Tag Archives: World of Warcraft

Six Features no MMO Should Launch Without

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun with the new outfit system in Elder Scrolls Online. It’s a good system with a lot of options, and it’s helped me enjoy the game a lot more.

My sorcerer showing off her new outfit in Elder Scrolls Online

But there’s a part of me that’s still a bit resentful it took them this long to add an outfit system in the first place. In this day and age, that’s something I expect everyone of today’s top MMO games to have as a launch feature.

That got me to thinking what else should be considered mandatory for any MMO launching in 2018. Not every MMO can offer everything, especially at first, but there are some minimal thresholds that need to be reached. These are corners that developers may be tempted to cut, but definitely shouldn’t.

An Outfit System

Since it was the inspiration for this post, it makes sense to start with outfit systems. The ability to customize the appearance of your character’s gear is one of those things that seems frivolous until you’ve had it, but once you’re used to it, it’s incredibly hard to accept life without it.

Obviously, role-players benefit the most from this ability. Indeed, the ability to freely customize your character’s outfit is all but mandatory for role-play.

But even if you’re not actively role-playing, you can still find plenty to like about outfit systems. It just isn’t that exciting to be waddling around in some ridiculous clown-suit cobbled together from whatever gear happened to drop. Much better to be able to put your personality and creativity on display with a custom outfit you designed yourself.

Personally, I also love checking out other people’s outfits. Sometimes I’ll just sit around a social hub and study what other people are wearing. It’s amazing how creative and stylish some can be.

Outfit systems add color and culture to MMOs, and it just doesn’t feel the same without them.

Robust Matchmaking

A group doing the Scarlet Monastary dungeon in World of Warcraft

Not everyone is a social butterfly, and not everyone can commit to a set play schedule. But that doesn’t mean those people should have to miss out on group content.

To this end, any modern MMORPG must have robust matchmaking features to make finding groups easier for anyone at any time. A LFG chat channel or sign-up board isn’t good enough. You need a proper matchmaking system wherein the game creates groups automatically.

These systems have many advantages. You can continue to quest or farm while queued, instead of standing around a city spamming general chat. You don’t have to worry about elitist players serving as the gatekeeper to all content. It opens up group content for all.

Despite these obvious strengths, though, matchmaking tools are still viewed as an optional frill at best by far too much of the MMO community. The Secret World took years to add one, and by then the game was already in decline. Destiny 2 still doesn’t offer proper matchmaking for raids. ESO launched with a dungeon finder, but it was in such a poor state as to be virtually nonfunctional for a very long time.

Voice Acting

Voice acting is expensive and time-consuming. I understand that. But it also makes games vastly more immersive and adds crucial emotional weight to stories. There’s a reason silent films went out of fashion.

I don’t necessarily expect every line in every MMO to be fully voiced, but at the very least major story moments should be. In a world where games like Elder Scrolls Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Secret World Legends exist, any game without robust voice-overs will stick out like a sore thumb.

Equally Viable Progression Paths

The plent Nexus in WildStar

I’m not a fan of MMOs trying to be all things to all people, but it is nonetheless common for MMOs to offer several different forms of content, and that’s fine if it doesn’t go too far. If that’s to be the case, though, the developers must work to ensure all playstyles have a viable and rewarding progression path ahead of them.

If your game has questing, raiding, and PvP, those should all be viable paths for players at endgame. Questers shouldn’t suddenly find themselves locked out of progression if they don’t raid, and raiders shouldn’t have to PvP for the best gear.

It can be okay to reward some groups a little more than others — it’s not unreasonable for hardcore raiders to have better gear than people who only solo for twenty minutes a day — but it should never reach a point where fans of one playstyle find themselves hitting a brick wall, with no further way to progress short of playing content they don’t enjoy.

My personal preference is for currency based systems, where harder content rewards more of the currency needed to upgrade your character. This rewards the top tier of players without completely shutting down casuals. Everyone wins.

