Recently, I finished reading the book Designing Virtual Worlds by Richard Bartle. Made by the creator of MUD (widely considered to be the first MMO), it goes over best practices for creating a persistent, multiplayer experience. One thing I noticed about DVW right out the gate, however, is that it’s pretty old — so old, in fact, that the book came out just one year (!) before World of Warcraft, the game now considered to be the ultimate template in MMO-crafting. This antiquity made me curious… just how much have MMOs changed?
A few notes before we start:
- This blog post was written out of order, and was originally designed to be a book review of Designing Virtual Worlds. As the post became less and less about the book specifically and more just my general musings about the recent history of MMOs, I decided to change the core topic halfway in. Keep in mind that because of this change you may find parts of the post which refer to this as a review (it is not).
- Bartle refers to these games by a wide variety of names — MUDs, MOOs, MUSHes, MUCKs, etc. Ironically, the term MMO — the now widely used term for these games — does not seem to have existed (or existed very loosely) when Bartle wrote his book. However, since the term MMO has now become overwhelmingly dominant, I’m just going to use that for the context of this post.
- Honestly, there may be newer editions of this book. The copy of DVW I read is a free pdf of the first edition hosted on Bartle’s website, and honestly I didn’t bother looking into whether there was further editions. That being said I don’t think that really effects this post as a whole, other than maybe opening up the discussion to Bartle’s views on how things have changed.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in:
Introducing Designing Virtual Worlds
Surprisingly, most of Bartle’s work has stood the test of time. At the very beginning of the work he lays out what he defines to be the “essential elements of an MMO”:
- The world has underlying, automated rules that enable players to effect changes to it.
- Players represent individuals “in” the world.
- Interaction with the world takes place in real-time.
- The world is shared.
- The world is (at least to some degree) persistent.
These elements still check out for MMOs to this day. For example, World of Warcraft has automated rules, players as individuals, real-time gameplay, and a shared/persistent world. About 99% of MMOs hit all 5 of these points, and all of them hit at least one.
Yet the world of MMOs which Bartle spoke of was very different. As I mentioned, this was written before WoW when the most popular MMO at the time was Everquest (the ORIGINAL Everquest, might I add). MMOs were still for hardcore, traditionalist gamers, and had the advanced and complex mechanics needed to satiate them. Unfortunately, as the market for games got bigger, this would become more of a hindrance than a help.
Lord British Fell Off (or the end of Old-School)
Since Designing Virtual Worlds was written so early on, it separates the worlds of MMOs into approximately 5 eras, 90% of which take place during the old text-based generation. Obviously a lot of time has passed since all that, and history has dilated (as it does), so I am suggesting five new eras in its stead:
- The MUD Era: The text-based era which Bartle, for the most part, lived in.
- The Ultima Online Era: The era marked by the dominance of Ultima Online and the beginning of visual-based MMOs.
- The Everquest Era: The era marked by the dominance of Everquest and proto-WoWlikes. This era was ending right as Designing Virtual Worlds was written.
- The WoW Era: The era marked by the dominance of World of Warcraft and the opening of MMOs into the broader market. This era was beginning right as Designing Virtual Worlds was written.
- The FFXIV Era: The era marked by the dominance of Final Fantasy XIV Online, in a world where it is not quite as cool to run an MMO anymore. This is the era we’re in now.
Unfortunately, one of the sadder parts of reading Designing Virtual Worlds is seeing all the once household names that ended up falling to the wayside. Turbine, while it did see some years of success with Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, is now mostly thought of as a zombie which every couple of years people say “Wow, they still exist?”, and move on. Richard Garriott (AKA Lord British), who created the first truly successful MMO with Ultima Online, tried his hand only one other time at MMOcrafting with Tabula Rasa, which subsequently failed. As of 2022, he is currently working on… an NFT game. Yikes. How the mighty have fallen.
Perhaps the one semblance of old-school’s remaining strength lies in Runescape. Yes, the game that — having been released in 2001 — was so unpopular at the time that it did not even receive a mention in Bartle’s textbook. Runescape’s true heyday was during the same time as WoW’s, where players who yearned for that classic experience got something that was easy to understand yet still had the freedom of those older games. And, sure enough, Runescape still has that place in people’s hearts to this day… this time in the reincarnation of, funnily enough, Old-School Runescape.
The WoW Era
World of Warcraft, of course, is arguably what caused the death of old-school. It was a fundamental shift towards the “casualization” of the genre, both for good and for bad. I think few people will argue against the fact that WoW’s first three iterations — Vanilla, The Burning Crusade, and Wrath of the Lich King — are some of the best MMO experiences ever made.
WoW did two major things that broke away from the old-school formula. The first was that it stripped down a lot of mechanics in favor of instant gratification. You’re always getting fancy level-up proclamations, always getting new gear, always gaining new skills that give off cool new effects. The reason for this change leads into the second — the focus on endgame content.
