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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.