It’s so simple, and yet even the titans of the genre often struggle to give everyone a fair shake. Even the mighty World of Warcraft has had at best a spotty record of giving all playstyles equal opportunity to advance.

This isn’t even a matter of limited resources or tricky design problems. It’s just bad decision-making.

Text Chat

A cutscene in Destiny 2

Those of us who’ve been around for a while are likely to have a hard time even imagining an MMO without chat. I know I do.

But with the growing popularity of MMORPGs on consoles, this is something that is actually coming to pass. I’m sorry to pick on ESO once again, but its console version lacked text chat for some time before it was finally patched in. Destiny 2, meanwhile, still has not chat at all on console, and no public chat channel on PC… though given what I’ve seen of public chat in MMOs, I can at least sympathize with their reasoning there.

MMOs are a social medium, so the ability to communicate with other players is part of the bedrock of the genre. Yes, there’s voice chat, but not everyone has the hardware for it, nor is everyone comfortable using voice chat with strangers. Text chat is an option no game should be without.

A Free Trial

In my view, the best business model for an MMORPG is buy to play with an optional subscription and/or micro-transactions, but it does have one flaw that I find frustrating: Free trials seem to be going the way of the dodo.

Buying a new big budget MMO is a fairly big investment if you’re not sure whether you’re going to enjoy it. I’m rarely willing to take a chance on a game if I haven’t had a chance to try it first. I don’t expect everything for free, but a chance to try a small sampling of the game before I buy doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Instead, developers seem to be expecting fence-sitters to wait for Steam sales, or at best the occasional free weekend, but those just aren’t as convenient as an on-demand free trial. I’m willing to pay top dollar for a new game, but not sight unseen, and developers are losing money from me by not offering better trials.

To be fair, this isn’t just an MMO issue. I’m also very frustrated by the how often single-player games no longer offer free demos.

A Plan for Toxicity

A Play of the Game screen from Overwatch

Of all the things on this list, a plan to deal with player toxicity is one that I can’t think of any MMO having at launch — or at least not a very clear one. And I find that baffling.

It’s far too late in the game for developers to pretend to be surprised when their players behave badly. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in online gaming is familiar with how prevalent toxic behavior is.

And it’s something that can seriously damage a game. It eats away at communities. It drives away veterans, and it makes new players hesitant to invest.

Yet the preferred strategy among MMO developers still seems to be to pretend the problem doesn’t exist and make only a token effort toward moderation. When Overwatch launched on console, it didn’t have a reporting feature, which is so incomprehensibly naive I can’t even begin to know what to say about it.

I’ve said before that I’m not a behavioral expert, and I don’t know what the magic bullet to solve toxicity is, but I desperately want to see developers start to take it more seriously. I want to hear them trumpet their plans for a safe community as loudly as they do their innovative game design and top of the line graphics.

* * *

What say you, dear reader? What are the features you don’t want to see any MMO go live without in this day and age? What’s on your list of essentials?

MMOs with the Best Class Options

Sometimes I hear people in the MMO community ask questions like, “How many classes is too many in an MMO?” And every time I hear it, it baffles me. How can there be too many options on how to play?

No, the more the merrier, I say. I crave games that offer many and varied class choices. The more and the weirder the better. There are few things quite so exciting as encountering an MMO class that’s not like anything you’ve played before.

Much as we recently saluted the MMORPGs with the most interesting racial choices, let’s now take a look at the games which gift us the most compelling class choices.

World of Warcraft

A demon hunter character in World of Warcraft

WoW’s most unique class is probably the recently added demon hunter, which combines agile melee combat with chaotic demon magic. Oh, and they can turn into demons themselves.

But the rest of the roster is pretty diverse, as well. There might not be a lot of wildly original options, but it’s a healthier selection than many games offer these days, with almost every playstyle you can imagine included somehow or another.

