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Group Think: Has the MMO Lost Its Unique Selling Point?

William Murphy Posted:
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Last night, in our MMORPG.com group Slack channel, Gareth Harmer set off a long discussion about the MMORPG, it’s past, present, and future. Namely, he posited: Has the MMO lost its USP (Unique Selling Point)? This is expanding off Ethan Macfie's recent blogpost at MMOGames.com – The Shift from Leveling Skills to Leveling Characters. We all had thoughts to share…

Ethan Macfie: I think that MMOs will always have something to offer, in the sense that thousands of players forming a persistent community in a game isn't something any other genre can offer.

That said, the great, great majority of releases over the last decade haven't really done anything to *gulps down shame at using corporate wordspew* leverage that unique selling point.

When MMOs are focusing on instanced content that doesn't affect the persistent world space, they aren't that different in experience from lobby games that put similarly sized groups of players together, which I think is why we see so much overlap between players (and subsequently, media outlets) for things likes ARPGs, MOBAs, Team Shooters, and whatever the hell Dauntless is.

Especially since in a lot of those cases, you're able to offer that particular core experience better than an MMORPG with all the baggage that entails. MOBAs are far better at competitive small group PvP than an MMO battleground or arena has ever been, and a lot of it is because they work within such a narrow focus, ditching a lot of the RPG stuff that makes the persistent character in an MMO so compelling in favor of better watch-ability and balance. (edited)

There will always be a unique market space for games like EVE, Star Wars Galaxies, and DAoC though. I feel fairly safe in saying that.

And this whole "the servers grows with the community!" thing EQ:N promised and Ashes of Creation is picking up and running with would seem to fall in that vein as well.

Gareth Harmer: So MMOs need to go small/niche again?

Bill Murphy: If so, they are well on their way.

Ethan Macfie: Savage, but true…

Gareth Harmer: Indeed.

Ethan Macfie: Yeah, you know, I'm not sure if being niche is necessarily essential, but I think the core MMO appeal is a little bit outside of the mainstream. There's been a bit of a generational jump, I think. Back in the day, online gaming wasn't quite as big, so those of us who were into it tended to go online and make our friends there.  

These days, you tend to play online with friends you already have, and that lessens one's interest in the whole persistent online community + make internet friends in a game type thing, I think. Just seems like extra, unnecessary work - at least to the uninitiated.

Gareth Harmer: It's just that I've seen a lot of discussion around changing systems and mechanics, but I think there's a missing part to the conversation about what an MMO should be at the core, that no other game type provides.

Ethan Macfie: Yeah, I agree. I have a super old blog post in that area (which contains most of my thoughts so far :P), but it doesn't get a ton of discussion.

Gareth: What you find when you strip it all back.

Bill: Persistent, massive worlds. With friends and strangers coexisting. That's what was great to me about UO, EQ, AC2, and even WoW knocked it out of the park originally.

Ethan: I'd argue persistent community is key, as well.

Bill: I also think that the MMO needs to get fun. Most aren't even fun to play. The act of combat, movement, even crafting is often boring as hell. If it wasn't for the Skinner box Effect of leveling and loot? Would you play? 

It's the people that make them fun, the way the world feels alive, goes on when you're not there, the people you play with and around. The chance of random things happening needs to increase. As opposed to just having a world that's always static.

Ethan: I was reading an interesting Koster post the other day for an article. Where he was talking about "quiet moments" in an MMO. Let me just grab the quote...

“We want to reduce downtime. But people get to know people during downtime. That’s when they socialize. That’s when they make friends. In fact, I’d go so far as to state that it is a Law of Online World Design: Socialization Requires Downtime. The less downtime, the less social your game will be.

In a nutshell, if the action is too fast and furious, people cannot take the time to converse. The faster the pace and the fewer the leisurely moments, the more likely that the socialization will reduce down to basic cues (shout-outs, expressions of fiero, ‘gg’ remarks, disses, and so on). […] This led me to say that “socialization requires downtime” — which I didn’t mean as “put lots of tedious stuff in your game” but rather as ‘think about the quiet moments’ or ‘don’t have a relentless furious pace.’”

Bill: Yep. Look at the upcoming Kritika Online - it's going to be exactly like that. It may be fun, but it’s going to be too “hectic” to make a lasting social connection for many. An MMO needs communal activities outside of hunting.

Ethan: That's an area I've been thinking about a lot recently. People tend to generally agree that WotLK, while a high point in WoW for content, was more or less the beginning of the end for its in-game community. This gets pinned on LFD a lot, but I wonder if just as much - maybe even more - blame should be going to how that was the point where dungeons shifted from being tactical, with CC as a role and each pull getting planned, to a chain-pulling spam race at a breakneck pace.

But there's a balance, too. Planning every pull is a bit tedious. And hell, this kind of thinking almost precludes the use of action combat from an imagined "optimal" MMO, which I feel pretty conflicted about. (edited)

Bill: I think LFD can be helpful for community. You can still get to know others. Probably more so, as it helps connect strangers. But yeah. The game got "easy" then. And no one wants it to ever be hard again.

