The ever-evolving history of MMORPGs is a fascinating one. Sometimes I almost feel like MMOs are more fun to analyze than they are to play. It’s a complex story that could fill volumes, but for today, let’s just take a look at some of the biggest turning points in the history of MMOs.
The true origin of the MMO genre is debatable. You could trace it all the way back to analogue tabletop RPGs, and perhaps even farther back from there. But the birth of online RPGs likely lies with the Multi-User Dungeon, or MUD.
MUDs were text-based games originally running over small, pre-Internet networks such as those at universities.The term was christened by Roy Trubshaw, a student at the University of Essex. Development of his “Multi-User Dungeon” game was later given over to Richard Bartle, and if you’re active in the MMO community, you’re sure to recognize that name.
When the Internet began to spread, MUDs became more accessible, and eventually served as the inspiration for the first generation of MMORPGs.
Early Graphical MMOs:
Again, we can argue about where exactly the story of graphical online games begins. Meridian 59 is credited by some as the first, while Ultima Online was where the concept began to gain significant popularity. It was the first game to be described with the term “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game.”
This was soon followed by many other graphical MMOs. The most famous would probably be 1999’s EverQuest, which served as an inspiration for many of the games the followed.
WoW and Its Clones:
There is an eternally raging debate over whether World of Warcraft is the best or the worst thing (or perhaps both) that ever happened to the MMO genre. The one thing everyone can agree on is that WoW changed everything.
In the early days, MMOs had achieved a respectable level of success, with playerbases measured in the thousands. But WoW blew all that out of the water. It parlayed the brand recognition of Blizzard Entertainment, more accessible mechanics, reduced grind, and the increasing prevalence of high speed Internet connections into a perfect recipe for success, achieving a previously unimaginable level of popularity.
WoW eventually peaked at around twelve million players worldwide, a population greater than that of some nations. While it’s popularity has shrunken significantly since then, even now it remains more successful and more populous than the large majority of its competition.
The success of WoW created ripple effects throughout the genre. Everyone wanted a bite of that pie, and developers spent years churning out MMO after MMO that sought to emulate World of Warcraft. It was the era of the dreaded WoW clone. But these games often lacked personality, and none of them ever rose to rival the success of the game they so desperately sought to imitate.
The Free to Play Revolution:
For a long time, if you wanted to play an MMORPG, you had to pay a monthly subscription. That’s just how it worked. Oh, sure, there were a few exceptions. Anarchy Online began offering a free to play option back in 2004, and the original Guild Wars was buy to play from its launch in 2005. But those were mostly considered oddball outliers.
Things began to change in a big way when Dungeons and Dragons Online relaunched as a free to play title in 2009. Previously struggling, it saw a huge uptick in both players and revenues, and the world began to take notice.
Before long, big name MMOs were dropping their subscriptions left, right, and center, from Star Wars: The Old Republic, to Lord of the Rings Online, to Aion. At first this was seen as an act of desperation made only by dying games, but as the years went by and subscription games became an ever shrinking minority, it started to just be normal.
Nowadays, subscriptions are the exception rather than the norm, and most new games are free to play or buy to play.
Maturity and Diversification:
That brings us to the modern day. The MMO genre has matured and stabilized. New releases are not so common as they once were, but there is more variety, more creativity. Gone are the days of WoW clones. Nowadays MMOs, MMO lite games, online co-ops, MOBAs, and battle royales all simmer together into a diverse melting pot.
There’s always been a lot of negativity in the MMO community, and it’s always bothered me. But lately, it seems to be getting worse, swallowing the community whole until there’s nothing left.
I’m not saying there isn’t room to complain. Things aren’t perfect. While I think a lot of the concerns over monetization practices are overblown, I won’t contend that it’s not an issue. Meanwhile early access and crowdfunding have “developers” raking in money hand over fist for the vague promise of maybe one day delivering a functional game that actually resembles the original pitch, and if that’s not messed up, I don’t know what is.
And then there’s player toxicity, and the awfulness of development “crunch,” and so on.
I also grant that it’s a lot easier to find problems than to praise what is going well. Speaking as someone who’s paid to talk about MMOs, I’m intimately familiar with how much easier it is to get an interesting discussion out of criticism.
But we’ve moved beyond all that. The community has soared past constructive criticism and become mired in endless doom-saying.
These days not only are people constantly predicting some catastrophic crash in the industry, but more and more I see comments by people who are gleefully hoping for such a thing. They’re cheering for honest, hard-working people to lose their jobs just because the games being made aren’t to their taste, a level of pettiness that would have been utterly unthinkable before the Internet lowered the bar for all of humanity.