For most of us modern players, it’s hard for us to remember a world where endgame wasn’t the focus (with the exception of FFXIV — we’ll get to that). The idea of ignoring all the early content to get to max level as soon as possible is a depressing notion, but in a lot of ways it makes sense. For example, it’s a lot easier to balance stats if everybody happens to be on the same level anyway. It also makes a lot of sense lore-wise for everyone to have the cool, crazy armors and weapons only after they’ve mastered all the other content.
Now, take in mind while these changes might seem negative, this isn’t an indictment of WoW. In fact, I much rather prefer the mechanics of WoW to what older games did. All games are essentially a balancing act between making it easy for people to play and adding complex actions that make the game immersive and fun. Traditional MMOs leaned a little bit too far into the realm of complexity — what WoW did was restore the balance.
Of course, with WoW’s popularity came a popularity for the genre in general. And you know that there were plenty of companies out there looking to take a slice of the cake…
Rehashing Ideas (and the Fall of WoWKillers)
Early on in Designing Virtual Worlds, Bartle makes a deeply foreshadowing remark:
…some designers look too hard at what has gone before. To use some admired virtual world as a prototype is fine if you fully understand that world, but very limiting if you don’t. A designer whose major experience of virtual worlds is EverQuest might, for example, think ‘what character classes should we have in our new game?’ rather than ‘should we have character classes in our new game at all?’ Some of the more basic assumptions go right back to MUD1, with few designers even realizing that they are assumptions, let alone that they can be questioned. That can’t be right!
In fact, Bartle brings up similar points a lot throughout DVW. Like, a lot. Well, if DVW was ever required reading for MMO-Crafting 101, a lot of people must have skipped class because the ten or so years after WoW’s inception were marred by lookalikes.
Mockingly referred to as “WoWKillers”, these games claimed lofty and ambitious features while at the end of the day being nothing more than a glorified copy of WoW. While there are too many to list out, four are of particular note: Guild Wars, Rift, Aion, and Star Wars: The Old Republic, or TOR as it is more commonly referred to.
Out of all these games I am willing to give the most benefit-of-the-doubt to Guild Wars, as it 1) made a decent attempt to differentiate itself, and 2) is the only one of these four games that is still alive and has a healthy user base. Guild Wars was originally released in 2005, with a somewhat less successful sequel being released in 2012. As the name implies, the game had a unique focus on PvP, with a wide variety of competitive modes available including the legendary World v. World mode. In addition, the game’s story — albeit not very good — had its own voice within the game, playing out more like a single-player campaign (once again… we’ll get to FFXIV when we’re ready). All in all, the game does have its strong points — but in my opinion leans more towards the side of a WoW-like than a true experimental MMO.
On the other hand, we have TOR. TOR is perhaps the most notorious of **the WoWKillers — built with the full backing of Electronic Arts and the Star Wars brand name (more specifically, the Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic brand name) this game was hyped to hell and back as the game to finally dethrone WoW. Unfortunately, it landed when consumer sentiment for Electronic Arts was at an all-time low (it won worst company of the year 4 years in a row) and people were beginning to lose faith in Bioware after its horrid showing with Mass Effect 3. As it turns out, people’s fears were founded: TOR turned out to be nothing more than WoW with a coat of Star Wars painted on. The game did improve in later years, focusing more on its differentiation in storytelling, but lately its players have dwindled and it appears to be on its way out.
And finally, we have Rift and Aion. Rift and Aion were both big on their initial releases, but as of now have mostly been lost to time. Rift was perhaps the most direct competitor to WoW, and in many ways just claimed to be WoW but better. To be fair, in some ways it was — I still hold a soft spot for Rift, and its eponymous rift system (which WoW later copied!) was a genuinely neat idea. Aion, meanwhile, was NCSoft’s biggest attack on WoW’s success. NCSoft, who had been the publisher of many successful MMOs (including Guild Wars), put together their resources on Aion as a means of becoming a self-made WoWKiller. And in the end, the game was… forgettable. So forgettable that I checked the Wikipedia page to remind me of what its major features were and I still don’t remember anything about it. Such is the fate of those MMOs who tried to beat the king.
The Curse of Sci-Fi MMOs
I want to make a digression here to talk about something that doesn’t quite follow chronologically. At some point in DVW, Richard Bartle mentions three franchises that would fit perfectly as MMOs: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings.
Oh, Richard. If only you knew.
To his credit, all three of these franchises would eventually get their own MMO games (out of all of them, only Star Wars Galaxies was under development at the time the book was released). Yet, despite their seemingly “perfect fit”, all failed to gain considerable market share. Why?
For LOTRO (The Lord of the Rings title), there doesn’t seem to be anything besides bad luck: the game was released at around the same time as the much more popular Dungeons and Dragons Online made by the same developer, and that likely took away from its success. But what happened with Star Wars Galaxies and Star Trek Online, two huge properties with massive budgets and a community that is heavily engaged?
Well, Star Wars Galaxies marked what many refer to as a “curse” among science fiction MMOs. At the time of the release of DVW, sci-fi MMOs seemed to live a healthy existence. But as games went from a text- and 2d-based perspective to a much richer 3d-world, these games seemed to collapse in favor of a fantasy setting.