Chris Coke: I think there's something to that, but LFD enormously reduced downtime and the socialization of group making.

Ethan: Yeah, I'm definitely torn on LFD.

Chris: It was a dual whammy.

Ethan: I mostly hate it, but I love using it. I find I have that feeling with a lot of different features.

Bill: Exactly.  The problem to me isn't LFD, it's the ease of just running through, saying GG, and done.

Ethan: Yeah. That definitely deserves more attention as a problem than it's been getting, I think.

Bill: It's a fine line. For all games. Even GW2's Fractals "got easy". The industry grew too fast too soon. In part, I think the exodus of money is good the long haul but hard on our site.

Chris: I feel the same. I like not having to wait an hour for a tank or healer to show up, but that definitely incentivized making regular friends and everyone sticking it out. Now that we've experienced the ease of LFD, people will simply move on to the next game if they're being asked to wait too much. The ease, I believe, collectively reduced the investment of the average player because it changed expectations and interactions so much.

Ethan: I'd blame multi-game communities as well. It's just really easy to game hop these days because there's a much smaller likelihood to experience a social consequence as a result.

Gareth: A bolder question: does an MMO need to provide challenging content in order to be enjoyable? Is the fun from playing with others, or for overcoming a challenge with others?

Ethan: I think I'd say that long term goal setting at the group level (and by group I mean anything from 2 people to a 200 man guild) is important. And that can come in the form of challenging raid progression or grinding a ton of materials to build your perfect guild hall or carving out a section of nullsec to call your own.

Like if you made a Minecraft server with 2,000 people on it, I'd imagine that could be enjoyable even though it's not really what I'd call challenging. Then again, Landmark happened, so maybe not.

Gareth: I'd agree. Just like every RPG doesn't need to be like Dark Souls, I don't think every MMO needs to be difficult. But achieving something together makes it more than just a chatbox.

Ethan: That's actually my big concern for Star Citizen, incidentally. They talk a whole lot about the minutia of things like how mining works and requires a bunch of different roles filled and that all sounds amazing. But I never hear much about the long-term impact they expect groups of players to make. And considering they use NPC agents to simulate the vast, vast majority of their economy.  

I have a worry that they're going to fall too much on the Elite: Dangerous side, with almost no player agency, instead of the EVE side.

Gareth: Sometimes, I'd love to take a look back at how EVE's systems evolved. How the game started out, and what it offered at beta.

Ethan: You have to wonder how replicable EVE really is. I have to imagine there's a ton of sheer, dumb luck that goes into getting the dedicated community that a game like that needs to not be garbage.

Suzie Ford: Catering to very small groups, both as guilds and as individuals, also needs to happen. Not everyone is a raider or even a dungeoneer. Sometimes a, for instance, husband and wife want to play together and selectively choose if, or even when, they want to group with other people.

The easy answer is to say, "MMOs aren't for you" but that's not true. These tiny groups make up a lot of the MMOs we play and the more content they provide for them, the better.

Honestly, WoW has done a great job in allowing that type of freedom until Legion and its forced "large / larger" group content. While things like pet battles and mount hunting are still present and doable by little pairs/groups, current content in this iteration is causing a lot of this type of player to quit.

I can point at myself as a prime example.

Ethan: So, in that line of thinking

Suzie: I love to see others in the game but I don't always want to join up with them.

Ethan: I think non-instanced content and scaling content are both tremendous. Non-instanced is great, because you aren't suddenly leaving anyone out if you happen to have six people on and the group caps at five.

Suzie: Instanced content / raids / dungeons are amazing. But not for me most of the time and it should never be forced.

Ethan: And if you have too few people, maybe you'll run into more people on the way

Suzie: Honestly, I think that the biggest problem with most MMOs is trying to be all things to all players. That's where the niche comes in. Find a niche for a certain type or types of players and they'll come and you'll make money. There will NEVER be another WoW until the genre evolves.

Gareth: Suzie, I agree with you there. It's why I try to prune it back to that core experience, that 'USP' as Ethan loathes so much.

Bill: That's what the Rust games did. Now there's a million. They create a new niche, and then it's flooded with sharks.

Suzie: WoW is proving that you simply can't please everyone in every possible way. With Legion, they're saying, we like our instanced content and SO WILL YOU DAMMIT.

They're scaling it back to what they want it to be -- it's niche in a sense.

Gareth: It's a cliche, but in a crowded market of survival, semi-persistent RPG, MOBA, etc, I think MMOs have forgotten what they're supposed to be

Suzie: I totally agree with you Gareth. Everything has blurred so much that online means persistent means group means MMO means...just what the hells is an MMO these days?

And that, dear reader, is where we leave you. Our comments then derailed into LFG chatter, Doug from Up Memes, and a decision to go get drinks together virtually. What about you? Has the MMO lost its edge in a crowded and always online gaming industry?


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.