This is going to be a fairly lengthy post, far longer then I typically write. I apologize in advance if I lose a few of you. The topic, however, is a fairly important one to me. I’ve written about similar topics before, but I feel the need to call out this indie developer for a very specific reason and to highlight why this is so crucial to game development. Having lived and played through the inception of MMOs all the way through today’s various iterations of the genre, I feel especially qualified to both notice and comment on it.

All Hail Nostalgia, Queen of the MMO Gamer

Previously when I spoke about the topic, it was in regards to another bloggers comments about why MMO veterans always looked back when playing today’s MMOs and claimed they weren’t as good. More to the point, the focus has always been on specific game systems and their evolution through time. We argue over the various positives and negatives of a system, but let’s be honest, game makers today are victims of their own success. When one game becomes a mega-hit (EverQuest), it encourages outside investment and thus external market forces are introduced into a genre that typically had no outside pressure on it.

When we look at all of the failures and missteps of the MMO genre in recent years, it doesn’t necessarily come down to specific systems. Gamers might cite those systems as reasons why a game failed, but it’s the behaviors caused by those designed systems that I believe are truly to blame for any individual titles failure. I remember having a discussion with some of my guild mates about various MMOs we’ve tried since forming. None of the titles specifically are very different from the other successful MMOs out there. Fundamentally, much of the same game exists between World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls Online. Many of the systems seem to share very similar principles. Yet Elder Scrolls Online could potentially be called a failure because it was unable to attract and maintain the necessary amount of subscriptions to stay afloat (in its original monetization scheme).

When you start comparing IP’s and even the specifics of a game system, it’s hard to really fathom why one game might succeed and one might not. WildStar emphasized the end-game raiding that World of Warcraft players aspired to be a part of. Yet that same focus seemingly betrayed it; few casuals found the environment or drive to become one of those raiders very appealing. So why exactly is this all so important? I think oddly enough, I found my sentiment echoed in a 90s movie quote;

Ian: If I may… Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now [bangs on the table] you’re selling it, you wanna sell it. Well…
John: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before…
Ian: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Sadly, I think the above quote is the key to the MMO genre right now. The need to make money is certainly not something that is going away any time soon in gaming. Companies, especially MMOs more so, require a constant income to afford the upkeep and ongoing development that power them. The problem inherently lies with whether the company should bother. Just because you could turn the Elder Scrolls IP into an MMO, doesn’t mean you should. Yet, it’s simultaneously both a bigger and a smaller problem than that.

You shouldn’t merely classify one MMO as a failure and move on (I’m guilty of doing so often). Nothing is ever so simple, though we do it anyways. Instead most MMOs that fail are guilty of consecutively integrating the “best parts” of the genre that came before it. The small crack ultimately becomes a break in the games DNA that can’t be corrected by simply trying to fix the error. You’d need to backtrack to the original system and see where it all went wrong. Its usually too late by then to save the title.

The MMO Dilemma

Mass appeal is certainly at the center of the problem we face. Titles must appeal to a large enough base to grab the support necessary to thrive. As a result, game design choices were made to cater to the increasingly casual player market. As systems made game play easier and less time demanding, player commitments to games readily shrunk with it. I don’t know if many people reading this remember a time when EverQuest was referred to as “EverCrack”, but it was an honest problem with some gamers. Time spent in the virtual world rivaled that of the real world. Today, that might be seen as a negative.

A major problem exists in my referencing EverQuest or any of its aged brethren; conjuring forth memories of the old world order of MMO gaming causes many gamers to feel completely alienated. It’s not that these games had some revolutionary take on gaming that today’s games do not. I think its subtler than that. Yet the passion felt about these games cannot simply be discarded as nostalgia. I discovered what I believe is the answer as I slowly watched Crowfall, an admittedly niche MMO experience, began to take form after its Kickstarter.

More With Less

A recent and lengthy quote by Thomas Blair gave me the ammo needed for this article. I felt it was noteworthy on its own, but I included the entirety of the quote from the forums because of the insight into a specific older-generation MMO.