WoW is helped by the fact it’s always had very strong class design, with each option having a very distinct playstyle due to unique resource mechanics and other class-specific quirks. WoW’s system of specializations also adds a lot of variety within classes. A priest, for example, can be a standard healer… or a maddened cultist wielding twisted shadow magic to vanquish their foes.

Guild Wars 2

A mesmer character in Guild Wars 2

A lot of Guild Wars 2’s classes conform pretty closely to the standard fantasy archetypes, but they do deserve credit for having a few options that are bit more off the beaten path. The engineer, for instance, is a fairly uncommon archetype and a very refreshing change of pace.

More interesting still are the mesmer and the revenant. The former is an illusionist class that warps reality and the minds of their foes alike with a flurry of phantasms, tricks, and arcane magic. If you’ve never played it, you should at least try it, as there’s nothing else quite like it.

The revenant, meanwhile, bears some resemblance to “dark knight” style classes, but with a twist. Rather than more conventional death magic, the revenant channels the identities and powers of famous historical figures from Guild Wars lore, making for a truly unique class.


A tempest character in Rift

Rift has a fairly unusual take on character builds. The actual number of classes, or “callings” as the game dubs them, is quite small — just five, even with the addition of the primalist post-launch — but each calling includes many “souls” which are almost complete classes unto themselves. These souls provide incredible variety, and the ability to mix and match them grants more freedom still.

Each calling has at least a few interesting souls, but for my money the most unique are found under the rogue calling. These include the ephemeral riftstalker, which warps between realities to tank damage, the saboteur, who wields explosives to devastating effect, and the tactician, which uses advanced magitech weaponry to support allies.


A promotional image for the import MMORPG MapleStory

With more than thirty classes, MapleStory offers a dizzying variety of choices ranging from the standard to the outright bizarre. Want to dual wield magic blowguns and ride a unicorn? MapleStory has a class for you!

Or maybe you’d rather have an arm-mounted soul cannon, or pilot a mech, or be a jaguar-riding archer… MapleStory’s class selection lacks for nothing, least of all originality. When the rest of the world asks why, MapleStory asks, “Why not?”

The EverQuests

A promotional image for EverQuest II

Both EverQuest games jointly took the top prize in our list of MMOs with the most interesting races, and they also rank very highly when it comes to class selection.

The original EverQuest boasts an impressive sixteen classes covering almost any archetype you could want. Its sequel, though, goes even further, with a whopping twenty-five classes.

Within that list you’ll find common concepts like paladins and rangers, but there are also plenty of more exotic choices. EQ2 offers not one but two bard classes, including a darker take on the archetype called a dirge. Consider also the coercer, a caster class focused on mental domination of its enemies. And while I am not the biggest EverQuest fan myself, I will always admire EQ2 for offering a true swashbuckler class.

I do love a little swash in my buckle.

Between the wealth of class choices and the staggering racial variety, the EverQuest games offer some of the most creative options and most diverse potential for role-play in the MMORPG field.

Tree of Savior

The City of Orsha in Tree of Savior

Tree of Savior is a game that has made its wealth of classes a major selling point, with over eighty to choose from. Players begin by choosing one of four basic classes — swordsman, wizard, archer, or cleric — and then at regular intervals over the leveling process have the choice to upgrade to more advanced classes or continue developing their current one.

With over eighty to choose from, pretty much every archetype you can imagine is represented, plus several you probably can’t. Looking over the list, my eye was caught by the “schwarzer reiter,” a pistol wielding class that rides what appears to be a beaver-lizard-chicken.

I don’t think any game is likely to top that level of variety any time soon.

MMOs with the Best Race Options

With World of Warcraft releasing early access to some of its new allied races, the concept of playable races in MMORPGs has been on my mind as of late. All too often these days, MMOs don’t offer a choice of races, or the choices are severely underwhelming, with little to differentiate the various options beyond height or maybe skin tone.

