The end of MMORPG? – we analyze the current and future condition of online RPGs

FeatureFeb 17, 2017 at 2:48a PSTby PefriX

The end of MMORPG? – we analyze the current and future condition of online RPGs

The 12-year long rule of World of Warcraft is an impressive feat, but it hides a grim reflection on the current condition of the MMORPG genre. Are Asian and/or mobile free-to-play games its only hope?

Pretty much everybody has Internet access these days. The popularity of online games, including MMORPGs, has been steadily rising throughout the last few years. The problem is, the said genre is currently very busy chasing its own tail. There are no fresh titles, especially from American or European developers. Houston, does this look like a problem to you?

MMORPG is an acronym for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, which basically means that a lot a people can have fun at the same time by playing together. But the name does make it sound more dignified, doesn’t it? Well, you’ll be perhaps surprised to know that it all began as mud… I mean MUD, or Multi-User Dungeon, the genre from which all MMORPGs originated. Imagine a game implemented entirely as text, no pictures, nothing even resembling an interface by modern standards. The system provided us with information, world building, everything in the form of written description; we, in turn, controlled our character by manual command input. This enabled us to fight monsters, explore, or talk with other people. That’s how things looked around 1978–1980, making MUDs older than MS-DOS (that’s the grandfather of Microsoft Windows, in case you didn’t know).

A new genre that took time to take shape

Meridian 59. One of the first games that could be considered an MMORPG. - 2017-02-17
Meridian 59. One of the first games that could be considered an MMORPG.

Imagine, then, that the first genuine MMORPG was launched in 1996. Dubbed a graphical MUD in its early years (as were several early MMORPGs), Meridian 59 encompassed a whole globe for the first time in history. Games such as Ultima Online, Lineage, and Tibia were to follow, not to mention EverQuest and RuneScape. Those were the trailblazers for the new genre that enabled it to conquer our spare time. Today, few gamers remember them, outside perhaps fan circles of a rather limited scope. The younger generations would be surprised to know, though, how many mechanics and solutions taken from those old pioneers were adapted and employed in modern projects.

Let’s skip a few years and move to the period when true legends were born, some of which are famous even today. Enter MU Online, Ragnarok Online, and Lineage 2, games that conquered the world by offering a new, previously unseen kind of entertainment. For many gamers, they’ve become the pinnacle of the genre, some kind of apex code that was better than anything that came after it. Perhaps they were right, but only until 2004 when Blizzard released World of Warcraft as a gift to mankind. It subsequently became one the most impressive commercial hits in the history of the gaming industry. How so? It required a monthly fee, and still there were around 10 million people willing to pay it to play.

The king took the throne 12 years ago

The November 2001 issue of Computer Gaming World featured a 10-page-long article dedicated entirely to World of Warcraft. The game appeared even on the cover. That, for most gamers, was the first contact with Blizzard’s new work, and at the same time the first occasion to learn something more about it. The article announced the races of Tauren, Orcs, and Men, but didn’t mention anything about character classes. Blizzard’s promises at the time included no loading screens between the regions, no waiting for the monsters to appear, and no repetitive quests. I’d say they’ve kept their end of the bargain, haven’t they?

Where’s the impending crisis then, you ask? 10 million people are willing to pay 14 bucks a month to play a game and yet here I am, blatantly suggesting there’s some kind of a problem? It’s not like the genre ended on World of Warcraft. There were several good titles released post WoW, including games such as Guild Wars or Cabal Online. The thing is, all of them have now become a thing of the past – venerable, nostalgic, but mostly forgotten. Except for World of Warcraft.

November 2016 marked the 12th anniversary of WoW’s release. Since then, the game has seen six expansions, with the last one, Legion, reclaiming a significant number of subscribers. To prove this claim, though, we have only rumours and market analyses, as the devs have long since stopped publishing official data in that matter. We know only that the game was at some point suffering a crisis, with the number of its users dwindling to a “mere” 5 million subscribers. Now, the devs claim it has once again reached 10 million. Why am I spewing all those numbers? Because a 2004 game remains the most popular MMORPG in the world, that’s why. What’s more important, nothing seems to indicate any change in the matter.

Trailing far behind World of Warcraft, we have a group of titles that still fare rather decently. We have ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2, The Elder Scrolls Online from ZeniMax Online Studios, and Final Fantasy XIV from Square Enix. Now, here’s the funny part – their release dates, which are 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Does anybody else notice the worrying time gap?

