It's been awhile since I felt truly captivated by an MMORPG. You probably feel the same way too. There's a feeling I like to call the "Ironforge moment" that I think everyone has with their first MMORPG. It's that moment when you step into a city and witness thousands of players all independently moving around and the site overwhelms you with awe. For many of us, that moment happened in Ironforge while playing World of Warcraft. But the only reason I don't gape when I step foot into a city and see the same sight today is because I've peeked behind the curtain and I understand how MMORPGs work. The novelty of playing a game with thousands of other people has worn off and, dare I say it, even grown stale. And MMORPGs have done nothing to replace it.
Everyone has their own reasons for playing MMORPGs; some players love the thrill of min/maxing their characters, others enjoy the vicious insert-face-into-wall-repeatedly grind of bringing down tough raid bosses. For me, the single greatest aspect of MMOs is the way they can provide us with vast, alien worlds to explore and discover. If they can couple that with organic player societies that we have to navigate, all the better. But as far as that potential goes, I have to say I'm pretty disappointed with how poorly the genre has been living up to it.
Instead, the boundaries of what we define as MMORPGs haven't changed a whole lot over the years. In a way, we've created a language to understand MMOs and then done little to modernize or improve it in any meaningful way. Basic concepts like raid bosses, dungeons and leveling are pretty much cemented so we know exactly what we're getting. We know that, in the context of an MMO, a dungeon is going to be a somewhat linear corridor full of mobs which we unironically call "trash" (the fact that this has become the defacto term is baffling to me) and a few bigger bad guys along the way. I can't recall the last time a dungeon truly surprised me. But that's exactly what I want so badly from each MMORPG I play, something—anything—that surprises me.
This is why if anyone is more excited for the way the MMORPG genre seems to have faltered in the past few years, it's me. While some might mourn the fact that publishers have finally woken to the fact that MMORPGs aren't a surefire way to line the walls of your office with cash, I'm terribly excited for the MMO apocalypse. Bring it on, baby!
The sooner the theme park (and even our template for the sandbox, which only feels new by virtue of being underused) dies, the better. And it's already happening. This is the first time in a long while where we aren't looking at a horizon full of Star Wars, Elder Scrolls, and whatever other brands we could stitch an MMORPG onto.
What we do have is a horizon full of crowd-sourced MMORPGs by indie studios that are going to challenge the very framework of what we think an MMORPG should be. They're not beholden to formulas that publishers use as tools for success. As a result, a good many of them will probably suck, and I can't wait to see for myself.
If you're aware of the video game crash of the '80s, when the market became so clogged with copycats and "me too's" that a booming 3 billion dollar industry collapsed into a mere 100 million dollar industry, you'll start to see how closely the broad strokes match what we're seeing happening with MMORPGs today. Coin-op titles were becoming arbitrarily harder and harder in order to pull quarters from your wallet—sound familiar to the proliferation of microtransactions that can make games more "convenient"? But what followed that terrible crash was something amazing: a renaissance of video game form brought forth by Nintendo that catapulted video games into a whole new frontier.
MMORPGs have been held at gunpoint for the past decade, a precarious situation that demanded each one be as successful as World of Warcraft while also experimenting with that basic formula as little as possible. And now, thank god, that's going to start changing.
With the likes of Crowfall, Star Citizen, Shroud of the Avatar, Albion Online, and the dozens of other MMOs due to arrive in the next five years, each of them willing to expand and play with ideas that could fundamentally change the genre, we might finally be looking at a new generation of the genre. We might finally be looking at having that second "Ironforge moment." And while I'm not holding my breath that either of those games will be the harbinger of a new age of online role-playing, I do think that they will be paving the road for MMORPG's Nintendo—the company that will trigger a resurgence for a whole genre.
In the meantime? Let's all hold hands and usher in the MMO apocalypse together.