Not everyone has gone to that extreme of nastiness, but there doesn’t seem to be any escape from the negativity. Even commentators who used to be beacons of passion and enthusiasm seem to be increasingly pessimistic about the genre.
And you know, I really can’t understand why. Looking at the big picture, the MMO genre seems pretty healthy to me.
A lot of the current cynicism seems to come from the relative lack of new games coming out that are in the traditional mold of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or EverQuest. Instead things seem to be trending more toward “MMO lite” style games like Anthem, The Division 2, and Fortnite. Fans of the old school feel left behind.
Isn’t this what we wanted, though? Back when a new MMORPG was coming out seemingly every other month, all I remember seeing was people complaining (justifiably) about how sick they were of generic WoW clones. We were all starved for change and innovation.
Well, now we’re getting that. The genre is changing. It might not be changing exactly in the direction that you want it to, but it’s not objectively a bad thing. Indeed, change is a sign of growth, and health.
Whether they’re to your taste or not, games like Fortnite or Anthem are bringing people together in the online space, creating memories, and introducing new people to the world of online gaming. Those are all good things.
And I say that as someone who is at best lukewarm to shooters and wouldn’t touch a battle royale game with a ten foot pole.
Meanwhile fans of traditional MMORPGs aren’t exactly going underserved, either. There are plenty of traditional games like WoW, Final Fantasy XIV, and Elder Scrolls Online that are still thriving.
The space of online gaming is growing, evolving, and providing a greater diversity of experience to cater to all tastes. There may be problems, but there’s also tremendous cause for optimism, even as the community — or at least its vocal members — predict the death of the genre daily.
This negativity has real consequences. For example, word of mouth has become entirely worthless.
Every single game that comes out is now decried as a lazy cash grab, regardless of the reality, which makes it impossible to determine which games are actually cash grabs. I can’t trust player reviews anymore, and increasingly I’m finding professional reviews hard to trust, too. That’s a really bad place to be as a consumer because it’s very hard to tell which games are worth spending cash on (thank the gaming gods for good free to play games).
Then we also have to consider how much of a turn-off to new players this constant haze of negativity must be. If you want to attract new players to your genre, endlessly ranting about how everything is awful is probably not a good strategy.
MMOs as a genre are fine. It’s the community that’s dying.
I like playing alternate characters. In fact I play alts so much the concept of a “main” in my case is nebulous at best. Bouncing around between different characters with different playstyles and aesthetics keeps MMOs fresh for me.
Yet always I’m left with the feeling that playing alts is a case of swimming against the current. It’s something nearly every game allows, but which very few actually encourage. It’s never been viewed as a valid playstyle worthy of its own content and systems in the way PvP or raiding might be.
And I ask: Why?
Why Alts Matter
In most games, playing an alt means repeating the same content, doing all the same grinds, and getting nothing to show for it. At best some games are now offering a certain degree of account-wide progression — such as how mounts in World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls Online are shared across all your characters — but for the most part playing alts still means starting over from scratch, and there’s almost no reward for it.
Why must this be so? If you’re putting in two or three times more effort, why not get at least some reward for it?
I’d even argue that there is a certain degree of skill required to maintain a stable of alts. You need to not only learn all those disparate mechanics but remember them as you continue to swap between them. I have found this is a skill that can be improved with practice — I’ve played so many classes across so many games that I can now pick up new playstyles and rotations almost immediately.
Now, I’m not saying that alts requires more skill or is otherwise superior to other playstyles. But I think you can convincingly argue that it doesn’t deserve to be the red-headed stepchild developers seem to treat it as.
So how can we properly support alt players?
Alts as Endgame
The first thing alts need is some variety in the leveling path. These days far too many MMOs make every character take the exact same path to level cap. Alts are much more appealing when there are multiple leveling paths. Some games offer differing content based on race, class, or faction, but I’d like to see more games vary the leveling experience based on choices made after character creation.
Global level-scaling is also a good way to add variety to leveling, as it gives players more flexibility on where to go and what to do.
Next, at least some degree of account-wide progression is a must. Sharing cosmetics across characters is a good start, but more can be done. For instance, gear could become account-bound rather than character bound, allowing your alts to inherit hand-me-downs from their forebears.
But all that only makes alts less of a chore. What the genre really lacks is games where alts are not only tolerated, but encouraged. Alts have the potential to be an endgame unto themselves.
