The Promise of MMOs

Warner Bros. Pictures

One grain of sand. That is all that remains of my once vast empire.

The Child-like Empress, The Neverending Story

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Neverending Story. The Nothing is one of the scariest villains ever. It was unknowable, utterly alien in its motives–like despair incarnate, the void. Towards the end of the movie, the Nothing had consumed nearly everything and all that was left was a single grain of sand.

The MMO industry feels like it’s being slowly consumed by the Nothing. Over the last several weeks, the industry has been hit by a slew high profile shake-ups. Activision-Blizzard laid off hundreds, Nexon announces only mobile titles in the West, and most recently, the ArenaNet layoffs. All of this points to one thing–the market is contracting. The once vast empire of MMOs is racing towards a single grain of sand.

The Nothing

Alright so maybe that’s a little hyperbolic–but I think it’s safe to say the industry is contracting. The MMO industry has largely stagnated in recent history (and gaming as a whole, but that’s beyond the scope of this piece). AAA publishers have continued to rehash the same basic MMO formula, offering slightly different trappings on the same game. Publishers are flabbergasted that their cookie cutter games and exploitative monetization techniques haven’t been well received by the players. As entities of insatiable hunger and destructive growth, they have turned their attention (cue the Eye of Sauron shifting focus) to easier money–like the current game mode du jour, battle royale. A cookie-cutter shallow experience requiring (comparatively) little development and oodles of exploitative monetization opportunities.

But it’s not all doom and gloom though. The MMO market is ripe for disruption and rebirth. If this is a dark age of MMOs, then we are due for our own renaissance. There are two main reasons I think we’ll get it: first, we’ve yet to realize the promise of Massively Multiplayer Online games and two, there’s still an appetite for that promise.

We’ve yet to realize the promise of Massively Multiplayer Online games

MMORPGs started out as virtual worlds. They games where you could be someone else in a shared space, with other people from all the world. They promised to break down the geographic barriers allowing you to form friendships and create arch nemeses with people outside of your your immediate geographic region. They promised the opportunity to live our this new life in this fantastical world how you wanted. Do you want to be druid who uses nature magic to heal your friends and attack your enemies? You can. Do you want to be a psychic who uses advanced nano-technology to give the highest bidders a buff so they can use the highest level gear possible? Done. Do you want to be a dancer in a bar that gives buffs to anyone who wants? Done.

We started out in that direction, but that’s not where we are now. We hit technical limitations on delivering on that vision, so the scope of games we played were limited. Open-ended interactions between players or players and NPCs are hard to develop. So we gradually stripped away the nuance. Classes that supported other players were stripped down and retooled as DPS or healers. Systems that allowed for complex interactions between characters were stripped out because it was hard to control. Class choices were stripped down to ensure that no one could make a bad decision or create a subpar character. Everything was scripted and planned to the Nth degree. We limited interactions to carefully scripted ones we could control in the name of perfection. In walking this path, we’ve stepped away from the potential and the promise of what MMOs could be.

Themeparks, or MMOs of carefully curated experiences, are great games that can be a lot of fun and very rewarding. But they ultimately don’t embrace the promise of the MMO and the virtual world. Theu limit interactions and systems to only that which they can control and keep everything nice and tidy, neat and orderly. But the world doesn’t work that way, and neither do virtual worlds.

In recent years, we’ve dramatically expanded our technical abilities. Developers can easily do today what would have taken weeks or months even just a few years ago. It’s easier for developers to expand the scope of our interactions because it’s easier to account all the myriad of ways that we can interact with each other online. But the more freedom you give the players, harder it gets to curate and control the experience.

Of course, that’s not to say that we can yet create entirely new virtual worlds, but we can get a lot closer than what we are right now.

There’s Still an Appetite for That Vision

People still want that virtual worlds. They still want that place where they can be sword-slinging warrior, pyro-mage, or nano-program wielding psychics. Just look at the success of the World of Warcraft – despite the deluge of players running away, it still has more players than any other single MMO. The population of Azeroth is bigger than most cities. People don’t want WoW to die–they want WoW to open up. The want it to be more than a collection perfect experiences. People want it to be messier– to feel more lived in.

I think of it like a house. You walk into some houses and you can tell that it’s there to be experienced in a very explicit, specific way. Everything has it’s place, everything is spotless and controlled and it’s beautiful. However, there are houses where you walk in and the first thing you experience how it feels so … lived in. It’s not spotless, you see the flaws, you feel the messiness that is the experience of living there. The Perfect house is beautiful to look at, and can be enjoyed in it’s very specific, dictated way. You can’t color outside the lines, so to say. But the other house, where most of us live, is messier, beautiful in its own way, and feels alive. It’s a place where you are encouraged to color outside the lines. I think that’s what people want in MMOs.

Look at the success of the movie Ready Player One. People loved that movie in no small part because of the future it promises for us. A virtual world that’s alive, messy and full of infinite opportunity that we can never find in meatspace. It’s a virtual space where there are no lines to stay inside of.

The Grain of Sand

I stared this post with a quote from the Neverending Story. By the end of the movie, the Nothing had consumed everything but a single grain of sand. That was all that was left of the vast kingdom. But from that grain of sand, Bastian saves Fantasia and brings it all back. I think our current state of MMOs are like that. The industry might contract back to a small number of games, a veritable grain of sand. But in the end, it’ll explode out to a huge number of fantastical worlds for us to experience.

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