Blade & Soul is 4 years old, but it still looks nice. - 2017-02-17
Blade & Soul is 4 years old, but it still looks nice.

Truth is, it’s not like there was absolutely no MMORPGs released between 2004 and 2012. On the contrary, we’ve seen a throng of them. Unfortunately, most of them resorted to cookie-cutter mechanics and offered absolutely nothing original. Aion, from the creators of the Lineage series, lasted four years (from 2008) before it had to discard its monthly fee, adopting the free-to-play formula instead. TERA came out in 2012, only to switch to free-to-play after 9 months, despite having an original feature in the form of a dynamic, “non-target” combat system.

New MMORPGs fail to impress

No more than 56% of American gamers have played a single game MMO for 6 months or longer. - 2017-02-17
No more than 56% of American gamers have played a single game MMO for 6 months or longer.

Let’s return to modern times, i.e. 2016. Black Desert Online is a fairly new presence on the market, a game that, despite some problems with the publisher, has gained a significant attention from the gamers. Besides BDO, we have Blade & Soul, originally released back in 2012, but only recently, in early 2016, reaching the English-speaking audience. While these two are not the most popular MMOs out there, they’re certainly not doing bad. I could also mention Riders of Icarus and Revelation Online. The former turned out to be yet another damp squib, and the latter, not yet officially released, can become something completely else before it hits the stores. None of them, however, seem to be capable of changing anything in the current market situation.

All right, here’s what we know: the current, undisputed leader is an old game, with a long history, and a recognizable, well-known setting. Trailing behind it, we have a sequel to a famous predecessor (Guild Wars 2), an online installment to an equally recognizable RPG series (The Elder Scrolls Online), and an MMORPG from a legendary brand that is Final Fantasy. We can easily say that the top spots were taken exclusively by well-established franchises. Still, it would be good to see some tangible numbers.

Let’s take a look at the data provided by SuperData Research – the company deals in market research and the numbers they present seem to be reflecting the current situation rather well. According to them, the MMO genre is currently dominated by League of Legends. When it comes to MMORPGs, World of Warcraft remains on top, followed by Fantasy Westward Journey Online II (has any of you ever heard anything about this game?). Lineage 1, MapleStory, and Blade & Soul take positions 2, 3, and 4, respectively – with the latter still being based on monthly subscription in Korea. It needs to be noted, however, that in general free-to-plays are in the best position. The micropayments, optional in theory, unavoidable in practice, are generating a nice, hefty amount of money.

Black Desert Online - 2017-02-17
Black Desert Online

Asia is the heart of MMO

But let’s focus on another aspect of this summary. According to the date provided by SuperData Research, MMOs (including MMORPGs) are generating the biggest local revenue in Asia. Europe comes second, and behind it the US. Western gamers spend, on average, from 10 to 15 dollars a month on fees or digital merchandise. In Asia, gamers usually pay by the hour to be able to play their games. Regardless, the games from the genre that interests us right now (MMORPGs) don’t earn in Europe as much as their developers would like them to. They were supplanted by various, usually free, MMO derivatives, such as League of Legends and World of Tanks, for example. Asians, by the way, are going crazy about CrossFire right now.

There’s something about Asia – that much is certain. Not only is the region full of dedicated players, it’s also the area where free-to-play works best, and, what’s more, that’s the region that provides the biggest number of new games. Listing all games that were released since 2004 would take too much time and space, so I’ll focus on the most important ones. Now, let’s see where they come from.

