Free for All: Debating the current state of classic MMORPGs

Dark Age of Camelot screenshot
This will not be another column dedicated to deciding the true meaning of "MMORPG." We've covered that plenty on Massively, but it's safe to say that we allow a lot of different styles of multiplayer gaming to be covered on the site. Half the staff are old fuddy-duddies when it comes to these virtual worlds, but even the fogiest of the fogies sees the writing on the wall: The meaning is changing or at least becoming something different to different people. We can fight it like fighting the latest wave of musical styles, or we can search for the good in all of it and keep up a sense of humor.

I tend to cover whatever I feel like covering, as long as my bosses agree that the games I am writing about do not stray too far away from the MMO core. Some of my readers see my writing as supporting games that are not MMOs, promoting developers who want to ruin true MMOs by selling power, or elevating social games that are anything but MMOs. But I believe I have covered and will continue to cover "true" MMOs. I try to recognize the current state of MMOdom, and I want to capture it all at the same time. It has to be possible.

EverQuest screenshot
So what is its current state? In my opinion, the meaning of "MMORPG" is changing. It no longer means just three-dimensional, client-based games that require PCs to run. I'm not sure that it ever truly meant that alone. Keeping the persistence in MMORPG (the most important part) is just as important as recognizing the ever-widening technological barriers of social gaming. No, I am not referring to "social" games; I mean games that are social in nature or games that are dependent on playing with or alongside other players. You've probably witnessed the gaming press allow lobby-based shooters to be labeled as MMORPGs, and I've had to practically force some PR and developer types to show me exactly how their games are MMO-like so I can determine whether to cover it or not. It's getting ridiculous. I've also met plenty of press and players who believe that certain games are MMOs, and no matter how strongly I feel that they are not, they continue to believe they are. It's all part of the debate.

That debate is valid but almost pointless in this conversation because I want to make a specific guess at the current state of client-based, large download, and three-dimensional "classic" MMOs. I'll leave other MMOs out of it for now, games like MUDs, mobile, and social MMOs. I want to concentrate on games like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Ultima Online, Second Life, EverQuest and others like them, the ones I cut my MMO teeth on. I started in 1999 and am beginning to believe that newer gamers will see these MMOs as many now see MUDs: quaint, interesting, still valid but not the hottest thing.

This happens with each new generation. Fresh consumers come into the market and attach to whatever the rest of the market tells them to attach to. In my youth, it was "thrash" metal, (remember when skaters used to skate to metal and punk instead of hip hop?) and Nintendo games and VCR tapes that needed to be rewound for fear of a dollar fine. Think about today's 13-year-olds and what they see as modern. Today's youth will have a multi-use, powerful tablet for less than we were able to get a console or PC back then, streaming libraries of video and music that is made not with a band of musicians but by a single dude with a bad haircut. As part of the older generation, you can either recognize the good in these newer developments or you can be that older lady in your neighborhood who still feathers her hair. And as my wife points out, it's important to remember what a privileged life it was to be a gamer back then. It wasn't for the poor and it required a lot of time. These days being a gamer is easy and common.

Ultima Online screenshot
The market tends to prove what I am saying. Today's younger gamer is used to grabbing a game for free and possibly tossing in a few dollars here and there. Heck, even today's older gamers are now used to -- at least -- a freemium model. Ask us to buy your game? Sure, but ask us to buy it and pay a monthly fee? We're not feeling that like we used to. Mobile and social gaming are not huge because they prey on clueless parents and gambling mechanics; they're huge because they're darned convenient and can be a lot of fun. How does a client-based, 20-gig download that might require a gaming PC to run fit into this thin, fast market that is also offering better and better games for almost nothing? This is survival of the fittest, and classic MMOs are often slow, lumbering, repetitive beasts that just aren't as exciting as they once were.

How many recent AAA MMOs have done as well as we thought they would? This is a market in which a galaxy-sized IP like Star Wars produced a game that hasn't done nearly as well as many predicted. This is a market that doesn't seem to want strangely brilliant games like The Secret World; this is a market that has a base that grows older each year, a base that often scoffs at social media or thinks that demanding graphics and screen sizes determine quality.

"By this point many of my readers have skipped the article and are posting a comment about how I stand for everything that is wrong with the market today. I'm not sure I will ever understand such a response simply because understanding market trends and recognizing new developments is exactly how genres survive."

By this point many of my readers have skipped the article and are posting a comment about how I stand for everything that is wrong with the market today. I'm not sure I will ever understand such a response simply because understanding market trends and recognizing new developments is exactly how genres survive. Rock and roll held hands with hip-hop, tapes gave way to digital, and bulky PCs are being replaced by 10-inch screens with higher resolutions. Don't believe me? Just ask yourself which of these items a teen is most likely to own: a PC, a smartphone, or a tablet. There are those of us who appreciate the new as just what it is -- a natural course.

The good news, in my opinion of course, is that the idea behind "MMORPG" is still as strong as ever, maybe even stronger than ever. Social gaming, or gaming with others, is almost a standard now. At the very least gamers enjoy comparing screenshots or stats across social networks, an act that we could define as a massive experience. Slowly, but surely, being social or playing with others will become the default because it's now possible to include it every product. More of us have faster internet and more ways to connect, a state that can only lead to more massive gaming... with others.

I cover all types of MMOs because I am absolutely in love with experiencing games and worlds with other people. I like interaction, attention, and being part of a team. Enjoying new trends and recognizing the games that are on the fringe of the meaning of MMO doesn't take away my gamer card -- it renews it.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.