But there are still a few games out there putting a bit more creativity into their racial options. This seems an opportune moment to salute those MMOs with the best races that let us play as creatures beautiful, bizarre, or both.

Elder Scrolls Online

A Khajiit character in Elder Scrolls Online

With ten playable races (one of which is exclusive to the deluxe edition), Elder Scrolls Online seems like the sort of game that might rank very highly on this list, but it does lose some points for how similar many of those races are.

Four out of the ten are simply different nationalities of human, and not truly separate races. Another three are various varieties of Elf, and while they are physically and culturally distinct, it’s still not the greatest example of variety out there.

ESO does deserve some respect for its remaining races, though. Orcs are still fairly standard, but the catlike Khajiit and reptilian Argonians are much more unusual and provide welcome respite from more standard fantasy archetypes. Furthermore, unlike many non-human races in gaming, the Khajiit and Argonians have been given quite robust customization options and gear that usually fits of them without clipping or graphical bugs.

Allods Online

An Elf character in Allods Online

Allods Online brings a fairly standard compliment of racial options — Elves, humans, Orcs — supplemented by several more interesting options. There’s the unliving Arisen, the bestial Priden, and the otherworldly Aeds.

But no discussion of races in Allods can be complete without mentioning the infamous Gibberlings. A small, rodent-like race, the most bizarre feature of the Gibberling is that each Gibberling avatar is actually three characters that the player controls simultaneously. It doesn’t actually affect how you play that much, but it’s still a wonderfully bizarre concept.

Star Trek Online

An Andorian captain in Star Trek Online

The Star Trek universe has always had a colorful variety of alien races, and this is reflected in its MMO incarnation, as Star Trek Online features a great variety of well known and more obscure species from the Trek shows and movies. It’s also the only game that isn’t a fantasy MMO on this list.

More impressively, players also have the option to create their own species by mixing and matching a variety of physical features and racial abilities. That’s a level of freedom very few games offer.

Guild Wars 2

A Charr engineer in Guild Wars 2

At a mere five playable races, Guild Wars 2 has fewer options than any other games on this list, but there’s an impressive amount of variety packed into those five choices.

Aside from the standard humans, there’s also the Norn, who appear mostly human but are given a more creative flair with their shapeshifting abilities, and then it just gets more interesting from there.

Perhaps most striking are the Charr, who are mostly feline in appearance but also have demonic traits, with massive fangs and brutal horns. There are also the exotic plant people known as the Sylvari, and finally the gremlin-like Asura.

GW2 is also another game that deserves credit for offering relatively robust character customization even for its most non-human races.

World of Warcraft

A Tauren death knight in World of Warcraft

As the inspiration for this post, you had to know World of Warcraft would appear somewhere on the list. WoW has always had one of the most impressive racial line-ups in the MMO space, and it’s only gotten more diverse with time.

Aside from a strong stable of traditional options — humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, and so forth — WoW also launched with the bovine Tauren and a race of undead called the Forsaken. Later these were joined by the alien Draenei, the anthropomorphic pandas called the Pandaren, and the Werewolf-like Worgen, among others.

Even some of Warcraft’s more traditional options feel fresh through unusual portrayals. Far from being mindless beasts, WoW’s Orcs are noble souls with a rich and intricate culture. The Elves, too, are unusual: the Night Elves possess a feral edge, while the Blood Elves are desperate renegades ostracized by the world at large.

Now the addition of allied races brings even more variety to WoW’s character creation screen. Some are admittedly only slight variations of existing races — the Highmountain are barely distinguishable from standard Tauren save for having different horns — but others, such as the Nightborne Elves and the upcoming Zandalari Trolls, feel like proper new races in their own right.

The EverQuests

Race selection in EverQuest II

Sharing both a setting and a penchant for wild racial choices, it makes sense to discuss both EverQuest and EverQuest II as a single unit.