Prominent MMORPGs since 2004

Europe, USA, and Canada

Asia

Wurm Online – Code Club AB, Sweden

KAL Online – Inixsoft, South Korea

Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures – FunCom, Norway

Knight Online – MGame, South Korea

Allods Online – Astrum Nival, Russia

Rakion – Softnyx, South Korea

The Secret World – FunCom, Norway

Silkroad Online – Joymax, South Korea

Skyforge – Allods Team, Russia

Eudemons Online – TQ Digital Entertainment, China

EverQuest II – Daybreak Game Company, USA

Rappelz – Gala Lab, South Korea

Guild Wars – ArenaNet, USA

9Dragons – Indy21, South Korea

Dungeons & Dragons Online – Turbine, USA

Metin 2 – Ymir Entertainment, South Korea

Lord of the Rings Online –Turbine, USA

Shaiya – Sonora Entertainment, South Korea

Warhammer Online, Mythic, USA

4Story – Zemi Interactive, South Korea

Champions Online – Cryptic Studios, USA

Dekaron – Game-Hi, South Korea

Star Trek Online – Cryptic Studios, USA

CABAL Online – ESTsoft, South Korea

DC Universe Online – Daybreak Game Company, USA

Requiem: Memento Mori – Gravity Corporation, South Korea

RIFT – Trion Worlds, USA

Runes of Magic – Runewaker Entertainment, Taiwan

Forsaken World – Perfect World Entertainment, USA

Aion – NCsoft, South Korea

Star Wars: The Old Republic – BioWare, Canada

Vindictus – devCAT, South Korea

Guild Wars 2 – ArenaNet, USA

Eden Eternal – X-Legend, Taiwan

Defiance – Trion Worlds, USA

TERA – Bluehole Studio, South Korea

Neverwinter – Cryptic Studios, USA

Age of Wulin – Snail Games, China

The Elder Scrolls Online – ZeniMax Online Studios, USA

Dragon’s Prophet – Runewaker Entertainment, Taiwan

WildStar – Carbine, USA

Final Fantasy XIV – Square Enix, Japan

 

Black Gold Online – Snail Games, China

 

ArcheAge – XL Games, South Korea

 

CABAL 2 – ESTsoft, South Korea

 

Blade & Soul – Team Bloodlust, South Korea

 

Black Desert Online – Pearl Abyss, South Korea

 

Tree of Savior – IMC Games, South Korea

 

Riders of Icarus – WeMade Entertainment, South Korea

Additionally, the column with Asian games should include a whole second list comprised of games that never appeared on the Western market. That said, I’m pretty sure that even some of the titles on this list are unknown to Western players. Still, Asian developers have dominated the market with sheer numbers. When it comes to popularity, though, it’s Blizzard and their World of Warcraft that takes the cake, and yet retains the monthly-fee subscription. The same goes for Final Fantasy XIV, which also pays for itself with subscriptions – although FFXIV comes from a Japanese developer. The remaining two leaders, Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online, are based on buy-to-play model and were developed by American companies.

US games come out on top against Europe

WildStar is a good, albeit underappreciated MMORPG. - 2017-02-17
WildStar is a good, albeit underappreciated MMORPG.

One of the latest high-profile titles, which does not come from Korea, is the 2014 The Elder Scrolls Online. The same year has seen the release of WildStar – a project from people that had previously worked on World of Warcraft, which, unfortunately, met with little interest from the players, due to high difficulty level, among other factors. The devs were quick to drop the monthly fee, switching to free-to-play. This didn’t do much to remedy the situation, despite the game itself being a nice, solid piece of work. What was the problem then? The answer is: marketing policy, the usual thing these days.

The first Final Fantasy XIV was released in 2010. The game met with a cold reception from the players, who pointed out numerous issues plaguing the game. In response, Square Enix shut down the servers and waited 3 years before the title was re-released as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. It’s a reworked version of the game, developed by a completely different team.

Without a good advertisement strategy or a campaign on social media no game has a chance of being found by a potential buyer. Then there’s the love of big numbers. Games that can boast a large number of active users gain attention by default. For example, the aforementioned World of Warcraft with its, let’s say, 10 million users, is currently considered the best MMORPG that ever was. See the numbers? This has to be right! Another thing is the rich, recognizable universe. The players are more eager to trust something that is widely known, like the Final Fantasy or The Elders Scrolls franchise. It needs to be said, though, that recognition alone is not enough to guarantee success – the words “Star Wars” in the title were not enough to gather enough players around Star Wars: The Old Republic. The devs also had to work long and hard to convince the gamers to invest their time.

That’s why developer teams from Europe and US have a problem right now. The market they’re trying to conquer is already taken by established big shots. Each new title they release is bound to be compared to the greatest. When you want to swipe customers from somebody else, you need to deliver something truly outstanding. A developer studio, however, has bills to pay, making it hard to expect a big hit released as a free-to-play title. In the West, the players are not as eager to spend their money, and MMORPGs are most popular in Asia, where the market is already full of them, leaving no place for newcomers. The only way would be to release a game for free and earn revenue on micropayments – something that won’t work on the Western market.

Professional dubbing and recognizable brand are not always enough. - 2017-02-17
Professional dubbing and recognizable brand are not always enough.

No wonder, then, that local publishers would rather buy a license for an Asian game. Let’s take Blade & Soul for example, brought to the West four years after its initial release. Black Desert Online, in turn, had some problems with its publisher who arbitrarily changed the game’s original, free business model to buy-to-play. Allegedly, it was the will of the players, but I have my doubts whether the players also wanted the vast offer of things to buy for micropayments. And by that I mean more than cosmetic accessories.

