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Riot Games and the Revival of the MMO

By Michael Bitton on July 26, 2018 | Columns | Comments

Riot Games and the Revival of the MMO

Riot Games recently released an impressive interactive map of Runeterra, the original setting created for its massively successful, but lone title, League of Legends. What happened after that stirred up a lot of excitement in the world of MMO fans. Riot co-founder Marc ‘Tryndamere’ Merrill quoted the tweet promoting the new map and asked if people would be interested in Riot building an MMO. This was either a cruel joke or a serious hint at what the studio has been working on all this time.

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The MMO genre as it’s traditionally known has been in the wilderness for a number of years now, carried mostly by an old guard of successful games that have managed to stake out a unique position for themselves in a genre that has a long history fraught with plenty of high profile failures. One of the most significant of these was the huge failure of Star Wars: The Old Republic, which I would argue was the beginning of the end for a genre that was always both incredibly risky and costly to develop for. If a company like EA leveraging an IP like Star Wars couldn’t pull it off, what hope is there for anyone else?

As the years rolled on, interest in new projects from AAA developers dried up and we’ve been kind of coasting along ever since. There have been some high points since then, sure, most notably Guild Wars 2, ESO, and the miraculous relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV (all of which were in development before SWTOR’s spectacular failure), but broadly speaking, it’s been abundantly clear that the big studios want little to do with MMOs. The term itself is even treated as a dirty word of sorts, with developers contorting themselves into pretzels to avoid their games being associated with the label if they exhibit any sort of MMO-like qualities.

But like many things, gaming is often cyclical. We’ve seen the revival of all sorts of long dormant genres over the past couple of years, and even MMOs have sort of taken on a different form if you consider quasi-MMOs like Destiny and The Division as games that qualify. The notion of “Games as a Service” has pretty much taken over gaming right now, too. This, of course, is a concept that serves as a basis of the MMO genre. Is now the time for a revival of the MMO? And could Riot Games lead the way?

I’m not so sure, but I do hope so. If and when the MMO does become popular again, it’s likely going to take a large studio like Riot (or Amazon) to take the challenge and prove that there’s money in the genre worth that risk. Riot’s been trying to put the s in in Riot Games for some time now. The company doesn’t shed a whole lot of light on what’s been going on internally, but we do know it was working on a card game of sorts at some point. It also acquired Seth Killian’s Radiant Entertainment, the studio responsible for the approachable fighting game, Rising Thunder. Was Riot developing a fighting game? Who knows.

What we do know is that Riot has invested significantly in building out the League of Legends IP for a while now. Runeterra is now steeped in enough lore to have created a truly believable universe that fans are highly invested in and the map released this week is just the latest example of that effort. But aside from League of Legends, Riot hasn’t done a whole lot to capitalize on the opportunities offered by building out such a rich universe. It’s with that in mind that I do think that an “MMO” is a pretty realistic possibility. There’s already a huge, built-in audience looking for a deeper way to interact with the universe Riot has built, and there are few better ways I can think of accomplishing that feat than to develop an MMO around it.

But are we, MMO fans here at MMORPG.com and elsewhere, and Marc Merrill even talking about the same thing? We all know how contentious arguments over the definition of an MMO are among the gaming populace. Quasi-MMOs of the past couple of years, your Destinys and Divisions and even the upcoming Anthem, may have successfully shifted the understanding of what that term means in this era of gaming, even as they avoid the actual label.

It’s possible that a League of Legends MMO, even if it happened, would more resemble an Anthem or Destiny than World of Warcraft, EverQuest, or Ultima Online. I imagine that would probably dampen the excitement significantly for anyone hoping for a true revival of the ambitious promise the MMO genre always aspired to. I’d be disappointed if that were the case, but I’d still be eager to play a game like that.

And that brings me to my final point. Even if Riot were actually making an MMO proper, something large in scale and scope, it would be an opportunity for Riot to sort of reinvent the genre the way Blizzard did with World of WarCraft in 2004. While the game was hugely popular, many MMO fans (particularly sandbox fans) lament the WoW's influence on the direction of the genre as a whole. Like Blizzard, Riot has a sort of history of doing this (albeit limited). DotA was around for years before League of Legends achieved critical mass and got the wider gaming populace interested in MOBA-style games. The MOBAs that followed mostly resembled LoL the way new MMOs resembled WoW after its release. I doubt Riot would settle for anything less than the goal of reshaping the genre in its own image if it were to take on the MMO.

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site''s Community Manager.