Category Archives: State of MMOs

Rethinking MMO Death Penalties

back in my day leveling

Back in my day, dying was a complete disaster in any MMORPG. Anytime my health ticked down anywhere close to zero, I started to sweat. In Ultima Online, I risked everything on my body and in my backpack. In EverQuest, I risked delevels. In Asheron’s Call, death was a not so happy middle ground between the two.

Nowadays, death is a slap on the wrist. I wait around even less time than in a competitive game like League of Legends to respawn and rejoin the action. This largely encourages lackadaisical playstyles and lowers the common denominator across the board for ease of content. I think in a genre that largely caters to character skill over player skill, death is a key element to adding tension.

The problem is death has only been considered in rather binary terms. You either permanently lose progress (levels or items) or you don’t. Some MMOs use a temporary debuff system to penalize death, but these don’t really change player approaches. However, there’s another option for death that’s been used successfully in other genres.

Solution to Bland MMO Death Penalties

Instead of negating progress, (thus making a grind even grindier) or lowering stats across the board (thus making a grind even grindier) I propose temporary restrictions of abilities. In this system, recently deceased players will select one of three ability-specific debuffs to “pay” for their revitalization. These debuffs can include increased cooldowns to lowered effectiveness, canceling talents, or even removing an ability’s use. These penalties should be enough to force players into a new playstyle to progress optimally without completely ruining the character. As such, it’s important that developers balance for a wide range of talent/ability combinations, the debuffs last long enough to matter but not so long as to frustrate, and that debuffs cap out at a certain number.

If done right, death is all of the sudden an interesting mechanic. Sure, retooling is tough, especially with multiple debuffs running. But long term it’s entirely possible to stumble upon a new rotation or set of abilities that work even better than in the character’s “former life”. In games like XCOM, the death penalty is quite severe but exemplifies the dynamic level of adjustment that’s possible from changing key setups. Losing one’s best sniper in XCOM (where character death is permanent but squads are six characters large) doesn’t mean the game is over. It does mean you can no longer rely on the same strategies that have worked in the past ten missions.

This is the type of penalty I’d like to see introduced into MMOs (though with less permanence since XCOM ends whereas MMOs do not). It adds tension from its uncertainty as much as it does from jarring the player’s sense of complacency. It’s pretty rare for most players to change builds in MMOs once we find something that works. Death now forces a constant reassessment of setups without permanently altering our ability to play the game we want.


Character Skill vs. Player Skill

If there’s one key differentiator between MMO games and other genres it’s that character skill trumps player skill. Even in games with MMO-style meta progression systems like some MOBAs and FPS games, player skill will win out in all but the most unbalanced systems (I’m looking at you Star Wars: Battlefront and the Han Solo pistol). In MMOs, a level 20 character is straight up better than a level 10 character. There’s no way around it, and if there’s PvP involved then the lower level character better hope they don’t cross paths.

This is born out of the MMORPG subgenre from which the broader MMO genre originated. RPGs are first and foremost about progressing a character’s prowess (regardless of what roleplayers and story lovers will argue). Taking agency out of the actual player’s hands is certainly fine. It’s much easier to balance an experience around well defined numbers than it is between players with disparate brain powers and reflexes. This ensures a proper difficulty curve for everyone that plays the game. The problem is that this creates a disconnect for players in what constitutes as skillful play.

In the absence of player skill, many gamers equate leveling or leveling speed to player skill. Thus, they shun games with auto leveling like Dragon Awaken. These same players may even argue that auto leveling is boring, while ignoring the trivial nature of leveling in the vast majority of MMORPGs.

dragon awaken auto button

One of many places the auto button appears in Dragon Awaken

Eve Online is one MMORPG that completely removes the player’s ability to impact leveling speed by relegating advancement to a real time system. This frees up the player’s time to engage in other activities without concern for progression. Unfortunately, most people who end up trying Eve find that “leveling time” just gets replaced with “money time”. Eve players then turn to assessing the fastest way to generate income, which is part of what turns Eve into a “spreadsheet game”. There’s more to the game, but it doesn’t change the fact that progression is boring.

