So. Farewell then
You dominated the world for a bit
And then sort of went away
Like Rome and the Mongols and
– E. J. Zoso, age 17½
Yes, with the news that Blizzard has cancelled Titan, it’s official. MMOs are dead. Or dying, at least. Or dying a bit more than they were previously, which was already a pretty death-y sort of dying so it’s definitely bad news. Course before we start the funeral rites we’ll have to have another quick skirmish in the Eternal Semantic War over what is, or isn’t, an MMO, MMOG and/or MMORPG, and whether Titan was or wasn’t one and thus can or can’t be used as some sort of yardstick for wider genre health; with scarcely any official information about Titan it’s an even more pointless skirmish than normal, the game being a veritable tabula rasa upon which we can engrave any number of hopes and fears (or, from the sketchy news that it was an action MMOG of some sort and direction changed during development, a veritable Tabula Rasa (video game), as Wikipedia would disambiguate).
Sensationalism aside, I don’t know if the Titan announcement changes much, perhaps just confirms a trend. The pattern already seemed established in 2008 that post-WoW MMORPGs would see maximum popularity at launch then gradually tail off, and though nobody is terribly keen on releasing subscriber numbers any more (not to mention the difficulty of assessing metrics in a generally-post-subscription-model landscape) nothing in the last five years has managed much different. Even as World of Warcraft subscriber numbers started falling, those players don’t seem to be looking for another MMORPG (it’s left as another semantic argument as to whether other MMOGs like World of Tanks or Planetside 2 are Proper Competitors or Whole Other Online Things That Can’t Be Directly Compared). Any number of perfectly good MMORPGs have come along, but none have captured the wider imagination like World of Warcraft; gamers move in mysterious ways, and the cancellation of Titan suggests even Blizzard can’t seem to replicate their formula.
Perhaps one reason is that changing times have chipped away at the unique selling points of MMORPGs. Co-operative or competitive online play is ubiquitous on both console and PC. Social media supplants some of the community aspects of friends lists, guilds and general zone chat (when WoW launched there was no Twitter or YouTube, Facebook still had the “the” and restricted membership, and smartphones were rudimentary and rare). There are echoes of the sandbox aspects of Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies in Minecraft, itself a WoW-esque staggering success. Progress bars, unlocks, achievements and such have spread from CRPGS through the Virtual skinner box of EverQuest to other genres, and even beyond via “gamification”.
Genres seldom really die, though, they just slip in and out of fashion, evolving along the way; Westerns in films, space sims, the point n’ click adventure, currently doing well as “episodic interactive drama graphic adventure” like The Walking Dead by toning down the insane cat-hair-moustache logic and emphasising story. In this atemporal zone of cultural production we’re wallowing in there’s no shortage of choice, myriad MMORPGs presumably doing well enough to justify ongoing existence. Perhaps that’s another problem; after burning out rather on Defiance three of us spent a good hour or so on voice chat running through possible replacements without reaching much of a conclusion other than Picking Random Titles From Steam’s List Of Massively Multiplayer Games And Reading Some User Reviews Is By Turns Hilarious And Terrifying (again seriously questioning Will Self’s assertion of the effectiveness of the group amateur mind).
So the wheel of time turns; players burn out of games, of genres, of gaming itself, sometimes to return, sometimes not. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “Oppa Gangnam Style”.
From niche MMOs came, and to niche MMOs shall return.
I still do not buy (nor fancy the associated melodrama) the notion that a labeled subset of a concept can “die.” People are trying to show that they’re clever and have been announcing the definitive ends of things that cannot definitively end for ages.
When WoW was released, the alternatives were few. If one wanted to play an MMORPG, one generally played WoW. Today, the options for cooperative/competitive on-line video-gaming are legion. A playerbase quite probably larger than existed a few years ago is now spread across a vast space. Since the MMO traditionally relies on a certain population level to progess/expand, each successive generation of MMO’s _seems_ less vital than its predecessor. Because developers/publishers/whoever persist in designing games with similar population expectations to what existed in prior years, they appear to be failing.
It’s bothersome because I can see the next practical step for the medium and no one yet looks to be taking it.
It seems you’re not the only one to think so right now: