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The Think Tank: Confronting the 'unbundling' of MMORPGs


Last month, the long-running, scholarly virtual world blog Terra Nova updated with a post suggesting that the blog, like the worlds it covered, might be coming to an end (the blog, at least, has been saved in the interim). Founder Dr Edward Castronova argued that virtual worlds and MMOs have seen a recent "unbundling," with sociality, story, multi-player combat, and economy splitting off into different directions and platforms instead of staying unified in MMOs. The only MMO element that stayed were the people, and "it proved impossible to construct mechanisms that allowed people to find fulfillment from their fellow-players rather than frustration. In the end, the concept of a multi-player fantasy world broke on the shoals of the infinite weirdness of human personality."

It's pretty depressing. But is it true? Are MMOs and virtual worlds doomed to forever splinter apart thanks to niche-ier media and be ruined by their own players? That's what I asked the Massively crew in this week's Think Tank (and our writers rose to the challenge -- every single one of them).

Anatoli Ingram, Columnist

@ceruleangrey: I think it's inarguable that the split is happening. I don't think it necessarily follows that it's going to be that way forever, or that it's what MMO players want on the whole. In fact, we may only now be seeing the industry maneuver into position to figure out what players do want and which elements of an MMO are genre-defining features. I remember being very upset a few years ago when I saw what looked to me like an industry-wide shift into making instanced combat simulators, but now games are slowly but surely moving back toward the incorporation of virtual world elements. As an example: At the time I was worried about this stuff, housing had all but disappeared off the map.

The goal of building "perfect human communities" is a pretty lofty one and probably can't be accomplished in a medium where people can turn off their computers and walk away, but aside from that, there's something about virtual worlds that keeps players coming back. Nearly every individual activity or style of gameplay an MMO provides can be and has been done better in a "pure" form, and yet there's still a market for MMOs. There are plenty of us who have or are looking for our virtual home, and who find value in socializing with other people through the medium of a character in a fantastic setting. I really think things are only going to get better.

Bree Royce, Editor-in-Chief

@nbrianna: I think "unbundling" is a very good term for this phenomenon. Castronova is essentially describing the decline of sandboxes (in the most generic, unpoliticized sense of the word), the decline of "everything boxes" that combine so many gameplay mechanics and fish bowls into one virtual world just to see how it will evolve organically. All the mechanics of those games still exist, but they have been diverted to new or more narrowly focused genres, and those elements left to MMOs are often the least interesting (level grinds, fixed combat, gear strata, and so on). I celebrate niche MMOs because I celebrate more fellow MMO gamers, but at the same time, I think niche MMOs are poor substitutes for the vast world simulations that idealists -- yes, like these game researchers -- once envisioned.

I also don't think those games will never be made (or made again). It just probably won't be any time soon.

Brendan Drain, Columnist

@nyphur: Players may be splintering off into other genres, but that says less about MMO design than it does about the preferences of gamers. When League of Legends officially kicked World of Warcraft off its throne as the most-played game in the west a few years ago, it proved that there was big money out there for games that specialise in one particular type of gameplay. That's hardly surprising though; Singleplayer games have always had the monopoly on epic stories, co-op games like Diablo had polished group dungeons before EverQuest was even released, and the core of today's MOBAs and MMO battlegrounds have also been around as DotA since around 2003.

MMOs may offer a lot of that gameplay in a single unified universe, but recent market trends have shown that people prefer games to focus on and perfect just one type of gameplay. We can get our exploration and construction fix from Minecraft or Terraria, our daily dose of group PvP from Dota 2 or CS:GO, and our singleplayer RPG experience from Skyrim or The Witcher. The main thing MMOs have that a more specialised game can't outperform them in is the collective social multiplayer element and the idea of huge living worlds filled with real people. I think that the MMO genre is starting to head in that direction already as Star Citizen and Landmark appear to have positioned themselves as virtual worlds, and I'm pretty excited to see if this trend continues.

Eliot Lefebvre, Contributing Editor

@Eliot_Lefebvre: Everything splinters. Everything goes in different directions. That's the mark of a vibrant genre: When there's space and opportunity to explore something new, possibly grand, possibly awful, but always exploring. MMOs are healthier now, and while the genre is still carrying around some uncomfortable baggage here and there, the sheer diversity of games offering online connectivity between players should make it clear that it's not going away any time soon. Claiming that possibilities didn't materialize so the genre has suffered is like claiming that when your favorite restaurant shuts down, it's a sign that people don't eat any longer.

Having a vision is great, and I commend the team over on Terra Nova for having a vision and wanting it to be reality. But an idea is just an idea. Blaming the world for the failure of an idea isn't fair to the world. Some ideas are great concepts but just don't work in reality.

Jef Reahard, Managing Editor

@jefreahard: It rings true for me, particularly the ruined by players bit, but I wouldn't say that MMOs are doomed to splinter apart. I would say they need to splinter apart even more because that's the only way all of the diverse groups with incompatible preferences will get what they want.

