The broken promise of the MMO genre

Could you imagine playing the same videogame for a decade? Ten years, one game?

If this question was asked in the 90s, it would seem silly. That would be at least two generations of consoles, and PC hardware was changing so fast back then that it just wouldn’t make sense.

Then in the late 90s Ultima Online came out, and with it the promise of a virtual world that was always changing, always expanding. UO wasn’t a game you picked up and played until you beat it, it was a service you signed up for and lived with. The promise was, in a nutshell, an RPG with a story that never ended.

Early on in MMO history, the late 90s and into the early 2000s, this promise was mostly upheld. UO was a virtual world, EQ1 was less so, but was ever-expanding. Asherons Call and Dark Age of Camelot came along and added new ideas, but were still ultimately true to that core concept of a ‘forever’ game.

At some point in the mid to late 2000s however, the MMO genre went from a service that provided ‘forever’ games, to titles you jumped into to complete the newest content, and then left once you consumed it. This doesn’t apply to every single game (Hi EVE), but that is generally the case, and especially in the bigger titles like WoW and FFXIV. In this regard, the MMO genre has failed or abandoned the promise of the ‘forever’ game.

To return to the original question of playing a single game for a decade, my answer is yes, yes I have. But those titles aren’t MMOs. I’ve been playing League of Legends for close to a decade now. It’s not an RPG, but it fulfills all of the core promises of being a forever game.

Most importantly, the core game that is LoL is the same today as it was ten years ago. You control a single champion on a team of five, in a PvP match vs another team, on the same map. The details have changed and been expanded, different side flavors have come and gone, but at the end of the day if you liked LoL back then, you can still play that game today. It’s why the eSports scene in LoL is so huge; because fans across a decade can relate to what they see. It’s like pro sports; the NBA or NFL tweak the rules, different players come and go, but the core game stays the same. If you liked the NFL 10 years ago, odds are pretty high you still like it today. As we have recently seen, if you liked WoW in 2005, you need to play Classic because Retail is a dramatically different game now.

Games like LoL, along with mobile games like Clash of Clans (close to 5 years for me), show that it is possible to entertain players for a long, long time, so long as you stay true to your core while providing quality updates to keep that core feeling fresh. The MMO genre got corrupted at some point :cough: WotLK :cough: into believing this wasn’t true, and that instead an MMO just needs to provide bursts of content rather than a sustained experience. This to me is the biggest reason for the decline of the genre, and is the root problem to solve to return MMOs to their original promise.

Players want and will support a ‘forever’ game, its just up to the devs to deliver and keep that promise.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Asheron's Call, Clash of Clans, Dark Age of Camelot, EQ2, EVE Online, Final Fantasy XIV, iPhone, League of Legends, Lord of the Rings Online, MMO design, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The broken promise of the MMO genre

  1. bhagpuss says:

    Part of the problem is pacing, I think. It’s true tha, in the pre-WoW years and presumably during Vanilla WoW as well, most successful or semi-successful MMORPGs pumped out a steady stream of content that would shame today’s versions. The other half of the equation, though, is that players consumed that content far more slowly. As we’ve seen in WoW CLassic, it took *much* longer to do anything back then. If you combine that slower rate of progress with a higher output of new content you do indeed get a “forever game” because few players could keep up!

    That, though, created a sense in many players that they were forever falling behind, which led to frustration, which led ovber time to the speeding up of gameplay. At some point the ability of developers to create content crossed streams with the abilty of players to consume it and it became the developers who were constantly falling behind.

    Presumably there must be some point of equilibrium where the two find balance but no-one seems to have found it yet. ArenaNet have spent seven years looking for it and haven’t managed it. Most other developers seem to have given up trying and opted for the revolving door method you describe. I suspect what Blizzard are scratching around after with the Overwatch2/Shadowlands systems they’ve been trailing is some way to get back to the “forever game” concept but I don’t give them much chance of doing it. At best their efforts might set a few more developers to looking for ways to square this circle. I’m not so sure we’ll like the results if they do, though. The games industry in general and MMORPGs in particular are nowhere near as “innocent” as they were two decades ago. I suspect any return to the “forever game” will turn out to be a way to keep us forever paying.

  2. Azuriel says:

    The only “forever game” concept is one of PvP. Everything else requires frequent updates lest people consume the content and become bored. So in this respect, I have no idea what “promise” the MMO genre was breaking, much less MMORPGs.

    • SynCaine says:

      In 1999 the average player of EQ had basically forever content. Same with AC. DAoC was PvP, but finishing all of the PvE wasn’t something most players did either. So yea, back then MMOs did feel like ‘forever’ games.

    • Trego says:

      The answer to your question is contained in your own post, by just rewording your first two sentences: The promise to have frequent enough updates that people don’t get bored. You’re welcome.

  3. Matt says:

    This is a strange sentiment. We’re living in the age where practically every big release aspires to be a “forever game” of some kind, keeping you playing and more importantly paying forever. Remember the quaint days when you bought a box and played your game offline with no monetizing schemes getting in your face? If you like “games as a service” this is your time, live it up.

    • Trego says:

      It’s not a strange sentiment, because gamers don’t care whether big releases ‘aspire’ to be a forever game, we care whether they ARE.

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