Of course, the indie revolution and the improved access to free or cheap development tools has meant that many new MMORPGs launch unfinished on Steam Early Access. They'll never be as big as Eve or EverQuest were – but their smaller dev teams, the insatiable love of the PC audience for MMOs, and the lower expectations of the indie audience, means that games like Oort Online, The Repopulation and Xyson: Prelude will occasionally succeed, and will continue to be released.
As for the new breed of MMOGs, the DayZ-alikes, such as Rust or H1Z1, the formula should be less restrictive, but they often stick even more slavishly to the DayZ model. The problem with cloning a game and claiming it's a genre is that you get judged on how closely you clone it – deviate too far, or miss something out, and you'll get condemned for it.
Back to the past
Garriott thinks that his own new game, Shroud of the Avatar, provides one solution to the expectation problem – by going back to an older model. "Our game avoids that loop and focuses on making the player think, rather than contribute to them being brain-dead. In SotA there are no '!'s (quest markers), you speak to NPCs by typing full sentences, there is no quest log as what a quest IS varies widely including long-term behavior aspects, and of course includes a deep virtue-based story.
"Finally SotA has a core technology that allows ALL players in our metaverse to be in one reality, unlike the now standard 'shards' UO invented. I believe this 'one metaverse' solution we have may become a standard in games of the future."
That one metaverse solution is also shared by one of the few MMOGs to be truly original and independent – Eve: Online.
It's charming that Garriott thinks his game is the future of games, because it's also very much the past of games. After all, his game was Kickstarted by fans of Ultima Online because it seemed to be a recreation of that game with modern technology. It's very much an old-style fantasy MMORPG, which players seem to be able to consume endlessly, albeit without the long-term commitment they used to have. Similarly, Camelot Unchained is a recreation of Dark Age of Camelot. These are nostalgia games, unusual in themselves.
But while MMOs in general look healthy, the long-term prospects for MMORPGs in particular look bleak. Even Blizzard, which has dominated the field with World of Warcraft for ten years, recently cancelled its WoW-replacement Titan to focus on Overwatch, a multiplayer shooter that's halfway between Call of Duty and DOTA. The Kickstarter route has already started shutting down, with the average successful Kickstarter getting under $10,000. Western publisher funding for MMORPGs has also dried up, with companies like Nexon just funding F2P games, and now preferring arena games like Dirty Bomb or MOBAs like DOTA.
So whither the MMORPG in the near future? We'll probably see the same few Western MMORPGs dragging out their userbases, the same way that Ultima Online has. We'll see a new F2P AAA fantasy MMORPG funded by an Eastern publisher every six months to a year, and many more smaller generic F2P MMORPGs from the same source on a regular basis. And we'll continue to see the indie MMORPGs with tiny teams that launch on Early Access and update their content more slowly.
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