning to share design space with concepts from other genres: Action, FPS, RTS to name a few.
There are certainly examples of this spread throughout the history of MMOs. Upcoming games like CrimeCraft, APB, Cities XL, Global Agenda, Huxley, DC Universe Online, and The Agency, are all playing with the established conventions of how we think that an MMORPG should operate, and that’s probably a good thing. While there is a group of purists out there who feel that the genre is just fine as it is thank-you-very-much, I think that anything that expands on the existing genre and gives more gamers more options when it comes to MMOs is probably a good thing.
This move also represents a “coming of age” for MMOs in general as they move away from the hard and fast rules of the RPG genre and begin to make a name for themselves as an entity all their own.
Now, I can’t say that moves in this direction will always produce a stellar result, and one doesn’t need to look too far into the past to see a shining example of how a blending of classic MMORPGs with other gaming concepts can end in disaster.
When Tabula Rasa launched, it was heralded as the coming of a game that blended the things that everyone loved about MMORPGs with the best parts of the shooter game genre. The end result though was that (among other issues), TR never really managed to get its feet under it. To me, and to others, it seemed as though it was trying to be two different games at the same time, and fully succeeding at neither. Looking further back, I think that Auto Assault suffered from the same crisis of identity with the same result: players stayed away.
With luck, the industry as a whole has learned from whatever mistakes were made in the past and the result will be stronger, more diverse MMOs in the future.
#3 Moving beyond fantasy
For a few years at the Game Developer’s Conference, I attended a series of seminars from a developer name Daimon Schubert that were cleverly titled: “Moving Beyond Men in Tights.” It was a catchy title, but the meat of the seminars and roundtables that bore the name was that the industry as a whole should move beyond the fantasy concepts that it had been clinging to for so long and explore other avenues.
Now, I realize that non-fantasy MMOs aren’t anything particularly new. Anarchy Online, Star Wars Galaxies, EVE, Earth and Beyond, Jumpgate, The Matrix Online and others were all breaking the fantasy barrier long before the newest crop of MMOs were a gleam in their lead designers’ eyes, but looking at the list of major upcoming games, it’s easy to see that non-fantasy games are making a run at the prize en masse.