The Future Resurgence Of The MMORPG Genre
A group of player characters are standing in a circle outside of the entrance to a raid dungeon, they meticulously plan out the strategy and singular tactics of everyone for a long time, the goal is to obtain some boss items for one of the group’s members who is connected to the game but away from the discussion due to making dinner.
Upon coming back, the player, Ben Schulz, returns, ignorant of the strategy, rushes in screaming his character’s name in a stylized warcry:” Leeroy Jenkins” and storms into the dungeon, the group follows and they all inevitably perish within seconds.
This video story (Link) is but one of a plethora of MMORPG stories, memes, cultures and personal experiences that have been made by players worldwide over the years, becoming both integral parts of our cultures, our identities as gamers and the internet itself.
Why it is then that we’re seeing, probably more so than any other genre, a very steep decline of MMORPG productions on mainline consoles (PC, Sony, Xbox), is the genre doomed to end, or is it merely a time of change before we see the resurgence of the MMORPG genre?
Before we get into the ropes of today’s intricate situation, we should look back on the history of what is arguably the most impactful genre on the success of video gaming.
MMORPGs are, in fact, a subgenre of the MMOs - Massively Multiplayer Online games.
As is possible to guess, the genre involves large amounts of players playing together online. The genre includes many games under its wing that typically features a consistent world where players can interact to achieve together or compete over objectives.
The most popular type of MMOs are the MMORPGS - Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, descendants of the likes of Rogue (discussed in our last blog post), MMOs didn't actually start with RPGs, relying on the internet to exist, the first accepted MMO is Air Warrior, developed by Kesami in 1986 which later also developed and integrated 3D graphics, effectively making it also the first 3D MMO game.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the genre of MMORPGs started to gain rise, with Kesami’s Gemstone (text-based) launching on the GEnie, followed by the still popular series’ first game, Neverwinter Nights, the first graphical MMORPG which ran from 1991 to 1997.
The late 1990s saw an explosion of the genre, the major advances in technology paired with amazing releases in the forms of: Ultima Online (1997), Everquest (1999). This immediately followed with online services on consoles such as the xbox live (2002) and console focused MMORPGS like Phantasy Star Online (2000 for Dreamcast) and Everquest Online Adventures (2003). Lastly, one of the standout MMO titles to this day, Eve Online (2003) closed the early era of MMORPGS.
Breaking Into Popular Culture
In 2004, one of the biggest games of all time and the most dominant MMORPG of all time was launched, World of Warcraft (WoW), a subscription based MMORPG set in the world of Azeroth and revolving around the Warcraft IP has revolutionized the genre setting a new standard on every game related front to what is capable in an MMORPG and where games can reach. To this day, World of Warcraft is the most popular MMORPG with 9 million subscribers in 2010 and an active DAU of over a million players today and just shy of 9.5 million players over the last 30 days at the time of writing (Live Count, Daily Count).
To say WoW revolutionized the industry would be an understatement, the game hosted the graphics, gameplay, storytelling, onboarding and social mechanics that would become the benchmark by which all MMORPGs are tested to this day.
This is also where a major cultural difference started to show, the western markets embraced the premium MMORPGs, spending money on purchasing the games, subscriptions and in-game shops, the financial times even did a report on Everquest in 2003 calculating it’s worth and resulted in a per-capita GDP of 2,266 dollars, placing the virtual world of Everquest in the 77th rank of the richest nations - on par with Croatia and Tunisia of the time.
The east had another preference in mind, the free to play model has started to emerge with games like Runescape (2001), Maplestory (2003) and Tibia (1997, becoming popular in 2007).
These F2P (free to play) MMORPGs have introduced premium account (VIP Systems), IAPs, Passes and many other monetization mechanics we know today to monetize the f2p model while creating large player bases and solving liquidity problems, essentially paving the way for the F2P business model as we know it today.
The Mobile Era of MMORPGs
In 2011, 14 MMORPGs launched and five more went F2P, the MCUs Phase one which started in 2008 was already in effect with 2 superhero based F2P MMORPGs in the forms of Champions Online (2009) and DC Universe Online (2011) centralizing MMORPGs as one if not the biggest gaming genre of the time.
Last year, in 2021, 9 launched, 4 of which were mobile, 3 were re-releases and 2 are still active alongside 9 other MMORPGs closed that same year. The year before, 2020, had merely 4 launches none of which are still active.
Originating mostly from eastern developers, the mobile MMORPGs have started as simplified renditions of existing MMORPGs, in 2010, the first cross-platform MMORPG, pocket legends launched for IOS and later the same year for android. Following Pocket Legends (2010), a few other games were launched to varying degrees of success with TibiaMe (2011) being the first transition of a game from PCs to mobile.
