The last AAA MMORPG was released in 2014. Take a moment for that to sink in. What’s worse, is that game no longer exists today. Anyone heavily invested in the genre should realize by now that I’m talking about WildStar. This was also the last major title that NCSoft released and one of two MMORPGs published in 2014. The other is The Elder Scrolls Online, which is still doing relatively well with regular content updates and chapter releases.
Reflecting on the Past
The tale of WildStar is probably most unfortunate because it wasn’t a terrible game. In fact, it was highly popular on launch, rivaling established MMORPGs like Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV, but that hype couldn’t be maintained. The game was riddled with bugs, performance issues and a lack of endgame content for casual players. Its brutal raids were some of the best ever developed but the disconnect between the players and publisher eventually led to its downfall.
While the overall failure of such a high-profile game is unfortunate, it seems to have created much more lasting effects on the industry overall. While far from the golden age, there was still a major MMORPG release in the West about once every year until 2015. In the previous years, there were multiple popular titles released, such as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, Guild Wars 2, Neverwinter, and TERA.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the next major MMORPG was released: Black Desert Online. I won’t discount Black Desert’s amazing graphics or visceral combat, but there are many aspects where its quality control suffers. Even though the combat is some of the best in the genre, desync problems that ruin PvP have existed since launch. Glitches, exploits, and hackers have been prevalent at various points of the game’s history. These aren’t the type of issues that would be tolerated for long in World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV.
The biggest contrast with BDO, and most other MMORPGs released since, is the way it monetizes its players. Historically, AAA MMORPGs provide a level playing field by charging a monthly fee and/or box price. The option to purchase items with real currency has typically been limited to cosmetics or convenience items that don’t affect stats or item drops.
I’m not here to debate whether or not BDO is pay-to-win, but the game does allow players to spend extra money to buy in-game items that provide a major convenience, increased stats, and other advantages over other players. These items can be bought with silver earned in-game, but this can take a substantial amount of time to earn, especially for newer or more casual players. This is one of a few aspects that have traditionally separated games like BDO from typical AAA titles.
Back to the Present
Obviously, Black Desert Online isn’t the only game to use microtransactions and others have abused monetization in much more devious ways. However, there is a large subset of the MMORPG community that doesn’t want to be nickel and dimed and would prefer to pay once or consistently with a monthly subscription fee. The problem is that there hasn’t been a high-quality game released for these individuals since 2014.
For some studios, producing a poorly received game or not finishing a project quickly enough has caused them to close forever. Earlier this year, Nexon closed its studio in California, which was allegedly working on multiple projects. En Masse Entertainment recently shutdown and is in the process of transferring rights for TERA and Closers. In 2018, Carbine closed its doors along with its MMORPG WildStar. The year prior, Gazillion Entertainment lost rights to Marvel and its action MMORPG Marvel Heroes suddenly went offline.
Instead of focusing on true MMORPGs, most major studios have shifted towards chasing the flavor of the month genre (MOBA, Hero Shooters, or Battle Royales), mobile games, or lobby-based pseudo MMOs. The latter two have likely done the most damage to the MMORPG market because many of these games have been highly successful and they’ve taken up a significant amount of development resources from prominent studios.
Publishers like Electronic Arts and Epic Games are raking in tons of cash for Apex Legends and Fortnite. There’s no reason for them to develop a new MMORPG, which would cost significantly more to develop and target a smaller audience. Instead, they’ve already grabbed the attention of online gamers and have mostly been able to keep it through small updates while heavily monetizing their free-to-play games.
While Battle Royales don’t exactly scratch that role-playing itch, many lobby-based online games do. Franchises such as Destiny, The Division, or Warframe offer role-playing experiences and excellent combat mechanics. However, these types of games are always limited in their scope and rarely allow more than a squad of 4 at any given time. The lack of a persistent world also severely dampens the experience for players looking to feel connected to the environment and other players. Immersion is key for roleplaying and a strong MMORPG experience.
This gap in the development cycle has caused thousands of players to turn to a completely new avenue for game creation: crowdfunding. Typically started by developers of former MMORPG studios, or sometime even players themselves, dozens of crowdfunding options have popped up during the last 7 or so years.
A few of the most popular have been Camelot Unchained, Star Citizen, and Crowfall, but so far none of the titles that would approach AAA quality are even close to release yet. Worse yet, as time goes on, many simply run out of funding and halt development or shut down completely. One of the most recent cancellations was Chronicles of Elyria, which initially raised $1.3 million from 10,752 backers and expanded that to nearly $8 million by 2019. By now, many players are realizing that scope creep, a lack of funding, and longer-than expected development cycles are going to crush their dreams.
These failures aside, not all is completely doom and gloom on the crowdfunding side. A few games that managed to limit their scope and deliver niche experiences have survived the crowdfunding catastrophe. Albion Online is still producing content since its 2017 launch while maintaining thousands of concurrent players. Despite an initial decrease in popularity, Albion Online eventually went free-to-play and after a sharp increase, has slowly been gathering new players. Another interesting crowdfunded MMORPG is OrbusVR, and while its player count is quite low, its VR world could pave the way for a new generation of online games.
What might be the saddest realization, however, is that two of the most popular MMO launches in the last year are re-releases. Years ago, Blizzard Entertainment joked that players didn’t really want Vanilla World of Warcraft, but in August of 2019 World of Warcraft Classic released with astounding success and apparently doubled the core game’s subscriber count. Of course, numbers have tapered off since then but WoW Classic is still doing well.
The other title is Phantasy Star Online 2, which released this May for Xbox One and PC despite a 2012 release in Japan. While technically another lobby-based MMO with a max party size of 12, many MMORPG players have decided to give it a shot due to the lack of other options, and the cross-play between Steam, Microsoft Store, and Xbox One provides a lot of flexibility.
A Bleak Future
Unfortunately, the foreseeable future does not look good for anyone who wants a classic MMORPG experience. The four horsemen of World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy XIV, and Guild Wars 2 still dominate the scene, despite the latter having declined a bit in recent years. There are also no new or overly exciting projects scheduled to release in the next couple of years.
Most people’s hopes are placed in crowdfunded games that may never see the light of day, or at least the popularity they hope for, such as Dual Universe, Crowfall, Ashes of Creation, and Camelot Unchained. Amazon’s New World struggles with its identify and has received mixed reactions so far. Finally, there are a handful of Korean studios still making an attempt at the genre, such as Smilegate’s Lost Ark and Bluehole’s Elyon, but neither have a North American release date. Even NCSoft isn’t confident, having reworked Project TL, formerly Lineage Eternal, multiple times since 2011.
Hopefully, this lull is just waiting for a new vision or form of technology and this once great genre doesn’t fade out of existence. Until then, we all have to survive on the updates and expansions for the few games still doing well.