I have seen a few discussions pop up on Twitter recently regarding games as social spaces. While I haven’t followed those conversations directly, what I have read makes a lot of sense. If games are social spaces and that’s what draws so many of us to them, then why are MMORPGs, a genre that is inherently social, no longer a draw?
It all comes down to competition. When MMORPGs were new, they were a far more interactive and innovative online social space than other options. I spent plenty of time in AOL chatrooms as a kid or working on my Xanga/Angelfire/Geocities/MySpace page, but none of those things combined as easily with my love of fantasy or video games as MMORPGs did.
I do not want to comment on the merit of online gaming as social spaces for children and young adults. My eyes always roll at the “kids don’t go outside anymore and that is why this country is doomed” arguments. Wherever you fall in that argument, for me as a kid, I spent near equal time outside as I did in, but for entirely different reasons. Outside, I explored the woods behind my house in relative solitude, only occasionally bringing a friend or young relative. Inside, I spent holiday breaks from school staying up until 5 AM playing games like Ultima Online and EverQuest.
As I grew older, my time outside was largely replaced by my time inside. To this day, I still enjoy a good hike and I have incorporated daily walks into my routine, but between work, adulting, and personal leisure, I go outside far less.
Other than the obvious reason of increasing responsibility, I also ascribe some of my outside/inside shift (especially when I was a teenager) to enjoying the more complex social spaces of MMORPGs. I wasn’t a loner as a child, but I had relatively few friends and no social drive to spend time with them after school, every day, every week. MMORPGs were fantasy escapism, but they also provided me a means to acquire an identity that I felt more control over than I did my real-life self. It was easier to escape my shyness. It was also easier to feel important or validated since, in an entirely self-contained world and community, expertise in the game is attainable by most who play it and is subject less to the real world’s prejudices regarding quantity of experience, the age of the person, etc. In other words, in MMORPGs, it was easier for me to feel more important and more confident than I did outside the game.
As much as I miss specific bits of gameplay, it is the social aspects of MMORPGs I miss the most and the thing I have had the hardest time recapturing. Journeying back to EverQuest or World of Warcraft, I rarely reintegrate into the current community and find it hard to continue playing without finding those I already know and who I most often speak to independent of any specific game these days.
Back to competition, MMORPGs are not going against AOL chatrooms anymore, but are instead going against a world that has evolved with them in mind and largely stolen their best bits for their own. Most multiplayer games these days come with their own chat tools regardless of how persistent their games worlds must be. If they don’t have the chat tools, then there are a ton of platforms that will provide the same functionality. Beyond those platforms, it’s not unheard of to hand out a phone number or email address, much like I used to have an AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ handle, only now we can reach one another anywhere with cellphones.
Almost every game is its own service now or directly integrated into a broader service otherwise. As such, the only unique thing left to the MMORPG genre are the things that were always horrible at worst and to the player’s test at best; namely, excessive grinding, bloated but weak content, and intentionally complicated sub-systems in the name of “simulation”.
This bothers me. A lot. While any future MMORPG has a good shot at being a great multiplayer game, I worry that the bar is too high to make a MMORPG that is a great multiplayer game. Developers must navigate a world that has largely left the genre behind while trying to compete against established evergreen games (League of Legends, Minecraft, Fortnite, DOTA 2, etc.) that may never sunset. Worse, MMORPGs need to target these gaming behemoths directly if they want to capture enough market share to sustain themselves. It used to be that MMORPGs were too expensive to make, but now they are too big a risk to attempt.
It leaves us all with a catch-22. Do we hope for MMORPGs that are good enough gameplay-wise that they may get lucky and catch on? Do we hope for MMORPGs that embrace the games-as-social-spaces that focus primarily on being an interactive super-chatroom that is engaging to a wide audience? Do we hope for both and get neither?
I wish I still had a guild to chat about this with while I run meaningless circles around Orgrimmar.