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With Little On The Horizon, What Is The Future Of The MMO?

Columns By Lewis Burnell on June 27, 2016

With Little On The Horizon, What Is The Future Of The MMO?

While sunning myself in the Balearic Islands for the last few weeks, I kept one eye on E3; much to my wife's dismay. And while there was plenty to eyeball: Battlefield One, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and The Last Guardian all look exceptional, there was a distinct lack of any MMO presence. 

The predictable death of EverQuest Next, Black Desert Online having launched and with the likes of Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online carrying on with business as usual, it begs the question as to what will become of a genre that the industry is seemingly avoiding. Although there was some presence - The Division is launching some downloadable content and The Elder Scrolls Online continues to do well - there was absolutely nothing of note. What does this mean for the MMO genre and its future?

I think it’s fair to say that there’s several major issues facing MMO’s and their development. The first is the rise and rise of the MOBA and its undeniable profitability, for seemingly very little effort: a balance patch once every month or two and the introduction of a new Hero tends to suffice. In addition, the fact many MMO’s need to cater to a wide audience with vastly different tastes results in development teams needing to be huge. There’s also the looming need to not only constantly satisfy the playerbase, but to also deliver more and more content at a pace that’s nigh impossible. Effectively, why make an MMO when you can create another MOBA (or multiplayer game) and earn similar or greater revenues for far less effort?

The only two MMOs on the horizon that have potential commercial appeal, with the exception of Star Citizen, are Camelot Unchained and Crowfall. Both sound fantastic and are focused efforts, with ArtCraft and City State Entertainment ensuring that their designs are narrow but with depth. There’s also an acknowledgement from both studios that they can’t do everything, but they can deliver a concentrated product that does something exceptionally well.

I’m ecstatic about that approach each are individually taking and while they’re as likely to ostracise players with their design decisions as they are to attract them, it seems strange to think that it’s two fledgling companies delivering what’s effectively the ‘last’ pair of massively multiplayer games. Considering there was a time when you couldn’t move for MMO reveals, especially on the back of World of Warcraft's success, we’re undeniably facing a lull. Even the release of Legion will only result in a short-lived peak of interest where publishers and developers momentarily think, “Oh, look! There’s still lots of money to be made here!”

Massively multiplayer games are expensive, long-term investments. Their audiences are impossible to please, rapid content delivery is paramount but unsustainable and a need to cover all areas leaves them bloated and unfocused: all content areas suffer issues. It’s a genre that needs to see a development team not only spin plates, but juggle at the same time. The fact developers and publishers aren’t overly excited to jump into such a commitment shouldn’t come as a surprise. When there’s already an avalanche of MMOs on the market - all fiercely competing for player attention - perhaps the market is simply too crowded for such financial outlay.

I suspect that much is resting on the success of both Crowfall and Camelot Unchained. I think we’re now at the stage where publishers and development teams are looking in from the outside, weighing up the prospect that if limited scope MMOs can succeed, a precedent has been set. Instead of publishers then having to invest tens of millions of dollars, perhaps a budget only a quarter of that will suffice.

Unfortunately and with both of these games a long way off and with Star Citizen still a mystery of ambition, eye watering revenue generation and lofty promises, the MMO genre is in stasis. Fortunately for us there’s still plenty of great games providing plenty of entertainment and no shortage of those that are free to play.

What are your thoughts on the lack of newly announced MMOs? Do you think much hangs on the success of Camelot Unchained or Crowfall? Is the rise of the MOBA and multiplayer games such as Overwatch the cause of developer disinterest? Let me know.

Lewis Burnell / The only game to have distracted Lewis away from MMOs over the last 15 years was Pokemon Red. Despite that blip, Lewis has worked his way through countless games in the genre in search of something that comes close to his much loved and long time dead, Neocron.