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Are we on the cusp of the next great era in MMOs?

The rest of the decade may be packed with new MMO releases.

An interview with ZeniMax Online Studios’ creative director Ben Jones has revealed that at least one of their upcoming titles is going to be a very big game indeed. Given the studio’s current flagship game – The Elder Scrolls Online – and the confirmation that 200 devs are working on the unannounced title, one can speculate that this may likewise be an MMO.

If that’s the case, then it would immediately join Riot’s similarly mysterious MMO as one of the potential Next Big Things in the genre.

Even without any solid knowledge of what these games are it’s very easy to get excited about them if only because for the last decade it seemed that AAA studios had all but given up on the genre.

New World certainly looks the part, but its unfocused mix of story, factional PvP and survival mechanics stop it from feeling like the first of a new era of MMOs.

The First Two Eras

Although there’s some room for arguing, the process of demarcating the distinct ages of the MMO genre is not too difficult a task. Ultima Online ‘broke’ the ground in 1997 even if it wasn’t the first MMO. Then, World of Warcraft came along in 2004 to take things mainstream and establish ‘the template’. And that has kind of kept everything moving until every studio shot their shot in the early 2010s.

Since then, we’ve been in something of an interregnum (assuming of course that you’re not one of those people who genuinely believes the genre to be dead in an absolute sense). You could call it the Kickstarter era, or you could say that it’s been an era of experimentation where the disparate systems of the MMO have been broken off and repackaged as MOBAs, survival sandboxes, battle royales, or (whisper it) metaverse experiences.

As far as western MMO development was concerned, throughout many of the latter years of the 2010s, the one game which carried the beacon of hope was New World. While the game had the clout of Jeff Bezos’ bags of money behind it, expectations were somewhat tempered by the studio’s fledgling status (which wasn’t helped by the untimely cancelling of its other two titles, Crucible and Breakaway, not to mention successive rounds of unimpressive New World test builds).

Still, that game has now launched and it’s finding a nice little place for itself among the rest of its competition. Despite some very impressive launch numbers it hasn’t exactly catapulted the genre back into the limelight.

Though not an MMO, marketing for Diablo IV has been keen to stress the game’s shared world.
Image Source: Diablo IV | Developer Gameplay Showcase

AAA MMOs Are Back

Looking ahead as the current decade builds momentum however the landscape seems brighter than it may at first appear. The aforementioned titles from ZeniMax and Riot are leading the pack, but there’s also a whole bunch of studios working on various games which are MMOs on some level even if the marketing team are weary of actually making use of the acronym.

The first to hit shelves will be Blizzard’s Diablo IV, whose devs have been busy touting the game’s open-world and social features. They’ve also got a survival game in the works which is sure to be heavily MMO-ish. Speaking of survival games, Funcom has flip-flopped a little over the years on whether or not their long-awaited Dune Awakening is an MMO, but the game’s official announcement earlier this year indicates that they’re going to be leaning into it after all.

The other major MMO that’s had an official announcement is Digital Extreme’s Soulframe, the spiritual sequel to their sleeper success Warframe. They’re also publishing an unnamed MMO from Airship Syndicate (Ruined King: A League of Legends Story), which is set to get a full reveal at next month’s The Game Awards.

Perhaps a little less further along in their development cycle are a host of other titles which, like Riot’s and ZeniMax’s games, have been informally announced via the recruitment process. ArenaNet has an online game based on an established IP in development that could speculatively be Guild Wars 3. Amazon has perhaps another MMO in the works, this one with industry veteran John Smedley at the helm; while another stalwart of the industry, Jack Emmert, is heading up Chinese online gaming giant NetEase’s first US studio.

Then you’ve got MMO-adjacent fare like Ark 2, Path of Exile 2, Bungie’s live service title in partnership with Sony, 10 other live service titles that Sony is planning to launch with Bungie’s help (one of which may be an MMO based on the Horizon franchise if the rumours are to be believed), Ubisoft’s Star Wars project from The Division devs Massive Entertainment (the online aspect is presently speculation), and ‘the next Genshin Impact’ which Microsoft is seeking to chuck gobs of money at.

The big question is, how many of these games will be MMORPGs as opposed to just MMOs? When the question was posed to Riot’s Greg Street he responded quite plainly that their game would be the former rather than the latter.

Both terms are kind of nebulous these days, but honestly, I would be surprised if any of these titles fit the tab-target combat, overstuffed UI, and everything simulator that defined the old vision of an MMORPG. Still, I get the feeling that genre stalwarts will probably know a ‘proper’ MMORPG if and when we see some actual gameplay footage of one.