The obvious finger to point to seems to be with the ambition of sci-fi versus fantasy. Instead of a small traditional fantasy world, you’re dealing with a whole solar system of planets, races, starships, etc. etc. And with that added content comes added costs, added costs which — given the already heavy expenses of a live service game — can be too unfeasible to do properly.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. I’ve already mentioned TOR, which in many ways is a spiritual successor to Star Wars Galaxies. We already know how that turned out. And while on the topic of sci-fi MMOs with huge budgets, Destiny is worth mentioning. The game is still played, but its original scope (and funding) was significantly reduced than the multi-billion dollar project it was originally meant to be. Warframe is a sci-fi game that is still going strong, but is missing many of Bartle’s key criteria and is seen more as a multiplayer character action game than anything else.
Ironically, the only Sci-Fi MMO that has seen widespread success is the one which Bartle mentions only offhandedly and as an example of failure: Phantasy Star Online. To Bartle’s credit, he was referring to the first game — its sequel is the one that has seen widespread acclaim.
The FFXIV Era
Out of all the eras we previously discussed, the newest one — which marks the dominance of Final Fantasy XIV Online — is the strangest.
First of all, really no one could have predicted FFXIV’s success for decades. As Bartle mentions, Final Fantasy XI was a moderate success, but nothing to write home about in comparison to the releases of western games like Everquest, World of Warcraft, or even Star Wars Galaxies. Combine that with the fact that Final Fantasy XIV was a horrid failure on launch, you could have only really expected any sort of success from it, at earliest, upon the release of A Realm Reborn — 3 years after the initial XIV launch and 10 years after Designing Virtual Worlds.
Final Fantasy XIV takes almost every idea that Bartle says makes up a virtual world and throws it in the dumpster. For starters, FFXIV treats its game like a very long singleplayer RPG with an optional multiplayer element. They have notoriously said they don’t care too much about whether people stay subscribed, recommending that people only subscribe for major story or content updates. And even then, a good chunk of the game is entirely free-to-play. There is also no real focus on PvP, the cornerstone of many MMOs in the past, and most of the content is completely cooperative. The narrative reinforces this, as well.
And yet, out of all the games, it was FFXIV that one. Why?
Well for starters, we’d be fools to say that it wasn’t at least partially WoW’s own fault. Over the years, the MMO began to get into the extreme end of casualization, trying too hard and too desperately to gather as large of an audience as possible. This alienated a lot of its already existing fanbase, while new players were overwhelmed by the large amount of hacked-on features that were created over time. FFXIV just happened to come at a time where this mass migration hit its critical point.
Yet there are a lot of MMOs on the market, and to say that FFXIV’s success beyond all the others was just pure luck… leaves something to be desired. One reason that potentially explains things is that FFXIV fit with the culture of modern audiences. WoW was built on by engineering-minded nerds who lived in their mother’s basement, while zoomers are feelings-oriented art kids who live in their mother’s living room. Many of these newer gen folk came to WoW, got confused as to why someone was telling them to kill themself after failing to pull a mob properly, and subsequently went to FFXIV.
There are a lot of theories as to why FFXIV is culturally different from WoW. One of my favorites is from Jesse Cox, who makes this distinction: WoW is inherently player-versus-player, or competitive, whereas FFXIV is inherently player-versus-enemy, or cooperative. In FFXIV, competing against other living people is virtually nonexistent, and when it does happen it’s usually put in a sports-like, friendly competition sort of fashion. In Warcraft, the entire game — both its story and its gameplay — revolves around people fighting and killing each other for honor and glory.
I think another reason for the cultural difference, and why the newer generation attaches to it, is Final Fantasy’s — stay with me here — metrosexuality.
I’ve already mentioned why the zoomers of the present are different from the boomers of the past. While older generations thrived on semi-realistic fantasy tales told in homogenized settings with white male protagonists, the newer generation has craved for much more flavor. Part of that is because they are more diverse themselves, for sure — but I think another part is that they are just tied of it. They want to see what else is out there.
Final Fantasy, once a game for the ultra-fringe weirdos who even Warcraft fans didn’t interact with, seems like the perfect ticket. The world of Final Fantasy is colorful, abstract, weird — its characters blend together in gender, race, and identity. It is a story of friendship, of overcoming odds, and not of war and glory. It is an adventure, but a different kind of adventure — an adventure that just happens to now be in vogue.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway of the FFXIV era is how far MMOs have fallen in popularity. Yes, it’s true, FFXIV’s peak player count has surpassed WoW’s. But even this number is minuscule in comparison to the wide array of other multiplayer games available — Fortnite, League of Legends, Among Us, etc. There is still room for MMOs — billions of dollars worth — but it has now become more of a niche than the craze that it was in the WoW days. In other words, perhaps we’re just back to the way it was when Designing Virtual Worlds was written: a niche genre to play around and have fun in.