When Playing an MMORPG Is no Longer an Adventure
While MMORPGs formed a popular genre of the 2000s, they have gradually lost popularity over the last decade. In 2011, World of Warcraft saw its player-base begin to decrease after peaking at 12 million subscribers, a symbol of the decline of the entire genre. Despite this decline, we’ve still seen new MMORPGs pop up in the last decade. Some, such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Elder Scrolls Online or Final Fantasy XIV have struggled to recover after a difficult start. Other games have completely floundered after launch, and some haven't even been released despite the industry giants behind them (remember Blizzard's Project Titan , CCP's World of Darkness Online, or Sony Online's EverQuest Next).
In recent years, AAA MMORPGs have become more rare, a consequence of a recipe that is difficult to renew. Some studios are still trying their luck with crowdfunding, a system that gives rise to a certain mistrust due to aborted projects or broken promises. Former flagship MMOs, like WildStar or Aion , have now closed their doors or been relegated to mobile (And it's not an "Out of season April fool").
What are the reasons behind this decline in popularity?
The weariness of the players? The emergence of new popular genres? Casualization? The decline of the social aspect ? The consumer culture changing? There are as many opinions as players who have looked into the issue and today I would like to share mine.
What motivates us to play an MMORPG?
While players all look for different things in a game, there’s one feeling that we all no doubt search for in an MMO: the sense of discovery.
Playing an MMO is first and foremost an adventure where we discover a lot of new things. We want to explore a world, admire its landscapes, unveil its mysteries, meet people and build relationships, test our new skills, or simply know what's hidden inside that mysterious chest.
Discovery also involves improvising and taking risks. In an MMO, I don’t like the idea of moving towards a goal knowing in advance how I will reach it. If our best memories are often situations related to our early days on the game, it's because back then every moment brought us something new.
After hours of trekking through the Teldrassil world tree, I remember the wonder of opening the map and realizing that the huge forest where I got lost was only a tiny fraction of a much larger world. I then realized the range of possibilities that the game offered me.
In short, the discovery is all that generates surprises, novelties or possibilities, and these are the things that make an adventure beautiful. If it’s a natural feeling when you start a new MMO, it often fades quickly to be replaced by linearity and repetition.
It is difficult to evaluate the degree of discovery in a game, because it's a personal feeling that we feel more or less depending on the design, the content or our past experiences. For us players, or for the developers, it’s easier to build our objectives around concrete activities, like PvP to generate competition, PvE for coordination, or quests to develop a narrative, rather than around such a vague feeling like discovery.
Despite this, discovery is still a critical component that greatly influences our gaming experience and whether it's through game mechanics, how content is generated or even marketing practices, developers can influence how and how fast the players discover a game.
The discovery in "R-P-G"
Tabletop RPGs, which can be considered precursors of MMORPGs, have mechanics that naturally favor this sense of discovery. A sense of discovery can be added:
- By the Game Master, who renews it by depicting the world and setting up situations as we progress;
- Due to the randomness of the dice, which generate twists and unexpected situations;
- By the freedom to choose how to evolve our character, which generates unique situations when it interacts with other avatars;
- Or, by the freedom to choose how to face the situations presented by the Game Master.
Because Freedom and discovery are closely linked. In general, the more our actions or decisions are free, the more powerful the sense of discovery that arises from them.
It is far more gratifying to find a treasure hidden in the bottom of a cave if I chose to enter it on my own, rather than if it was the outcome of a critical path that I was simply following.
In Rift, we're rewarded for collecting artifacts, tiny glittering gems scattered randomly around the world. We only notice them if we bother looking for them: Behind a tree, under a rock, some are even hidden in places accessible only by "cheating"!
And while the first MMORPGs were inspired by tabletop RPGs, many have now moved away from them.
This is mostly due to a change in the way players and developers approach the notion of progress. Making a character progress has always been a central motivation in MMOs, but compared to today, there was less focus on optimizing or accelerating it. We experimented as we pleased without worrying about maximizing our DPS, and we took the time to explore because the maximum level was only a distant dream. But mentalities have evolved, and with them, our priorities.
As a player, the game mechanics now encourage us to optimize our progression to be faster. Of course, as there is always a more optimized path than others, and it makes progression linear and does not encourage exploring other possibilities. It's a vicious circle, as developers create or modify the rules of the game according to the expectations of their audience.