Regardless of whether leveling is accomplished via play, in-game bots, or real-time advancement, it’s always pretty mindless when removing player skill. Thus, I think some element of player skill must be present even when character skill is paramount. A good example of this system in action can be found in Dungeons & Dragons Online. Each dungeon offers multiple difficulty levels that cater to casual solo players as much as they do hardcore groups. Rewards are commensurate with the challenge undertaken so choosing to up the difficulty is actually worthwhile. This exemplifies a key balancing element between mass market appeal and satisfying the loyal, hardcore niche. It’s also why we should feel comfortable calling certain games MMOs even most gameplay is instanced. Doing otherwise limits a developer’s ability to find creative solutions to age old problems.

DDO Instances

I tend to gravitate towards the idea that developers should incorporate fewer binary elements in MMO death penalties. One such element is the all or nothing aspect of experience points. Typically, EXP is only gained from completing quests or killing enemies. There’s no partial credit. This runs counter to games in other genres where win or lose, you’ll gain EXP. Bonuses exist in those games for winning or performing well, but there’s always advancement for just playing. This method frees up an alternate progression paths where failure is OK. As is, failure is not OK in MMOs. And that’s bad.

Ultimately, I believe a hybrid vertical/horizontal progression model works best for MMOs where failure can safely exist. I’ve talked ad nauseum about the greatness of horizontal progression many times so I won’t delve too far into this. Suffice it to say that a one-two dopamine punch of progressing both oneself and one’s character simultaneously is twice the hook of progressing only one. If that sounds up your alley, maybe check out Fractured or Crowfall. I really like the ideas these developers are putting forth to improve how advancement has worked in this surprisingly stale 20-year old genre.

Character skill comes in many forms – from absolute power to diverse options. Either can provide satisfying forms of advancement. Unfortunately, such advancement often comes at the expense of player agency. Many MMOs have tackled the issue in different ways, but I think very few have hit the mark. As time passes, I expect more MMOs to find a happy medium between the player and the character.

Where’s your perfect balance between the two?


Sea of Thieves Highlights Our Progression Obsession

Sea of Thieves is currently sitting on a 5.2 user score on Metacritic. The vast majority of complaints relate to lack of content and/or progression. Mind you, progression has never been a consideration for Rare when developing their pirate themed MMO. They weren’t hiding anything, but come release a huge community railed against the design decision. The only “improvements” to be acquired in the game are purely cosmetic. While looking cool is certainly a driver for a lot of players, it doesn’t alter gameplay. And that’s the problem that Sea of Thieves is facing – the game grows stale fast. I guess it at least fixes the problem of wanting to make too many alts.

sea of thieves ship progression

Rinse, Repeat

Members of the community lodge complaints of nothing to do after only a few hours of play. And that may be true in a sense compared to other more grandiose MMOs. The directed activities in Sea of Thieves are limited to quests to kill skeletons, find buried treasure, or hunt down trade goods like pigs. There’s little variety to sate players desire to see something, anything change. That the game lacks statistical progression amplifies the routine nature of these activities. Rare counts on the dynamic nature of PvP to mix up this routine as other players can freely kill one another to steal each other’s treasure. And until the treasure is turned in at a specific NPC, it’s fair game for anyone else. The problem is that with the open sea sailing, there’s no guarantee you’ll find any meaningful PvP. Even when another player pops up on the horizon, it can often mean a one sided affair with a 4-player galleon crushing a 2-manned sloop. This describes the entire gameplay loop for Sea of Thieves.

It sounds overly repetitive, but is it? Diablo clones revolve around killing hordes of enemies whose diversity makes little impact on gameplay. Cooperative shooters like Vermintide task players on banding together to fight hordes of enemies with the gameplay variety coming from different maps. Even MMOs can seem rather repetitive once you peel back the layers. Quests rarely veer far off from killing X monsters and fedexing items for incapable NPCs. Sure, dungeons and raids inspire wonder – but usually only the first time around. The non-boss monsters themselves rarely demand players do anything different to fell them. So whether or not the enemies in most MMOs consisted purely of skeletons and skeleton captains ends up making little difference other than that very sense of progression. And like Sea of Thieves, PvP in MMOs tend to be pretty hit or miss. Sometimes the experience is legendary and sometimes it’s a waste of time.

