These days, classic and progression MMORPG servers are all the rage. That there’s a demand for these things is a testament to how much an MMO can evolve over time. After enough years, it can almost feel like playing an entirely different game.
But which games have changed the most since their initial launch? Let’s take a look at some of the candidates.
As one of the oldest still-running MMORPGs, Ultima Online has had literal decades to grow and evolve. That’s far too much change to adequately cover here, but one particularly notable event worth mentioning came early in its history: the release of Trammel in the year 2000.
Trammel is the second continent added to the game. It is a perfect mirror of the original, Felucca, but with one crucial difference: Trammel does not allow non-consensual PvP.
This added an entirely new way to experience the game, free from the predations of other players, and it proved wildly popular. All subsequent landmasses added to Ultima Online have followed Trammel’s lead by not allowing open PvP.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
At launch, Star Wars: The Old Republic was pretty much just another WoW clone with a Star Wars skin slapped over top. It took until the game’s third major expansion to change that.
Knights of the Fallen Empire introduced major system changes to make SWTOR less of a standard MMO quest grinder and much more like the single-player RPGs Bioware is known and loved for. The leveling game was adjusted to put the focus on class and planetary stories, allowing players to easily ignore the forgettable side missions that had once bogged the game down.
SWTOR as it exists today is a lot closer to the story-driven MMORPG it was originally advertised as.
Aion’s a long-running game with a lot of big changes under its belt, from a free to play transition to multiple expansions.
But its biggest shift in identity came more recently with the massive Awakened Legacy patch. Awakened Legacy radically changed many game systems, hugely streamlined leveling, and controversially removed many whole zones and dungeons. It was a jarring change that angered many, with some comparing it to the infamous “New Game Enhancements” introduced by Star Wars Galaxies back in the day.
For better or for worse, Aion is now a very different game from what it launched as.
World of Warcraft
This list contains a lot of examples of major reboots that rewrote a game overnight. In World of Warcraft’s case, it’s more a matter of incremental changes piling up over time. Over fifteen years and seven expansions, WoW has grown and evolved so much that very little of the original game remains, at least in an untouched form.
Of course, one can identify points in time where things changed more radically than others. Cataclysm rebuilt the original two continents, leaving virtually no zone untouched. Mists of Pandaria introduced a new talent system, while Legion brought with it sweeping class design changes.
What’s funny is that every once in a while you’ll hear speculation about a possible “World of Warcraft 2,” but really, we’re already playing WoW 2. The game has reinvented itself so much it’s more like a sequel to the original MMO, rather than a continuation.
Final Fantasy XIV
Of course, when it comes to reinventing yourself after launch, no game can quite equal Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. It’s right there in the title, after all.
As it launched, FFXIV was pretty much broken. It was such a mess the developers at Square Enix stopped even charging a subscription fee for a time, too embarrassed to ask for players’ money.
For most companies, this would be the end, but Square Enix had the resources to try again. Final Fantasy was ultimately relaunched as an almost entirely new game, rebuilt from the ground up. This makes it not only one of the biggest examples of an altered game in the MMO world, but also one of the most positive and successful. Whereas in other games change can be controversial or even despised, here almost everyone agrees it was for the best.
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.
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.
You will often hear people complain that the MMO industry is stagnating. It’s a criticism I myself have made more than once. A full-featured MMORPG is a massive investment of time and money, so developers are understandably risk-adverse, but as a player it can be frustrating to see things move so slowly.
But just because the genre doesn’t evolve as fast as we’d like doesn’t mean that it doesn’t evolve at all. Over the years, there have been some true innovations — new design concepts that changed how top MMO games were played for the better.
Much virtual ink has been spilled over the stagnation of MMOs, but today, let’s salute the leaps forward the genre has had by looking at some of the most influential innovations MMOs have had over the years.
Instancing had more than a few detractors when it first began to appear in MMOs many years ago, and even today, it can still sometimes stir up a certain degree of controversy. People feel it damages the sense of place and the emergent gameplay that separate MMOs from their single-player equivalents.
I have some sympathy for this perspective. I do think that MMOs are often at their best when content takes place in a shared world, with large numbers of players interacting all at once. Most of my best MMO memories are of moments like that — be it battling world bosses during The Secret World’s holiday events or participating in Wyrmrest Accord’s Pride march in World of Warcraft.
Instancing does have a cost in terms of immersion, and too much of it can make a game feel less special than it otherwise would be.
However, it does bring a lot of positive things to the genre, too.
Instancing creates a more controlled environment, allowing for story-telling moments that would be difficult or impossible to replicate in an open world. It allows developers to fine tune encounters around a set number of players and prevent bosses from simply being zerged down by overwhelming numbers.
