I wondered out loud on Twitter the other day, trying to figure out when the era of classically-designed MMOs was, or is. Originally, I called it the “golden age” but as a Facebook buddy said, “golden age” implies a judgment of quality, and I should go with “Classical” or something similar. I agree 100%, but it should be noted I tweeted it while out to dinner and was concentrating more on the idea of a time period of “true” MMO design.
That period means the age when MMORPGs were being released frequently, and they were of “true” design, meaning they featured open worlds that persisted while players were offline, and “truly” massive numbers of online players.
This is not to say that all upcoming or more-recently released MMOs are not “true” MMOs, but instead that there was a time — I was guessing between, say, 1997 and 2012 — when MMORPGs were not just being mentioned by the rare mainstream website articles, but when entire websites that were dedicated to the genre existed. This was also an era when developers mentioned old-school designs in their pitches, compared to today when many MMO designers mention more “modern” designs like MOBA-like matches or designed-for-solo content.
We still have some MMO websites, of course, and we still have old-school designers, but if you compare most modern-day bloggers, writers, and websites to their older cousins, you would see a group of people who have to mention non-MMOs due to fear of losing hits compared to the older site writers and bloggers who wouldn’t even think about mentioning non-MMO content.
The point is that websites, blogs, and fansites reflect the designs of the hobby. Years ago, I knew scores of people who hosted podcasts and blogs. These days it’s down to a handful. My guess is that many of them got their start with World of Warcraft and never really tried to learn about much more than the other games that cost major-league money to make. Because the big $$$ MMOs are mostly a thing of the past, these fans thought (wrongly) that the genre was dead, and moved on.
As the sites and blogs stopped, the designers decided to stop with the classic designs. “No one wants that anymore,” they thought. “We have to make a MOBA.”
This is not meant as a judgment call, by the way, but as a statement of fact.
So, if the era of the massive-world, massive-playerbase MMO is possibly behind us, when did it stop?
Did it stop with Guild Wars 2, TERA, or The Secret World, around 2012?
The Elder Scrolls Online, ArcheAge, and Neverwinter are all great and came out in 2013. But, just compare those release numbers to 2010, or 2009, or 2008!
In fact, we will compare a little bit, thanks to my old Massively partner (and current writer dood for MassivelyOP) Syp at BioBreak, who has been keeping a nice list of MMO launches on his blog. While the list is missing many titles, it’s a great list. We’ve had (I skip a few years but go to his page and use the FIND function to highlight launches) :
- 6 launches in 1996
- 3 in 1997
- 13 in 2003
- 13 in 2011
- 13 in 2013 (the highest amount in recent years)
- 8 in 2014
- 8 to launch in 2016
But also, look at closures:
- 1 in 2002
- 1 in 2003
- 1 in 2004
- 1 in 2006
- 5 in 2009
- 8 in 2012
- 5 in 2016 (so far)
**Syp does mention that he is leaving out “every piddly MMO on the planet or most MUDs/MUSHs/MOOs. I also stuck mostly to MMORPGs (i.e. few MMO sports games, no MOBAs, little limited multiplayer),” which is understandable, but still illustrates how MMO discussions need to become more inclusive.**
Someone posted a comment about games like GemStone IV, the awesome MUD, that has been going for a long, long, time and is still tweaking itself to be more modern like offering a free-to-play, browser-based version. I’ve covered GemStone IV many times, and it should always be considered in conversations about MMOs. Still, Syp works for a living and doesn’t have a bajillion hours to sit around collecting information, and his chart still shows us a pattern.
Perhaps the “Classical” era stopped when MOBAs really and truly caught on, signalling the next “big thing” in multiplayer design? (League of Legends, described as a “MOBA” first, was launched in 2009.)
It’s hard to say, but I am attempting to narrow it down in preparation for a book I am writing. Again, I am not meaning to pass judgement on indie and major-label MMOs that have yet to be released, as I have not played those yet, but many of the ones coming up look more to be instanced-based fighting games rather than open world exploration-fests.
This is also not an attempt to declare the end of the older and more-open MMOs that still attract me, games like EverQuest, Ultima Online, or Ryzom. Many of these games will remain for many more years, and why not? Some MUDs have been open for nearly 30 years, and remain vibrant!
As I have predicted in the past, mobile will take over, and it is showing signs of doing just that. As I used to love to say: “Ask a tween what they play games on, and I’ll bet probably 10% say ‘A computer.'” Whether we older gamers agree with their tastes doesn’t matter; they are the next wave.
I have also predicted that “classic” MMO design will die out as computers go and mobile gaming invade everything, but the recent massive success of Pokemon Go! shows what I mean when I have described a “hybrid” future MMO: an MMO that takes advantage of the sheer number of mobile players, using mobile tech that is portable and powerful.
Imagine playing a Pokemon Go!-style game, but instead of catching monsters, you find treasure, fight enemies, and claim territory in real time, in the real world! MMOs will have had their “classic” period as I have been describing, then will usher in a period of “massive, MASSIVELY” player games as the real world and mobile meets classical design.
I’m excited, but more than that I am happy to get closer to categorizing this wonderful period of design!