The first MMO I ever played was called Nexus TK: The Kingdom of the Winds. I had been introduced to it by my best friend, who played it with his older brother back when I was ten years old. It was a simple 2D graphics based game, but watching his older brother play it was a euphoric experience. I had never quite seen nor played anything like it before, and its concept was mind-boggling. The game simply never ended. You would gain levels and attribute stats and find new weapons and armor, something I was familiar with from my other gaming experiences. But this world was filled with other players who you interacted with nearly 90% of the time. I could go hunting with my best friend and his brother, and we could conquer challenges together, not only earning experience and loot but also building a strong relationship between us, and also those we encountered in the game world.
The MMO genre was something new and magical. It was a revelation in the gaming industry that dominated for years, with the most notable and successful MMO being World of Warcraft, a name known by people of any audience. The MMO brought new experiences that allowed players to connect together to accomplish goals that weren’t possible by yourself. There were always new challenges to overcome, with “regular” updates and expansions from developers. The MMO genre was a gold mine, and everyone wanted to cash in on the profits.
Perhaps the biggest boundary between players and the MMO experience was the ever notorious subscription fee. Sure, players could experience a wondrous, massive open world game with their friends and family, but first they had to purchase the game, and then pay a monthly subscription fee to continue the experience. With World of Warcraft, this was a small price to pay for the newest addiction in the gaming scene. And then somebody asked the question, “Why should players have to pay to play a game?”
Thus the free-to-play model was developed, and is still widely used across all platforms today. Those that were barred from using their mother’s credit cards to pay their subscription fee could download and play other MMO’s for free, such as Runes of Magic. Perhaps the experience of these F2P games were not as rewarding or enjoyable as World of Warcraft, but they had something that World of Warcraft did not: they were completely free to play, unless the user chose to pay for cosmetic and in-game boosters from the item shop.
The F2P model has triumphed today, with top developers such as ANet hopping on board with their popular MMO Guild Wars 2. Subscription based games are becoming a thing of the past, and within the next five years, we will be able to ask ourselves, “Remember when we used to have to pay to play these games?” Some games, like Star Wars the Old Republic and Secret World started out as subscription based, and then were forced to transition to a F2P model after their user base dropped.
World of Warcraft, however, has still held strong with its subscription based model since its 2007 release, and is arguably one of the most successful games of all time. Though it cannot be ignored that their user base has dropped significantly since its release, and World of Warcraft is well past its prime, though new expansions are still being released. My friends and I, upon hearing of the new expansion, put on quizzical looks and said “They’re still keeping that game alive?”
But there has always been another side to the coin in the PC gaming industry. RTS games have always had a huge player base, from Age of Empires to the ever popular Starcraft series, which is one of the most competitive and popular games of its kind. Warcraft III even produced DOTA, which branched off to become one of the most popular games to date in the MOBA scene. PvP had always been popular within MMOs, with people always looking to test their learned skills against other live players and not just monsters and bosses in a dungeon. Enter League of Legends.
League of Legends is currently the most played PC game in the world, with DOTA 2 coming in second. Both are MOBAs, and both are absolutely free to play. The F2P model dominates in this genre; it opens up the game to anyone and everyone who wants to try. Sure, there is a tremendous learning curve, but that goes for any new game, or even sport. It appeals to everyone who wants to learn a new game and become competitive and dominate their competition. Each game is different, despite the map being completely the same, but each new player brings new challenges and new skills that you must overcome. Plus, with the matchmaking feature, you can hop in to games either solo or with friends generally within just a few minutes or less. Teamwork and interaction still exist and coordination is just as important.
MMOs may have jaded current gamers. We all remember questing for hours on end, leveling up to reach that level cap so that we could fight with our friends against the hardest and toughest bosses and earn new loot and bragging rights. But that time has passed, and with the new announcement of any MMO that sounds intriguing, we’re all reminded of the time consuming nature that they bring.
MMO developers like ANet have realized this trend, and have tried to change it. Guild Wars 2 still has leveling, but end game isn’t as emphasized as other MMOs. Reaching level 80 simply means you have access to all content the game has to offer. But each time you enter a dungeon you are scaled to your appropriate level, even offering people to play in PvP battlegrounds at level 80 with all their skills for fairness. It was a unique approach to the MMO that I think deserves more praise than it gets. However, gamers wants instant gratification, and the MOBA scene offers just that.
A typical MOBA game starts off like this: the game starts, players buy their items with the starting amount of gold, and then each go to their predetermined lane to defend their tower against minions and other players. Gold is earned, items are bought, and levels are achieved granting you new abilities to slay your opponent. But during all this, your opponent gets stronger too. The MOBA process is PvP in an MMO streamlined to a 30 minute game, and each game feels different and exciting. You don’t have to grind for hours to gain a level anymore; you can achieve the level cap within just 30 minutes or less and feel strong and dominate your opponent all in a short time frame. And then the process starts all over, time and time again.
The concept of instant gratification is key in today’s gaming industry. We, as gamers, want to feel powerful and strong in the game we’re playing, but we don’t want it to take too long. We want a challenge, but we don’t want to have to wait a month before we can get to that challenge. The F2P model also contributes immensely to the popularity of these games. Gamers can hop right in and play without having to dive in to their wallets without investing anything but time, unless you choose to.
The MMO offers a robust world with a deep story and quests to complement. Crafting is usually always implemented for those so inclined to participate, and those that like to roleplay can always find a server that offers such entertainment. This is something that still makes the MMO unique. You cannot simply /sit in an inn and listen to a player recreating the theme song from The Legend of Zelda with an in-game item in a MOBA. There are unique aspects to an MMO that still make them a wonderful experience you can’t get anywhere else. The question is, however, is there still an audience for such experiences en masse?
How long can the MMO hold on? The MMO feels like an old friend, perhaps an old hero, known for their wondrous exploits and glorious achievements. But like every hero, sooner or later they will be replaced by something new, fresh, and in our case, free.