What do MMORPGs need to do in 2020?

It’s really starting to sink in that we are not only in the final days of this year, but of this decade as well. For me, the concept of decade identity got lost when we moved out of the 1990s, but still, the passage of 10 years is significant. We were in a different place in 2010 as a world and culture, and I certainly would not have anticipated being where I am at today.

But instead of looking back, today I want to look ahead. When we turn the calendar page to January 1st, 2020, a full new year of gaming developments will lie ahead. 2019 was so-so when it came to MMORPGs — we had some great expansions and the return of City of Heroes, but we also didn’t see much in the way of new launches. We need new blood to mix in with the old, because these aging titles are being asked to bear more and more of the responsibility for carrying the genre while the next generation is in development.

So here’s what I want to see happen with MMOs in 2020 — and what I think needs to happen:

New games need to get out there and launch

I’m not advocating launching titles half-baked and before they are ready, but seriously, we have had some games in development for five, six, seven years now. We’ve paid into Kickstarters back in 2012, 2013, 2014 that still haven’t seen the light of day. And the community is HUNGRY for a major launch (heck, just look at how exciting WoW Classic’s launch proved to be). I’m willing to be patient and wait, but out of all of the crop of upcoming titles, we have to be close to a few big-name ones ready to pull the trigger.

Older titles have to come up with reasons to keep us engaged

I think a lot of players are more than willing to come back to games provided that there is something genuinely exciting to see and do. Whether that’s a revolutionary expansion, a new type of server, player created content, new systems, better business models, or what have you, these studios can’t sit idle and ride out that long tail. A new year means a chance to set a vision for that year and stir up the playerbase for a great journey ahead.

Dead games should be revived

If City of Heroes and various emulators showed us anything last year, it’s that there is a big community out there that is more than eager to jump back into deceased MMOs if someone revives them. Emulators are more than glad to try to keep things alive, but companies would be smart to do that officially and help preserve these titles while making some easy revenue.

Also, Fallen Earth needs to come back in its upgraded form.

Developers should be more communicative

Some studios overdo this, sure, but the ones that are too silent and sporadic with communication — SSG and ArenaNet are two that immediately leap to mind — there needs to be more consistent and frequent talk from the devs to the playerbase. Bad things happen when players are kept in the dark too long.

RPGs have taught me to be a gold miser

Let me start today’s post by asking you a question: How important is in-game money to you in RPGs and MMOs?

Because the answer for me, and I suspect many of you, is “not that much.” At least, money doesn’t matter on a daily basis in current games. Looking back, this used to be a lot different in older RPGs and MMORPGs, where there was only one currency that you kind of needed for everything.

I mean, go back to those older console RPGs and see how a great majority of your gear wasn’t looted but purchased from a vendor. Chrono Trigger gated its gear by offering a better quality vendor when you got to new areas, at which point you’d spend your cash to upgrade your team’s armor and weapons.

MMOs used to be a lot more like this as well. We saw a great example of that this year when crowds flocked into WoW Classic and (re)discovered that gold actually had a purpose beyond WoW Tokens and super-expensive mounts. You’d need gold for just about everything, including skills and bags and travel, and that gold (particularly in the first few weeks) was in very short supply until you got your farming on.

But these days I’m not that concerned with in-game cash. For one thing, most MMOs have secondary currencies that are far more useful — your premium (real money-bought) currency and your zone/reputation-limited tokens. My LOTRO characters sit on mountains of gold that they never have to spend because, outside of the auction hall, there really isn’t anything to buy with it. I just save up to buy some first age Legendary Item and that’s that.

In fact, that’s pretty much my strategy toward all RPGs, whether I’m playing solo or multiplayer. I sell and don’t buy, depending more on loot drops to keep me outfitted. I save up a ton of money in anticipation of a possible future splurge on something big. Because that hypothetical massive future purchase is always looming, I don’t want to fritter that money away on smaller and more inconsequential things.