Despite the general repetitive nature of these games, they’ve all flourished in their own respects. The differences all boil down to progression. Diablo constantly opens up new challenges based on acquiring bigger and better loot (or unique set bonuses). World of Warcraft always has a new raid challenge availability to test one’s mettle. Vermintide’s system provides a large stock of increasingly difficult challenges to undertake. Along the way, players increasingly feel more powerful. This is done through multiple methods of progression such as new abilities, better stats, new maps/levels/dungeons, new enemies, new talents, and new gear. The core gameplay loop can stay the same as long as something changes. Rare’s stated goal is to provide egalitarian stats where only player skill affects success. It’s a noble pursuit, but unfortunately they’ve lost sight of why progression matters.

sea of thieves ship progression 2

Progression Obsession

In fact, the game does offer a limited form of progression comparable with its contemporaries in related genres. As players complete quests and turn in treasure, they earn respect and renown amongst the game’s factions. This opens the doors to lengthier and more detailed quests. One could simply say that it’s just adding a few more steps to the existing quests, but that would unfairly discount the increased sense of risk and reward the player has earned for their efforts thus far.

Can Sea of Thieves survive without gameplay changing progression? We’ll find out as early as the next few months. Their content plans speak of adding a large suite of options to the gameplay loop – new areas to explore, new AI enemies, and weekly events. But by giving players a bundle of carrots without dangling the stick first, it creates two problems. First, everything can and will be accomplished immediately so what will there be to look forward to? Secondly, gamers enjoy the sense of pride and satisfaction from unlocking these opportunities in the first place. The sheer fact of having had to work for something that has made one’s character better leads to a “sunk cost” mindset that enthralls players unnaturally long.

Sea of Thieves looks like it’s going to end up as game to come back for every once in a while. I think for most people, the gameplay loop to acquire better cosmetics simply feels too grindy. While MMOs aren’t truly any better in this respect, they do hide it better. Constantly doling out new toys or arenas to play in is like a slot machine that pays out on a regular basis. Choosing to eschew progression in Sea of Thieves is a risky pursuit precisely because they’re forcing themselves to build truly novel, varied, and unique content to entertain players. Progression is easy and sucks gamers in (which is why we see it now in practically every gaming genre). If you want more proof, look no further than idle clicker games with literally no gameplay other than progression. The most popular of these, Clicker Heroes, constantly hovers around Steam’s top 50 most games played.

Personally, I believe the game would have been better off with unlockable (but balanced) classes or weapons. But that doesn’t mean Rare can’t bring their equitable MMO world vision to life. It’s just going to require dedication, frequent effort, and a ton of creativity. They’re certainly fighting an uphill battle, as I believe the number of current MMOs that could survive with Rare’s progression system could be counted on one hand.

Gamers are obsessed with progression, but if Rare can succeed in quieting their community’s discontent while maintaining their vision they will do more than earn some dough. They’ll lay the groundwork for an entirely new type of MMO. That alone has me rooting for them.

 


We Have Enough MMOs

2017 was another year without a lot of big name releases in the MMO space. We’re definitely going through a bit of a drought, especially when compared to the post-WoW boom, and that has a lot of people in the MMORPG community worried. The more hyperbolic voices among us rush to once again declare the genre dead, while more moderate figures simply hum and haw and hope for more new releases in future.

The Wrothgar zone in Elder Scrolls Online

But to that I say, “Don’t worry; be happy.” I don’t think there’s any cause for concern. I think everything is just fine. MMO players don’t need a constant stream of new titles; we just need a solid selection of games that continue to grow and prosper. And that’s exactly what we’ve got.

Simply put, we have enough MMOs.

What We Expect

Of course, it’s easy enough to see where this desire for more and more new games comes from. A steady stream of new releases is the bedrock of pretty much any entertainment industry. We’re used to things working that way.

