Over the past decade, the gaming industry has seen some dramatic changes. Several trends have come and gone, as have consoles, and even entire companies. Amidst this tumultuous ground though, the MMORPG, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, has managed to stake its claim and hold its position as a stalwart component of the gaming world. There is no denying the impact or the longevity of the MMORPG, but it’s at this point that I must ask; what makes the MMO so enduring?
For the unfamiliar, MMOs are a very intimidating beast. World of Warcraft, the landmark MMORPG as established in 2004, is responsible for a large number of trends and concepts that permeate through MMOs to this day. Many of these patterns could be traced further back, but the indomitable cultural presence of World of Warcraft makes it the go-to option for an MMORPG example. While current trends tend to be shifting towards a free-to-play model, World of Warcraft, and many of its competitors, utilized a subscription-based model. In essence, players paid a recurring monthly fee for access to the game and all of its content, with the occasional expansion pack demanding a further investment. From a player perspective, this meant that there was an incentive to get as much out of your playtime as possible. Developers then were obligated to keep a steady stream of content available, generally locked to progression. This was typically categorised by a slow, deliberately-paced trickle of content, as the tools and options at your disposal gradually ballooned out until reaching endgame. Further, the presence of pay walls presents another hurdle for MMO players to overcome. Locking certain content behind expansions or other paid additions effectively limits the options a player has, and can have the effect of segregating the community. From a design perspective, this concept makes sense, but it remains unfriendly and constricting to the player base.
While the subscription model has essentially passed, another trend lost to the ever-changing gaming landscape, the basic MMO structure remains the same. That is to say that the endgame remains the focus, holding the majority of the content. While recent releases such as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn have made steps to address this issue, it still remains prevalent. FFXIV utilizes a field-based instance system, in conjunction with level synchronization, to allow players to still gain appropriate rewards outside of areas within their level bracket. However, the balancing of rewards is still catered to high-level areas, meaning those after efficient progress will still gravitate towards the same areas and the same content. Given the subscription model that FFXIV uses, any approach that lessens the time taken to reach endgame is considered optimal. It’s not uncommon for the bulk of an MMORPG journey to essentially serve as preparation for that ever-important endgame content. While this does indeed create an engrossing feedback loop, I feel that this singular focus detracts from the overall journey, and gives an almost unshakable feeling of homogeneity. It certainly fits from a design perspective, and the sheer popularity of MMOs would suggest that most players are willing to overlook this, but it seems to me that MMORPGs are lacking in a sense of identity.
The purpose of a role-playing game is to serve as an extension of your personal identity; massively multiplayer or otherwise. By single-mindedly focusing on the endgame content, a significant portion of your journey can effectively be swiftly dismissed. If there is no purpose for the journey other than the destination, it’s difficult to engage with the characters and the world at large. A great deal of agency is taken from the player as they are effectively, if indirectly, told that their choices, their actions, and even their identity have no impact on the world around them. Of course, this all changes when that magical endgame point is reached, but at this point, is it really a role-playing game anymore? The MMORPG stands as an excellent opportunity to fully immerse yourself in an organic, thriving world. The presence of other players all living their own lives gives everybody a great amount of freedom to be whoever and whatever they want to be.
Where the MMORPG has a significant amount of strength though, is in the other half of that acronym. As a massively multiplayer online game, lines of communication are always open, and a strong sense of community is always encouraged. As with any online community, certain problems can arise, but these games are a great example of what a group of like-minded people can accomplish. From banding together to mourn the passing of a friend in Final Fantasy 14, to creating and maintaining an immense player-driven economy in EVE Online, or even creating an artificial plague back in the early days of World of Warcraft, the MMO community is capable of creating some incredible things. While some of this activities and events may seem insignificant, it must be stressed that these feats were accomplished purely by the will of the players. It’s a feeling of flexibility and freedom that is unfamiliar in the gaming landscape, a feeling that is unique to the MMO genre.
While a social focus is becoming increasingly common in the gaming landscape these days, the MMO is responsible for pioneering this concept, and still stands as a great example of social gaming done right. By design, the MMORPG is a dense beast. The content is densely layered, and to a newcomer, can be utterly incomprehensible. These are games that are designed to be played for hundreds of hours, a demand that requires complex layers of mechanics. While a good MMO will dispense the required information gradually, the sheer magnitude of information to process can be overwhelming to new players. An established, thriving community can make all the difference, turning one of the more difficult to approach genres into something truly accessible. An MMORPG can live or die based its community alone, which stands as a great indicator of just how important those first three letters are.
So then, what makes the MMORPG so enduring? At first glance, I would put forward the community focus as the most likely answer. A dedicated fanbase can keep anything afloat if they remain persistent and steadfast, and MMORPG fans certainly tick that box. With that said though, I don’t think that’s doing enough justice to the care and thought that developers put into their product. It cannot be stressed enough just how much work an MMORPG is to produce. The sheer amount of content to create and distribute and the incredible amount of players to accommodate on the servers, among so much more makes for an incomprehensibly costly and time-consuming exercise. While I feel the MMORPG lacks identity in and of itself, a dedicated community can and will establish that themselves. I feel that this is indeed what makes the MMORPG stand out. It’s not just a labour of love from a dedicated and committed development team, but also a whole-hearted display from a devoted community. It’s this unity between developer and players, between design and function that makes the MMORPG so well-loved, and so enduring.