Thursday, May 10, 2012

MMOs and Limited Innovation

My latest PopMatters article is now live: MMOs and Limited Innovation.

This article is the kindest I could be to the MMOs out on the market right now tearing into studios that frankly deserve a heap of praise for finding success in a market that has grown stale. I wanted to spend a bit of time in this extended piece talking about about TERA's genuinely interesting gameplay and the way the game redefines the traditional class-based tropes of the MMO. However, I will save that for another post. Instead, I want talk about why I have a lot of hope for the MMOs and why I believe the next four years will see renewed exploration of the genre.

Let's start with some charts (courtesy of BAM!

85% Elf
We sure do love our Tolkien mythology, don't we? Time and again we have returned to stories or mages, knights, rangers, orcs, dragons, and various combinations of mythological tropes. Yes, Skyrim was incredibly well received, but is anyone really surprised by the tepid reaction to Elder Scrolls Online? If anything, the Elder Scrolls games up to this point have shone precisely because we explored their enormous landscapes in utter solitude. Teaming up with other random strangers to tread the same fantasy path again holds little excitement. Let's look at two more graphs:

The two graphs above track subscription numbers for MMOs within the 150k to 1M+ levels. Two things to notice from these graphs. First, with few exceptions, every one of those games share two or more of these four qualities: point-and click gameplay, fantasy setting, WoW-inspired quest system, Tank/Healer/DPS class system. Second, that's actually a surprisingly large number of games, some of which have dropped off the critical games radar ages ago. Everquest, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, are also still holding strong numbers. Personally speaking, I have underestimated the size of the committed MMO community.

Which is why I am hopefuly for MMOs in the coming years. The players of these games are a committed bunch. I have seen first-hand strong social-bonds form within MMO communities, leading to lasting friendships and even hostilities against rivals. Log on to a just released MMO and you will find hundreds of players on at any given time planning out their play experience months or even years into the future, plotting out strategies and goals with a doe-eyed enthusiasm. Most importantly, their numbers are not small. MMOs are growing stagnant, but their communities are not. A steady decline might be in the immediate future for numerous MMO publishers, but more likely than not, a daring group of developers with breath life back into the tired genre sooner or later. When they do, an army of fans will be waiting to doll developer loot, free at least from limited innovation.

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