Imagine if Hollywood put out only one or two movies over a period of several years. It would be disastrous. Movie theaters everywhere would go out of business. The entire film industry would collapse.

Closer to home, single-player game developers also need to keep putting out new titles if they want to survive. Even with an ever-increasing reliance on DLC, micro-transactions, and “long tail” monetization, the fact remains most people finish a single-player game (and stop paying for it) within a few weeks at most. Players and developers alike need new games to be released regularly, or the whole system collapses.

But MMOs are special, you see. MMOs aren’t something you pick up and put down in the space of hours, or days, or even weeks. MMOs are about investing months, even years of your time. Even for games that do charge for entry, subscription fees and cash shop purchases will inevitably dwarf box sales, and from the player’s perspective, long-term investment is much of the appeal. We want to be able to set down roots in a game and settle in for the long haul.

So while it’s easy to fall into the belief that a lack of new releases is a red flag, for MMOs, it really isn’t. The genre can survive for extended periods with little or no new games to speak of.

A town in the action combat MMORPG Kritika Online

If after ten or fifteen years we still haven’t seen any big-name MMO releases, then I’d get worried. Until then, I’m not concerned.

What We Want

Of course, even if you’re not worried about the health of the genre, it’s still understandable to pine for some new games to sink your teeth into. The excitement of something new and shiny cannot be denied.

Often times the hype leading up to a game’s release is at least as exciting as the actual game. Anticipation is fun. We all like to have something to look forward to.

There’s a rush to the first few days of an MMO’s life that can’t really be replicated by anything else, too. Everything is still fresh and new, not just to you but to everyone, and there’s a festival air to it all. Everything is busy. Everyone is having fun. Chat is hopping, and zones are buzzing. It’s the entire MMO experience turned up to eleven.

For those of us who comment on the genre for a hobby or for a living, new releases definitely make our lives easier, too. It’s unquestionably easier for me to review a new game than it is to find some new insight on the games that have already been out for years.

So yes, it’s understandable to want something new to play. But that still doesn’t mean a dearth of new titles is cause for concern. There are other, better ways to measure the health of the genre.

What We Need

 

A revenant character in Guild Wars 2's Path of Fire expansion

So we’re used to the idea that new releases are how entertainment industries stay afloat, and we have lots of good reasons to find new games exciting, but as I’ve said, MMOs are special, and that’s not what this genre is really about.

MMOs are not, by and large, a one and done experience. They’re not something you finish quickly… or at all. It’s not as though you’re going to play one for a few days and then move on. Not if the developers are doing their job, anyway.

No, MMORPGs are about settling down. They’re about finding a home. They’re games that you build relationships with over years.

We don’t need a constant chain of new games to play. We need games that we can stick with for the long haul, that continue to thrive years after launch.

The health of the MMORPG genre is therefore best measured not by the number of new releases, but by the prosperity and popularity of the games that are already live.

By that measure, I judge the state of the MMO genre to be strong.

We have a strong stable of big name MMOs that are getting regular infusions of quality content, like World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls Online, and Final Fantasy XIV. We have smaller and older games that continue to chug along, like Lord of the Rings Online and the EverQuests.

We have sci-fi MMOs, like EVE Online and Star Trek Online. We have shooter MMOs, like Destiny and Warframe. We have story MMOs and PvP MMOs and raiding MMOs. We have action combat MMOs and tab target MMOs, photo-realistic MMOs and anime MMOs, subscription MMOs and free to play MMOs.

A warlock character in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We live in a world where the only way I’ll find the time to play all the MMOs I want to as much as I want to is if scientists devise a way to function without sleep (and even then it would be a challenge). We have all that we need, and while you can probably point to some games that are struggling, there are at least as many that are thriving.

In the face of that, there just isn’t a pressing need to throw a lot of new games into the mix. In fact, I can even think of some downsides to the idea.

The pool of potential MMO players is, I believe, relatively static. A particularly exciting new game might attract some new players, but I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to convert a non-MMO player into the genre. I don’t think that a new MMORPG is just going to conjure itself an entirely new playerbase.

