The MMORPG genre has changed dramatically since its earliest inception. Games, the game industry, and gamers have also greatly evolved over the last decade. However, more often than not, I feel like the MMORPG’s genres biggest fans and oldest veterans, including myself, have hardly changed at all in the way we approach and play MMORPG titles.
As a genre, MMORPGs are a relatively new, ill-defined, clunky mess of varying titles with varying gameplay and varying objectives. When Meridian 59 and Ultima Online first arrived on the scene over 15 years ago, their designers barely had any idea of what the genre was or would become. Ultima specifically ended up being more of a sandbox virtual reality than any sort of actual good game. Later on in 1999 when Everquest released and took over the genre, certain cliches and designs stabilized to create the basic idea of what the gameplay of a typical MMORPG should be like. With 2001’s Dark Age of Camelot, the player-versus-player elements of the genre were fleshed out and defined. By the time 2004, most of the exploration had been done by the genre’s pioneers, and MMORPGs just needed that one title to streamline, clean up, and bring together all of the ideas born in the genre’s earliest years. Blizzard answered that call with World of Warcraft.
Over that ten year period, a few things remained the same for MMORPG players: MMORPGs had paid boxes, monthly fees, and regular expansion packs. MMORPGs were incredibly time consuming, often involving months of investment to reach the games’s higher levels with typical play sessions only viable for those with several hours to burn at a time. And with the limitations of the significant cost of entry along with the necessary time investment, MMORPGs typically had very exclusive communities consisting typically of long-term veterans and committed players.
At the same time, the game industry was changing rather dramatically. Consoles rapidly increased in potential and popularity. Online gaming left the near exclusive domain of PC gaming and became the major selling point for the last couple of console generations and their games. And gaming aged along with all of the people who grew up with Nintendos and Super Nintendos and began to creep out of its niche into more and more cultures and social circles.
Nowadays, MMORPGs are major releases from major studios that cost millions upon millions to make and are beloved by millions upon millions of players around the world. They aren’t as niche as they once were because almost everyone has at least tried games like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, or Everquest II, or knows someone who does play these games.
We now live in a world where people are online all the time. Almost every game imaginable has some form of online multiplayer. Many games have online communities that flock to watch YouTube videos, livestreams, and comment on their respective forums. I might have argued once that MMORPGs were exclusive, to some extent, in the way that their communities kept up with their games, and that the social networks they created were far more advanced than the ones typical to other games. But with more and more games that aim directly to create and maintain their own communities through competitions with a general, society-wide increase in relying upon online communications and social networks, MMORPGs are far less unique in regards to their communities.
The rapid rise of free to play, DLC, microtransactions, and ways to download games digitally, have also diminished the barriers of entry to MMORPGs and the need for subscription models. Nearly every MMORPG that comes out now can be freely tried and increasingly freely played. Instead of maintaining specific players, the genre has become more obsessed with maintaining average amounts of players, which typically leads to bloated games that appeal to more and more gamer demographics to make sure there is a constant average of players playing and hopefully spending on microtransactions.
Despite all of this, I feel like we play MMORPGs the exact same we always have. With each new title, people get hyped up and excited. They buy or just download the game hoping it’ll keep their attention for the next few years of their life, that it will be worth spending 20+ hours a week to level up and become the most bad ass elven whatever in the land. Content is meant to be consumed rapidly, because why would you ever want to go slow and risk being behind the curve of cool players who can invest a seemingly infinite amount of hours? Even if we no long have to camp for a spawn or play for hours to finish a dungeon, we spend far too many hours per individual game session cramming in more and more of what the game offers. And without the same barriers of entry, we act as if every new MMORPG has to be worthy of our time for the next year if it is to be deemed a good game rather than just the next month or week.
The genre itself is of course to blame. Years of subscription fees have to indoctrinated us all into this idea that we constantly have to get our value back from the game. It also doesn’t help that every new MMORPG is designed with a lot of fluff and padding between content and gameplay to maximize the time needed to truly get into the deeper elements of the game.
Imagine yourself getting a game that isn’t a MMORPG. Without putting an exact number on the cost, let’s say it is an above average shooter. Imagine the single player netted you around 8 to 10 quality hours and the multiplayer was good enough that you put another 20 hours in that before moving on to other games (though you kept this one in case friends wanted to play or you just had an itch).
Now take that same game, and instead of a few new weapons or vehicles every level, the single player lasts five times as long because you MAY get a new weapon every few hours or so. The multiplayer is solid enough, but there is a 20 hour tutorial before you get the full arenas with the full weapons and the full power-ups. Instead of ~30 hour quality experience, you end up with 70 hours of padding with sparse amounts of quality interspersed through out. Sure, there is a big difference between shooters and MMORPGs, but I don’t think that means that our expectations have to be so dramatically different as well.
If MMORPGs are going to grow as a genre, then maybe it is time we all learn to play them like other games. Maybe it is time that instead of bloating their games beyond necessary, developers design MMORPGs to be picked up and played like League of Legends or a typical shooter. Skill with some knowledge is what limits you, not the fact that you haven’t invested 30 hours to unlock those last two skills that allow your class to perform its one role.
And if story and world exploration are going to continue to be important, then I think it is time that I and others learn to play MMORPGs as hybrids of single player RPGs and multiplayer games. Maybe it was intended that The Old Republic sucks when I want a deeper party-based dungeon experience, but that shouldn’t activate my elitist, prickly side to such an extent that I ignore playing the game at all for story and world. If The Elder Scrolls Online ends up being another World of Warcraft clone with an Elder Scrolls skin on it, that might not mean that the world isn’t worth exploring to at least the max level. It just may mean that it isn’t worth sticking around beyond that.
Times have changed. It is an impossible standard in an age where exclusively playing one game, dedicating your time to one community, and general gamer patience just aren’t what they used to be. No one can afford to be jerked around for 15 hours before we are supposed to even begin to have fun anymore and developers shouldn’t be selling that these days anyway. TL:DR: not every MMORPG should strive to be a 1000+ hour game and we as gamers need to stop expecting them to be.