The original EverQuest boasts an impressive selection of races, covering all the standard fantasy archetypes as well as embracing stranger choices including the catlike Vah Shir, lizard people called Iksar, human variants including the Erudite and Drakkin, and even a race of anthropomorphic frogs.

Even more impressively, its sequel offers even greater variety: the dragon-blooded Aerakyn, good and evil faerie races, rodent people called Ratonga, two different lizard races, playable vampires, and more. If you can’t find a race you like in EQ2, there’s simply no pleasing you.

The racial variety of the EverQuest games is vast, bordering on the baffling. Not every race will appeal to everyone — for my part I can’t imagine the appeal in playing as a frog paladin — but there are so many options you’re bound to find at least a few you like, and it’s that wealth of options that earns the EverQuests top honors on our list of MMOs with the best race options.

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.

Subscriptions Are Still the Worst Business Model

With all the controversy swirling around lockboxes and other monetization strategies, I see an increasing number of people pining for the day when subscriptions were the standard business model for online games.

World of Warcraft, one of the few games still maintaining a subscription business model

I think it might be time for a reminder of how we ended up here. There’s a reason that free to play and buy to play are now the norm, and it’s not that developers are conducting an evil international conspiracy to make us lockbox addicts.

It’s that subscriptions failed as a model, and they failed because people realized there are better options. For all the flaws of other business models — and oh boy, they do have them — none are quite so bad a deal for the player as a monthly subscription fee. I firmly believe it is the worst business model for an MMORPG.

Let’s look at all the ways subs ill-serve players, and please note that for the purposes of this article, “subscription” refers only to games that require a regular fee in order to play. Optional subscriptions as part of a hybrid model are an entirely different beast, and something I’m entirely okay with.

They Enforce Grinding

One of the biggest fallacies I’ve ever seen put forth in the MMO community is that only free to play business models affect gameplay.

That’s nonsense.

These days, the only subscription game I play is World of Warcraft. It is also by far and away the grindiest game I play. This is not a coincidence.

Honestly, are people truly naive enough to believe that things like attunements, lengthy reputation grinds, and low drop rates were implemented because they were fun? No, they were designed to extend the life of content, allowing developers to earn more subscription dollars from each player.

One of the new allied races coming in World of Warcraft's Battle for Azeroth expansion

This is why while most other games make the main story something you can just jump into and enjoy, WoW locks it behind weeks of reputation grinding. This is why Blizzard is now staggering its patch releases, with a trickle of new content unlocked each week, rather than patching it in all at once. Have you ever noticed how it always takes more than thirty days for anything to fully release?

One of the eternal criticisms of free to play games is that they force you pay cash, or grind endlessly. Don’t get me wrong, “pay or grind” is not a great deal for the player, but it’s still better than a subscription game, where you pay to grind.

A good example is WoW’s upcoming allied races feature. Whereas if a free to play game added a new playable race, you might have to pay to unlock it, WoW will require you to both pay for the new expansion and spend weeks — potentially months — grinding various reputations to unlock the new races.

Free to play games ask for your money or your time, but subscription games demand both, because for a subscription game they’re one and the same.

As the Goblins say, “Time is money, friend.”

They Spit in the Face of Customer Loyalty

Subscriptions are essentially “Yeah, but What Have You Done for Me Lately: The Business Model.” It doesn’t matter how many hours or how much money you pour into a game. If you haven’t coughed up $15 in the last thirty days, you’re completely locked out.

Let’s say you lose your job or otherwise hit a financial rough patch, and can no longer afford your subscription fee. Well, kiss goodbye to the characters you’ve spent potentially years developing. Say farewell to all the friends in your guild. Sucks to be you.

Final Fantasy XIV, one the last remaining subscription games on the market

That’s a terrible way to treat a loyal customer.

Games based around micro-transactions may have their flaws, but when you buy something, it’s yours. If you don’t have the funds to keep spending as you have, you can still keep playing, and enjoying all the perks you’ve bought in the past.

But to a subscription game, you’re only as good as your last payment. Never have I felt less like a person and more like a walking dollar sign than while playing a subscription game.

They Discourage Variety

In the past, there weren’t many MMOs around, and it made sense to just fully commit to one. But these days the field is overflowing with choices, and most people want to be able to enjoy more than one game.

Subscriptions make that a lot more difficult. If you’re paying a subscription to one game, playing anything else is going to feel like you’re wasting money because, well, you are. And if the other games you want to play are also subscription based, the cost is going to get prohibitive pretty fast.

Subscription games want you to play them and nothing else, and that sucks the fun out of the whole hobby. You don’t get to enjoy other games as much, and you burn out on your main game more quickly.

Their One Strength Is a Lie

The one advantage a mandatory subscription is supposed to hold over other business models — the chief argument I see put forth in its favour — is that it creates a level playing field. You pay a single fee and get access to the whole game. You don’t have your wallet eaten away by numerous extra charges, and everyone is put on the same level.

Argus in the subscription MMORPG World of Warcraft

Which is great except for the fact that isn’t true at all.

Let’s again use World of Warcraft as an example. To start playing it at all, you first have to buy the base game, which is $25 here in Canada (I believe it’s about $20 for Americans).

These days, Blizzard rolls all legacy expansions into the base game, so that will get you a lot of content, but if you want to play WoW to any significant degree, you’ll have to buy the most recent expansion, too. Blizzard not only abandons legacy content but will often go out of their way to make it unrewarding, and the community never lingers in old expansions, which cuts off the group-centric experiences WoW is built around.

So you need to buy the current expansion, currently priced at $63 up here, and that’s assuming you don’t spring for the deluxe edition, which contains a number of exclusive cosmetics. If you want to keep playing for any length of time, you’ll need to keep buying expansions as they release.

Then there’s the cash shop to consider. While WoW’s might not be quite as fully stocked as some free MMOs, it’s still pretty extensive, and also priced higher than most other games. The companion pets alone would run you around $200 if you wanted all of them. Often the mounts and pets in the cash shop are far more elaborate and detailed than anything in-game, as well.

“But those are just cosmetics,” I hear you say. And I really have no problem with games selling such things in principle. I just bought myself a new hairstyle in ESO a few days ago.

But it’s not just cosmetics. The cash shops also feature things like race changes, name changes, and server transfers, and while most of those are minor conveniences, choice of server can have a huge impact on your experience of an MMO, and it’s inevitable some people will need to transfer. Maybe you picked a dead server without realizing it, or maybe your once-thriving community has fallen apart.

A desert city in the subscription MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV

It gets worse if you play multiple characters, as most people do these days. At $32 per character (again, Canadian numbers), transferring more than one or two characters will cost more than a new triple AAA game.

It keeps going. Nowadays you can also buy character boosts that instantly level you to just below the current cap, and there’s the WoW Token to consider. With it, you can buy gold that can then be spent on BoE epics, allowing you to gear up your character entirely through the cash shop.

All this from a business model that’s supposed to give everyone everything for one monthly fee.

This isn’t unique to WoW, either. Final Fantasy XIV engages in similar practices, and while things may have gotten more pronounced in recent years, MMOs have always charged extra on top of their subscriptions, even if just for expansion packs.

The ideal of a subscription putting everyone on equal ground is a noble one, and if it were actually true, I’d probably feel a lot better about subscription games. It still wouldn’t be my favourite model because of the other problems listed above, but at least it would have a strong argument in its favour.

But it’s just not true. It was never true, and it’s getting less true all the time. Subscriptions don’t make games fair, they don’t prevent the best rewards from having price tags, and they don’t stop people from buying power.

* * *

MMO monetization is a messy business. Developers want to make as much money as possible, and players want everything for free. No solution will ever fully satisfy both sides. But while every model has flaws, none are worse for the player than a subscription fee for access. It’s a failed model, and it doesn’t deserve resurrection.

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.