Have We Simply Outgrown the MMORPG?

When asked how we know one another, a close friend and I like to tell other people that we met in 2004 while killing a pig — only after the inevitable outrage do we clarify that the pig was a quest objective in World of Warcraft’s Elwynn Forest in 2004. On another occasion, a chance encounter brought me face-to-face with something of a nemesis: the leader of a rival guild. As it turned out, we actually had much in common, and our real-life friendship has now grown to the point that I often have trouble remembering his in-game name. I have about a dozen other stories like that, but I recently realized I haven’t formed similar relationships in MMORPGs in years. And now, reflecting on the last decade, I think that’s less because I’ve changed and more because readily available information and fewer reasons to rely on our friends have robbed the genre of that dash of magic — a magic that may never return.
That’s not to say that I don’t spend much of my time looking for that same pull that sucked away my social life years ago, when I arguably endangered my performance in graduate school with all the time I spent in MMOPRGs. This very column started out as a reflection on the eight things that every good MMORPG must have for success. I agonized over the topic (and for much longer than I know my editor preferred), but I found too many holes in everything I thought of. An open, explorable world? TERA, Lord of the Rings Online, and even Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising have that in some form or another. A fulfilling story? Star Wars: The Old Republic had that in spades, but six months later the limited appeal of adding engrossing storylines on the standard MMORPG experience seems all too apparent. The pieces, it seems, are usually in place; developers just exhibit varying degrees of competence when getting them to work together. But even when they do a decent job, as in Rift, the MMO itself rarely succeeds in snaring new souls like they used to.
You Can’t Go Home Again
The modern gaming world lacks the precise conditions that famously made us slaves to the WoW/EverQuest model.At this point, I’m convinced this lack of fulfillment springs from generational differences rather than the design of the games themselves. I’m not saying that younger players can’t enjoy or even love MMORPGs, but I do believe the modern gaming world lacks the precise conditions that famously made us slaves to the WoW/EverQuest model in the last decade. It’s sometimes hard to believe how different the world was just 10 years ago. The MMORPG as a challenging yet social genre was at its peak when the internet was still slouching its way towards modernity (which I’m sure we’ll say about the internet today a decade from now), and the scarcity of readily reliable information or methods of contact outside of games allowed MMO communities to achieve some semblance of a real world. By and large, if we wanted to know something about a talent build or where to find a certain item or objective, we had to ask other players about them.