PAX Prime 2014 – Where have the MMORPGs gone?
By Blair Nishkian (Tagspeech)
All around the world, developers, press, and gaming enthusiasts are charged up for a very special time of year – a time of year when thousands of people cram themselves into arenas, mill about in packs, listen to lectures, watch presentations, and collect souvenirs. It’s convention season. This is the time of year when the whole of the gaming industry puts on their best hat, gathers at a snazzy show, and does their best to dazzle anyone and everyone that will take a look.
For the past ten years, these sorts of conventions have only gained in size and popularity, their growth on par with the relative growth of the gaming industry’s role in the world economy. But what drew all of this money into the industry to begin with? MMORPGs, of course. The blazing success of World of Warcraft and its transformation of Blizzard from a respected Art House studio into an economic elder god drew every executive and business major in from a worldwide radius. There was blood in the water. They’d built themselves what seemed to be a perpetual-motion machine of profit.
But after MMORPG project after MMORPG project tried and failed to compete in the literally impossible MMORPG market, publishers despaired. They had not yet toppled their hated foe, on account of not really seeming to understand the nature of the genre, or even the finite nature of the amount of people willing to pay for and play those types of games. Then, along came free-to-play, DLC, and microtransactions. That was when the whole ordeal became a veritable feeding frenzy of profit-driven game development, and it began what some would call a dark age in gaming. Nothing anyone did seemed to be about the games themselves anymore. Immersion, storytelling, and simple fun-factor took a backseat to digital content with price tags, the next big MMORPG cash cow, and five-dollar DLC installments that really didn’t cost anyone much of anything to make (but it’ll cost you plenty).
When will it end? Well, there’s hope on the horizon. Convention season is like a barometer for the general climate of the gaming industry. And right now, the winds of change are blowing. It seems that the MMORPG slaughter, that long, hopeless war in which publishers sent hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars down the drain in an attempt to dethrone WoW, leaving the charred, laid-off corpses of so many innocent game designers and starry-eyed devs strewn across a hellish, blasted landscape – ahem – it seems that era is coming to a close. It would seem that, in fact, publishers and executives with dollar-signs for eyes are finally realizing that WoW is impossible to kill or compete with, and that there are other, more lucrative and certain enterprises to be tapping into.
These days, as a member of the press, it’s impossible to only book MMORPG meetings at these conventions and still fill a full daily schedule. In fact, as many of my personal interviews and online press events might lead you to believe, a huge part of the MMORPG sector is shifting over to small, indie, crowdsourced projects that just don’t have the money to waste on stupendous, AAA marketing schemes at convention centers. It would seem, in fact, that the bloodlust is receding, now fully-occupying the realm of dedicated competitive multiplayer games, single-player games with squad-based multiplayer features, and basically anything that can be monetized through the use of a ‘booster pack’ gear purchasing system. The gaming gods have spoken – MMORPGs shall henceforth be sandbox affairs, with voxels maybe, and probably some player-driven rules about realms and individual worlds. We all asked for it, and for better or worse, we’re probably going to get it.
In ten years, are we going to be seeing these small, humble independent MMORPG titles blasting their presence out off the top of skyscrapers and shooting T-shirt cannons at a convention center? Are they going to be the juggernauts of tomorrow? Who can say. It doesn’t seem likely. The MMORPG is and always was a genre about community, and quite honestly, insular, clique-ish interaction between individuals of the community. At their best, they’re a tight-knight tribe of escapists allied closely with the developers that actually shape and maintain the world they inhabit. With the earlier and earlier involvement of players with the development process of these games, the line between player and developer is being blurred.
In MMORPGs, it’s not about the hype or the marketing or the hooplah – MMORPG gamers want a reliable, immerisve, stable world to escape into. They want to know their holdings and their investment will be safe. Huge, expensive titles aren’t conducive to that. Small, easily-controlled and monitored development cycles are. It’s highly unlikely that the MMORPG of tomorrow will have much to do with fancy, over-the-top marketing campaigns and convention shows, because the MMORPG is poised to become something entirely separate from traditional gaming.
We’re quite possibly beginning to see the divergence between video game and virtual reality or metaverse creation. One is an entity designed to entertain and delight, to test reflexes or provide a brain exercise, while the other is explicitly designed to be a kind of new, digital frontier for world-weary people to escape into. That’s what they were in the 90′s, and that’s what they’re becoming again – this time, in ways far more intricate and strange than ever before. Minecraft really changed the way we look at sandboxes. The MMORPG of the next decade or so is going to be a strange, wondrous beast. They will most certainly differentiate themselves from simple ‘online games.’
They will, by virtue of their very nature and the nature of those who seek them out and design them, become something entirely new – something that just won’t have time for conventions. They will, in their own strange way, become like virtual city-states, walled off from the rest of the world, and entirely self-sustaining within their own select genre, swapping players amongst one-another, and perhaps even one day setting up rules of emigration and immigration between titles. It’s a brave new world for gaming. The holy grail of total immersion and VR simulation is far, far off, but it is, as always, the ultimate goal. By the time we’re old and grey, it may be out just in time to make us feel young again. Hooray, technology and escapism!