Featured: Not an MMORPG. Except it totally is. Just don’t you dare ever call it that.
So something’s been bugging me more and more over the past couple of years, and that’s both the video game industry and game media shying away from labeling games as “MMOs” or “MMORPGs.” From Elder Scrolls Online to Destiny, major budget online games are bending over backwards to avoid this apparent dreaded label, while the only ones embracing it are established games and up-and-coming indie titles.
I’ve read too many interviews in which developers and studios chide the media for daring to use the MMO label on a game. They don’t want it no matter how true it is. ZeniMax can stick its fingers in its ears and go “la la la ESO ISN’T AN MMO I CAN’T HEAR YOU” all it wants, but c’mon, it’s totally one (or else a second-rate Skyrim clone, take your pick).
Sea of Thieves is the latest game I’ve seen try its hardest to distance itself from any connection to pure MMOs, even though a lot of its DNA appears to share plenty of traits with these games we know and love. Oh and the argument over whether or not Star Citizen’s persistent server constitutes an MMO will probably be continuing long after the heat death of the sun.
Destiny went one step further by relabeling everything in the game so that it doesn’t tread on terminology that MMOs use. Light level? That’s gear score. Strikes? Dungeons. It’s deliberate marketing designed to avoid comparisons and, presumably, stigma. (It amuses me that the rumors going on about Destiny 2 this week make mention of creating more of a living world for players to explore and interact with.)
Because that’s where I think a lot of this is coming from. The larger games industry feels as though there’s a stinky stigma attached to the “MMORPG” label and it wants no part of it, even as more and more games adapt wholesale features and systems that used to be the sole domain of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. We’re seeing more hybrids emerge that are MMOs without calling themselves as such, and it’s weird.
So where did the stigma come from? Everyone loves to point fingers and I probably don’t need to help that along, but mostly it comes from market oversaturation, stagnation, and a backlash that really started emerging around 2008. The novelty of MMOs ceased years ago and the pace of innovation didn’t pick up to keep the excitement train going. World of Warcraft was too successful and other games were either trying too hard to clone it, dying in direct competition, or lacking the skill and resources to pull off a polished end product. I’m not here to say that MMOs are dying — and I truly don’t believe they are — but the genre has been struggling mightily over the last half-decade as it looks in different directions and seeks reinvention.
I can understand why studios might see MMOs as being risky, both in reputation and financially, to the point that they see even the classification of their game as such to be a potential liability.
What also doesn’t help is that the non-MMO gaming media — your general-purpose gaming sites — have long since developed this stick-up, condescending attitude toward MMORPGs. They’re the grindy games that lack originality and only kids play, and we’re way past that in our glorified evolution to play the fifth installment of whatever rehashed FPS or cover-based shooter franchise. I don’t see game studios being nasty to MMOs as a concept, but boy have I seen more than my share of ignorant writers attempt to pull out an MMO to mock it, with a “can you believe people still play this crap?” tone. Rock Paper Shotgun is probably the worst offender here, although Kotaku has had its moments.
Thus we end up with a dirty word that nobody but the small, dedicated studios that aren’t trying to aim for a broad demographic use. To me, it’s silly. If it’s a game that allows a substantial online population to hang out and game together in a persistent world with some sort of progression, then it’s an MMO no matter how you want to label it. Maybe it’s a little less than a pure MMO, but it certainly is invited over to the family dinner come Thanksgiving.
I’m deeply curious what the next few years will bring to games and MMOs. We have a small army of indie MMOs in the making, and if even a small handful end up breaking out and garnering a good playerbase and reputation, perhaps bigger studios might start to get over their collective fear of this area of gaming. And those bigger games that avoid the MMO label, frankly, I don’t care about their attitude so much as what they put out in the end.
At least Amazon Game Studios is showing some guts in tackling a genuine big-budget MMORPG in this day and age, even if it’s not technically calling itself one (“massively multiplayer open world sandbox” is the unwieldy title, or I guess, MMOWS).