“MMORPG”: The dirtiest word in the video game industry

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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).

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11 thoughts on ““MMORPG”: The dirtiest word in the video game industry

  1. Rowan October 6, 2016 / 10:14 am

    Is it possibly the RPG portion? Somehow, despite a great many people playing them. Role-playing games of every genre and platform (SP, MMO, PNP, etc.) seem to have a stigma, the most egregious being LARP.

    Personally, I think the next big leap in MMORPGs will be VR. I suspect that if MMOs had been a thing when Star Trek the Next Generation had come out, we’d have seen this use of the holodeck, instead of Geordi and Data playing Holmes and Watson, or Captain Picard and his hardboiled holopersona, Dixon Hill.

  2. Not an MMO developer October 6, 2016 / 11:07 am

    As someone who worked on one of those “totally not an MMO” games, I can give a bit of insight into why we avoided the label so hard. The main reason was simply that MMOs have terrible combat. Action bars full of barely differentiated skills, zero feedback (no rumble, no animation on the opponent when hit, etc.), the entire ridiculous concept of a global cooldown, and on and on. When we said “we’re not an MMO, we’re an X”, what we actually meant was “combat in our game will feel awesome”.

    There’s also a huge bundle of expectations that come with saying “MMO”. Everyone hears that and assumes a whole bunch of stuff about the game that may or may not apply to what you’re making. Traditional MMOs are a very specific flavor of game that includes a bunch of stuff that isn’t actually mandatory to all big online games, and that flavor is an acquired taste. Between misleading some potential players and alienating others, it’s just not worth using the label unless you really, really have to.

  3. Tyler F.M. Edwards October 6, 2016 / 11:19 am

    Eh, what’s in a name? Let developers call their games whatever they want. Doesn’t change what they are or what we fans call them. Blizzard’s bent over backwards to avoid ever calling Heroes of the Storm a MOBA, but that hasn’t stopped everyone else under the sun from calling it such.

  4. Wilhelm Arcturus October 6, 2016 / 11:39 am

    I think you are projecting way too much of your own desires on that Amazon announcement. As a studio they are making two shallow mash-up knock-offs that sound more like they are aimed as much to get people to watch Twitch as anything, but that third title they have vaguely described is somehow going to be something that you and I would think was a classic, worldly, MMORPG.

    I mean, it could happen. It isn’t completely outside the realm of possibility. But I am going to be from Missouri on this one. They’re going to have to show me before I get invested.

  5. Rowan October 6, 2016 / 11:39 am

    Sometimes, I wish comments were editable.

  6. bhagpuss October 6, 2016 / 2:56 pm

    Your “Not an MMO Developer”‘s comment above is highly instructive. There you have in a nutshell the exact elitist hardcore gamer attitude you rightly suspect dominates the non-MMO fan’s side of the argument. These are people who don’t want to make the games we enjoy, don’t respect the games we enjoy, don’t respect us, the people who play them and almost certainly would prefer to see the entire sorry, embarrassing sub-genre curl up and die.

    These people are not our friends. They don’t want to be our friends. They want our money but they’d very much prefer to have it without degrading and debasing themselves by pandering to our pathetic tastes and desires. If they can persuade some of us to jump the fence and L2P then all well and good but there’s no way they are going to lower themselves to using any of our soiled terminology, not even to bait us in.

    This is exactly what the mainstream gaming media thought of MMOs before WoW. There was a brief period where those people were dazzled by the blinding light of all that money but one it became apparent they weren’t getting any of it it was back to business as usual. The dark shadows of The Niche are all we deserve and all we can expect.

  7. Brian 'Psychochild' Green October 6, 2016 / 4:32 pm

    I wrote something about this a little while ago: http://psychochild.org/?p=1402

    MMOs have kinda seeped into a lot of other games. A lot of the things us MMO developers were talking about in the past have become big issues in other games.

    But, as the “not an MMO developer” comment says above, many of these new developers are seemingly not creative enough to create new things. They spend more time shunning the “MMO” title rather than understanding that MMOs stand for a lot of things other than WoW type gameplay. They might benefit from understanding the history of MMOs and why we got to the place we’re in.

    It’s like thinking that FPSes stopped with DOOM, and that “cover-based shooters” aren’t really FPSes because the mechanics work a bit differently. It mostly just leads to reinventing the wheel.

  8. Syl October 6, 2016 / 4:35 pm

    Sadly I think Bhag has formulated all my thoughts on this rather well. :S To alter a Yahtzee quote from way back: MMORPG players are still to mainstream gamers (and game developers) what mainstream gamers are to “normal people”.

  9. dalishal October 6, 2016 / 10:55 pm

    This was a great article. And I really like the additional comments from the developers.
    I have frequently had this argument with my MMO playing guildies. Listening to developers at a panel talk about MMO’s becoming the realm of Indy publishers and studios was mind blowing. The panelists were like the Who’s who of MMO’s. I really think the genre is changing, because the larger player base is changing.
    I also feel like there is a kind of click’ish kind of expectation by some MMO purists that punishes Devs who do not adhere to the rules of the game’s classic tradition. I love SWTOR but I really could care less about the MMO bits that I heard one podcaster call it. I play it for the community not the MMO bits. I also play Destiny, and there are things to be learned there too.

  10. dalishal October 6, 2016 / 10:56 pm

    And I meant clique’ish. I need to go to bed…😉

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