And while large-scale events are often the source of the genre’s most memorable moments, sometimes more intimate gatherings are welcome, too. Instancing allows smaller groups to enjoy themselves without outside interference.
Ultimately, instancing is just another tool for developers to call upon. It can be misused, but at the end of the day, the more options developers have, the better.
A more recent innovation, phasing performs a similar role to instancing, but it employs a subtler touch.
Different games handle phasing differently, but generally it allows multiple versions of the same environment to exist in the same space. This has a number of applications, but the biggest is to allow the gameworld to change to reflect a player’s actions.
We’re all familiar with how immersion-breaking it can be for the boss you just killed or the army you just defeated to still be hanging around, a reminder of the futility of your actions every time you return to an old zone. It’s something that hammers home the artificiality of the experience.
First introduced in World of Warcraft’s much-acclaimed Wrath of the Lich King expansion, phasing helps solve that by allowing your actions to have a lasting impact. The evil wizard you slew will stay dead. The army you drove off will not return. It allows MMOs to feel more like the evolving worlds they were meant to be. It means allows your accomplishments to truly matter.
Like instancing, phasing has its detractors. It can separate players and sometimes cause bugs or other unfortunate side-effects. However, with good design these issues can be mitigated, and like instancing, it’s another tool in the developer toolkit than can do good when used appropriately.
Honestly, I don’t think the full potential of phasing has yet been realized. There’s a lot more it could do. I’m sure this is another of those things that’s easier said than done, but I would like to see developers find ways to unite players across phases, perhaps by letting people sync phases with their friends. Without the risk of separating the population too much, developers would be much more free to let players shape the game world around them. Your choices and actions could begin to feel truly impactful.
While instances and phasing can serve to separate players, cross-server technology does the opposite, helping to bring people together.
In the olden days, every MMO was spread across many different servers. The technology simply wasn’t there to let everyone inhabit the same virtual space, but this created a lot of problems. If you and your friend rolled characters on different servers and you wanted to play together, one person would have to either reroll and start from scratch or pay for a costly server transfer. Then there was the potential for server populations to crash, in some cases to the point where it became all but impossible to complete multiplayer content.
It was, in short, not a good system. It kept people apart, and it added a lot of inconvenience.
However, as technology has evolved, the stranglehold of traditional servers has weakened. EVE Online was one of the first games to adopt a single server for all of its players, but as the years have gone on, many more games have come on board with some sort of a “mega-server” system, including Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online.
Even games that still use traditional servers are starting to find ways to blur them together. World of Warcraft now allows players to group and complete activities across servers in most cases, though there are some limitations on what cross server groups can do together.
The end result is that MMOs are now much closer to achieving their full potential as a massively social medium.
Open Tapping and Personal Loot
These two features are not one and the same — all open tapping uses personal loot, but not all personal loot involves open tapping — but they’re similar enough in function to lump together. They’re both ways to encourage players to work together, rather than against each other.
Open tapping prevents anyone from “stealing” a kill by rewarding anyone who assists in the kill of a mob. Personal loot, meanwhile, rewards items to each player automatically and impartially, rather than offering a fixed pool of rewards that players must then choose how to distribute.
Guild Wars 2 made systems like this major selling points, and while I’m not the biggest GW2 fan, I do give it major props for helping to propel these concepts into the limelight. These days more and more MMOs are adopting open tapping and personal loot in one form or another, and the old ways seem to be slipping away.
The sooner the better, as far I’m concerned. It never made any sense to have to compete for kills against your own allies, and any long-time MMO player is familiar with the horrors loot drama can unleash.
For all that vertical progression lies at the heart of nearly all RPGs, it comes with some pretty serious downsides, and it has many vocal detractors among the MMO community, including most of the writing staff of this site.
For those of us who want our games to be more like worlds and less like ladders, level scaling is a godsend. By allowing a player’s effective level to match the world around them at all times, it prevents content from ever becoming irrelevant, and vastly expands the options available to us.
It also makes the world feel more real, more immersive, by preventing obviously ridiculous situations like being able to slay a dragon with a single love-tap, and it breaks down social barriers to allow high and low level players to work together without issue.
Back in the day, City of Heroes allowed people of differing levels to work together through the sidekicking system. Later, Guild Wars 2 helped to popularize the idea of global level scaling, and it has since been adopted by Elder Scrolls Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic to great effect. World of Warcraft has dabbled with a very limited implementation of level scaling, but as it’s still possible to out-level most of the game’s content, it ends up feeling like a waste of potential.
Level scaling probably has more detractors than any other feature on this list, as fans of vertical progression find it stifling, but I firmly believe that MMOs are much better with it than without it, and I long for the day when it is the rule and not the exception.
* * *
Those are our picks for the most influential MMO innovations. What do you feel the most positive changes to the genre have been over the years, and what innovations are still left to be made?
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.