One of the cooler aspects of early SWG I look fondly back on was the 3 distinct gameplay spheres, the Combatants, the Crafters, and the Entertainers. Think of the spheres like a giant Venn Diagram. Each sphere had their own gameplay and relied in some fashion on the other spheres. In the broadest of strokes:

  • the Combatants would use gear the Crafters would produce
  • the Crafters would use credits from the Combatants to fund shops, cities, resource purchasing, rare components
  • the Entertainers would cure Combatant wounds, and provide appearance customization to the other spheres.

There were other skill setups that fell under the parent spheres, like Doctor buffing fell into the Entertainer sphere, and Resourcers fell into the Crafter sphere but both of their gameplay was different than the primary professions. (Also both of these gameplay styles were emergent so it was pretty awesome to see them sprout up)

The glue that kept all these spheres working together was deeply rooted in 3 rules:

  1. Everything wears out,
  2. Accounts only have 1 character per server, (effectively 1 char per account)
  3. A player can only buy so many skill boxes per character.

It is amazing how broken the spheres became as the first 2 rules were eroded over time (ironically “because it would make the players happier”)

Crafters took a huge hit from the veteran reward Anti Decay Kit. (This also introduced the escalating arms race with items, new items had to be much better to be considered for usage)

Crafters / Doctors / Entertainers took a MASSIVE hit from multiple characters allowed on an account. Entire gameplay spheres once required by the Combatants became “alts”, only logged in for brief periods to Buff/Craft an item.

*sigh* lessons learned the hard way from working on the Live team.

I really hope on Crowfall we can make some of the more niche roles primary roles and not relegated to alts. (Yes I know, multiple accounts, but the barrier of entry is higher than a “create another character” button. Also if we can get some active gameplay/gameplay that timewise competes with combat time we can thin out the amount of alt crafters)

We chose not to go with a fixed number of points for a couple of reasons. Mainly the depth of the trees and scale of time will have players dedicated to a play style, there really is no reason to further gate via a hard cap. If you want to spend the time you can find some nice perks at the beginning of each playstyles paths though. (For example you might want to pick up a few skills in the basic crafting tree for the ability to place a Vendor Thrall in your EK to sell all those rare additives you don’t want. Your Vendor Thrall might cost waaaaaaay more in rent and not look like a badass demon, but you get a taste of the functionality)

-Thomas Blair

A lot to take in right? Let me pull one specific component out of this that I think is incredibly noteworthy. One character per account. That’s completely unheard of in MMOs. Even in EverQuest days they allowed “alts”. Yet Star Wars Galaxies fans remain entirely passionate about that game, even years after its departure from this Earth. The notion that players are forced, before they’ve even experienced the game, to make a decision with permanent ramifications on how they approach the game is utterly unique. It’s also a bit unforgiving if you decide you DON’T like what you selected. Yet the decision to limit players clearly created niches within the game that players happily filled. Did people complain they couldn’t be everything at once back then? Perhaps. Yet the idea that every player was potentially unique and needed within their respective server was also likely to be equally as powerful in influencing players to stick with it.

Modern MMOs have always allowed players to play as whatever they wanted, sometimes giving players the option to run around as 8 to 10 various alternates on top of the original character. Why did they allow for this? The reason circles back to the money component of MMOs. More characters equate to more time spent playing the game which equates to even more subscription revenues. Everyone wins right?

Houston, We Have A Hobo Problem

This is the crux of the problem I think really exists. The transient and easily discarded nature of our virtual personas has radically altered how we perceive our virtual selves. We can easily change if we don’t like how some aspect of our virtual character is. I don’t want to be a warrior anymore, no problem, roll a different class! That transient nature, however, has created a class of MMO player that willfully and gleefully discards a game for another when a new one comes out. I have no attachment to this character (any of them), and thus my attachment to the game is also likely equally as disposable. Thus I happily switch games without a second thought.

Is all of today’s MMO hopping simply because today’s gamers have shorter attention spans? Because today’s game are worse than before? Because today’s gamers are console-addicts? I think again the answer is subtler than those questions allow for. No I think today’s gamers are transient because every modern “convenience” that evolved from the early MMO iteration has created an environment where players feel little if any attachment to their character or game. It’s a combination of various game systems that have multiplied and accumulated over the years.