That means that any new games are going to cannibalize the players from existing games, at least to some extent. These days, most of us play multiple MMOs, but there is an upper limit to how many games each person has time for. At some point you do run the risk of the players being spread too thin between too many games, and the more people hop around, the less opportunity there is for true online communities to form.

Now, I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to say that more new MMOs would be a bad thing… but it’s not an unequivocally good thing, either.

In the years following the break-out success of World of Warcraft, we saw a steady stream of new MMOs coming out all the time, and some may see that as “the good old days,” but in practice all we got was an endless stream of barely distinguishable games that struggled to find a voice and an audience.

MMOs are not the new hotness anymore, and they’re no longer a genre that every other developer is trying to create a “me too” entry for. But that’s not a sign that the genre is dying; it’s a sign that it’s maturing, and that can only be a good thing.

A cutscene in the free to play MMORPG Blade and Soul

MMOs thrive on stability. That’s what we should seek above all else, and that’s what we have.

* * *

So I understand why some people are bothered by the relative lack of new MMOs being released these days. It’s not what we’re used to, and it gives us a lack of sexy newness to drool over.

But it doesn’t mean that MMOs are in trouble, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re dying. The genre has settled into a quiet equilibrium, and it’s chugging along just fine.

The gaming community loves to focus on the negative, but when you really think about it, now is a great time to be an MMORPG player. Maybe the best time. There are games for (nearly) every taste. Most of the big names are stable and thriving. We’ve got quality and quantity. We’ve got everything we need.

We have enough MMOs.


Console vs. PC: Best MMO Gaming Device

PC gaming does it all.

PlayStation is the ultimate gaming device.

Switch to a Switch anytime, anywhere.

XBOX is more than just games.

Since the dawn of time that mattered (i.e. when we could play video games at home), wars have raged to determine the best gaming device. Whether it was Atari or NES, Genesis or SNES, or the more recent war between the three current-gen consoles and PC, we love to debate the best gaming device.

How does this debate play out in the MMO space though? Well, clearly PC is better. The selection of games absolutely dwarfs the console selection. So my question for this article isn’t simply which one is better now. It’s which one has most potential for an MMO gaming device.

Case for PC

pc gaming mmo

MMORPGs first started on the PC with the advent of text based MUDs. Keyboard input was critical for these games because they lacked any sort of graphical interface. Keyboards still provide an immense advantage – for one thing it expands communication. What are we doing in these games if we’re not interacting with players in at least some capacity. Whereas most console MMOs use microphones to communicate, PC gamers generally prefer keyboards. I’d argue talking to strangers via keyboard is vastly superior. It’s a lot less grating to see NOOB rather than hear NOOB.

The benefit of keyboard input doesn’t stop there though. More buttons means more abilities. More abilities mean more potential for strategy. All of this amounts to more flexibility for developers to create unique experiences for us as players.

Barriers to entry are in no short supply for would-be MMORPGs. It’s an expensive type of game to create. Consoles add yet another barrier. Though engines like Unity have made it easier to port between console and PC, it’s still smoother to code a game for a computer than a third party platform that will age and dies within six years. What this means is that the MMO options for PC gamers will always supersede those of console gamers.

Although graphics are usually limited on PC games to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the most visually appealing MMOs remain on PC. No matter how powerful a console may be, a PC can always be more powerful. That affords more options to make games pretty. Yay pretty.

Third party tools can be installed alongside a game to enhance the experience. Usually this amounts to voice chat for use with a guild/clan. Mods for games like Elder Scrolls Online can also greatly enhance the playing experience, offering up in Wiki-level depth of resources without ever leaving the game.

Case for Consoles

console gaming mmos

Graphics for an online PC game must always be limited to a degree. Not everyone has a beefy computer. MMOs rely on maintaining a minimum population level and playing with friends to thrive, so developers are reluctant to push out potential customers with high system requirements. Since consoles all run the exact same specs (which are usually pretty powerful for non-Nintendo consoles), this isn’t a problem. In most cases this raises the bar, even if the potential for the best graphics will always be on PC.

