It's difficult to argue that there isn't at least a little bit of stagnation in the MMO industry right now. There are a lot of theories as to why this might be. Some point to the growing trend toward item shop revenue models and the perceived greed of companies that makes these games. Others point at Blizzard's behemoth World of Warcraft as the source of all of the genre's woes, suggesting that because of its success all games that come after it are copies.
Whatever the specific reason, it is difficult to argue that the MMORPG genre isn't in some kind of decline. The last few years of releases haven't exactly lived up to their hype and scepticism about each and every game that is announced seems to climb as games move closer and closer to launch.
The loudest voices of opposition seem to be coming from long-time MMO gamers. You know, the folks who were playing in the genre during pre-Trammel Ultima Online and before. It seems to me, as an outsider looking in, that it wasn't necessarily the game itself that managed to enrapture its players to the point that no game that came after would measure up. It was, instead, the mystique of something different come to life. It was the realization of RPG player fantasies come to life where they could play online in a world populated by other players. It was new, it was exciting and there were no pre-existing conventions that had to be followed to the letter. In short, what an MMORPG wasn't set in stone, it was being carved.
As time has gone by, and games have come and gone, expectations and conventions about what an MMO is have become more and more engrained in the consciousnesses of everyone involved. Players, developers, publishers and even journalists now have their own pre-conceived notions of what a game has to be in order to be a "successful MMORPG." There just isn't enough wonder left to really capture our collective imaginations.
So, what if we were somehow able to take that out of the equation? What if the only way to re-invigorate a flagging MMO industry is to completely re-define what an MMO is? Is that even possible anymore?
Right now, popular culture seems to be all about rebooting and re-imagining. From gussied up remakes of old songs to complete re-imaginings of pop culture mainstays like the most recent Star Trek movie, both the people who fund these pop culture projects and the audiences that consume them seem ready to at least pretend to forget about the things that have come before and open themselves up to new ideas and new approaches to classic ideas.
Well, we'd have to leave out publishers and the money people entirely, at least those who are familiar with the current MMO market. Most publishers, companies or individuals who would invest in an MMORPG do so with an expectation of return, the best chance of which is to duplicate the success of games like WoW... I think you get where I'm going with this.
Then, we'd have to find an audience either open minded enough or ignorant enough of the current crop of MMORPGs that something completely outside the box wouldn't be a deterrent to enjoyment. We would need players who were willing to put aside concepts and conventions that they know are fun and look at something new as a whole. We'd need a media that was willing to do the same. This would be tough, because both of these groups consider themselves to be experts in the current product and old habits and perceptions are tough to break.
Finally, and I think that this is both the most important and the most improbable requirement on this list, we would have to find qualified, competent developers who had never played an MMO, and had their own set of ideas about how best to handle the idea of taking the core of a role playing game, either the electronic version or the pen and paper version, and create an online world that will allow thousands of players to exist and interact within. Just take a minute and consider the possibilities that this might open up. How, for example, would someone who had never head of the concept of instancing decide to tackle their content? How would people unfamiliar with raiding and gear grinding handle the concept of an endgame? The possibilities are endless.
This, my friends, could lead not to the innovation that so many of us have been begging for, but instead to the sense and feeling of true invention that captured so many people's imaginations during the birth of the genre.