World of Warcraft wasn’t the first MMO, and it certainly won’t be the last. However, I truly believe that no MMO will ever see that level of success ever again. Of course, it’s a little unfair to compare an entire genre to a game that was basically a freak phenomenon and exceeded all reasonable expectations. It would be like writing off every sci-fi movie that doesn’t have the same cultural impact as Star Wars. Still, I feel that WoW was a fluke, and while MMO’s will continue, they’ll return to what they were before WoW‘s peak: a relatively small, specialized genre with a very dedicated (but not especially huge) fanbase.
I wouldn’t say MMOs are irrelevant necessarily, but their relevance has been greatly diminished as much of what made them relevant to begin with has been co-opted into other genres. When MMOs first broke through to the mainstream in the late 90’s, the gaming landscape was quite different in terms of player interaction. In the ensuing decade and a half, we’ve seen many advances in gaming that allow players to interact with each other in virtual worlds. Whereas simply being able to walk around a virtual world with other players and being able to chat and interact with them outside of just shooting at them in a FPS was once a mindblowing and revolutionary concept, any number of games offer such an experience now. There have even been virtual lobbies built into various gaming platforms like PS3 and Wii U that let you walk around and talk to other players as avatars, meaning you don’t even need to be in a “game” to do that anymore.
In terms of actually co-existing in an evolving, persistent world that one can easily live in for months and even years of “real time”, it’s pretty clear that Minecraft currently holds the crown in that space. For people who want to experience a long-term adventure where they explore a huge world and have a character that evolves greatly over time, games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim offer that and, as a single player experience anyway, are far superior experiences in terms of being an epic story-driven adventure. The open-world genre that consists of games like GTA, Red Dead Redemption, and Saint’s Row continue to evolve to allow for the type of spontaneous, emergent gameplay that make MMOs special. And as those types of games continue to take stabs at online play, that should further bridge that gap and make the novelty of a bunch of people doing things together in a living, breathing world where “anything can happen” far less exclusive to the MMO genre.
Speaking of which, game worlds in general continue to grow as technology advances. Certainly the size of the world in a game like WoW or Everquest was much of what made those games so special. But again, games like Fallout 3, Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, Mass Effect, Zelda, and many others rival any MMOs total land space and, in many cases, offer far much more “to do” in any given chunk of virtual land. I could even pay $6.99 right now and get the entire world of GTA: San Andreas ON MY PHONE, easily one of the largest and densest game worlds ever created, and again, I guarantee there is way more to do and see and find then in any single MMO, even with expansions.
Which brings me to the one thing I feel MMOs still have that make them stand out, which is the ability to have an ever-changing world with worldwide events that effect all players and cause lasting, permanent changes on the world and its players. No non-MMO game has approached anything like that yet. The problem is, I feel that the average player today wouldn’t appreciate something like that anyway. Everybody’s always onto the hot new game. People would rather have their NEW Halo and GTA and Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed every year or two, and have it be a new, standalone experience, than they would just a game called “Halo” or “Grand Theft Auto” and have it just change and evolve into the equivalent of the sequels. They want each game to be twice as good, twice as fast, twice as big, have graphics that look twice as amazing. That’s the nature of gaming, especially today. The fact that a new Madden is still such a huge event each year is proof of that. I just feel that the audience that wants to sit down and immerse themselves in a single world and live in that world for literally years is a small one. But if it’s such a small one, how to explain the success of WoW, you ask? Again, WoW was the exception. Lighting in a bottle. But it won’t ever happen like that again. Most of the people who played that game, well now they’ve “done that” already. The reason that no other MMOs have been able to even make a dent in WoW‘s numbers prove that most people aren’t willing to start over. They’ll either keep playing WoW, or they’re going to move onto something completely different. Not an MMO. A small number will splinter off into some of the smaller MMOs, but I feel that most will not be willing to spend ANOTHER 10 years playing one game again, and the younger generation who have MMO-like tendencies will likely flock to the cartoony free to play RPGs that they see advertised during Spongebob and Adventure Time. Or they’re already playing Minecraft.
So is it fair to call MMOs “irrelevant” as long as there are still active MMOs and people are playing them? Of course not. But you can be relevant but also be niche, and that’s the path I see MMOs settling back into.