23 Sep 2014

Death of a Super-Genre

The time of the full-fat feature-packed MMORPG is at an end. They are ridiculously expensive to produce, and are regularly met with scorn and disinterest by an increasingly cynical audience. The market has spoken very clearly – these are not the games people want to play. Blizzard’s decision to cancel Titan – an upcoming MMOFPS that didn’t have their full confidence – just goes to show how tough this is.

Publishers and developers are paying attention. Just take a look at the MMORPG release schedule for 2015 – there’s nothing for the traditional genre fan. It’s something I noticed when walking the floor at Gamescom, where all the big MMO stands were for games that had been out for months if not years. World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, WildStar and Guild Wars 2 on the Twitch booth. But nothing new or upcoming to carry the MMO banner.

Instead, we’ve got a collection of multiplayer experiences heading our way. Evolve, Shadow Realms and Gigantic hope to snag us on the PvP front. Oort and Trove aim to scratch our sandbox itch. And as Bill Murphy pointed out in his editorial, Destiny, The Division and The Crew are showing how soft-touch persistent multiplayer can be brought to traditional genres, providing that social PvE experience in a smooth, subscription-free manner.

The end result? We won’t see another heavyweight MMORPG released by a major studio in the next two years.

Why? Two reasons. Those that have found a game they love aren’t in any hurry to leave it any time soon. Call it fun-based inertia. Meanwhile, those that are on the hunt for something new have become nomadic, surging to the hot new game, only to leave it a few months later. They end up disappointed that it didn’t live up to expectations, or get hooked on that ‘new game’ feeling.

That, and we’re all waking up from the hallucination that the games we want to play now are the same ones we played ten years ago. You know, when we were back at college, and didn’t have jobs or a family to worry about. Where we had more than two hours every few days to squeeze in some game time. When we didn’t have responsibilities in the real world, and so could spend our lives in a virtual one.

Yeah, 2004 has a lot to answer for.

But there’s another, often overlooked aspect as well – the rise of social networks. If I want to talk to people about the good times we’ve been having in WildStar, there’s a massive range of places where I can do that. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr – some of these didn’t even exist ten years ago, and are now a hotbed of gaming activity. The point is, I don’t need to be logged in to feel a part of those communities any more, as there’s so much going on outside the game. It also means my social experience is much more portable from one game to the next – there’s no dependency on the MMO to keep me in contact with awesome people.

Is this a bad thing? Possibly. I’m worried that we’ll see genre stagnation, as the last few bastions limp on like gundam marching through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I also think that we’ll see more MMOs on Kickstarter, funded by a desperate audience, then collapse through financial inevitability. Caveat emptor.

So what now?

For the MMO fan, times are going to be tough. Some would say that the MMO genre is being carved up, with the constituent parts being absorbed into other areas of videogaming to create something new. Others would argue that MMOs are stepping back from trying to be all things to all people, and instead focus tightly on a single unique experience that they can polish to a shine. Either way, the age of the polymath is over.

But this isn’t something to cry over. After all, we’re to blame. We choose what to play, and what to spend our money on. And today, more than ever, our time is the most precious thing we have. For a game to grab more than a few hours of eyeball, it has to be something truly special. That’s the challenge facing the genre over the next five years, and a tight focus is the ticket to achieving it.

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