Maybe MMOs Don't Have To Be Innovative After All

Jason Winter
By Jason Winter, News Editor

riders of icarus

For a long time, I've railed against traditional quest-and-level MMOs – “WoW clones,” if you will. This wasn't so much out of a snooty, “Oh, you're still playing that kind of game?” attitude, but more based on the seeming pile of evidence that pointed to those kinds of games fading in popularity shortly after their launch. You know how the pattern goes:

  • Game launches to much fanfare. “This is my new home!”
  • Game is fun and exciting and at least looks different. “I'll play this forever!”
  • People reach max level. “Oh, I guess I do dungeons and raids now.”
  • Some time later. “I guess we'll run more dungeons? Or make an alt?”
  • Some time after that. “There's nothing new here. I'm going back to (probably) WoW.”

And, usually, “Game goes F2P” follows shortly thereafter, and occasionally, though not too frequently, “Game shuts down entirely.”

That's why I've been so anti-traditional MMO. We've seen that cycle a hundred times and yet MMO developers doggedly stuck with it. Maybe they thought they were the geniuses that would have that one thing that would change people's minds. It'll be everything you love in WoW... except with flying! Or dynamic events! Or lots of mounts to collect!

Or maybe they thought it was the “safe” bet to go that route. Though as I saw game after game fade into obscurity, it didn't really seem so “safe.” So in my analytical role on MMOBomb and other sites, I championed the notion that if an MMO wanted to be really successful, it was going to have to do something different. The old kill-ten-rats standby just wasn't cutting it any more, not in the long term. As I figured it, people were attracted to the new shiny, but once they realized they weren't really all that new and different, most of them went back to their old, comfortable homes. Companies kept releasing the same stuff, seeing it fail, and not learning and still releasing even more of the same. Of course I was going to criticize them for their short-sightedness.

Now, though... I'm not so sure.

Rift Well 04

Redefining success

I think the problem is with World of Warcraft and the unrealistically high bar it set for MMOs to be considered a success. Even in its depleted state, WoW has around five million players, at last reporting. Pretty much no other MMO boasts of more than a million active players, one-fifth of WoW's numbers.

Compare that to the most-watched TV show in America. According to the Nielsen ratings for the week ending July 17, that was Wednesday's showing of America's Got Talent, with 11.8 million viewers. If that were cast in the role of WoW, the next-best show would have about 2.36 million viewers, making it an utter failure, right?

Well, no. Plenty of shows would love to have 2.36 million viewers. Such an audience would place it at #6 on the Nielsen cable ratings, meaning that it would be drawing more people than all but five shows on all of cable TV. That's pretty darn good. Similarly, an MMO with one-fifth of WoW's audience is doing amazing.

Maybe that's a little bit of our collective blind spot. That when a new MMO launches – and especially when it drops off after a huge launch, which they all do – we still count it as a failure, to various degrees, even if it's doing quite well and has a hundred thousand (or more) players. I'd imagine that more traditional MMOs drop off even more quickly than non-traditional ones, because people are quicker to see its repetitive nature, but those types of games generally start bigger and can still be successful in the long run, even if they never approach anything like World of Warcraft's numbers.


Everything old is new again

Final Fantasy XIV is the crown jewel of this “new old school” trend, though Star Wars: The Old Republic and Neverwinter have also thrived longer than I would have expected. True, they have a significant advantage in the form of popular licenses and plus-sized budgets, but gameplay-wise, they know what they offer and don't seek to redefine MMO gameplay. Whether newer titles without that edge, like Blade & Soul and Riders of Icarus, can also experience such long-lasting success remains to be seen, but I'm not as automatically dismissive of them as I would have been a few years ago.

I understand the “mass market mentality” of media. Sure, we can deride the newest pop star or brainless, explosion-packed summer blockbuster or a new reality TV show as just more of the same, but the fact is, those things work. There's still room for alternative forms of entertainment, but if we're going strictly by the numbers, the most popular things are still likely to be those which can appeal to the widest range of people, and those are usually forms of entertainment that don't push the creative envelope too far. As long as MMO devs realize that their day-one numbers won't even come close to matching how they'll be doing six months down the line, they'll be (mostly) fine.