Many other developers have tried to bring MMOs and MMORPGs to mobile with either technology, liquidity, control schemes or a combination of the above being a major limiting factor for these games as the amount of information and micro-management required have become an obstacle for players.
It’s not until the rise of gacha games and 4x strategy mobile games that MMORPGs have started to find success on mobile. With more and more monetization methods being introduced and successful on mobile, it’s games like summoner’s war and games like clash of clans that built a bridge for communities and introduced the improved and streamlined social mechanics that allowed players to engage with MMORPGs on mobile.
Another solution, eastern in origin as well, was automation of various aspects of play, from pathing to combat, more and more mechanics have become automated.
Nowadays, mobile gaming juggernaut NCsoft holds a tight grip on the genre with games like LineageM and LineageW which have generated gross revenue just shy of $1b combined over the last year according to sensor tower.
And while mobile MMORPGs are generating more revenue than their PC and Console counterparts, we’re still seeing 2-3 notable attempts per year at releasing a big MMORPG with most of them failing. Currently, there’s a consensus on the genre being spearheaded by “the big five” - World of Warcraft, BDO (Black Desert Online, 2015), Final Fantasy XIV (2010, 2012 shutdown, 2013 re-release), Guild Wars 2 (2012) and ESO (Elder Scrolls Online, 2014).
What’s In The Future Of MMORPGs?
Nowadays, there are new contenders releasing with Lost Ark (2019 domestic, 2022 global) being the prime example and NCSoft (Guild wars, lineage) spearheading the next generation of MMORPGs it is interesting to see where the genre will evolve with more and more mechanics being brought in from other genres.
We believe that it’s just a matter of time until the MMORPG genre receives the same treatment Gacha gaming got from Genshin Impact and a developer “One-up”s the competition with state of the art technology, tech and innovation to bring us an MMORPG experience like none before, much like WoW did all the way back in 2004.
With games like Ashes of Creation (2023), Blue Protocol (TBD) and Riot Games's Unnamed MMO on the horizon, it’s clear that the genre isn’t about to disappear and there’s much to come.
What to be on the lookout for with MMORPGs?
MMORPGs are notorious for being the most difficult genre to develop. As these games persist in consistent worlds players aim to live in, it is very difficult to develop these games, typically MMORPGs are developed by massive teams working in parallel and as they generate revenue mostly as a GaaS (games as a service) model, maintenance can prove to be an even harder task.
When looking at an opportunity in an MMORPG, both as a developer and as an investor, it is paramount to gauge the time, capital and personnel required to meet the scope of the game and to polish it, the bigger a game is the harder it is to polish and ship.
From a business perspective MMORPGs average high revenues, even at medium success rates, for example Star Wars: The Old Republic is estimated at $200m in development and marketing costs, while the game’s lifetime revenue is estimated to be over $1b at this point. As such, we believe MMORPGs won’t disappear and game developers will keep on creating them. It is very likely that in the next few years, the success stories in the genre will come from the big developers. We are hopeful to see innovation from indie developers and new studios bring competition to the genre once again.
What makes the MMORPGs special?
Bartles’ taxonomy of players defines 4 player archetypes: Killers, Explorer, Achievers and Socializers. While all players have more than 1 archetype characteristic, the most prominent one is the Socializer. MMORPGs are the culmination of all 4 and they come to life through the social aspects of the games. Seeing tens of players cooperate to defeat a bigger than life monster is an experience like no other, especially when experienced for the first time.
Every gamer that played MMORPGs has his or her MMORPG story, and as far as entertainment comes, no other entertainment platform, facility or medium can provide the same experience as MMORPGs as consistently, conveniently and in an accessible manner as MMORPGs can.
We’re seeing fortnite (3rd person MMO battle royale) host concerts and are amazed by this, yet MMO guilds have been watching movies together for over a decade.
We at vgames are big fans of MMORPGs. This genre has brought people together time and again ever since its inception. As a form of entertainment, MMORPGs can leverage their vast scale and potential reach to adhere to all types of players, introduce new players to the gaming world and deliver unforgettable experiences.
We do not believe the MMORPG genre has seen its end, on the contrary, we believe that more and more mechanics and attributes from this genre will find their way into other games, to mobile gaming and is in the midst of an exciting transformation. So gather your team mates, it's almost time to start raiding.
Games Mentioned By Order Of Appearence:
Air Warrior (1986)
Neverwinter Nights (1991)
Ultima Online (1997)
Phantasy Star Online (2000 for Dreamcast)
Everquest Online Adventures (2003)
Eve Online (2003)
World of Warcraft (2004)
Pocket Legends (2010)
BDO (Black Desert Online, 2015)
Final Fantasy XIV (2010, 2012 shutdown, 2013 re-release)
Guild Wars 2 (2012)
ESO (Elder Scrolls Online, 2014)
Lost Ark (2019 domestic, 2022 global)