The MMO genre is dying, all hail the dawn of the MMO age
A recent post at Bio Break crystallized something that's been on my mind for a while. In the last decade or so of PC gaming history one of the developments I find most surprising is that massively multiplayer online games, which I am defining very broadly as any game that allows a few dozen or more players to interact in the same virtual space, have become immensely popular. Arguably, even mainstream. For example Grand Theft Auto Online is has tens of millions of players, and it provides persistent virtual play spaces for up to 30 simultaneous players per instance. Pokemon Go and Pokemon Sword and Shield also have a lot of MMO elements to them, and are market leaders with far more players than almost any traditional MMOs. Perhaps most surprising to me was to see already popular and profitable online shooters like Call of Duty start adding minor role playing elements (e.g., needing to grind up ranks to qualify for weapons). In all of these games you get to create a personal avatar and develop it over time, which is one of the elements of MMOs that I really enjoy. Depending on how you look at it, the market for “MMOs” has shrunk severely (perhaps consumed by other types of online games), or expanded exponentially. I lean towards the latter view, because the line between what qualifies as multiplayer online game and a proper MMO has gotten so fuzzy.
For example take Pokemon Go. In a lot of ways, you could argue that it's a MMO set in the real world. The game takes place in a virtual reality overlaying ours. The corner gas station, your favorite restaurant or even Edgar Allen Poe's crypt are also hubs of activity in GO (stops or gyms), visible to any number of players nearby that happen to be logged in. There are also virtual creatures all around us, waiting for you to interact with them. My wife first found out about the game when a friend informed us that there was a rare pokemon in our living room, and was instantly intrigued. A complete non-gamer up until that point, she started playing a few days later and has been hooked ever since. In the game you create a character, level it up, build a collection of pokemon, and decide which of them to ditch, trade with other players, or invest resources into and grow. PoGO is certainly much simpler than most MMOs, there are very few systems and all are easily grasped. However, it does feel like the first tentative steps into a new genre to me. Perhaps a new kind of simple MMO for the masses.
At the same time, those claiming that the MMO genre of the past two decades appears to be in decline aren't completely wrong. To me a "proper MMO" or MMORPG is a game that includes a lot more RPG mechanics than most of the examples I listed above. It's also a game that tries to create the illusion of a world rather than being satisfied with a shared virtual playground. If you want to limit your definition of MMO to games that seem like direct descendants of UO, EQ, or WoW then I would have to agree that we aren't seeing nearly as many of those types of games being released. The new MMORPGs with big budgets behind them are indeed starting to become few and far between. However, I would also argue that online survival games like Ark and Conan Exiles are closely related to "true MMORPGs." The primary difference between those and a "real" MMO like WoW or LoTRO is that a server can't usually accommodate more than a roughly 50 to 100 players at once and they don't usually have auction houses. Based on the number being released, it's a genre that appears to be thriving.
In the end, I would argue that the massively multiplayer shared virtual gaming landscape is larger and more varied than it has ever been. Certainly far larger than I ever would have anticipated a decade ago. As we mourn the decline of traditional MMORPGs, let us also greet the dawn of the era of MMOs!