For me as a writer, I think I've pulled back some on criticizing those types of games and evaluating their viability as assets for a game company. I think individual people still get too hyped up over games that they'll abandon in a few weeks only to repeat the cycle again a few months later when the next game comes out, but as a whole, such games can find enough people to stick with them long enough to remain profitable. I know myself well enough to realize that those types of games aren't for me any more – occasional nostalgia trips to LotRO notwithstanding – but there are other options out there, and at least some developers are willing to try new things, so I don't think I'll run out of stuff to play any time soon.

What do you guys think? Are traditional quest-and-level-and-raid MMOs still viable? Are they still what you prefer? Or should developers focus on redefining the MMO genre? Or, to put it another way... would you risk your tens of millions of dollars to take on that pioneering challenge?

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About the Author

Jason Winter
Jason Winter, News Editor

Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

More Stories by Jason Winter

Discussion (20)

Angelo 7 years ago
Project gorgon is free at the moment and honnestly i fell jn love

chefmadness 7 years ago
1st offLet's do away with the cookie cutter classes! I am so board with you have to be this or that. Some one has to make a game so you can develop your toon the way you want to play.The graphics might be lame & I know it's an old game but at least DDO did it right! Some one please make a game so you can mix classes it would be way more fun for every one!

Merkadis 7 years ago
Personally i would do anything to make, at least just once, that one amazing game that would be the final nail in wow's coffin.
But that's just me, devs are generally pussies so they only do what works.
And will probably forever do only what works.

Also funny you mentioned it the: "Everything old is new again".
There is a saying i remember that goes as follows: "Everything new, is very well forgotten old".

Randyblythe 7 years ago
As someone with easily 2 years of playtime INSIDE of MMOs, pretty much every single "innovative" MMO has been terrible.

GW2 had a LOT of hype, but without the trinity you just have a zergfest, I don't know a single person that enjoyed any of the party content in GW2. The PvP is touted as awesome, but the reality is there is so few buttons that it just makes everyone feel like they can be good, and the PvP thrives on this notion that even the worst players can be "good".

The only MMO that has me hooked nowadays is FFXIV. Every other game has like 3-8 buttons that you just mash over and over, forcing you into a trance where you start to lose focus and fall asleep while doing dungeon/raid content. I have over a year /played in WoW, the vast majority of that in Vanilla and BC, and most of the rest in WotLK, I have tried to enjoy recent WoW but I seriously just fall asleep mid raid, all of the classes have 3-5 buttons that they spam (I have every class level 80+, 7 100s) and EVERYTHING in a raid is showed to you by an addon called Deadly Boss Mods, there is literally 0 thinking required.

Not to mention, I actually joined a raiding guild at the start of WoD, I joined their teamspeak and guess what they were talking about? How they were trying to perfect their rotation bot. That's right, nowadays everyone has a bot playing for them as well. Play with the rotation bot and have an addon called GTFO to audibly tell you to move, you literally don't have to think AT ALL!

FFXIV isn't perfect, it has a terrible token grind that isn't nearly as fun as randomized loot from dungeon/raid bosses, but it is hands down the best MMO out right now. I still have friends that play WoW, but most of them only play because of their friends.

In my opinion, MMOs are dead until VR or AR MMOs, and FFXIV will be one of the only ones that withstands the major exodus from MMOs that will happen soon. We've already seen it happen to WoW, it's down to 5 million subs (likely less) and MANY people have expressed concerns about Legion making the game -EVEN MORE CASUAL-, so it will inevitably drop even more! There's usually so much hype around WoW expansions, this is the first time in the history of WoW where there are people saying they won't even buy the xpac, usually most WoW vets at least buy the xpac and play it for a couple weeks.

MMOs are dead, especially with how developers only care about money nowadays, MMOs are expensive, now that devs see how profitable children's card games and mobile games are they will avoid the MMO market like the plague.