The ILV (or item level ) on World of Warcraft: An indicator that appeared after a few expansions. In appearance, it's a simple number reflecting the overall quality of our equipment, but by making it visible to other players and by segmenting the content according to its level, it becomes difficult for players to make abstraction of it. The ILV then becomes an obsession for many and we spend most of our time repeating the same content over and
over to increase it.
Going hand in hand with optimization, balancing is now a concept to which players and developers give too much importance. MMOs of the 2000s were often unbalanced. Taking the original World of Warcraft as an example, there were a handful of classes that dominated PvP. A single piece of equipment could give a considerable advantage and some control spells lasted forever. If this imbalance could be a source of frustration for the players, it was also a great playground for developers, as it gave them the freedom to experiment and introduce what they wanted without worrying about unbalancing the game. And that encouraged players to be creative.
By aiming for a perfect balance, this has consequences for freedom and discovery. The choices are more limited, because it is more convenient for developers to balance a game like Aion which has a single tank class and a single healer class with limited choices in terms of evolution, than a game like Dark Age of Camelot who left us the choice between dozens of different archetypes.
Again to facilitate balancing, randomness disappeared from our gameplay, yet it is a central element of RPGs and it's an effective way to create unexpected situations.
On Dofus , the spell "Bluff" of the Ecaflip dealt random damage that could be very low or very high, always generating intense situations.
The recent democratization of e-sports or, more generally, the competitive aspect and the willingness of the developers to introduce this aspect in MMOs made it even worse, since perfect balancing is crucial to any competition.
This "optimized progression" is also reflected in the level-design, that became much more linear, whether in its appearance ("corridor maps") or the way the objectives are sequenced. Even in MMOs with open worlds, there is a critical path to follow and little interest for the player to move away from it.
Make no mistake, though the map looks open-world, everything is designed in a way that the player will complete his quests in a specific order.
In short, with this change of direction that aims a perfect balance and pushes us to optimize our progress, the game experience has gradually moved away from what it initially was. Freedom has been replaced by linearity, surprise by predictability, and discovery by repetition.
The discovery in "M-M-O"
The other interest of the genre, beyond exploring a world and evolving a character, is to meet other people, whether to share an emotion for a moment or start a new friendship that will last several years.
But... for that to happen, you need a reason to start the conversation.
Because, as in real life, in theory you could start a conversation with any random stranger, but you would only do so if you have a need to, either to overcome an individual difficulty or to achieve a common goal.
If it was once trivial to ask for help or information from another player, the decline in difficulty, tutorials and tools of all kinds have today filled this need, and they provide us with an answer before even having the time to ask the question.
Once, during the time when you had to read your quest log to locate your objectives, I could not find an enemy that I had to defeat to complete my main quest. I then asked for help from the first character who crossed my path: Nyssan, an elf with 40 levels more than mine. In addition to helping me complete my quest, she took the time to escort me to the human capital, which was a few hours' walk away, and then invited me to her guild where I stayed for two years. This situation would never have happened today where an arrow and a big yellow dot on my mini-map would have made my job easier.
Grouping with other players to accomplish a common goal has also become rare.
Today, the leveling phase is carried out alone or almost alone, especially because of the importance of the storytelling and how our avatar is tied to the narrative. Developers now tend to make our character a key part of the main storyline. First inconsistency with the genre; we no longer embody a character of our choice, but a hero with a fate all drawn. And while roleplay is not the main motivation for many of us, it's still a key part of the genre that can not be ignored.
I also see a problem of logic and immersion. Personally, I find it hard to believe an NPC that covers me with titles and glory for saving the world from chaos, when I know that he does the same for the other 20 players packed around him.
But above all, it cuts us off from other players, because to develop this narrative, the quests are sequenced linearly and are not designed to be completed by two characters who are at a different point of their progress.
And for some developers, they will pull out all the stops to strengthen the narrative. Cinematics, cut-scenes, audio dialogues, phasing, instancing ... but this is in my opinion a bad bet, because in addition to locking us in our bubble, it's expensive to create, it does not interest everyone, it is quickly consumable, it does not encourage replayability, and above all, it will never be as immersive as a solo game.