Let’s give you a few specific examples I think have contributed to the decay of MMOs;

  • Multiple Characters per Account
  • Homogenized Character Roles (Classes/purposes/etc.)
  • Market-places or Auction House systems
  • Solo-able PVE or PVP content (i.e. a completely viable alternative to playing with other people).
  • A Short Leveling Curve (aka the opposite of “Grinding”)
  • Group Finders
  • Multiple Guilds per Character (utter blasphemy).

Oddly enough this list coincides with a wildly popular “nostalgic” feeling players had back in the day. That feeling is that community was much more important in the past then it is today. Today we have “community managers” and social media, so clearly that means we are taking community important right? Wrong. Community isn’t something you can hire into. It isn’t some social media strategy or even something you can bait customers into feeling by adding levels to guilds (what a crock). No the communities of old come into being when players are required to rely on each other in a game. I don’t mean relying on someone to show up for a raid, though honestly that’s the closest some of these games today come. No I mean honestly cannot be successful in the game unless multiples of people adopt a role within your gaming construct and support each other.

Thomas Blairs post was a salient reminder for me, that having not had the pleasure of playing SWG for a long time, why the community was so passionate about it. Crafters from everywhere flocked to the Crowfall forum based on the simple factor that SWG designers might be involved in it. Their contributions to the forums were EVERYWHERE when I first stumbled onto the forums. Blair’s comments highlight why it is that the community fell apart. He stated it so very eloquently for us; “because it would make the players happier”.

Everything in my list above was made to make players happier. EverQuest players complained about the inability to level up by themselves, of the horrific amounts of time it took to level up, or for the penalty they suffered for risking playing with someone they didn’t know. They perhaps didn’t notice that while all of their struggles were going on that very subtly a community bond had been formed. The community powered that game through almost two decades of history. By today’s standards, EverQuest achieved nothing more than a niche status. At its peak it had what, 250,000 subscribers? Yet, perhaps that’s the lesson to learn from its success.

Crowfall started off early on with some questionable choices. It passed on the idea that players needed a game-provided currency, and entirely discarded the idea of a central market place. Yet one of the immediate flashbacks players commented on was the fun they had bartering and talking with others as they traded goods in the tunnels of Eastern Commonlands in EverQuest. The idea that removing a convenience would bring back players interacted with each other was a very early and very subtle step back in time. A recent reveal introduced an even bigger change for the Crowfall title; one “character” per account across ALL “servers”. I was shocked.

Community has been a recurring theme in my blog since I started writing some 3 odd years ago. It’s come up numerous times, every single time in regard to one of the items in my list. Do communities sell a game? Nah. Communities keep a game afloat though. It’s pretty clear what can happen when a developer builds the game from the ground level up and discards the notion that all games must include what previous generations of games did. As Ian stated, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” I think we can safely place Crowfall into the column that stopped to think if they should.

Will Crowfall be successful, even taking into account its subtle (and un-advertised) and unorthodox approach (by today’s standards at least) at supporting a robust community? That is ultimately a question that may become answered as the game moves into its alpha and beta stages this year. I for one see very good indications that this is the title that may make the industry question everything that it held true. At the very least it seems to have made the necessary decisions to challenge the transient gaming population into questioning what’s really important to themselves. That would be progress in my book.

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  3. Andrew:
    I really enjoyed this post being a vet of the mmo genre. I am 29 now and started playing mmos when i was 9 years old with Meridian 59.. I remember as a kid crossing 90 days off a calendar in anticipation for Everquest. I practically had the FAQ memorized. I literally grew up in Norrath and know many of it's zones like the back of my hand. I would really appreciate a blog focusing on key elements of community building aspects of MMOS. I believe even the drama causing elements (no instancing) were very much good for community. Recently I began paying a subscription to play time locked progression oldschool everquest again.. When I got to my first dungeon I was told by the group to go to instance 2 of the dungeon. In original EQ there was no such thing as an instance.. Not until 5-6 years in of it's development.. And even at that it was very sparsely implemented. Not exactly the experience I was hoping for. I don't like instancing. I don't care how crowded it is. The closer you are to inhabiting space with other players with real reasons to interact the better. I would love to see you delve into communal aspects of MMO's successes and failures.. IE Shadowbane, EVE, Meridian 59, SWG etc.. Consider me a follower of your blog ; ) Keep up the good work.
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