Since console players use a controller as their primary input, developers must work with less buttons. This cuts out a lot of the excess abilities that don’t add anything to gameplay. For example, what’s the need for six abilities that apply six different buffs when one ability will suffice? Button bloat has long been an issue in the PC MMO space. Controllers inadvertently solve button bloat and is a point towards consoles.

Accessibility is really the beck and call of consoles. When you buy a game on a console, you know it will run well. When you buy a game for PC, all sorts of compatibility issues may arise. Designing a game for a console specifically forces a “pick up and play” game plan. With less options for things to go wrong, it’s more likely things go right. Finally, consoles are cheaper than equivalent PCs. That’s always been a point for consoles in the broader “which is a better gaming device” debate. For someone that only wants to play a couple games a year, this is a major consideration. It’s an even bigger deal for MMO players because of the lifespan of such games.

Console vs PC MMOs: Who Wins?

Overall, it has to go to PC. Other than price and compatibility, everything else is potentially better on a computer. Button bloat doesn’t have to exist. Graphics don’t have to be downgraded. They can be just as accessible. Still, I have to say that the growth and mere existence of console MMOs and MMORPGs is still a boon for PC gamers. It showcases problems that have been largely swept under the rug in PC development and mandates their solutions. So as a whole, the genre will rise with both offerings available.


Niche MMOs Are the Future

In theory, it would seem like a good thing for an MMORPG to try to have as broad appeal as possible. And certainly it’s not a bad thing. But as is so often the case in life, good intentions can have negative consequences. Trying to make an MMO that appeals to everyone equally can do more harm than good.

Exploring Saturn's moon of Titan in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We MMO players are a diverse bunch, you see. Some of us are in it for the competition. Some for the story. Some for the friendships. Some of us like to quest. Others only want to raid. Others want to PvP. And so on.

But developers don’t have infinite resources. Budgets only have so much money, and employees only have so many hours in the day. If you try to please all of these disparate factions equally, you’ll spread yourself thin. MMOs that try to please everyone are more likely to end up pleasing no one.

We have seen this time and again. When every MMO tries to appeal to every group of gamers, you end up with a sea of bland games with no personality.

It’s time to move on from that paradigm. All-arounder MMOs are the past. Niche MMOs are the future.

How We Got Here

In the early days of the genre, MMO developers tended to dabble in a bit of everything. The desire at the time was to create fully fleshed out virtual worlds, and I think there was also an element of throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. It was a new genre. Everything was new and exciting, and experimentation was the order of the day.

I know a lot of people look back very fondly on those days, but I don’t think it’s a situation that could have continued forever. The Wild West got civilized eventually, after all.

Plus, for my money the caliber of a virtual world is determined by the quality of how it’s crafted more so than how many systems you can pile into a single game. And that’s really what this whole discussion is about: quality versus quantity.

The Battlefield Barrens event in World of Warcraft

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The end result is MMOs were initially established as games that tried to do everything, or at least as much possible.

Into this environment entered World of Warcraft, the biggest hit the MMO genre has ever seen.

World of Warcraft is the ultimate all-arounder MMO. It has pretty much every kind of content an MMO can offer: raiding, dungeons, quests, PvP, crafting, mini-games, and so forth. And its broad appeal has helped it achieve unprecedented levels of success.

But here’s the lesson the MMO community failed to learn: WoW is special. Its success was a perfect storm of timing, good design, a popular IP, and Blizzard’s massive resources. Its success reached such a scale it became self-perpetuating. These days World of Warcraft is popular and successful precisely because it’s popular and successful.

In other words, lightning doesn’t strike twice. There can’t and won’t be another WoW.

But that didn’t stop players and developers alike from chasing the fabled “WoW killer.” WoW was seen not as a lucky, unique case, but as the model for how MMORPGs should be designed going forward.

Thus began the era of the WoW clone, an endless procession of barely distinguishable games that all tried to be as broadly appealing as WoW, but never quite succeeded. They all tried to have something unique to set themselves apart from the pack — such as Rift’s dynamic events or the more robust story-telling of Star Wars: The Old Republic — but they spread themselves thin trying to do everything and so failed to achieve any real identity as games.