What lies in store for MMORPGs?

Mobile Ragnarok may turn out to be a hit. - 2017-02-17
Mobile Ragnarok may turn out to be a hit.

One more thing that doesn’t help the situation of MMORPGs are the other MMO games – especially MOBAs, action RPGs, or various online hack’n’slash games. Then there’s the ever-expanding fad for mobile gaming. This includes MMORPGs, which are highly popular in China and Korea. According to the devs themselves, the typical gamer profile has changed.

The players no longer tend to spend long hours on a single session. Instead, they prefer quick, casual games, requiring a limited amount of time to complete and offering more attractions packed in that short time. It’s no surprise that MMORPGs are getting left behind – these games require dedication; a new set of gear often requires that we farm a dozen or more hours. Mobile games, in contrast, offer auto-trackers, which will do the work for us. It’s a perfect solution, enabling us to play even at work. Except, is this still gaming or just using a legal bot?

The MMORPG crisis is a fact. Everywhere, expect Asia – over there the devs are still getting by with some unique tricks. The West, however is experiencing a flood of games from Korean or Chinese developers. What’s more, we can expect the mobile MMORPG fad to reach us sooner or later. You don’t believe me? Well, look at Lineage 2: Revolution, released in Korea on December 14 last year. This free game has earned more than $42 million in the span of two weeks. The mobile version of the iconic Ragnarok Online is doing better than the original, and may yet wreak some havoc on the market. Unfortunately, without new ideas, the MMORPG segment will be unable to spread its wings.

Tibia was released in 1997. In August 2016, a user nicknamed Kharsek was the first player to hit level 1000, The character he used was created in July 2007, which means he needed more than 9 years to achieve it. We, however, still have no idea what lies behind the mysterious door that can be opened only by a level 999 character. Kharsek wasn’t kind enough to share his knowledge with the rest of the community, so we have to wait for another dedicated adventurer to repeat the achievement.

The genre needs to change, if it wants to survive

This weapon is from the original, Korean version of Lineage. In 2013, auction websites dealing with online goods have priced the item at $91,000. Unfortunately, we don’t know whether the owner managed to sell this pixellated golden egg.

A good attempt at innovation was the non-target system presented in TERA. This idea, however, would need some polishing, and the game would need something beside it to serve as the main drive behind the project (something which TERA failed to find). The gamers have become much more choosy, having accumulated more experience. One novelty wouldn’t be enough to convince them if the rest of the game is rubbish.

There seems to be a new chance for MMORPGs in the virtual reality technology. VR, however, is not ready to be taken seriously, and the devs keep their distance. Just like 3D television – we’re simply not ready for this. Still, this may be an interesting option for MMORPGs. Imagine a nigh real digital world, where thousands of players can experience the same adventures. Both PvE and PvP would gain a completely new dimension.

I know, I know, I’m getting ahead of facts. Still, I think there’s something to be gained there. Japan is considered a technological paradise, where the idea to combine MMORPG and VR is becoming more and more popular. At least in manga (and manhwa, its Korean equivalent, as well), which is always quick to pick up the topic. Who knows, perhaps some day VR goggles will be replaced by helms and cockpits, emulating fantasy worlds.

VR becoming the future of MMORPG? Sure, why not? - 2017-02-17
VR becoming the future of MMORPG? Sure, why not?

It’s time for a summary. MMORPG is in decent condition as a genre, but only thanks to Asian developers and players. There is a worrying lack of European and American games. Twelve years after its release, World of Warcraft remains the most popular production from the genre, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Western developers are reluctant to create new MMORPGs, unless they have a famous franchise at their disposal, such as The Elder Scrolls or Guild Wars. If something doesn’t happen, the Western market will be flooded by Asian games, including mobile MMORPGs. The genre needs to change, or it will die. We can only keep our fingers crossed that it will be reborn like adventure games and not forgotten like RTS.

About The Author

I’ve been into MMORPGs since 2004. World of Warcraft had already been present on the market at the time, but my adventure began with Tibia. Next on the list were Lineage II and Ragnarok Online. My first contact with the king of MMORPG took place on the occasion of the release of The Burning Crusade expansion, and lasted for a long time. Currently, I’ve dropped WoW in favor of The Elder Scrolls Online, but the old-school grind offered by Black Desert Online is becoming more and more alluring.