A seemingly endless stream of subscription based MMOs are opting to go down the free-to-play route. Does this trend uncover the weary nature of the genre?
Often when browsing through gaming news I’ll stumble into an article which states that another MMO game has been tactically moved into the free-to-play market. That’s literally the only news I ever hear about the genre; well, other than World of Warcraft fans ranting about every single update and hoping for a return to the past.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that something is going awry when a game like Wildstar announces that it also is going down the free-to-play route. This game was meant to redefine the genre with developers who worked on the original WoW stepping in to lend a hand on its creation. A lot of time and effort was poured into its release, and it adamantly stood by its decision to be a subscription-based game. People were assured that the game would deliver a breath of fresh air into the increasingly stale and musky MMO genre, and that it would warrant spending around the best part of £10 a month to support its upkeep.
The sad truth is that the MMO genre is filled to the brim with a ton of free-to-play titles which take WoW, spruce it up with a new art style, add a couple of new gimmicks and promise that the cash shop is 100% not integral to enjoying the game. Guaranteed you’ll find yourself weeping into your empty wallet as you just forked out a ridiculous amount of money in upgrading your equipment slots from carrying one wolf hide to two wolf hides. Other than maybe a couple of selected titles – notably Guild Wars 2 – free-to-play titles are pretty lacklustre.
So why on earth is Wildstar being dumped in the free to play gauntlet?
The simple answer is that it didn’t bring enough innovation to the table.
Take a look at Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn… it’s exactly the sa- …oh, wait.
Final Fantasy XIV is a strange one because it’s not “exactly the same”. It doesn’t bring anything particularly groundbreaking to the genre, but is thriving in its MMO habitat. Admittedly ,I’ve never delved into the game, however I get the sense that it succeeds because the game takes the key components of the “MMO base” that WoW has embedded into the genre and tidies them up. By this, I mean that they already have the Final Fantasy universe to work with, so that’s the game world cemented. In addition they have taken the classic MMO formula and tweaked it to make it more accessible. They’ve added more classes and made them all potentially playable for each character you create, meaning you could be a ninja for an hour before deciding to be a tank for the next. However, despite these changes, the game doesn’t exactly bring anything new. I’m going to bring down the hammer and say that it owes its popularity down to those who have migrated from World of Warcraft looking for a similar experience but with some new elements, or those Final Fantasy fans who wish to immerse themselves in the universe and lore through a safe and reliably fun experience. If it wasn’t for its already established franchise, I feel that despite its polish, it wouldn’t be as successful as it is now.
Despite Final Fantasy XIV succeeding, the MMO genre has come to a standstill and it shows that those who play games like WoW or FF XIV are comfortable and happy with their experience. Games like Wildstar and Elder Scrolls Online tried to go down the subscription route but failed because they just weren’t successful enough. They were either clunky in execution or the sort of game which is slowly forgotten about, before somebody makes you realise that it still exists.
I worry for the genre, as it almost seems as if developers are dismissing the idea of making an MMO because they know they can’t break into such a difficult environment to crack. I can picture it now: the steady decline in the number of MMO players because they are simply tired of the same old; they wish for something new, but it isn’t coming.
Someone needs to reignite the MMO. They need to capture people’s attention and make them want to switch from smashing 1, 2, 3, 4 in any given order to any given enemy. They need to offer a game which will stop them from killing hundreds of thousands of elves so that they drop that one slab of cheese that some dwarf needs in his 20 part quest to create a tasty stew. They also need to drop this ongoing craze of essentially making the same old game but adding direction-focused combat with an emphasis on having to aim, rather than repeatedly mash buttons. It was good in Tera and Neverwinter but it’s beginning to fall into the same repetitive pattern of every MMO game having this feature.
A reinvention of the genre is needed almost to the point where it isn’t thought of as an MMO, but something that has progressed from it. Free-to-play games need to offer quality, and it will be the norm in the future, going by the success of League of Legends for example. It also needs to strip itself of the persona of “where games go to die” and become an environment which is synonymous with quality and accessibility.
Lets hope a game-changer emerges soon, otherwise I feel that the MMO is on a gradual decline into obscurity.