14 years ago, on a fateful day in May, a person named Ben Schulz became an internet meme thanks to his shenanigans in World of Warcraft. In a video recorded by his clanmate, Ben, going by his in-game name Leeroy Jenkins completely ignores team tactics and runs headfirst inside a room full of enemies after shouting his name as a stylized battle cry. The entire thing was completely staged, aimed to poke fun at people who took WoW too seriously. 14 years later, Ben ‘Leeroy’ Schulz has been immortalized in almost all World of Warcraft related games and stories, even having a significant impact on pop culture in general.
World of Warcraft, however, has seen better days. Things just haven’t been the same for the once famous MMORPG after Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Playerbase has been on the decline ever since with occasional boosts during new expansion releases, the latest being the Battle for Azeroth. If the statistics released by various sources are taken with a heavy pinch of salt, subscriber count should be around 2-3 million players. And this picture is evenly spread across every other MMORPG in the market. Yet, once upon a time, MMORPGs redefined what gaming meant as entertainment. There wasn’t a single person who wasn’t logging in to go raiding or dungeon crawling with their guild. Like Battle Royales of recent times, MMORPGs were the hot thing in the market. People have made their livelihoods in these games, transforming them into virtual microcosms that emulated many aspects of real life. MMORPGs were games; they were becoming more than games.
The storied past:
I’ve been talking about WoW all this time because it’s the game everyone associates with the MMORPG genre. But MMORPGs have been here since the early 70s. With the advent of mainframe systems and ARPAnet, early conceptual games resembling the ecosystem of an MMORPGs started being developed. Games such as Mazewar, Avalon: The Legend Lives, Island of Kesmai, Neverwinter Nights shook up the industry in a way no one expected. As NSFNET restrictions become more relaxed, more and more innovations became commonplace. MMORPGs with complex text-based, animated 2D and 3D graphics focused developments were launched one after the other. Legends of Future Past, Ultima Online, Meridian 69, Nexus, Everquest, Asheron’s Call are a few of the multitude of MMORPGs that paved the way for future games.
With the turning of age and technology, developers from both the Western and Eastern market picked up on the idea to make MMORPGs as their primary cash sink. The second-generation of MMORPGs saw the most lifespan out of the other generations. Dark Age of Camelot, Runescape, Anarchy Online, MapleStory, EVE Online and so on are still alive and kicking all too well. While the western market has been dominated by all these developers and publishers, on the eastern front South Korean developer NCSoft have answered the call of duty above everyone else. Their massively successful Lineage series is one of the biggest MMORPGs boasting numbers higher than most of their western competition.
The new age of MMOs saw innovation and failures alike and in greater disparity than before. By the time 2004 rolled by, Sony Online Entertainment and Blizzard Entertainment blew away everyone with Everquest II and World of Warcraft respectively. Everyone expected Everquest to be successful yet it was overshadowed by the unprecedented success of WoW. Following on the footsteps of Warcraft III’s craze, WoW blurred every line regarding storytelling, continuity, graphics, mechanics, the whole nine yards. I mean, this is a game where a bug in the code resulted in a plague that wiped out almost everyone in-game and this data was later used in a medical and defense research.
NCSoft, not to be undone, released Guild Wars through their subsidiary ArenaNet. Imagined to be a winnable MMORPG with stand-alone future content releases with one-time purchase model, Guild Wars became a success. Yet it stayed in the shadows of WoW, developing a cult following in the process and spawning a very successful sequel in 2007.
The current predicament:
Despite the storied history of MMORPG as a genre, the games of recent times have become quite underwhelming. Even games like WoW and Guild Wars 2 have seen quite the decline in their player numbers. Often wild tales of server-wide expeditions and exploration missions are revealed from EVE Online but nothing significant happens. Long gone are the days when a guild would be the first to complete an instance in World of Warcraft or something of the sorts and would make headlines all across the gaming world.
In my opinion, this phenomenon of declining interest in classic MMORPGs is due to a couple of interconnected factors. Time, grind, reward and price point are the factors that are working in detriment towards the decline. MMORPGs rely on players to assume a character that plays one of the three roles of a traditional RPG trinity. Everyone either plays a DPS or Damage-per-second, Tank or a Healer-support character and committing to these roles are crucial to your and your team’s success. To prevail as these characters, you need to have an appropriate set of gear which requires meticulous farming of a select few contents as not all content offer strong enough gear. Often times these rewards are randomized and not at all guaranteed due to RNG-based loot mechanics which causes frustration. While accepted as a balanced method of reward system, the grind is often too harsh and too broken to deal with. Nobody likes to get a ranger chest piece when you’re looking for Necromancer gloves. Different games have taken different approaches to combat this but it still remains one of the most hated aspects of the genre.
People who are just getting into the game or are playing casually have no idea where to farm, how to farm to that level since they’re getting kicked for not following meta and so on. This creates a loop where a player is eventually burned out due to either a toxic and elitist community and a resulting frustration from the gatekeeping itself. On top of that, a monthly subscription model or full-priced expansion releases get difficult to justify to a disgruntled player. And thus, the games start to bleed players.
Players are leaning towards more casual-friendly MMOs such as Destiny, Warframe, or even the upcoming Anthem where RPG elements are present but they do not require you to dedicate all of your waking hours to get one tiny ring. These newer breeds of MMOs provide equally enjoyable and forgivable gameplay and content in either a free-to-play format or one-time purchase method and players are already making the shift. The player power scaling of these new games is definitely better than the older games.
As an almost daily player of Warframe, Destiny 2, Black Desert Online and Guild Wars 2, I can wholeheartedly say that I’ve seen more players getting burned out from Guild Wars 2’s constant meta hugging and map hugging to combat the steep resource and currency economy. While in Warframe the community is usually more relaxed due to the content being locked on player progression and player progression being tied to player’s time mostly. Even as a veteran player of both games, I’ve felt more burnt out of playing Guild Wars 2 than Warframe. Don’t get me wrong, they are both terrific games but I’d rather sit back and shoot stuff in either Warframe or Destiny 2 than having to worry about screwing my rotation in Guild Wars 2 which might fail a raid run (and cause a lot of angry messages being hurled from the guildmates)! Recently, Guild Wars 2 had to tweak (read: nerf) a map’s reward system so players would play other maps for rewards.
The future imperfect:
There is no conclusion to this. A genre that is still living in its glorious past while it slowly dies in the present is not a pleasant thing to write about. Classic MMORPGs need to make a comeback again. Maybe World of Warcraft needs to let go of their monthly subscription based system and go for a one-time purchase method with paid cosmetic microtransactions. Maybe Guild Wars 2 needs to take an even more casual friendly approach with its in-game economy and steep content grind. Maybe Elder Scrolls Online and Black Desert Online need to make their content a little more varied and interesting to keep both the hardcore fans and casual fans happy. In an age of gaming where two new games are popping up every day, maybe what we need are old games with a breath of fresh air breathed into them.
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