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Demon 7 years ago
i got hundreds of ideas for games that would actually last just don't have the skills or funds for it sad.
but advice for any one who does there are 3 things that keep me interested in staying i cant speak for everyone but for me. 1 i need good pvp best example would be random arena in Guild Wars 1 i use to play that all day every day no idea why they would not put that mode in GW2 dumb if u ask me instead its just king of the hill witch i hate just want to kill people . 2 build , item or character customization examples GW1 again you could mix and match skills loved it , Path of Exile can also mix and match make custom builds test out what works League Of Legends different item builds love to test out what works on there also, i hate games where all chars have a predetermined build you pick a class and every one else in the same class or race has the same dam moves or same look i hate that the most will quit a game so fast for that (stupid black desert). 3 this is the least important to me but a good pet system is always nice my best example would be shin megami tensei imagine online. besides those 3 crafting is always cool not big on it thow i hate farming but you can make a game with out having to farm some aspect of it so i deal with it just have to find a way to make it not so dam boring have yet to find a game that has done that but the best bet would be to make it so you dont have to level up at all that way the only grinding you would do would be for drops or farming for resources to craft or upgrades or for unlocking skills or taming pets or just exploring even doing jump quest like GW2 has is fun stuff like that i don't mind grinding but what do i know im just a poor gamer.

tolshortte 7 years ago
the problem with mmos is the leveling for all of the reasons Jason has mentioned many times. plus the fact no one has done it in a new way yet. kill this, collect that, run there, do x dungeon, etc.. I'm not even sure there really is a new way. so they should at least attempt to present it differently and they usually don't.

outside of that people today are spoiled by tech to a certain degree. its easier to do everything in life. the days of huge time investments long term, or even focused effort in a short term for a game is all but gone. MOBAs introduced the instant gratification method and really suits todays gamers. you level to max in 30 mins, you jump right in to the 'end game' at the start, and even if you do poorly you aren't hamstrung by the loss of resources since it all starts over in just a minute.

then there is the fact that game devs are probably the laziest sob's in any industry. putting out as little as possible, hoping it works enough to hold onto some people, and a lot of the time failing in core parts of the game. combat, questing, progression, something is almost always falling short. we as gamers who have done this for a while can plainly see where they cut corners to put out there product at as little cost as possible. players no longer see the investment, the passion, or the commitment to great games for the most part.

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shckilly 7 years ago
imo the big problems for new wow like mmos is that players dont have patience.
when wow first came in wasnt perfect, but it didnt had any real competition. now if you want to create a better mmo than wow you simply cant because you need time to adapt and to create your playerbase and by the time you can do that you are already out of bussiness.

Curst 7 years ago
"Sure, we can deride the newest pop star or... ... but the fact is, those things work."
Do they really work though when it comes to MMOs? Or is it the reason why so many new MMOs were dead on arrival lately?
The problem with WoW is that it's a game you can't realistically compete with. One needs to be suicidal to intentionally enter the same market and try to fight it on its terms. And WoW clones are trying to do just that. Even SWTOR nearly died because it wasn't different enough, big name or not. Only when it switched markets and became free to play did it manage to find its niche.
You can "redefine success" all you like, it's not a matter of some abstract "success" or "failure" anymore, it's a matter of life and death. Just look at ASTA or WildStar.

ihatemmos 7 years ago
that intro paragraph was 100% Wildstar.

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Razer 7 years ago
I never liked the traditional MMO model to begin with. Too linear, too much Skinner-Box grinding, too much emphasis on vertical advancement, un-engaging combat, and no emergent gameplay of any kind.

The biggest problem facing MMORPGs is that WoW already owns the market and there is no room left for major competitors. Especially ones that are only cookie-cutter imitations. The other problem with MMOs is the companies that do try to break the mold lack the testicular fortitude to commit to it and stray far from the same shitty old formula as WoW.

I liked GW2 because it was a step away from the usual nonsense. At least until A-Net shit the bed and suddenly chased after the traditional MMO crowd like the rest.

Tsandsoup 7 years ago
i just wish someone would make a runescape game that is actually free to play

NoPauseButton 7 years ago
I've come to realize that through all of my searching, the thing I was looking for was always right where I left it years ago. World of Warcraft. I dabbled in many other mmorpg's looking for my next adventure, but there was always something missing. One game would do well in questing, while being absolutely mediocre in combat. Or another would have the opposite problem, while others were a mixed bag altogether, and I found this to be the case time and time again.

World of Warcraft has always been my home in the mmo genre, and I've come to realize this even more so with the most recent patch in preparation for their next expansion. There is just too much that they do right, and their latest patch is a testament to that. They may not always make the most popular choices with their development team, but when they do get it right, boy do they ever.

ASA 7 years ago
I just wish MMOs would start going above level 100 like World of warcraft did. Being around level 50-70 is boring a real MMO would have over 100 levels.

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