Many gamers consider MMORPGs dead or at least dying. The heyday of MMORPG popularity has long gone and it doesn’t seem there’s a game on the horizon that will change this. That’s not to say no one is playing MMORPGs anymore. World of Warcraft (WoW) still has millions of players. But player numbers are down significantly from, say, ten years ago. Reddit user u/Arkey_ recently estimated the number of WoW subscribers and saw a decline from around 12 million subscribers in 2009 to somewhere between 2 and 4 million subscribers at the end of 2018.

A World of Warcraft subscriber estimate, courtesy of u/Arkey_

Additionally, there’s no more talk of a “WoW Killer”, or an MMORPG that would finally dethrone WoW. Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: the Old Republic, WildStar (RIP), and the Elder Scrolls: Online were all examples of MMOs released years ago that were branded as WoW Killers. Blockbuster MMOs, if you will. But none ever became remotely as popular as WoW. Nowadays, the gaming community seems to have given up on the idea that there will ever be an MMO as popular as WoW.

While game studios are still developing new MMORPGs, many feel like WoW copies: stuck in the fantasy genre and at best only offering incremental innovation to game mechanics that have largely stayed the same for many years. It won’t suffice. In order to reignite gamer interest in the genre, developers need to come up with something radically different.

This article will give a brief overview of MMORPG history, because it will help contextualize the current and future state of MMOs. After this, I will talk a little bit about what makes an MMORPG great. Finally, I will explain why blockchain technology could be one aspect of the radical change that the MMORPG genre needs.

An Overview of MMO History

Before MMORPGs, there were Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). Just like an MMO, a MUD is a real-time multiplayer world where a large group of people plays on the same server. Different from MMOs, MUDs have always been text-based. To the best of my knowledge, Iron Realms Entertainment has been the leading creator of MUDs. I played Achaea, their most popular MUD, for years when I was younger.

To this day, I sometimes have an itch to start playing Achaea again

While the first graphical MMO was called Club Caribe, released in 1988, the starting point for MMORPGs is usually placed at either Meridian 59 in 1996 or Ultimate Online in 1997. They were the first graphical MMORPGs that inspired a sense of community, and people played it to bits (no pun intended). CNN Money considered Ultima Online a watershed event for the online gaming industry, as it was the first online-only, subscription-based game that was a breakaway success.

Ultima Online was a huge success back in the day

While Ultima Online was a successful game, the title for most popular MMO during the nineties goes to EverQuest. Firstly, its 3D graphics were a big improvement on Ultima’s 2D sprites. Secondly, it refined the MMO genre with its sixteen races and classes, giving players a much more diverse playing experience. It was also the first MMO that popularized grinding, or repetitively killing monsters to level up your character, which was considered fun at the time.

Kicked in the face by a decaying skeleton

The early 2000s saw some excellent MMORPGs too. Anarchy Online (2001) was the first science-fiction MMORPG, finally moving the genre away from the fantasy genre it’d been stuck to (and is still somewhat stuck to). The Dark Age of Camelot introduced players to Realm vs Realm PvP, where large groups of players would fight one another over certain game assets. And the release of Final Fantasy XI (2002) introduced a progressive class system, where players could more easily switch between classes instead of having to create an entirely new character if they wanted to switch.

Next came EVE Online (2003), an MMORPG that I cherish quite deeply. It’s a deep space sandbox where tens of thousands of players go about their fictional lives in spaceships big and small. It has a player-driven economy and much of the game’s history is determined by the players. While definitely not for everyone (some call it “spreadsheet simulator”), EVE Online is played and revered by tens of thousands of players to this day, and it’s considered one of the few MMORPG success stories.

Expect lots of information when playing EVE

Then, of course, came World of Warcraft. The still-not-extinct mastodon of the genre. For all the hate WoW sometimes gets, it’s still an extremely good MMORPG. Back in 2004, it blew everything else out of the water. It was two decades of innovation condensed into a single game. Its UI was intuitive, it didn’t require a high-end PC, it was set in the established Warcraft universe, and its world was a joy to explore. Everyone loved it.

The colorful world of WoW in 2004

World of Warcraft was unstoppable for years, with excellent expansion packs, such as the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, only adding to its popularity. It took until 2012 before there was talk of a new MMO threatening WoW. That MMO was Guild Wars 2 (GW2). While GW2 ultimately wasn’t nearly as successful as WoW, it made fighting in MMORPG more exciting. Suddenly, you could dodge attacks and position yourself for stronger attacks. The outcome of a fight became partly determined by a gamer’s reflexes instead of only their character, weapon, and armor stats.

GW2 is still a popular MMO

I can’t really say there have been groundbreaking MMORPGs since then. There have been good MMORPGs, such as Star Wars: The Old Republic and the Elder Scrolls: Online, but none that have felt significantly different from what had already been offered before.

What Makes an MMORPG Great?