Airship Syndicate’s new MMO is set to be revealed at next month’s The Game Awards. Development footage from the team’s announcement video hints at a heavily stylized action combat MMO.
Image Source: Airship Syndicate + Digital Extremes Partnership Announcement

Trust In The Process

So far, I’ve avoided listing games from the ‘big studios’, because to those who think that the genre is ‘dead’, it’s commonly only AAA games that seem to matter. For the record, I resolutely do not believe that the genre has been dead for the last few years, nor – as evidenced by this article – that I think the genre has no future

After spending huge sums of time and money developing new titles at the start of the decade then it’s only natural that the primary focus of those studios would be on keeping those games thriving to maximise the return on their investment.

Among others, Final Fantasy XIV, Guild Wars 2, and The Elder Scrolls Online are among those who have found themselves on strong footing as they all hover around the decade milestone, while second-tier titles like Star Trek Online, DC Universe Online, and Lord of the Rings Online maintain both a healthy update schedule and presumably a healthy profit margin alongside the rest of the MMO catalogues over at Cryptic and Daybreak.

While MMO-focused publishers like these may have been cranking out a new game every couple of years during the 2000s, the decision to focus on one or two established games in the following decade has ultimately benefited their communities as much as it’s benefited the studios bottom lines.

Decade-old games like Daybreak’s DC Universe Online may fly under the radar of the general gaming fandom, but steady updates have kept them pulling in considerable player numbers.

The Rise, Fall And Rise Of The Indies

Although there are variations in the fantasy worlds on offer in these games, as far as gameplay is concerned, they’re all very much of a type – that being the generally more PvE-leaning WoW-clone. With such a glut of these titles dropping in so short a period it’s no small wonder that there was a hunger for variation at the start of the 2010s. This inevitably resulted in a look backwards to the gankboxes of yesteryear.

Hence, the rise of the Kickstarter and indie MMO scene. For a multitude of reasons none of these games (those that even managed to make it to release), has managed to catch on in any significant way.

But that doesn’t mean they haven’t had an impact in other ways. The yearning for what was left behind has seen a boom in rogue servers, with many players choosing to go back to their once favourite games rather than the new thing that was trying to drag them kicking and screaming into the new decade.

Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, and Warhammer Online are among the once popular games that were shuttered, seemingly forever, but have returned and are being updated anew by passionate fan volunteers. Meanwhile, the continued growth of private servers running older versions of still-running games has led to official ‘classic’, ‘progression’, and ‘fresh start’ servers being developed for games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and Runescape.

The independent scene hasn’t quite vanished altogether either. While we’re seeing far fewer crowdfunded games (Ashes of Creation is perhaps the last holdout from that scene with any hope of success), MMOs are still being made outside the major studios. The one we’ve seen the most of is Palia, a bright, cosy-looking, casual-friendly MMO from Singularity 6, a new studio composed of veterans from Blizzard, Riot, Sony and Epic.

A little further out is the untitled MMO from industry titan Raph Koster’s new studio Playable Worlds. This one could be the most experimental of any upcoming MMO given Koster’s previous games and their still not-quite-clear-to-the-layman chatter about utilising cloud technologies to build a metaverse platform alongside the core MMO.

Neither of these games is likely to appeal much to the predominantly hardcore, PvP-focused games of the Kickstarter cycle (Book of Travels and Temtem are the obvious exceptions here), but they also give off less of a ‘handful of dudes dreaming up their perfect best game ever for real gamers only’ vibe which probably makes them better candidates for actually making it out the gate.

Palia has a clean aesthetic, a focus on casual friendly gameplay, and a strong pedigree of MMO talent on its development team. Could it be the genre’s next big hit?

The Third Era of MMOs

A lot of these games are likely to be years away. Some won’t ever even see the light of day. But then I’d also go out on a limb and say there are a fair few more MMOs out there in various stages of development at big studios right this minute that we know nothing about yet. I’ve omitted new MMOs coming from outside of the west in this article, but games like Throne and Liberty (the spiritual successor to the Lineage series), ArcheAge 2, and Blue Protocol all have the potential to be global big hitters (especially if they can fill the niche of being new MMORPGs proper, should Western studios fail to cater to that market).

It’s hard at present to envision what the new MMO landscape might look like towards the end of the decade, but for now, we’ve got that strong stable of existing MMOs chugging along to keep us occupied. With graphics and engine updates, full-sized expansion packs, and even just smaller quality-of-life patches still being pushed out to games that are 10, 20, even 25 years old, that in itself is reason enough to consider this a new great era in MMO history, when it seemed for a while that many studios were just a bit too eager to pull the plug (RIP Wildstar).

Even if you were to break it down to just one or two of these new games being released every year, it’s apparent that this could be the most exciting time in the genre since the post-WoW boom. Needless to say, the studios making these games won’t be going to the expense of building them just to let them quietly drop into the ocean of other titles vying for attention on the Steam marketplace or Game Pass. Rather, we could once again be seeing MMOs on the mainstage at a lot of big industry events like The Game Awards and the revived E3 over the next few years.

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