A release of an expansion of “World of Warcraft” in 2016 would be like Warner Bros. deciding to release “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” exclusively on VHS. The diehard fans of the franchise are going to buy it. But they have to know going in that it would look like garbage given the technology gap and wonder just how surprised they’ll be at yet another story with the same old characters.
And yet, here we are. The sixth expansion, “Legion,” comes out Tuesday.
I don’t mean to pick on “World of Warcraft” too much. Its longevity is amazing. If it were a person, it would be in middle school by now. But it is one of a few franchises carving out an existence in a wasteland.
Make no mistake: The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) genre is dead. And we killed it. We’ve been driving a stake through its heart – slowly, inch by inch – for the past three years.
The free-to-play monolith “League of Legends,” coupled with a spike in the global mobile game market, has us believing that addicting online content is and should always be free. Many MMORPGs have collapsed in their wake. Some, like “Elder Scrolls Online” and “DC Universe Online,” have carved out a decent existence by adapting to a hybrid free-to-play model. “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” a masterpiece painfully crafted for years at a $200 million price tag, is now free.
This is a symptom of a much larger disease affecting modern society, especially my fellow millennials. We believe things that cost a lot of money to create should be free. We illegally downloaded MP3s on Limewire. We share each other’s Netflix accounts. We’re part of the reason I am sitting in a half-empty office as I write this. We believe news and media should be free because it is a smartphone swipe away.
And now, this mentality has killed the defining gaming genre of my adolescence.
I first wrote about the MMORPG decline almost two years ago, when “World of Warcraft” was releasing its fifth expansion. Back then, I called it dying. Now, I can call time of death.
I discovered the body last weekend. “Overwatch” was growing a little stale, and I had no desire to play “League” or a PlayStation game, so I went hunting for a gripping MMORPG. I input “best MMO” into Google, and clicked on a PC Gamer article written in June with exactly that title. The newest game listed was made in 2014. I had already played each of the games listed. I tried clicking on a few more lists, which yielded similar results.
Many people will probably disagree with my thoughts on MMORPG mortality. “Final Fantasy XIV” and “World of Warcraft” are still big moneymakers, after all. But the genre hasn’t produced a quality game in two years. How can something without new life not be considered dead?
And anyone rushing to wave “Black Desert Online” in my face can save it. It released worldwide earlier this year, but it’s been out for two years in South Korea. I bought it sight unseen (one of only two games I have purchased in 2016) because so many people were raving about it, and I had a powerful thirst for a juicy new MMORPG. It was terrible. The combo system is cool, but you’re made to just mindlessly slash away at things for absolutely no discernible reason. Even “Tera” had a better plot.
‘World of Warcraft’ hit a subscription high in 2010, with 12 million. That number sunk to 5.5 million in 2015. The company no longer releases these figures.
Now that it’s gone, the question becomes will we miss it?
Perhaps not. Massively online battle arena (MOBA) games like “League” and “Dota 2” are quite popular and scratch many of the same itches. Many fine console games deliver deep, thought-provoking narratives. Mobile is king. Virtual reality is coming.
If you would have asked me about the MMORPG decline last year, I probably would have told you good riddance. I really thought I was done with the genre. But my impulsive “Black Desert Online” purchase and restless weekend expeditions have proved otherwise. I have a longing – but for what? There doesn’t appear to be much new ground to tread, so perhaps a new superhero MMORPG? They’re used to be three concurrent superhero online gaming franchises (“City of Heroes/Villains,” “Champions Online” and “DC”). And film studios are cranking out new cape movies every month, it seems. Heck, maybe “Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen” can do it.
I hope a major publisher takes a final crack at it – one last, big-budget MMORPG. But I certainly won’t blame any who don’t. Spending $50 million to $100 million upfront on a game whose primary audience will be a bunch of freeloaders doesn’t seem like a sound business proposition.