While it’s impossible to distinguish all the factors that make an MMORPG great, it’s easier to distinguish a few. Any game studio that wants to create an MMO loved by tens of thousands, if not millions, of players, will need to get these factors right.

  • A World Big and Fun

Exploring a new world brings the thrill of the unknown. It’s a large part of what makes a sandbox game fun. There’s a reason PewDiePie loves Minecraft so much: there always seems to be something new and exciting on the horizon. It should be no different for an MMO. Its world should be both big and exciting. Not one or the other, of course. No one cares about a huge, empty world, and there’s only a limited amount of playability in a fun, but small world.

  • Compelling Lore

The better the lore, the more engaged players will be. World of Warcraft has wonderful lore. There are entire books dedicated to the lore of Azeroth. After all, the idea of a “role-playing game” is to immerse yourself into a fictional character and world. The better the lore, the easier and more fun that becomes. It’s even better if players can create their own lore too; if a game gives players the freedom to write their own history, with their own items and their own events.

Nearly all the big wars in EVE are player-driven
  • A Unique Style

So many MMORPGs look like World of Warcraft. When it comes to MMOs, there’s a real fantasy fatigue out there. Do we really need more spiders, trolls, or dragons to fight against? Can’t we have enemies that are new, weird and exciting? A computer virus capable of destroying vital parts of your spaceship, a big blob of goo that regenerates and shoots out sticky globs, a swarm of flying drones the size of a mountain, etc… Anything!

Additionally, while an MMORPG doesn’t need to have hyper realistic graphics, it needs to have its own unique style. WoW is colorful, EVE is dark, MapleStory 2 is cute. Choose an aesthetic that makes your MMORPG stand out from the others.

MapleStory 2 has a unique aesthetic

These are three big factors that make an MMORPG great: a big and fun world, compelling lore, and a unique style. Of course, there are many more factors game studios need to get right: it needs to have great loot, not too much grinding, fun crafting, and the ability for players to customize their characters. But you’ll have gone a long way if you get the three above-mentioned factors right.

Blockchain Technology for MMORPGs

So far, we’ve talked about what you need to get right for a great MMORPG. But that still won’t bring the fresh wind that the genre needs. For that, you need something radically different. Currently, new ideas for MMORPGs are to make them playable on mobile and accessible through virtual reality, but both ideas don’t change anything about the genre’s game mechanics.

That’s why blockchain technology could be an audacious, new idea for MMORPGs. You see, MMOs are inherently social experiences. You’re together with thousands or more players on a single map. In such an environment, trade between players becomes inevitable. An MMORPG’s economy is incredibly vital in sustaining healthy player communities. That’s why EVE Online thrives to this day: its economy is entirely player-driven.

Blockchain technology can transform an MMORPG’s economy in two ways. Firstly, it would give players full ownership over their items. All your digital assets would be bought, sold, leased, rented, gifted, transferred in a trustless environment directly from player to player. No third party to interfere or take fees. Your digital assets would keep on existing even if the game didn’t, and no game developer could change any of its characteristics once it’s in your possession.

Secondly, all digital assets would have genuine value in the marketplace. Not fictional value, but real, dollar value. The game’s currency would be a cryptocurrency, which could be converted into dollars if a gamer so pleases. It would allow wealthy gamers to exchange dollars for the game’s cryptocurrency and send it to another player in exchange for any item. Gamers who put plenty of time in finding rare items and/or leveling up their characters could earn good money this way.

Of course, if the game isn’t meticulously balanced, this could go haywire pretty quickly. As such, game studios will want to spend a serious amount of time thinking about the economy of their game (maybe hire an economist, even). Any game who remotely makes an attempt at a blockchain economy will likely be met with heavy criticism too, but doesn’t that serve as an indicator you’re onto something new?

There’s a third radical change of blockchain technology in MMORPGs, one that has little to do with the game’s economy. It would allow developers to create separate games that are linked, because they run on the same blockchain. Developers could create quests that require players from both games to work together.

Imagine if WoW and EVE were running on the same blockchain. There’s a quest where an EVE Online player builds a time portal that allows them to send out messages to WoW players. They need to contact WoW players of a grave threat coming to their planet, which starts off a quest in WoW, and they need to give hints as to how the WoW players can complete this quest to avert the danger. When the quest was completed, both players will get an equivalent reward in both games.

This is only one example, but the possibilities are endless. Games are no longer separate entities, but can become part of an interconnected universe where players from different games exchange messages and items, allowing for a much more diverse experience.

In Conclusion

The MMORPG genre is dying. It’s long seen its peak of popularity and there haven’t been big, new innovations in nearly a decade. However, blockchain technology can be one aspect of the radical change that MMORPGs need. It would transform a game’s economy by giving players real ownership and items real value, and it would enable developers to create gaming multiverses that make for exciting, new experiences.