MMOs have pretty much devalued gold to the point where it’s not worth thinking about much unless you can trade it in for something worth real-world value (such as WoW Tokens or EVE’s PLEX) or you’re just the type of person who plays the economy as the core game. When you can quest and grind forever, there’s no upper limits on what you can earn, and so MMOs have given up on gold sinks in favor of alternative currencies that do have hard limits and specific purchase options.

The only game that I’m concerned about money these days is FFXIV, where my ultimate goal is amassing enough gil to buy a house and outfit it. But since I don’t play the market, that’s probably going to be a long while in coming, and so I try to be frugal and gear up through other avenues.

5 abandoned MMOs that I would have loved to seen finished

For me, what’s worse than MMORPGs that were launched, played, and cancelled are the ones that never launched at all. Correction, interesting-looking MMOs that never launched. These torment me, and today I want to quickly list five games that I think I would have loved to play — if they had actually been finished and released to the public.

The first up is Ultima X Odyssey, which was the second of two abandoned Ultima Online sequels. The graphic style was vaguely cartoony in the vein of World of Warcraft, but the gameplay had a decidedly Ultima twist to it. I loved the idea of moral choices in a fantasy world, and it bugs me that this one got pretty close to being done before EA canned it.

Then we have Project Copernicus, which was dragged down in the abyss by the horrible financial handling of 38 Studios. This game and its makers talked a big talk, and I would have been very interested to see how it played for real. The graphics in particular looked amazingly lush, and the single-player prequel game had some decent reviews to it.

Stargate Worlds got close, very close indeed, to an actual launch, including a playable beta. But the studio collapsed and took this promising MMO with it. I wasn’t the biggest Stargate fan, but I’m all about getting more scifi RPGs out there, especially ones that tried hard to go beyond straight-up murderboxes.

Was it fun? Was it a dud? We have only Daybreak’s word and extrapolation based on Landmark to answer this about EverQuest Next, but let me tell you that I adored how ambitious this next-gen MMORPG was trying to be. The mix-and-match classes, the shapable world, the flexible NPC system… yeah, that had me really intrigued. Now I sincerely doubt that Daybreak will ever release a new EverQuest product, and that is a shame.

Am I alone in wishing that we had been able to see what Interplay would have done with Fallout Online? Maybe it would have been a disaster… but maybe not. This was the original Fallout studio, and it promised more of an MMO than Fallout 76 manages to be.

Sega Genesis Mini enters our household

The announcement of this retro all-in-one console didn’t hit me as hard as the NES/SNES ones did, as I barely touched the Genesis in my childhood. Yet there was a lot of strong word-of-mouth and good reviews behind it, and so I splurged on the Genesis Mini to add to my growing collection of retro consoles.

I think it was a pretty decent purchase. Our family has had a lot of collective fun with the NES and SNES (you’d be surprised how much effort my kids have put into games like Metroid, Earthbound, and Star Tropics), and right away I loved the fact that there was about 12 games that had a two-player option here. My kids argue over turns a lot, so letting at least two of them play at a time helps alleviate that.

I’d been saving it for a rainy night, and last week was that night, as most of us were laying around with colds and generally feeling blah. I hooked up the Genesis Mini and had it running within a couple of minutes, and right away I could see that it was a solid product. The menu screen and options were spot on, and the fact that there were 42 games here meant that we had a lot of exploring to do.

I had the right as the owner to indulge in first dibs, so I loaded up a half-dozen of the games to try them out quick. Road Rash II felt a little clunky, Ecco was… weird, Castlevania was surprisingly bloody, and Sonic was the same old Sonic I’d played for the last few decades. The hit of the night was tied between Mickey in the Forest of Illusions and Gunstar Heroes. The former had a lot of personality and charm to it, while the latter was an intuitive two-player co-op.

Also, my seven-year-old son figured out that you could grab the other player and chuck them across the screen, and that was it — that’s all he did for the next ten minutes, laughing like a madman until I thought he was going to throw up. He was laughing so hard that we ended up laughing at him laughing, it was that sort of thing.

