Richard Garriott has gone on record saying that he believes that the days of classic MMOs are over. The future is social gaming, social media, a lot of things with the word "social" shoehorned in. Coincidentally, he's gone on record as saying this at a time that coincides with his entry into the social gaming arena following a somewhat forcible expulsion from the MMO genre.
You probably think that Richard Garriott is crazy even if you haven't been to space. Still, the idea is a little worrisome. Your phone calls with your mother have changed from being about your aunt's new hip to asking why you haven't watered your crops in FarmCenterWorld or whatever she's playing. You can smile at the collapse of Zynga all you want, but there are still plenty of companies making good money by slapping microtransactions on Build Mode from The Sims and calling it a day. Combine that with recent failures and missteps in the MMO world you probably wonder whether Garriott, crazy or not, might have a point.
But don't worry. Odds are pretty low that social gaming is actually going to kill MMOs... for a lot of good reasons.
Where you get your pizza
Has anyone in the history of humanity actually been excited to get pizza from Domino's? I'm not talking about kids; kids are idiots. I know that from experience. I'm asking if you have ever been faced with two choices for pizza and thought, "Yes, I really want mass-produced, bland, assembly-line pizza with teenage facial hair in the sauce."
If your answer is yes, don't worry; your secret's safe with me. But in your heart, you know the answer is no. Domino's exists because it's cheap, ubiquitous, and quick. You're there because you want pizza and you want it now.
Social gaming fulfills a similar niche for gamers. It provides something of that MMO buzz, a sense of persistent progression and social interaction. Sometimes that's even married to a mildly interesting game engine (I was rather fond of Dragon Age Legends while it was running). But it's meant to be small and unobtrusive. It's the gaming equivalent of eyecatch stands at the cash register, asking you to go ahead and buy a bag of candy because why not? It's right here. You're going to be paying for something anyway. Why not have something extra?
The rise of social games doesn't accidentally coincide with the rise of tablets, mobile devices, and Facebook. These are quick little lightweight games meant to fill in the gaps between interesting things happening. You play an MMO to experience a full-featured game; you play Angry Birds because you're going to be stuck in the waiting room for like eight minutes.
Different perks for different types
This doesn't explain why your parents suddenly care about playing games, of course. After all, your mom's primary concern has always been saying how much she hates Mrs. Henderson down the street and your dad enjoys watching football and being emotionally distant. World of Warcraft didn't draw either of them in, so it must be some mysterious and more potent alchemy in a video game that actually succeeded in drawing them in, right?
In part, that's accurate. But social games appeal to two different groups, and despite sneering gamer condescension, neither group is filled with idiots. No, social gaming appeals to people who aren't familiar with games and people who are generally shut out from mainstream gaming.
The former is pretty easy to understand. Your dad might not generally care about what you're doing with your stupid Nintendo (your console is always a Nintendo to him, even though you haven't owned a Nintendo console since 1997), but he already has a cell phone. And you know, as long as he's got it, this game with the stacking cakes is actually pretty fun. Since your mother is already on Facebook to join the "Mrs. Henderson's Azalea Bushes Are Insulting" group, she can at least take the time to run a pretend farm with a pretend cow. Look, that one just made a sound!
If this principle is confusing, it's important to remember that video games are generally pretty fun to play, even the ones we think of as moronically simple. Just because your hypothetical parents don't feel like paying for an HD television and a new device that only plays video games doesn't meant they don't enjoy games.
The other group, however, is embodied by your teenage sister. Your sister has never cared for video games; she thinks they're dumb, but she will not shut up about her restaurant in some stupid Facebook thing. What isn't immediately obvious is that the Facebook game offers her a chance to play a game without making the assumption that because she's a woman, she's a model with a huge rack wearing a metal brassiere and seven-inch heels.
Again -- video games are fun. But there are large groups pushed out to the fringes by the way gaming is marketed and the way that gamers frequently portray themselves. I've opined at length that gaming really needs to do a better job of being inclusive, and there are a lot of people who might otherwise be interested in games except for the fact that they feel marginalized and unwelcome.
There's a reason Nintendo has (with both its handheld devices and consoles) broken into markets that haven't traditionally been into buying games: because the company has pushed titles to those groups. Social gaming performs the same trick and often uses the gadgets that already exist. All you have to do is possibly drop a few bucks on a new engine for your tractor or whatever.
None of this really affects MMOs except as an object lesson. Improve accessibility and people will respond. Games like City of Steam have the right idea; your dad can try the game on the computer he already has instead of the new $2,300 beast with full dynamic lighting support. Let your sister play on her cell phone and emphasize systems based on what she finds interesting and she'll play with glee. These niches exist to be targeted, but they don't obviate the niche that's already present and playing.
A new genre doesn't kill the old genres
All of this is overlooking the most basic point, one that will take about two seconds to make. It goes thus: Did MMORPGs kill single-player RPGs?
I'm admittedly biased. I remember when I was a teenager beeping along on the Sega Genesis in the mid-'90s, when the release schedule was limited to Sega releasing Phantasy Star IV with fanfare usually reserved for the announcement of a new junior assistant manager at Target. Final Fantasy VI had been released the year before in a special limited-edition run that may have been confined to 10 cartridges, one of which was mislabeled as an audiocassette teaching conversational Spanish. Whether or not you like modern single-player RPGs, you can't deny that we certainly have a much larger volume than we did back then.
MMOs have done nothing to stanch that flow. They exist just fine as contemporaries with other RPGs. And it's not really surprising; they scratch different itches, pursue different goals and provide different experiences. So it goes with social gaming and MMOs.
They're close cousins, yes. The business models for both are approaching the same territory, and certainly that puts pressure on new MMOs to go with a free-to-play model. Social gaming also has an impact on how we perceive titles and what we perceive as worthwhile additions to a game as a whole. There are lessons to be taken from the social sphere, make no mistake about that.
But social gaming is about as likely to kill MMOs as boats are likely to kill cars. They're overlapping genres, but they're not the same thing. So, yes, Garriott's pretty much just crazy here.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!