On gaming and the future of MMOs…

I’ve been a “gamer” for close to 20 years now, nearly two-thirds of my life.  I started with the NES and DOS-based, pre-Windows computer systems.  I started on Mario and Zelda and early computer games like Wolfenstein 3-D and some grid-based D&D game I never knew the actual name of.  I didn’t really get “into” gaming until I was encountered the Super Nintendo and, in particular, the Zelda incarnation of that platform – A Link to the Past.  The crisp sprite-based graphics and free-feeling combat caught me.  I was a Nintendo Power subscriber at this time and my eye was immediately caught by the next crisp medieval-era game that came around – Secret of Mana.  A fan of medieval combat and weaponry, the selection of weapons and real-time combat was a hook.  It was Secret of Mana that introduced the term “RPG (role-playing game)” to my vocabulary.  I kept an eye out for RPGs after that, and it turned out to be the perfect time to do so, because the next two games I encountered as a result were Final Fantasy VI (III) and Chrono Trigger.

To gamers now, or people who didn’t experience the Super NES era, there’s really no way to fully explain Final Fantasy VI.  VI was an apex.  It was the best of the gaming medium encapsulated into a single game, a single experience.  It was the first game to really grab you and hit you with a narrative that had a truly literary scope.  It was the game, for me, when games went from a trivial interest to an experience unto themselves.  Chrono Trigger followed up on this, but for me, did not achieve the lofty level that VI did.  VI and Chrono Trigger were massive successes (Chrono Trigger was the first game I ever pre-ordered) and the industry took notice; the next generation of RPGs, the Playstation era, were set to capitalize on the RPG as an experience.

It started with Final Fantasy VII, which despite coming out a year after the Playstation debuted, was truly a launch title, a game that people bought the Playstation for.  No RPG has commanded that kind of respect since.  Despite being a very raw-looking game using polygonal 3-D models, VII featured cinematic cutscenes that were the most stunning things on the platform at the time.  Like it’s predecessor, VII featured an expansive storyline and, like most RPGs of that time, took anywhere from 40-100 hours to complete.  The experience takes time to build.  The list of RPGs that followed Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation are a who’s-who list of great games and influences for future games; make no mistake, the golden era of RPGs was on the Playstation (moreso yet when certain SNES titles were reproduced for the Playstation).  Xenogears, the Suikoden games, Valkyrie Profile, the Lunar games, and many more I’m neglecting to mention all continued to push the boundaries of the gaming narrative.

But most RPGs are plagued by two things – a rudimentary, menu-based combat system and mediocre graphics.  They’re games of strategy in combat, something that can’t be executed quickly.  Commands are given and battles are fought in a turn-based method.  RPGs were predominantly sprite-based in this era, with the skeleton of a game being a grid (which was better and better disguised as the generation progressed) upon which sprites (characters that occupy a grid square) move across.  Perhaps in light of this, RPGs saved their visual flair for the cinematic cutscenes mentioned above – and boy did they.  In many games, the player would progress through arduous tasks and narrative and the reward, besides victory, was a feast of computer-generated cinematics to convey a key event in the narrative.  It wasn’t evident at the time, but as technology continued to advance, it became evident that the status quo, graphically, would not hold.

As the Playstation 2 era dawned, RPGs got an overhaul, and it was obvious to most RPG players that the genre was in crisis.  The traditional (Japanese) RPG of turn-based combat and extensive narrative that took 40+ hours to complete was being displaced in large by the Western action-RPG, games with fluid real-time combat augmented by minor character-building features and a lesser narrative, which often took less than 20 hours to complete.  The list of memorable PS2 RPGs is much shorter than that of the Playstation.

But as time went on the RPG evolved somewhat unexpectedly – taking a cue from the success of online RPGs of the ’90s like EverQuest and Diablo, the time-intensive RPG of the vast narrative found new life as an online game. The massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) was born, and those who craved the all-encompassing experience of the Playstation-era RPG found their new hobby.  The static 40-hour narrative was replaced with something even grander; a narrative that could unfold over months or even years, moved by dynamic characters that could change, as well.  Players could invest in a character or set of characters that they would play for years.

