Yesterday’s announcement that Blizzard had canceled Project Titan after over seven years in development spelled a big moment in the MMO genre’s history, perhaps one that many may have overlooked. Consider this: When even Blizzard takes a step back from developing what was undoubtedly a ‘traditional’ MMO, the development world and the player base sit up and take notice.
Is it an end to MMOs as we know them? Perhaps not in and of itself. More likely, Blizzard’s new direction in games development becomes a harbinger that change is coming, more likely sooner than later.
World of Warcraft & the Perfect Storm
Like it or not, even believe it or not, World of Warcraft is the standard against which all other MMOs have been and are measured. As the most successful game of its type, it is no wonder. WoW came along at what many believe was the perfect moment in time.
Of course, other MMOs came before. There is no question of that and that titles such as Ultima Online and EverQuest played a part influencing WoW’s development and direction. Similarly, other games have survived the same ten years (some even more) that World of Warcraft has.
Others came before. Others have lived equally long or even longer lives. But none, not one, has been so resoundingly successful as World of Warcraft, both financially and in terms of the millions and millions of players around the world who have taken part in it over the past decade.
This is not to even try to argue the point that WoW is the best MMO that has ever hit the airwaves. That is another article for another time and, frankly, one that no one will ever win as that title is given according to an individual’s taste. Rather, the point needs to be made that the influence of WoW on the MMO genre as a whole has dominated development for over ten years.
One doesn’t have to look far to find standard mechanics of so-called ‘theme park’ MMOs to see WoW’s influence. Quest hubs, achievements, level caps, character development, story-driven campaigns, among many others, are the marks that Blizzard and its continued development of WoW has left on the MMO industry.
Yet with the announcement that Blizzard is abandoning Project Titan, what CEO Mike Morhaime described as “the most ambitious thing that you could possibly imagine”, players and developers are forced to rethink what comes next.
Finding a Niche and Embracing the Long Term
What has seemed to become more and more ‘standard’ in the past several years is that swinging for the fences to try and recreate WoW’s success simply isn’t going to happen. How many games have been touted as the “WoW Killer” over the past ten years? How many have succeeded. That’s right: None.
Yet as a community, we shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that all of the decade’s games are bad ones. That simply isn’t true. What can be taken from this, at least from those games that have been released and continue to this day, is that the developers and publishers took a step back from the “conquer the MMO world” mantra and took the time to find the most loyal players, those who keep a game viable long after the media sang the death knell. In other words, publishers and developers found a niche.
One only has to look as far as Funcom’s The Secret World, Trion’s Rift, Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, En Masse Entertainment’s TERA: Rising or Perfect World Entertainment’s Star Trek Online to see that these titles have only gotten better since release and that developers are looking to their communities to see what motivates them to keep playing. The focus has changed from “millions of subscriptions” to “making our community happy” as much as such a thing is ever possible. Change came to them earlier than most and these teams have adapted and moved forward in a new, albeit smaller, direction.
Which brings us to now.
Get With the Program: The Times They ARE a Changin’
It appears that for all intents and purposes, WoW’s days are numbered. Of course, Blizzard has said there are ten years of expansions lined up and perhaps they will make it that far. But the cold hard fact is that the days of a King MMO are finished.
Instead, MMOs need to find a new direction, a new focus, a new way to engage the player community.
Blizzard’s Mike Morhaime and Chris Metzen stated it best in their interview with Polygon:
Metzen spoke of a "sense of inertia and obligation and identity that we hold in ourselves and the community may also hold toward us" that pushed Blizzard to focus development resources on a second MMO. "Is this really who we are?" he asked. "Is this really what we want? Is this really what we want to burn our passion and our work lives, our careers on, for years on end?"
"Are we the MMORPG company?" he added later, in conclusion to that line of questioning.
Morhaime answered that last rhetorical question quite simply: "We don't want to identify ourselves with a particular genre. We just want to make great games every time."
Perhaps this is the future of MMOs, great games that fall less into static and never-changing categories. There is no question that companies will continue to make traditional MMOs, but these will become more niche oriented and will cater, not to millions worldwide, but more to specialized crowds of dedicated and zealous players who will share in the direction and development of titles as they move along. One only has to look as far as some of the more successful KickStarter projects to see this playing out already.
The moniker MMO will be redefined as well. MOBAs, MMOFPS, MMORTS, large-scale shooters, multiplayer RPGs that sport MMO-like components (such as Diablo 3), console and cross-platform titles, Occulus Rift – all of these combine to show us that the future of gaming as we know it is going through a metamorphosis of a sort. In the end, we will all be better for it, despite the probable painful iterations and missteps in the coming years.
What do you think is the future of MMOs? Let us know in the comments.