From the brief night one survey of the titles, I noticed a few missing that should’ve been there and very few RPGs or schmups, but with 42 games, I don’t think we were going to get bored any time soon. It’s nice to have to rotate with the other consoles, giving my kids a lot of choice without having to switch discs or paying for new games. And I might get the odd moment of enjoyment here and there (I have my eye on Phantasy Star IV, a game that caught my attention as a kid but frustrated me due to no way to play it).

SWG and Ultima Online’s Raph Koster rides again

I can see why, when you approach a certain age, that you feel a growing need — a pressure — to produce one last impactful legacy for your life. Even if you’ve already accomplished much and are known for it, there might be that urge to prove that you still have it in you. The compulsion to take all of your past achievements and accumulated knowledge and do something even better.

Creation is a fire that burns in some people’s bones, and it can’t be easily quenched by middle (or elder) age. It’s why I can understand how Mark Jacobs, Chris Roberts, John Smedley, Richard Garriott, and many other veteran MMO developers might try again. And again. And again. Now we can toss in Raph Koster to that list, even though he’s a man who has nothing left to prove about his skill and expertise when it comes to virtual worlds.

Last week was jam-packed with heavy hitting industry announcements — Tencent is moving in on Funcom! Mike O’Brien left ArenaNet! — the news that Raph Koster had founded a new studio with the intent to create a next generation MMORPG had me most riveted. I long since thought that Raph had retired to a speaking and consulting circuit, but I guess that fire was burning hot, because the mind behind Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online (as well as EverQuest II, Crowfall, and Metaplace) decided that it wasn’t just Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Harrison Ford who could don iconic outfits for one more ride. Actually, Raph isn’t even that old, just four more years than I, and I haven’t made a single MMORPG in my life.

It’s certainly exciting news, and this unnamed game instantly rocketed to the top of my most anticipated MMO projects. Raph has been examining the industry in-depth over the last couple of decades, and there are few people out there who have such a wealth of knowledge and insight as he does. Of course, his generation of MMOs has come and gone, and that type of wide open sandbox hasn’t been the norm for a while now. It’s trying to make a comeback, however, and he might have a shot to bring the best to the table.

Right now it’s all talk, but it is Big Talk. It’s the kind of talk that belittles the murderbox design that many MMOs have fallen into and promises much wider and more free frontiers for gaming. To be honest, I’ve heard such sentiments from many up-and-coming MMO developers over the last decade, but I’ll give more of a benefit of the doubt to Koster for his pedigree.

“Building online communities,” “community-driven,” “a game played in short sessions doesn’t need to be shallow,” “we are seeing demand for ‘sandboxy’ play all over the place,” and “I’d say that our goal is to make a sandbox that looks forward rather than one that looks backwards.”

It’s interesting. Count me in. We’re in for a long wait on this one (Koster says at least a few years out), but seeing him, Scott Hartsman, and others coming together to work on a new sandbox MMORPG is an occasion to sit up and feel kind of hopeful for the industry’s future.

Why I’ll never go to another video game convention again

Way back in the early days of working for Massively, I was almost embarrassingly eager to travel to trade shows and conventions on the company’s behalf. I had always been a smidge jealous of reading about E3 and the like in magazines and leaped at the chance to not just be able to go for free, but to go as a member of the media.

And it was, to tell the truth, pretty fun and exciting in parts. I did feel a little “special” getting that media badge, having access to a journalism room, and getting to sit down with developers who were making MMOs and grilling them about anything that came to mind. I loved seeing advance demos of games and satiating some of my personal curiosity that way. And the swag and connections that I made with others was a nice perk as well.

But after my second or third PAX, I started to realize that I really didn’t like these shows. In fact, I actually dreaded them. For every good thing that I could name about them, there was at least two “cons” that dragged the experience down.

The big ones? For starters, I do not function well in crowds. They make me feel claustrophobic, especially as a shorter guy who ends up staring at the shoulder blades of others. And trade shows and conventions are nothing BUT crowds, lines, and sweaty masses of humanity all trying to get to the same places you are.