Most of the big name WoW clones are still chugging along, but none of them came close to dethroning WoW, and after years of at best mediocre success with such games, publishers and players alike became jaded and wary.

Ancient Sith lords in Star Wars: The Old Republic

We’ve now reached a point where the future of the MMO genre is somewhat uncertain. A lot of people seem to be worried about the survival of MMOs, but I think it’s not so much the case that MMOs are falling out of favour so much as the name is. This is seen in the case of the Destiny franchise, which is very much an MMO and also quite popular, but whose developers are hesitant to call it an MMO due to the negative connotations that term has earned.

So I don’t think MMOs are dying, but they are struggling to find their voice. To move forward, they need to get better at embracing niches.

Niche the Right Way

What do I mean when I talk about niche MMOs? Mostly I just mean games with some focus. Games that know what they want to be, and aren’t trying to be all things to all people.

When I think of a good niche MMORPG, my mind of course goes to the late, lamented Secret World. This was a game that had a very clear vision, focused on story and ambiance. Yes, it also had dungeons, and PvP, and even raids, but none of those things were allowed to distract from what the game did best: telling great stories.

Of course, TSW didn’t do so well economically, leading to its desperation reboot. But that’s due to more factors than its niche nature. It was very poorly marketed, and suffered from significant mismanagement around its launch. You don’t have your offices raided by the police if the boss is doing a good job.

What can’t be denied is that TSW’s focus made for one of the best experiences in the MMORPG world — for those whom the game appealed to, at least. Focus equals quality. Niche equals quality. And as a player I’m always going to be more concerned about quality than what brings in the most profits.

While I wouldn’t describe it as a niche game per se, another good example of an MMORPG with a clear vision is Elder Scrolls Online. It’s an adaptation of a single-player franchise, and it carries that legacy forward with a deep world, compelling quests, and rewarding exploration. It also has dungeons, raids, and PvP, but it never neglects that which it does best: its world and story. You never have to wait long for a new zone or new quests to be added.

A story cutscene in The Secret World

On the other hand, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game that has struggled to stick to a vision. It made story its selling point, but it also tried to be a raiding game in the WoW mould. It was an over-ambitious game, and it never achieved enough success to continue its myriad class stories or provide enough endgame content to satisfy the hardcore crowd.

SWTOR spent years trying to find the balance between a story-driven RPG and a WoW-style raid grinder. It never managed to fully succeed at either.

Then, they decided to double down on what they do best: story. The Knights of the Fallen Empire and Eternal Throne expansions focused on lavish story-telling, while adding only minimal group content, and it seemed to be a true reinvention of the game.

However, the endgame crowd was displeased by the shift in focus. As a result, SWTOR has once again returned to spreading itself thin, and the game has suffered as a result. Story progress has slowed to the barest trickle, whereas PvP remains a neglected mini-game, and raiders still have nowhere near enough content to satisfy them.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of public numbers on SWTOR’s population or income, so it’s hard to say how much these zigzagging changes in direction have affected the game, but anecdotally, the Knights expansion seemed to generate a real splash, despite some controversy, whereas the patches since then seem an excellent example of trying to please everyone but ultimately pleasing no one.

At the other end of the spectrum, it can also be possible to be too niche. I think a lot of upcoming crowdfunded MMOs are going to struggle due to focusing on too narrow an audience. It’s a bit of a tightrope to walk; you need to find a niche, but it needs to be a niche big enough to support a full MMORPG.

But I don’t think there’s any real future in games that are jacks of all trades, but masters of none. We’re never going to legitimize MMOs to the mainstream if all we can show are bland, soulless games that no one can tell apart. That way lies a slow death for the genre.

The new Copero flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic

In a world where subscription fees are largely a thing of the past, it makes more sense for each game to carve out its own identity, rather than trying to appeal to everyone. Instead of playing one game with mediocre raiding and mediocre PvP, you can play a game with a great raiding, and a different game with great PvP. One game need not be your everything.

We must let go of the idea of an MMO that can be all things to all people. Niche games are more risky, but it’s the only way to create games that are truly memorable, truly unique. That’s where the future of MMORPG genre must lie.