It doesn't take a gamer to know about the success of Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft. Known throughout the world as an iconic figure in early PC gaming and in the industry as a colossal source of revenue for Blizzard, World of Warcraft wasn't the first MMORPG, but it was undoubtedly the most successful.
Despite this, many developers over the years who possessed the resources and budget to produce another AAA MMORPG following World of Warcraft took their shot. From BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic to ZeniMax Online Studios' Elder Scrolls Online just three years later, one can honestly say that developers have tried for their game to be the fabled "WoW killer" that has only been whispered of in prophecies.
But what if the game to finally replace World of Warcraft isn't even an MMORPG? A quick search on the internet will turn up results of many former and current MMORPG players that make a rather morose claim: MMORPGs are dead and aren't coming back.
No AAA developer has any plans to release a new MMORPG for the foreseeable future.
What if the nail in the coffin for World of Warcraft and MMORPGs in general isn't a game at all, but a total loss of interest in a genre that developers can't compete or invest in. What if larger developers just don't want to be working on games that take years of work from a huge team with a price tag that far exceeds the cost of making most other kinds of games?
Fans of the genre will note that in recent years, the MMORPG scene has been largely taken over by eastern developers. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese MMORPGs adopting new action-based gameplay while retaining the open-world atmosphere and massive multiplayer functionality seem to be the new norm.
The hype that surrounded Blade & Soul, Black Desert Online, and the upcoming Bless might be a good indicator that the genre is not dead, but fans of the genre will also note that these eastern MMORPGs are lacking in originality and world-building, and are almost always seen as cash grabs in one way or another.
As much fun as some of these eastern MMORPGs are, they're missing a lot. Typically, there's no reason to even want to play them once the gameplay becomes stale. Boring settings and stories, a lack of lore and history and interesting characters, and side content like professions or jobs that are just as grind-y if not more so than the actual grind of leveling; it's no wonder why every new release replaces the last one.
One thing to hope for might be crowdfunded MMORPGs, as many publishers today are not particularly supportive of creating an entry into a genre of games as risky as this one. However, these can only work with the funding they get from hopeful gamers.
How many failed or cancelled indie MMORPGs will people need to see before they lose faith in indie developers ever putting out a solid MMORPG? In an industry where so many projects are indeed cancelled and promising games turn out to be nothing but broken promises (looking at you, No Man's Sky) it wouldn't be surprising to anyone if the current crowdfunded MMORPG phase dies out before it really gets started.
At the very least, some of these crowdfunding projects can actually reach a pretty substantial amount of money from backers, such as the upcoming and hopefully not-to-be cancelled Ashes of Creation. If anything, it does prove that there's still interest and money willing to be put in for a decent MMORPG release, something that any western AAA developer could have and should have taken note of long ago.
Western MMORPGs are often criticized for throwing away their real RPG elements and oversimplifying their games to appeal to casual audiences, while eastern MMORPGs are ironically criticized for keeping 'the grind' as a core element of their game to appeal to hardcore audiences. The problem is that no one can find a balance between the two while creating an interesting enough game world.
It isn't so much that World of Warcraft was the first MMORPG, because it wasn't. Rather, it's the only one to get it so right, and no other game in the genre has come close enough to dethrone World of Warcraft since. The fear that MMORPG fans have today is that it may be too late to try and revive the genre with a good enough release.
So what does that spell out for the future of MMORPGs? Well, no one really knows for sure, but saying it's dead forever is probably a stretch. It's more likely that we'll continue to see a drop-off in western releases until World of Warcraft's outdated gameplay catches up to it completely. It's also likely that the rise in eastern MMORPGs will be met with an embittered base that's getting really tired of pay-to-win models for the same games with a different name.
MMORPG players across the internet have already compiled lists of what needs to happen in the genre to bring it back. From more innovation and creativity from developers, lasting and important game worlds and appropriate world-building, to overall fun gameplay and a strong sense of community, the collective Christmas wish-list for the next MMORPG isn't really as complicated as one might think. We just need someone to step in and put it all together.
Until that happens, if it ever does happen, at least we'll get a new, decently fun eastern MMORPG to play every year to help us cope, right?