I always felt stressed from the second I’d leave for these trips until I was on the way back home. Everything felt stressful: Going through air travel, finding the place for the media badge, finding my way around, rushing from appointment to appointment, and of course, the FOMO — fear of missing out — of not getting good swag or seeing whatever I truly wanted to see. Very often I would suffer physically with sicknesses or my chronic illness that tends to flare up in stressful situations.

I also didn’t enjoy myself. It really WAS work, and that’s something I’ve tried to convey to others interested in doing this sort of media junket. I’d estimate that about 85% of the day was spent rushing to a place, interviewing people, and rushing back to write up pieces on that. I didn’t get to call my own shots and determine my own destiny. I wasn’t there as most people were, to fulfill their own desires; I was there on behalf of a company and a readership. I did my utmost to do my best.

I had a more and more difficult time justifying the effort of going on these trips as the years went on and I had a family that would miss me — and I’d miss them. I felt so incredibly lonely on these trips, not going with anyone, just doing a job and then coming home. I hated telling my kids over the phone that I wasn’t there because dad was looking at video games. In that light, it felt kind of trivial.

One more thing, and I’ll stop my litany of complaints here. The real straw that broke my back on all of this was when we got to a point where MMO studios would start thrusting out press releases and information online at the same time I was doing interviews and demos about those things. I can’t tell you how disheartening it was to spend two, three hours working on a piece only to see that the studio’s PR team jumped the gun and posted all of the relevant info in a press release or dev blog that same day. If we weren’t getting any lead on the timing of the article, then the only reason to do it was perhaps getting to ask questions from an angle that no other outlet had done. And I can do that over email or the phone without the stress of travel.

So I stopped volunteering to do shows. I vastly more enjoy watching them from afar these days and still tune in with excitement to see what news comes out of them, but conventions — either as a regular dude or as a press dude — aren’t my thing any longer. It was interesting to do them, I’m happy with the work that I produced, and I don’t mean this to be any sort of critique against Bree or MOP. I’m just done with that part of my life and I wanted to explain why.

If I had time, here’s what MMOs I’d be playing

In my head I usually have two lists of MMOs at any given time. Well, three lists. The first would be upcoming games that I’m keeping tabs on in case that they prove to be interesting and actually good on release. Then I have the games I’m actually playing, which is a rather limited list due to time constraints and kids and work and a million other things that come up on any given day.

Then there’s my wish list. My dream list. My “If I had nothing to do during a day and could play at least five hours instead of my normal one to two, here’s what I’d play” backlog. They’re “on deck” MMOs that are waiting for me to drop my interest in a currently played title so that they can worm their way back into my schedule.

So here is my current wish list that’s probably not going to get play anytime soon but I keep thinking about them every so often:

Star Trek Online: I keep coming back to this one every year or so, keep rolling up new characters, keep going through the same exact missions. If I ever do go back, I think I might try a different faction or era or something. Enough with the nonstop Federation trek.

Neverwinter: There’s just so much content in this game I’ve never seen or played, and I read about how a lot of the newer stuff is pretty decent. Cryptic’s games are pretty easy to get back into, especially when you want a light and fluffy experience that gives you sparkles to tell you where to go. Who needs to think?

ArcheAge: I may talk big about wanting to get into this fantasy game when the buy-to-play server comes out… and I do want to, but will I? Probably not. At least not right away. I have plenty to play that I’ve already bought and I am not starving for an MMO to fill that space. Still, I do like a lot of the freedom and invention that went into this title and would like to see it for myself one day.

Guild Wars 2: Here’s a very easy entry for this list that I actually might do. Might. There’s a little bit of momentum on the game’s content delivery, so perhaps it can pull out of this year-long funk and get going again. And it’s such a casual-friendly game. I’d want to grab gliding for my account (which I’ve never done yet) and then probably roll up a brand-new character and have fun exploring this land all over again.