I talked about my experience with the genre of MMOs last week. Today, I want to look at some of the developments and changes within the immensely popular genre. There are some fantastic games on the horizon and older games such as World of Warcraft still have a huge player base (even though it’s smaller than before). In the last 8 years I’ve played MMORPGs, many new features and changes have been introduced in various games. Some have made games better, some have made them far less enjoyable.
I find the direction many large RPGs have taken in making everything available to solo players very disappointing. In most games today, many tasks are easily accomplished alone and developers try to make all content available to everybody. I understand that some of these thoughts are especially made from a business point of view as publishers want to bind players to the respective franchises for as long as possible. Another reason is the fact that most players have already reached maximum level in older games, leaving the world unpopulated and empty in earlier stages.
But if nothing requires a group to complete, MMORPGs become similar to single-player roleplaying games, but trapped by the conventional tools of of a completely different genre. As an example, single-player games can offer meaningful choice with different paths to follow and different endings, while MMOs have much less room to differentiate, often only able to change rewards or the physical appearance of players. The greatest strength of the genre is the ability to bring like-minded people together. When there is no incentive to group up, most gamers tend to go at it alone. I find this a worrying tendency.
In the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online, everything will play out on a huge mega server, which is a development I’m looking forward to seeing in action. In The Old Republic, many players quit quickly after launch as their home servers became empty as many subscribers gave up after the initial free month. This forced Bioware to merge servers a short time after release. In World of Warcraft, server communities have eroded thanks to the fact that battlegrounds, dungeons and raids have become available as cross-server features to minimize wait times. Unfortunately, this takes away some of the benefits of having everything play out on one server. Unfriendly and mean players cannot be easily called out anymore, while unskilled and new players get less support when starting out their journey. Hopefully, this mega-server technology can combine the best of the two worlds, offering a lively and full world with less waiting involved, while keeping the ability to punish and help players as a community.
The most interesting development however are the changes in business models many games have gone through. With The Old Republic and Lord of the Rings Online two games I have played are free-to-play with the option to subscribe, while Guild Wars 2 uses the buy-to-play model with a pay shop. World of Warcraft is still entirely subscription based, but offers various trial modes and a pay shop for cosmetic items. The Elder Scrolls Online will also be a subscription-based MMO, while Everquest Next is expected to be either buy-to-play or free-to-play with no subscription fees.
Both models have their merits with free-to-play losing the stigma formerly attached to it. The Old Republic has been far more successful with the new model and Lord of the Rings Online has managed to survive for years. It offers players the meaningful choice between investing either their time or their money for features. As the generation of Dark Age of Camolot and Everquest players has grown up, this choice has become more and more important and attractive to gamers not able to spend all-nighters chasing down the biggest bosses anymore. The downside of the free-to-play model is the imbalance it can create between paying players and free players. This of course helps the publisher earn more money.
I still believe the patches in WoW to be the largest and most polished around. I never regretted paying the subscription fee for countless hours of entertainment they have provided me with. On the other hand, subscription models encourage the development of features designed to make players stay on longer without really being extremely innovative or even fun. As an example reputation grinds or the gating of content behind other goals come to mind.
Currently both models have their place in the genre. Guild Wars 2 has so far struck a fairly good balance between earning money with the sale of the game, having a pay shop without excessive benefits for paying players and the ability to continue to develop their games with patches and updates. I cannot say which model will take over the future, but it does seem like customers are becoming more reluctant to spend money on subscriptions, especially with the variety of free-to-play options out there.
What are your thoughts about the recent development of the genre? Do you prefer are singular payment model? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!