The best example of this I can think of is how the original Guild Wars allowed players to use their alts as NPC hirelings, though that was largely a cosmetic feature. Star Wars: The Old Republic also has some perks for altoholics. In that game, reputation is usually gated by daily quests, but gains are shared across all your characters on a server, so the more alts you have, the more quests you can run and the faster you can earn rep.
Those are all good ideas, but I think more can be done. Imagine, for example, a game wherein classes are highly specialized, but you can swap characters on the fly. The more characters you have, the more versatile you are, and the more you can accomplish. You might change characters multiple times in a single dungeon to best counter the challenges within.
That’s just one idea. Undoubtedly professional game designers could come up with others.
I’m not saying that every game needs to encourage alts. Not everyone wants to play alts, and variety is a good thing to have. But right now alt play is an under-served niche. The genre would be enriched by at least one or two MMOs where playing alts is not only welcome, but the best way to play.
I had a realization recently. After years of playing and writing about MMOs, I think I’ve finally cracked the secret to MMO success. I think I’ve realized the core motivation that lies at the heart of everyone who prefers to log into an MMO over other forms of motivation.
Let me explain.
I was thinking about The Secret World — the original — which is pretty much my ideal of MMO perfection. I can and have spent a tremendous amount of time waxing poetic about the many and sundry things I loved about that game: the rich lore, the detailed game world, the intricate progression system, the near total lack of enforced grind, and so forth.
But, I realized, it’s not any one of those things that made the game so special to me. It’s the effect that all of them together produced.
When I logged into TSW, I felt like I was entering a world where anything could happen. Every session brought with it a new build idea, the discovery of a new lore honeycomb or side mission, or a new insight into the history of the setting. There was such a sense of constant discovery that even after I’d played for years and the flow of new insights had slowed to a trickle, I still felt like the potential for new adventure was infinite. It stopped being a game, and it became a world.
TSW is the only game that’s ever made me feel this way, but I have heard other people say similar things about their favourite games. It’s this feeling of infinite potential that a lot of people hearken back to when they yearn for the days of classic WoW or other old school games.
This, I think, is the core appeal of the MMORPG genre: We want to enter into worlds where we believe (rightly or wrongly) that we can do anything, and anything can happen.
Now, where this gets more complicated — and the reason I can’t immediately parlay this insight into a multi-million dollar MMO empire — is that while we all crave the same feeling of infinite potential, we all have very different ideas of what achieves that end.
For me, it was the rich story and deep mechanics of TSW that helped me feel it was a game where anything was possible. But for others it might be a wealth of challenging PvE content. Others might feel that curated content stifles them and therefore crave player-driven sandbox mechanics.
The best way to capture the spirit of unlimited possibility is unique to every individual. No game can perfectly capture that feeling for every single player, and to even do so adequately for a enough people to support an MMO is a significant challenge.
And of course there are other factors that contribute to an MMO’s success. No matter how much depth or freedom you give players, your game will struggle if every class is bugged and the servers can’t seem to stay online.
Time is also a factor. The longer a game runs and the more its players get to understand its systems, the harder it is to maintain that sense of mystery. This is part of why I think a lot of people are destined to be disappointed by WoW Classic. They can replicate the mechanics, but they can’t replicate the mystery and sense of wonder the game had when it was new.
But all things being equal, I think the game that can best provide that feeling that anything is possible to the largest pool of players is the game that will achieve the greatest success.
Lately I’ve been exploring Aion’s Awakened Legacy patch. It’s a massive revamp that’s removed huge swaths of content and reworked many aspects of the game. It’s not without its upsides, but many people are understandably upset by such an enormous upheaval.
For those of us with deep roots in the MMO community, this is a familiar situation. Change in MMOs always comes with controversy, especially when it’s dramatic. These games are like second homes, and upsetting the status quo too much is a dangerous proposition for any developer.
The Price of Change
Change is an important part of any MMO. Bugs are fixed, classes are rebalanced, new content is added. All of this is well and good. A game that changes too little feels stale and lifeless. Virtual worlds must grow and evolve with time, or wither and die.
But developers also have to be careful not to go too far to the opposite extreme. Just as MMOs need change to breathe new life into them, they also need permanence and continuity. This is what makes them feel like real places. This what allows them to feel like home.
This, then, is the challenge developers face: They must change just enough, but not too much.
There are no shortage of cautionary tales of the latter. Awakened Legacy is just the latest in a long line of controversial MMO upheavals. Star Wars: Galaxies has been shutdown for years, and the NGE is still a popular subject of discussion across the MMO community.
