When was the last time you were super excited for a massively multiplayer online role-playing (MMORPG) game?
Yeah, that’s how I feel, too.
About a decade ago, we were up to our ears in MMORPGs. The Lord of the Rings franchise, the original Star Wars trilogy and “Conan the Barbarian” all had one. The Matrix movies even had a buggy, yet fun, online gaming version.
The MMORPG genre revolutionized the video game industry and stretched the social limits of a medium once looked down upon as only a hobby for children and basement-dwelling 30-somethings. Franchises like World of Warcraft, Diablo and Guild Wars have generated billions in revenue in the past decade.
The genre seems poised for a boost this month with next week’s release of “Warlords of Draenor,” the fifth expansion to 2004’s “World of Warcraft.” The anticipation for the new entry gave the venerable MMORPG franchise a boost in subscription numbers, which are now at about 7.4 million.
Although these subscription numbers are still down by 2010’s peak of over 12 million, the World of Warcraft franchise will live on.
The MMORPG genre, however, will not.
Virtually every other franchise in the genre is in a nosedive. Some games like “City of Heroes” and “The Matrix Online” died out. Others, like “Lord of the Rings Online” and “DC Universe Online,” enjoy a meager existence thanks to a coven of diehard fans.
“World of Warcraft” still enjoys some relevance, but I believe that’s due to the franchise attaining a cult-like status similar to the Mario or Kirby franchises. Are those characters and games dinosaurs? Absolutely, but developers will never stop making them, and people will never stop buying them.
So why did this collapse happen?
From a business and industry standpoint, it’s pretty clear that over-saturation and the growth of cheap, addicting free-to-play games on both the PC and an exploding mobile market played a pretty big role.
Most MMORPGs used a pay-to-play subscription model. Players buy the game, then must spend $10-15 a month to have access to the online world. This model is nearly extinct. Only a handful of games, including “World of Warcraft,” still cling to it.
There was also a shift in development priorities. MMORPGs are gigantic, costly endeavors that take years to produce.
Free-to-play games are cheaper and take less time to make. Studios can create a simple shell of a game and add to it for years. If the game sucks and nobody likes it, studios can pull the plug early with minimal damage.
If an MMORPG flops, hundreds of people would probably lose their jobs.
As for the players of these titles, I think it’s different for each of us.
I found myself simply falling out of love with the genre over the years. I didn’t ever consciously decide I was done with MMORPGs; in fact, I am still subscribed to “Elder Scrolls Online.” But I only play it around once a week, typically for no more than an hour or two.
Once upon a time, I would gather a party and play 8-10 hours per sitting in games like “Star Wars Galaxies,” “Final Fantasy XI” or “Diablo II: The Lord of Destruction.”
I’d like to say that I don’t do that anymore just because I grew up and have a life. I have three jobs, school and a social life that all take up the bulk of my time. However, that would be a lie. I still play games all the time.
The truth is that these games simply aren’t that fun anymore. The genre is formulaic. Anyone who has a few hours of experience with any MMORPG is going to immediately know how and what to do on most new titles in the genre.
I also think that people’s tastes have evolved past “the grind.” This term refers to the monotony of doing the same thing over and over to level up. Whether it’s killing yaks or collecting flowers, the grind is an extremely tedious way to progress through a game.
This rejection of the grind is why people are salty about “Destiny,” which certainly borrows elements from these old-school MMORPGs.
People want brand new experiences every hour in every game. I am playing “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” this week for a review in next week’s paper, and that game has so many new gadgets and buttons that I can’t even keep track of them all from level to level.
But that’s how to survive in today’s gaming world. When you are trying to capture the imaginations of a generation of people with attention spans the size of a thimble, you need to be fast and agile. And MMORPGs are still slow and clunky.