Things ain't what they used to be, and I'm okay with that.
The MMORPG genre (if it can even be called that) is quickly approaching its twentieth birthday. It's aging, but until recently, it wasn't really maturing. Maybe it was, in some slowly developing way like that kid you knew in high school who didn't start shaving until the day before graduation and whose voice could have easily been that of a eunuch. But somewhere in the last few years the "puberty" of MMOs has really kicked it into high gear. These games, with every new incarnation, are changing and testing the boundaries of what developers and players alike find engaging and fun. For a long time I believe that we as fans found the industry in something of a stagnation period, and I honestly believe that we're pulling out of that. Maybe it's the optimist in me. Maybe I'm foolish and the games to which I'm referring in this article will crash and burn. I can't possibly know for sure. But I can be hopeful, and I can explain why I think now is the best time to be an MMO gamer.
The Combat Shift
There's nothing "wrong" with MMO combat as it has always been portrayed. It's serviceable and if done right can be both strategic, fast-paced, and fun. It's not broken. But it has been largely the same since the 1990s, and I'm thankful that in the past few years we've begun to see changes to the ways in which we brutalize our enemies. Combat's finally growing some ba... hair on its face. I'm trying to think about when the trend toward more "action-y" combat began, and I keep coming back to 2008's Age of Conan. I could be forgetting a game that really made an impact before it (Auto Assault doesn't count if only because it died far too soon), but I am fairly certain that AoC was the first game to try something a little different and more twitchy in the combat and get away with it.
Since then we've seen Champions try it's hand at combat with an Xbox 360 controller (still my preferred method of play), and DC Universe Online is coming out with a console-inspired experience that relies heavily on influence from some of offline gaming's best action titles. MMOs with a shooter's heart are popping up everywhere. TERA is promising some of the most skill-based MMORPG action to date. GW2 is going to allow Rangers to shoot arrows through walls of fire to catch their projectiles aflame. Vindictus plays like what would happen if God of War and Diablo had a baby. The list goes on. The primary way in which players interact with the game world is through combat. It's nice to see that so many different takes on this interaction are being tried and tested, even if they don't always pan out.
Immediacy is Key
There was a time when pretty much everything in our MMOGs took at least an hour. Traveling, a quest, looting a corpse (WoW's launch, anyone?). But somewhere at some point developers started to realize that their potential audience was much larger if they started to make games that could be played for either fifteen minutes or hours on end. Some may call it the "casual-ization" of the genre, and I beg to differ. Just because online gaming is becoming more casual in terms of its time requirement does not mean that all the games are becoming easy-mode. Surely, the easing of some games is directly proportionate to the developers' goal of attracting a broader (RE: more profitable) player base, but the truth is and I don't feel out of line saying this: The easier it is for players of any ilk to hop into an MMO the better it's going to be for the industry as a whole in the long run.
What's happening is that developers are doing away with the "let's make this just like real life in the middle ages!" mentality. I understand the sadness this causes, because when I did have hour after hour of free time, I loved that playing in Everquest meant absolutely immersing myself in the world. I believe that the types of games which offer this sort of experience will never truly become extinct, and I also believe that the best games will offer a way for those players who prefer to take the longer route to enjoyment to do so while still letting the time-limited player hop in and out at will. Dungeons can and will still be travelled to, while others will portal themselves inside. Flight and other travel options will be available, but the worlds themselves will still be grandiose and filled with places to delve into.
With the growth of the genre, there will be a game for everyone. Which brings me to my final point.
All the Colors of the Rainbow
There's a growing mentality that MMORPG or MMO or MMOG should pretty much mean one type of game. But that's just not the way I see it. MMORPG started out as a very niche sort of acronym. Thankfully, with the success of its earliest games to the more recent chart toppers, the MMORPG has grown into a genre that encapsulates too many different types of games. From the free to the subscription based. From fantasy to science fiction. From strategy to first-person shooter. From casual to hardcore. And everywhere in between. We can debate for hours on what should or should not be included on our site, but in reality we don't have any real control over it beyond the technical. Because whether we like it or not the MMORPG is becoming something bigger than just the games of old.
Sure it's a little bit scary, like our kid's growing up and we're realizing that we can't coddle it forever. But it's exciting as hell too. I won't dare say I truly know where this industry is heading, but seeing as just how much it's changing, I will say that we're probably in for one wild ride. And if you can let go and just enjoy it? Well, then you just might be surprised with some of the games around the corner.