World of Warcraft players are also all too familiar with the frustration that comes from too much churn. Blizzard has treated each of the last few expansions almost like a reboot of the whole game. New features are introduced with each expansion only to be abandoned before the next, and core class and gameplay mechanics are revamped so often and so dramatically it’s downright dizzying.
One of my main WoW characters is a warlock. I’ve been playing her since Cataclysm, and in that time, the class has changed so much it’s essentially been three different classes: the version that existed in Cataclysm, the version that existed in Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor, and the version that exists now.
Now, I really liked the Pandaria version. The new class it become in Legion is far less compelling. It’s really hampered my ability to enjoy the character, and it’s made me hesitant to become invested in new characters, as well. Why get attached if anything I come to love could be taken away from me on a whim?
And that is how you know when an MMO has become too unstable in its design. If things change too much too often, it becomes hard to invest in anything. People won’t spend weeks leveling a character or grinding for a fancy reward if they fear they could lose all that they’ve accomplished overnight.
That’s a very bad place for a player to be, but it’s worse for a developer. Developers need people to invest their time — and their money — in an MMO on a long-term basis. It’s what makes them sustainable as games, and as businesses. Any designer who ignores this is playing with fire.
People who log into an MMO after some time away should feel like they’re coming home. It should be a recognizable experience, where things feel familiar and you know where to find everything. Done right, MMOs make perfect comfort food gaming.
MMOs should experience change — sometimes dramatic, even shocking change — but it should never reach the point where the world or one’s characters feel totally unrecognizable. That breaks the sense of place and permanence that makes the genre work.
Here we are at year’s end: a time to assess the best and worst games of the year. It’s a time to assess where gaming is at, the trends that led us here, and contemplate the next stage of evolution. From where I’m sitting MMOs, fueled first by the subscription success of World of Warcraft and then by the free to play MMORPG invasion, have ruined aspects of almost every multiplayer gaming genre out there.
From Call of Duty to Dawn of War to League of Legends, MMO tendrils can be seen in almost every multiplayer game out there. It’s not that MMOs are bad. MMOs are great when their big selling points are confined to their genre. Unfortunately, part of MMO game design involves creating an addictive set of achievement based gameplay elements to keep players from moving between games. Developers see these addictive elements and cram them into their games like square pegs into a round holes. It leads to mashups I never wanted to see.
MMO Unlocks in Competitive Call of Duty?
A key difference between MMOs and other genres is the emphasis on character skill over player skill. While player skill matters some in twitch based action combat MMOs, it’s nothing compared to advancing a character. Level 80 is better than level 40. It’s just a fact. And that’s fine because these games revolve around the character’s journey. The player is just there to serve as a guide.
In competitive FPS games like Call of Duty or MOBAs like League of Legends the focus is on player skill. Players want to win and lose based on their (and their teammates) accolades. Wins derived from grinding better gear shouldn’t exist, and yet they play prominent roles. Call of Duty has been running gun and ability unlocks for a while now. Their balance has improved over the years to deliver more options instead of more power, but that doesn’t stop the occasional turning the occasional FPS game on its head. I remember an especially egregious example from Battlefront. The DL-44 (Han Solo’s pistol) blew every other weapon away and to earn it, you needed to grind account levels for dozens of hours.
Until very recently, League of Legends used a rune system that would grant veteran players the best stat boosts in the game (which made a big early game difference). While they’ve gone to a more fair system, that doesn’t keep them and Heroes of the Storm from gating off characters against those who don’t grind (or pay money for them). The problem with character unlocks in MOBAs (compared to say, unlocking characters in Smash Ultimate) is that balance is built around certain characters countering others. If you can only afford to play the weaker character for your position, you’re at a disadvantage.
In this current climate, grinding unlocks is unavoidable. Dawn of War III launched with similar unlocks (and removed, but with a lot of damage done). Players level up in Fortnite (wisely just for cosmetics). Vermintide acts as a worse Left 4 Dead that mandates running the same content over and over before seeing anything new. It’s like reputation quests with no other gameplay alternatives.
MMOs made it so in order to play a game, you have to play this shell of a game first.
Watering Down What Defines MMOs
MMO or Not?
