Will Niche Games Save the Genre?
Where we are today in the MMORPG genre is a certain turning point. Most of us know that how we've gotten to where the genre is today is a mixture of development choice and what gamers have proven they want to play, through play metrics or surveys, focus groups, and more sources. Certainly, there's a significant segment that wishes for more games like the handful we had a decade ago, but there are many more who want a connected play experience without necessarily being super connected. I say that not as a negative, but because the populations are certainly segmented. Barring another lightning in a bottle event like WoW, this segmentation, which gets at the genre itself, is likely permanent. And that is where the promising crop of more niche games might come in to play. While segmentation might sound like a bad thing, or an extension of problems some have had with MMOs, it might actually be for the best.
Let me preface further comment by saying that I prefer large open worlds, content that takes a good amount of time to get through, lots of social functions, and a healthy population that is open to roleplay. I'm primarily a PvEr, with group PvP being fun from time to time. In essence, I want my game to feel like a home I can inhabit for many months or even years. That hasn't happened very often lately, as some others who like similar features have noticed. That doesn't mean the genre isn't evolving in some ways that will include some of those things. Because an evolution is certainly happening where some old things are new again and some new things are heading in their own directions.
It's a good thing that most MMO developers seem to have stopped trying to chase WoW. That isn't to say themeparks are dead or that WoW's inspiration isn't going to be like Tauren tracks on some upcoming games, but we're seeing a less-strict adherence to the concept of an MMORPG and more MMO+(Other Genre). With games like the recently announced (and mildly controversial) Trove, Camelot Unchained, The Repopulation, Life is Feudal, and even concepts like Ever, Jane (which is still running its Kickstarter campaign), among others, the power of the niche game might be what the genre needs. Some might think calling Trove niche is a mistake, given that there are over 30 million Minecraft players out there, but the game is a different sort of MMO. And naturally, you can't underestimate that veteran of the niche MMO – 10-year old EVE Online.
What effect more niche titles might have aren't guaranteed, but the segmentation that has been happening for a while – MMO-(Insert Genre Here) titles have expanded what the mainstream view of the genre is like, and MOBAs have stepped in to grab some of the competitive players that don't really need a virtual world of any kind. What does that leave? Millions of people playing games, and a portion of them, as well as others, feeling undeserved. So when developers aim to serve populations of gamers whose preferences might lean toward features and genres that were once mainstream (or were never mainstream), this is a good thing. Sure, some of us remember huge worlds in AAA MMORPGs with what seemed like an almost endless journey in front of us, but today's MMO is usually combat-focused. Resources go into 'endgame' and leveling through content is faster. Developers acknowledge they can't keep up with the rate at which people consume content, so they make most big games top-heavy.