Imagine this: You rise from the ground in a tattered shawl, introduced to a deeply foreign universe of blacks, grays and dark reds. You are quickly filled with a certain sense of dread. As you begin to explore your surroundings, you notice three strange creatures who in turn notice you, and as they do, they lunge at you with blistering speed. You dodge to the left, lashing back at each of them with the broadsword you woke up with. One goes down, but the two others continue their assault. You dodge again but are hit again and are poisoned — though, despite your ailment, you are able to bring down the rest of the enemies. Heavily injured, you find yourself approaching a dimly lit town that seems to offer much-needed protection from these ghouls. Waiting there, too, are hundreds of people in exactly your position, ready to embark on an epic journey completely in their control.
You may not have to imagine for very long. The game industry has been working toward making such rich, exciting and liberating gameplay a reality for the past few decades. These massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), and more specifically, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), represent the game genre at its most aspirational.
They attempt to create not just a game, but a world where players can interact with countless others and obtain unique objectives. While MMORPGs are grand, they are never grand enough; they keep trying to create a more realistic experience, straining to create greater landscapes and more interactive gameplay. Without a doubt, these ventures push the limits of what’s possible with modern technology and storytelling techniques. So if they’re generally innovative, good for the medium and potentially very lucrative, why are they dying out?
Despite being the genre common to hugely successful games like World of Warcraft, the Guild Wars series and Runescape, recent MMORPGs have begun to fail, both before and after the fundraising and development process. Being an MMORPG fan is difficult; every time an exciting game is announced, everyone in the community must temper their expectations. Some high-profile failures include Wildstar and Everquest Next.
Releasing MMORPGs has proven to be a more difficult prospect than in other genres, and some releases are suspected to be outright scams that never intended to put out a final product. This latter category consists of crowd-funded games like Chronicles of Elyria, which further sews distrust and confusion into an already troubled community.
The community is also aging — the player-base is 26 years old on average. Fortnite, a great representative of the battle royale genre, has players who are primarily between 18 and 24 years old. With members that are older than most, and who endure letdowns and betrayals few others must, MMORPGs seem to have some inherent flaw.
For one, they are extraordinarily expensive to create. The ambition that makes them attractive also makes them costly, turning them into a risky investment for publishers. World of Warcraft cost over $200 million to create, which was unprecedented for its time — game costs have risen over the years as well, only further exacerbating this problem.
Battle royale games are much cheaper and at least equally as profitable. Doing some math, Fortnite cost around $22 million to create, far less than any large MMORPG, and managed to make more than $1.2 billion on mobile alone. Perhaps game developers have begun to realize that, from a financial perspective, the characteristic MMORPG ambition just doesn’t return enough investment to make them reliably profitable.
They also don’t coexist well with the monetization practices that have taken the industry by storm. Countless franchises that have launched into the stratosphere, including games like Honor of Kings and Roblox, are free-to-play. Other popular games are one-time purchases, usually $60 from the largest publishers. MMORPGs, though, are historically subscription-based. This means that the users pay a certain price every month or year, which is ideal given how expensive MMORPGs are to create and maintain. This scheme, however, has become outmoded in the industry and is off-putting to modern consumers looking for new intellectual properties to invest their time in.
Contemporary MMORPGs have two options: sell their game for an up-front price or make it free to play. A good example of this choice is Guild Wars 2, which is free-to-play but sells expansions for a price resembling that of a new game. Still, even with this adapted model, the game becomes deeply fragmented; some players have no expansions, others have one, and others have multiple. It is deeply disappointing for a new player to find that they are locked out of huge sections of a world until they purchase what amounts to two or three games’ worth of content. Such disappointment is often quickly followed by exasperation when they realize they can have a fulfilling, albeit more limited experience for the cost of a single game elsewhere.
Despite the tribulations that MMORPGs have dealt with and will continue to face, I deeply believe they have the potential to be some of the best games ever made. There is nothing like organizing raids with your clanmates, scraping your way through a difficult dungeon or simply losing yourself in a massive overworld filled to the brim with rewarding excursions and lore. In many ways, MMORPGs are the only games that can offer this sense of scale, and for this reason, their obsolescence would be a massive blow to the creative capacity of the medium. At this point, players can only hope that the winds of change will bring about something or someone that can break the stagnation.