The definition of MMOs has changed over the years. First you needed a massive world where potentially hundreds could interact. Then you needed at least a hub for hundreds to interact, even if most gameplay took place in instanced areas (temporary copies). Now, as long as character skill matters more than player skill we call it an MMO. I don’t particularly agree with the new age definition that construes Destiny and The Division as MMOs, but I’ll go along with it. That’s how language works. I don’t have a problem with that. I have a problem with affect that has on more traditional MMOs and MMORPGs.
The average MMO now isn’t about community, interaction, world building, unique builds, exploration, or adventure. It’s about advancing character skill. Like I said before, that is what separates MMOs from other multiplayer genres. That doesn’t mean developers should limit themselves to this very narrow vision. Yet that’s exactly what happened with Bless, Albion, and Black Desert Online (2017 and 2018’s largest new MMO releases). That’s why pay to win is a thing – character power is all that matters. These games are absolutely terrible prospects for anyone who wants to do more in a virtual world than simply grind their lives away.
Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantasy XIV are great, but I want to see a new developer embrace their values. Diving into the niche instead of broadening the scope might not create the next Fortnite, but it can pay out all the same.
The inclusion of MMO-lite-lite games ruined the identity of the genre.
I’m going to keep this short. Gacha gaming is a plague. For those unfamiliar, Gacha refers to all of those loot box heavy mobile games you see on Android and Apple stores. With very few exceptions (shout out to Sdorica Sunset), they are completely mindless drivel that exist solely to hook players into spending money to gamble that they can advance further, faster, or both.
And before they were popular on mobile devices, they were fueling free to play Korean MMOs in the first decade of the 2000s.
A Survival Gamer’s Best Friend
Every month there’s a new survival game on Steam. These games have consumed the top MMOs have to offer and regurgitated a zombified mess. The idea is great – live as long as you can in a hostile land. The execution is frustrating – get more stuff first so nobody else can have any stuff. These games revolve around playing non-stop. When you stop playing, other people take away your ability to survive. Taking away your survival leads to death. When you die, you lose everything.
Instead of learning from rogue-lites that death can be a fun game concept, survival game developers eschew that lesson in favor of telling players just to hop back on that gear/level treadmill and try to survive a little longer. Obviously people enjoy this or games like Rust and ARK wouldn’t be so popular. It also led to booming battle royales, essentially condensed survival games. Survival and battle royale games both revolve around collecting gear to deprive others of said gear with high degrees of randomness and chaos. The buildup is simply shorter and the stakes lower. This blurs the line between character skill and player skill in a way that absolves players of responsibility on both fronts. And I think that’s a dangerous line to walk. When people can justify blaming something else for their failures they will, and there is no shortage of things to blame in survival or battle royale games.
As critical as I am of the above, people should play what they enjoy. That’s fine. My opinion is just that. The problem with trends is that businesses chase them to the detriment of innovation and traditional success stories. It also reinforces the entitlement culture gamers have developed over the years. Read responses to any game developer’s tweet if you don’t believe me. “I supported you for 10 years and now you RUINED Magic Turtle Kingdom by adding BLUE HAIR! READ THE LORE! You’re so stupid I uninstall and never support you again.” This is an issue with society at large, but game design continues to move in a direction that feeds player entitlement. Games tell players they earn their wins but aren’t to blame for their losses, and egos balloon as a result.
All of this creates more toxic communities, games developed for the common denominator, less creative character development, and less chances to show player skill. It’s not where I want see game development money heading, but you can’t outrun a tsunami.
Are MMOs really to blame? I think the crash course middle ground of player/character skill was inevitable, so it’s unfair to say “MMOs did this”. Where I think they’re at fault is in their trend-chasing, anti-innovation development methods. They laid the groundwork of expectations between developer and player in a way that has hurt multiplayer gaming as a whole.
Despite the MMOification of multiplayer gaming, games are starting to learn and turn the course. Monster Hunter World merged the best of grinding and challenging boss battles into a fun cooperative experience. Though I complained about it earlier, Fortnite adding light base building mechanics, revitalizing arcade shooting, and evolving their map every season really makes me respect it as much as Minecraft (even if I played either one very little).
For a long time MMOs failed to truly evolve or innovate any aspect of their gameplay except that which lead to psychologically addictive grinding or gambling. It stagnated multiplayer gaming and continues to do so despite the occasional success story. The risk of stirring the still lake that is copycat game development often pays off in ways that genuine innovation don’t. Instead, people would rather thousands on GTA Online to play what should’ve been included with their $60 purchase. But people are willing to pay that money, so who am I to blame Rockstar?
The MMOification of gaming may not have been good for games, but it’s been good for business. I guess that’s why I shouldn’t be surprised.