"Some of the risks that we identified going into launch were becoming worse than we thought... The most worrisome was that people were going through the content a lot faster than we expected"
James Ohlen, the creative director of Star Wars: The Old Republic, a MMORPG with a collosal budget, but a big part of it was spent to reinforce the narrative components.
Creating group activities is also not enough to make players communicate, it is also necessary for difficulty to be present, because once again, the difficulty generates a need, and it is this need which encourages us to communicate. But in order to make the games accessible to a larger audience, the overall difficulty of the MMORPGs has instead been lowered. If players do not communicate with each other when they close Rifts, participate in dynamic events in Guild Wars 2 or clean dungeons on World of Warcraft, it's simply because the challenge is often not there.
Many MMORPGs do have challenging goals that require communication, but it's often just a tiny part of the content for high-level characters. If you have to wait three months for your character to be strong enough to access it, it’s too little too late late for a genre that claims being massively multiplayer.
Marketing or the art of Spoiling
Many of us learned about our first MMORPGs through word of mouth and we did not know much about the game before actually starting it. In my case, I had vaguely heard about WoW during my Solfege classes, and what I read of the manual on the way back from the store was all I knew about the game before starting it.
But over time, communication and marketing practices have evolved. It is now commonplace for developers or publishers to advertise a MMORPG years before its official release. The information then has time to be digested, analyzed and speculated on, and that’s enough to kill in the bud the feeling of "all new" that one would have had 15 years ago.
This disclosure of information often worsens as it gets closer to the release date, with alphas, betas, early access... all these "fake releases" that allow players to consume the content early on and influencers to share it. While this is certainly a good practice to find bugs or test the capacity of servers, it also has the effect of drastically reduce the feeling of discovery at the official release.
The talent trees of the different classes of "Tree of Savior" were available months before the game's release, and the betas had almost no limits. Result: it was possible to discover all the content and plan in detail the progression of a character even before the official release.
And if I used to see NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) in a bad light, I now understand the benefits.
To perpetuate the feeling of discovery
Even while respecting the codes of tabletop RPGs and pushing players to interact with each other, the problem of content remains. How to create content that retains players for years?
This has always been a major problem for developers, and many have chosen the easy option: repetition, which can be found in all its forms.
- In Western theme park MMOs , the "leveling" phase is often trivial and the focus is on the "end-game" part which requires us to repeatedly complete daily quests or dungeons to evolve our character;
- In Asian MMORPGs, quests are anecdotal and killing monsters is usually the only way to level-up, but the experience curve is made in such a way that you have to chainkill hundreds of them;
- In sandbox MMOs, once you're past the discovery and exploration phase, the farm of resources often becomes the main activity.
In short, regardless of the type of MMO, we quickly find ourselves having to repeat the same thing in a loop to progress.
But repetition is the antithesis of discovery, so by basing the progression around repetitive content, developers shoot themselves in the foot. Repetitive activities have their place if they are optional. I personally love crafting activities, I can take pleasure in mining or fishing for hours but only because it's optional and it is a goal that I had set myself, and not one that is imposed on me.
Now to Dofus, the good student. On this tactical MMORPG developed by Ankama, the player progresses by killing monsters in a loop, but unlike the typical bash of some MMORPGs, Dofus has what I would call a "smart bash". There are groups of monsters that the player can choose to face according to the challenge they want to set to themself. Each fight is instantiated on a map, and if we take into account all the parameters that influence the fight (size and shape of the map, number and type of monsters that are inside the group ...), we realize that each fight is unique, strongly limiting the feeling of repetition.
But even on Dofus, after years of traveling around the world, there is bound to be a moment when the content of the game is exhausted, and that's quite normal. We can not require developers to create content that amazes us indefinitely.
In short, discovery is the key experience of MMORPGs, but because of many design decisions such as repetitive progression, focus on narrative, optimized progression, aiming for perfect balancing, lack of difficulty, an abundance of in game tools, and spoiler-filled marketing practices, the feeling of discovery gradually disappeared from the genre. If developers have many tools at their disposal to revive it, it is also up to us to admit that any adventure has an end, and if a game is only rich enough to entertain us for a few years, that's not so bad, after all.
My special thanks to Matthew Cropley for his help when translating the original article into English.