I've always held that actual MMORPGs are in fact niche enterprises because they're more virtual world than game and as such they require more time and effort than most people want to spend. Over the last decade, though, "MMOs" changed dramatically and came to closely resemble single-player RPGs even though initially they were much more/much different than all other game types.

So yeah, I think Castronova's right in this case. More people did ruin MMOs (for a time), particularly from an early adopter's perspective. The most relevant part of his goodbye post to me was the following: "It proved impossible to make everyone feel like a hero in a world populated by millions of would-be heroes." This has been the primary failing of MMOs for years now, and I've never understood why so many people want to replicate the single-player RPG experience in an MMORPG that is literally incapable of doing it as well as a single-player RPG can do it.

Justin Olivetti, Contributing Editor

@Sypster: MMOs are not only dying, they've been dead for 15 years now and we are all living in strict denial! Hyperbole aside, I don't think the genre is in any danger of going away. Will it change? Sure. What MMOs are and how studios make them have been changing for as long as the industry's been going, and we'll be encountering types of MMOs in the future that we don't conceive of today.

But Terra Nova's claim of MMOs unraveling rings false with me. First of all, social media and out-of-game networks have been around far longer than MMOs (ICQ anyone?). We've already had those options and still we flocked to online gaming. Why? Because gamers like to share their hobby and participate in both constructive and destructive activities together. Second, we have better technology with which to make and understand games today than we did back in whatever glory days that Terra Nova is referencing. We have the potential to make even better virtual worlds with deeper and more connected systems than before. And I think that the community is downright hungry for this full meal instead of sampling from a buffet of other games to get the same one-stop dining experience.

Larry Everett, Columnist

@Shaddoe: This argument is tough, and I've tried responding in multiple ways. But I've not been able to come up with anything that's satisfying. On the one hand, MMOs are splintering, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The more niche you get about the aspects of your genre, the more you enjoy your personal experience. At the same time, that closes a lot of doors, and you alienate more and more people because they simply don't like the same things you do. The idea that one game will satisfy all your MMO desires is a a great goal, and many people though they had that in past MMOs -- and I think that some games still strive for that. However, even if we look to the most popular MMOs, it's clear that things will always be missing.

I feel bad for not having any real conclusions or solutions for the issues presented. However, I am sorry that the Terra Nova author feels the way he does; maybe I'm just a bit more optimistic about the genre than I should be.

Mike Foster, Contributing Editor

@MikedotFoster: The issue is that the complexity of an MMO makes it nearly impossible to build a world where everyone is happy. If you balance for PvE, the PvP suffers. If you balance for PvP, PvE turns into a homogenized mess (You get crowd control! And you get crowd control! And you!). Build a deep, complex crafting system and casual players won't have time to invest in it; build something shallow and hardcore players will complain about its simplicity. Since there are more options in terms of online games, players no longer have to force themselves to bear the parts of a game they don't enjoy.

I disagree that this represents some sort of destruction of online worlds as communities. They're just manifesting differently. People don't view Dota as a social game, for example, but the player communities that thrive around it are just as real as World of Warcraft guilds. To say that it proved impossible to make people feel like heroes flies in the face of everything we've seen in the medium thus far; if players didn't feel like heroes connected to their worlds, they wouldn't keep playing the games they play. They wouldn't fight tooth and nail when a publisher shuts their game off. And they certainly wouldn't be pre-ordering, crowdfunding, and subscribing as new experiences emerge. If players weren't finding fulfillment from other players, they would be abandoning the online world instead of flocking to it. The experiences are more specialized, but doesn't that just mean players are enjoying them more and finding a greater number of like-minded people?

"In the end, the concept of a multi-player fantasy world broke on the shoals of the infinite weirdness of human personality." That's ridiculous. There are more multi-player fantasy worlds than ever. And games like ArcheAge, Landmark, and Destiny are redefining online every day. It's unrealistic to expect that humans across the globe, all with varying interests, budgets, and histories, would come together under one game to socialize, compete, and trade currency. Books have niches. Television has niches. Music has niches. Why would games be any different? We don't all want to be elves.

"The goal of designing perfect human communities remains unmet." I'm not an expert when it comes to MMO design, but I feel confident that "Build utopia" has never been a bullet point on a game developer's whiteboard. Except maybe Richard Garriott's. That dude is crazy.

MJ Guthrie, Contributing Editor

@MJ_Guthrie: To be succinct, I do not think splintering into niches is a bad thing at all! I'd rather have a smaller dedicated community that is immersed in the virtual world (and yes, I want it to be a true sandboxy virtual world with many things to do!) as much as I am than hordes of folks clamoring for 100 different things to make the game what they want. I don't think trying to please everyone in a single title is either feasible or even fun for anyone involved.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the most caring of the carebears, so expect more than a little disagreement! Join Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce and the team for a new edition right here every Thursday.