The MMO is a strange beast, and the investment a player makes in an MMO is staggering compared to RPGs in the past.  Whereas a player can sit down and complete Final Fantasy VI or VII in a couple days of playtime, the same is not true for an MMO, which has no fixed ending.  Sure, a story segment may finish, but the allure of new events is always around the corner, and there are generally very few players in any MMO who obtain everything relevant to them in each set of new content, as it comes out.  MMOs always have something else to offer.  But MMOs are at a crucial crossroads, because the original generation of mainstream MMOs is coming to an end.  The eye is looking to the future, and so far, the future hasn’t worked out so well.  The majority MMO out there is, and has been, World of WarCraft, which too many subsequent MMOs tried to model themselves off of.  My particular MMO of choice has been Final Fantasy XI, which has adapted since it launched 10 years ago to a smaller and more casual playerbase.  But subscriptions for MMOs are on the decline, and both of the aforementioned RPGs are looking ahead; Blizzard, who makes WoW, has “Project Titan” in the works, the codename for their next-generation MMO, and Square-Enix, who makes FFXI, is re-launching its successor, Final Fantasy XIV, after an initial failure.

Penny Arcade had a comic up some weeks ago about MMOs, largely in response to word that Project Titan was being scrapped and restarted from scratch.  In the news/commentary section, Tycho (I think it was) made the point that, in reality, there is no such thing as an MMO sequel; there’s no “WoW 2” because we’re playing WoW 6 or 7 already.  This is, largely, true, I think.  MMOs evolve; I last played WoW in 2011 and gave it a shot a couple months ago due to an excess of time due to a broken ankle.  WoW had changed beyond my recognition, and the WoW I wanted to play no longer exists.  Final Fantasy XI, similarly, has changed greatly since its inception and subsequent adaptions into something that’s very unlike its initial form.  But the key question is this – as players change with their MMOs, and stick with the changes, they stay in large part because the MMO creates an emotional memory; we attribute memories and emotions to events and people that we wouldn’t in a single player game.  Beyond that, we form emotional commitments to our characters themselves – if you spend 180 days of playtime building a character to be very powerful, exactly what is your incentive to start over from scratch in a brand-new game?

It’s telling that no MMO has challenged WoW over the last several years, and that FFXI’s attempt to move on failed initially.  I actually think there’s no next-generation MMO success to be had.  For one, when MMOs first debuted, there was a yearning playerbase for them: a surprisingly large population of gamers who would routinely sink 80-100 hours into single-player RPGs; with those games declining alarmingly, these players were primed for MMOs and many of them were an age where such intensive play was acceptable within their lives.  Nowadays, I argue that MMOs are competing for a dwindling playerbase; that the current single-player gaming environment does not create MMO players, and that MMO players are slowly exiting the scene, aging out of hardcore play as they get married/have children/pursue careers.  This is why games like WoW and FFXI have had to simplify their games and make them more friendly to casual players.  Beyond that, I argue that many players will stick to their MMO; a next-generation successor to WoW may succeed if all WoW players make the move, but they won’t.  I’d estimate, based on personal experience, that anywhere from 30-70% of an MMO’s players will stick with it rather than move on, or, even more devastatingly, many will “try” the new game only to drop it later.  This is the pattern that’s killing most new MMOs now; a game like RIFT or the Old Republic launch respectably enough only to see their subscription numbers drop and dwindle after that.  The inevitable move is made to go free-to-play, which is basically the death knell for an MMO; MMOs make money via subscription.  Nothing is worse for publicity than a drop in subscribers after 3 months; anyone considering picking up the game will pass if it looks dead-on-arrival, and MMO arrival takes place 3-6 months after launch as players get established and content gets fully accessed.

FFXIV re-launches next month after a massive failure the first time around; everyone should be paying attention.  FFXI is 10+ years old and shows its age; no doubt, a great deal of FFXI’s population (30-70%, I bet) will at least go try FFXIV.  Having had an opportunity to already learn from their mistakes, Square-Enix has a surprisingly unique opportunity to try and address issues made specific from the previous failure.  That the playerbase is even still willing to try is impressive enough, in terms of loyalty.  This is a proving ground for a next generation of MMOs, and it’ll be interesting to see what their numbers show by Christmas, in terms of player subscriptions, and whether they track FFXI migration versus new player sign-ups.  If even 25% of their subscribers drop FFXIV and go back to XI by Christmas, though, you have to think that it’ll be the all-too-familiar story that has played out over recent years.  I imagine Blizzard is paying attention.  As for me?  I’ll be happy playing FFXI, knowing that’s my MMO these days, and with no desire and no time to start over from scratch in a new world, no matter how compelling the narrative may or may not be.  Like many gamers in the target MMO audience, I’m “aging out” – I’m married, pursuing a career, looking ahead to having children.  The idea of investing fully into a new MMO world?  It’s just too much now.

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