Vague Patch Notes: The wax and wane of MMOs and genres

Vague Patch Notes: The wax and wane of MMOs and genres

I started writing for Massively-that-was in October of 2009. That was 11 years ago. Oh… oh my word, no, that was so long ago. More than a decade. I have been doing this job for too long. My life is pointless and meaningless, this is a nightmare, how do I get out of this horror show that is constantly…

Ahem. In 2009 we were looking at a number of new high-profile MMO launches, some of which did well, some of which definitely did not. I started just in the wake of launches from Aion, Champions Online, and Fallen Earth… and just around the moment when Dungeons & Dragons Online shifted into the free-to-play model. And as all of these things were going on, there was one profound and constant refrain: MMOs were dying.

Out of those games, of course, three are still running, one only recently shut down (supposedly for a relaunch), and one of them jumped into a massive business model shift before it became dominant. Time changes all things, except that refrain. MMOs are still dying, despite that death now lasting throughout the entirety of my career covering these games.

Oddly beautiful.

Of course, there’s more to life than just my own presence, but I think some context is worth examining. Just for giggles, I decided to go through Justin’s MMO timeline for my time in this field and count the releases by year.

  • 2009: Eight launches
  • 2010: Ten launches
  • 2011: Fourteen launches
  • 2012: Six launches
  • 2013: Ten launches
  • 2014: Eight launches
  • 2015: Five launches
  • 2016: Eight launches
  • 2017: Five launches
  • 2018: Thirteen launches
  • 2019: Eight launches
  • 2020: Five launches

Averaging all that out, we get… about nine launches a year. That seems pretty healthy to me. Obviously, not all of these launched games went on to major success or are even still running today, but the point here is that these are new and notable MMO launches that show… well, a pretty consistent decent number of respectably sized games coming out all the way through.

None of this is even taking into account that of the “big five” MMORPGs; all of them are making more than enough money to justify their continued operations. Final Fantasy XIV, The Elder Scrolls Online, and World of Warcraft are all massive moneymakers for larger company operations. Black Desert and Guild Wars 2 both sustain themselves as companies that haven’t launched many other games yet. (Yes, both of them have subsidiaries and older titles and in-production titles that are a bit more complicated, but you get the idea.) In the larger MMO space, I don’t even need to tell you about Epic Games.

So you might think that this is just “ha ha, stats don’t back you up, you’re wrong” kind of column. But it’s not. I think the sense of “MMOs are dying” does genuinely come from an organic place even if it is ultimately a counterfactual claim. A lot of new MMOs are not MMORPGs in a traditional, recognizable sense. There does seem to be a real paucity of new MMORPGs coming out compared to things like survival sandboxes, battle royale titles, and so forth. So I think there is a genuine worry and wonder about why the genre no longer seems to be at the heights it once was, at least in terms of brand-new titles.

And to discuss that, we should talk about… adventure games. I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

Roont.

Adventure games were an early staple of PC gaming in particular, and going into a whole history of them would take time and space that I don’t have here. While they were never games I particularly liked all that much, titles like The Secret of Monkey Island, the King’s Quest series, Maniac Mansion, and countless other titles took the more robust control options available to PC gamers and provided a more elaborate experience than something home consoles could provide.

But as time went by, something… changed. Several things changed, really. Home PCs went from desperately struggling to do quick action graphics to being able to do them deftly. The ubiquity of PCs went up. Console hardware got better. And adventure games – once a staple of PC markets – started to be criticized for unfair and persistent deaths, unclear objectives, insane developer logic, and overly fussy interfaces.

Once-loved series languished and stopped. Other games stepped into dominance. Over time, the point-and-click adventure became a relic, something no designer would ever bother making again. And so we stand here now, with the adventure game a dead genre completely devoid of new titles.

“Wait a second,” you say. “That’s not true, there are lots of new adventure games these days.” And you’re totally right! That was a trick. I tricked you. Sure, the genre’s popularity decreased, but the lower cost of producing a new adventure game, the popularity of mobile phones, a resurgent indie scene, and a new batch of designers with a love for the genre have revitalized it once again.

Adventure games are no longer the assumed genre for new titles on the PC, but the genre is still going. It never really went away. It just diminished, then bulked up once more.

Clack.

It’s easy to forget how big a deal Ultima Online, EverQuest, and WoW were when they each launched. The first literally kicked off the genre, with such a notable commercial impact that there was a pressure upon studios to figure out why they weren’t trying to get in on this online game money train yesterday. The result was a rush of games quickly aiming to jump in and get a slice of this pie, a burst of creativity and new titles of varying degrees of success.

I don’t think that the people crying that MMOs are dying are necessarily wrong. If you compare the early rush of MMORPGs with the current market, it’s easy to see the genre has gone in a very different direction and a lot of what’s coming out is much more of a narrow MMO than full-featured titles of the past. But this is not actually unusual or unique to MMOs. These things wax and wane, ebb and flow, with interest spiking, diminishing, and then coming back over time once again.

Online gaming is not the revolutionary new concept that it was back in 1997, when UO coined the genre’s name and set the wheels in motion. (And given the titles that launched in short order around that time, it should be clear that a lot of people saw this was going to be a big deal.) Development teams are trying different things. Heck, I suspect some of why we’ve seen a fair amount of MMORPG development coming out from Japan is that FFXIV is in part a major success and one of the first MMORPGs to really break into the mainstream.

So I’m not worried about the genre dying in the slightest. We’re not in my early days of working for this site, when there seemed to be a larger variety of MMORPGs launching… but then, in those days we also had different business models dominating, and a lot of the MMORPGs that launched didn’t hold up all that well. Heck, that was a time when the field didn’t have a “big five” lineup, it had WoW and then everything else.

We might be going through a slightly lower pulse at the moment. But that changes over time, in a regular ebb and flow. And I look forward to seeing what the next big thing might be… because there will be something.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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