Working As Intended: Niche MMOs vs. the everything box

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Working As Intended: Niche MMOs vs. the everything box
Umzugskarton by HornM201
The MMO industry has lately focused on niche titles, niche communities, niche gameplay. It's not one particular niche, mind you. It's lots of different niches, all being catered to in different titles: PvPers, sadistic gankers, raiders, dungeoners, roleplayers, crafters, explorers, achievers, soloers, storygoers, casuals, hardcores, builders, destroyers, the I'm-skipping-class-for-a-week-to-play-games kids, the I've-got-five-minutes-what-can-I-play parents. There's an MMO or two out there for pretty much every one of us -- and for almost no one else.

So we dutifully buy the one that beckons directly to us, one of these small-minded "MMOs" that offer rewards for a certain playstyle or two but wilfully disregard every other imaginable playstyle. We applaud these games for having the guts to embrace being "niche" because we are convinced that having lots of little niche games is diversity.

And then we wonder where all the players are.

Let me tell you a story, a story about my guild.

In the early days of Star Wars Galaxies, I ran a medium-sized guild and a very large city. Many of the members of our guild and city were friends of friends gathered over the course of the previous six or seven years, and many of them had serious careers and families but were united in their love of Star Wars. We didn't think of those players in terms of casuals vs. hardcores, but some of them were very definitely casual by today's standards. Here are a few of the more colorful personalities in my guild at the time:
  • Zabrak Commando: She would return from expeditions on adventure planets to tell tales of how she'd taken down Imperial AT-STs solo in PvP.
  • Human Squad Leader: He always found new ways to use supposedly broken skills and led us all out on PvE adventures.
  • Human Architect: She scouted out the beta and became an Architect so we could build our guild hall in record time.
  • Twi'lek Tailor: Her clothing/image design empire and friends list spanned the entire server.
  • Human Ranger: This dude always built the best camps in the wilderness for our mission-running crew.
  • Human Politician: She took the Politician career deadly seriously, devoting half her character's skills to guiding our town's layout and citizenry.
  • Ithorian Pilot: Once this gal got a starship, I could hardly coax her out of space. Her player did teach me how to fly, though!
  • Human Musician: I first met him in a cantina, where he was playing the nalargon and chatting with adventurers dropping by for heals.
  • Trandoshan Merchant. This guy was an industrial genius. I'm not sure he ever maxed any skill trees beyond Artisan and Merchant, but for a couple of hours every week, he coordinated a mining company made up of a network of casual players, making all of them ultra-rich.
I could go on and on here, but the point is that we had ridiculous diversity in playstyles represented in our guild, and it wasn't because our guild was special or because we were particularly skilled at "making our own content," as sandboxes often expect. It was because the game was special.

Star Wars Galaxies was an everything box. It was a broken, buggy mess, but it was a broken, buggy mess that catered to dozens of distinct and hybrid playstyles. It indulged everyone in different ways and never succumbed to excessive accessibility. You weren't actually supposed to do everything in the game, as is the case in so many of today's gotta-catch-'em-all achievement-driven themeparks; you were supposed to do the thing you liked, and everyone else was supposed to do that thing he liked, and all of those little bits of gameplay fit neatly together in a symbiotic economy of goods and services and territory and entertainment.

When you hear Massively's more old-school writers praising SWG, it's not because we are Star Wars fans or SOE apologists or clouded by nostalgia; it's because few MMORPGs have offered or still offer such a breadth of gameplay options to keep a truly diverse playerbase happy. It was a game where you could play for an hour a week or 16 hours a day and have fun, contribute to a guild, and participate in a community. It was a game where building a house, a town, or a business was as valued and valuable as fighting NPCs, skirmishing in PvP, skilling up, and buffing in a cantina. It was a game where you could roleplay without feeling as though you were ignoring the "real" game to do so. All of those things were the real game. The game didn't draw lines between casual and hardcore, fluff and content. There was just the game.

Contrast that with WildStar, which began its public life as a game purporting to cater to lots of playstyles, from explorers and homebodies to builders and raiders. By the time it actually launched, however, its marketing and content had convinced even many of its players that it was a niche game for raiders. Loyalists even utter the word "niche" as if it's a good thing because who doesn't like being personally catered to, his pet playstyle validated by a AAA title? (Of course, when they say niche, they don't mean WildStar should espouse "one thing well" philosophy; they're simply happy the game is inaccessible to the 99%.)

But niche isn't a good thing. In WildStar's case, it's resulted in an MMO that suffered massive layoffs, canceled and delayed key content, merged servers, and obfuscated its dwindling subscription numbers. And that's just what a niche AAA MMO with a subscription and hefty box price looks like. Niche indie games struggle quietly until their few caretakers simply give up on updating, out with a whimper.

We need MMOs to be everything boxes. Catering to discrete niches isn't working, not if you are a fan of MMORPGs as a serious and rich genre. We need dynamic, bold, ambitious MMORPGs that appeal to dozens of simultaneous niches, all within the same game. The MMO genre is big, but it's not so big that we can afford to be spread out over hundreds of tiny games; that's a massive industry, not massive games. We need diversity in players and playstyles and gameplay in every title, else we're boring and dried up and dead like some MOBA with one map that everyone's done a hundred times. I want to play MMOs that have hundreds of gameplay things in them that I don't want to do, that someone else does want to do, so we can all play together in the same gameworld. We need to attract genre newbies with that variety or we're dying, being supplanted by narrow-minded, pop-up titles that pull a mechanic or two out of MMOs and call them a standalone game.

Gazimoff at Mana Obscura thinks it's too late for "full-fat, feature-packed MMORPG[s]," that "the age of the polymath is over," an unfortunate result, he argues, of the sheer expense of full-scale MMOs and time-sensitivity of modern, aging genre fans. Dr Edward Castronova at Terra Nova contends that the virtual world everything boxes I'm pining for here have split to different subgenres, what he called an "unbundling":
"[W]e've seen an unbundling of the parts of virtual worlds. Sociality went to Facebook. Complex heroic stories went to single-player games. Multiplayer combat went to places like DOTA and Clash of Clans. Economy games went to FarmVille and the F2P clones. Virtual currency went to Bitcoin. As these applications grew in popularity [... t]he community dried up and the conversation dwindled. [...] It proved impossible to make everyone feel like a hero in a world populated by millions of would-be heroes. 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."
But I don't think it's too late. I don't think we're staring down the slow death of the all-encompassing MMORPG. Sandboxes like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies and even EVE Online didn't cost Blizzard-caliber fortunes to build, and my guildies proved, over and over, how an everything box done well can be enjoyed by both gamers with no time to spare and gamers with too much time on their hands. By many accounts, newly launched ArcheAge offers diverse content for diverse playstyles and is marred only by an unfortunate combination of anti-social play and studio mismanagement. Clearly, it can still be done in 2014, clownshoes aside.

In truth, "niche MMO" is an oxymoron, and we need to stop pretending otherwise in the service of faux diversity and the hope that our personal niches will be gratified. If you're making a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game with niche appeal for a niche audience, you're not making a massive anything at all. What you're making is a fun and worthy diversion, but it's not really an MMORPG. This genre can do better than to settle for niche. It has to.

The MMORPG genre might be "working as intended," but that doesn't mean it can't be so much more. Join Massively Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce every other Friday in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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