Is the Modern Landscape of MMOs Safe?

At this current time and place of our industry, the reflection of the MMO genre has many believing that most developers have it out to transform their long-standing cash-cow franchise into an MMO. It’s often as easy as slapping the world “online” onto the end of the title and adding in a handful of multiplayer functions. Sometimes, as in the case of EAs Need for Speed Online, it doesn’t even need as much additional functionality and the final product is almost indistinguishable from the multiplayer component of a standard retail release.

So what does the term MMO mean these days? Who gets to decide? And what’s the future look like for the genre that World of Warcraft brought screaming into the mainstream?

The turn of the century and the widespread availability of high speed internet opened up wide avenues of potential for online gaming, and juggernauts such as EverQuest capitalized almost immediately. It wasn’t until the middle of the aughts, however, when WoW seized the MMO crown (and never relinquished it) that the real MMO explosion began.

At first, the online arena looked bleak for anyone bold enough to challenge Blizzard’s dominance. Developers knocking out WoW clones soon realized that for the vast majority of players, one massive online experience was enough, and with Blizzard’s addictive formula, charming art-style, and online expertise already well established, their fledgling franchises had little chance of success. In the wake of this first wave of challengers came a second group, counting games like Tabula Rasa and the Matrix Online in their company, entries that looked to gain a foothold by exploring territory that WoW didn’t cover, primarily science-fiction. Though a handful (such as EVE Online) managed to glom on and survive, primarily by appealing to a very specific hardcore niche, the vast majority of this second wave of competitors went the way of the first.

Chagrined by the lack of success of any MMO that didn’t include the word “Warcraft” in the title, but still desperate to claim a slice of that massive online revenue, developers began exploring alternate business models in an attempt to extend their product’s lifespan. Witness the free-to-play revolution: Realizing that with high-end production value and vast marketing campaigns came incredible risk, publishers and developers began to think small. Small teams with limited budgets began cranking out large numbers of free downloadable MMOs, while offering dedicated players access to better gear and customization items if they were willing to pony up hard cash. When a few early success stories proved that this new model was viable, a number of pay-to-play games who were suffering in WoW’s shadow began to transition over — Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online being key examples.

Somewhere along the way, a number of the major publishing houses decided that perhaps the key to market share was pushing an established franchise into the online arena, and capitalizing on previous success and brand loyalty. Though a number of these projects were axed prior to release, we’re just now seeing the fruit of that idea come to bear. The result? The term MMO has lost a lot of the cachet it once held with gamers, and the standard for what we’ve come to expect from the genre has been radically redefined.

A great recent example is Company of Heroes Online. Touted as a “real-time strategy MMO”, the idea that CoHO and WoW belong to the same family of games is a difficult concept to swallow. Beyond a basic mechanical similarity in that both games feature an experience system and leveling, the idea that these two products exist within the same genre makes the genre itself almost meaningless, or at the very least next to impossible to define.

While most developers aren’t shy about appropriating the term MMO if they believe it’ll help them shore up their bottom line, in the end it’s gamers that suffer when a genre becomes diluted. It’s difficult to know what expect when a new release is classified as an MMO, made all the more obvious that the original term (MMORPG) has almost completely disappeared from gaming’s vernacular.

So where are we headed? New releases from heavies such as Square Enix (Final Fantasy XIV) and BioWare (Star Wars: Knight’s of the Old Republic) are shaping up to be sandbags in the battle to retain some meaning in the original definition of the genre, but do they have lasting appeal? Can they seduce players away from an experience in which they’re already so heavily invested, especially in the face of a brand new Warcraft expansion that promises sweeping changes? Or are they cash-ins, shameless attempts to milk franchises and pedigrees from which gamers have come to expect excellence? And in the face of this new round of heavies in an already bloated arena, can free-to-plays continue to eke out enough cash to justify their existence?

Whatever the answer to these questions, one thing is for certain: There has never been such diversity and such intense competition for online dollars, and in the end, regardless of how the genre evolves, that’s a very good thing for gamers.