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The state of MMOs in 2015: The good, bad, and future

What went right, what went wrong, and what went big for the MMO genre in 2015.

2014 was not a fun time to be a fan of MMOs. The year saw a few high-profile launches that utterly and completely failed to connect properly with their prospective audiences, along with several big studios cutting back, hitting financial walls, or otherwise flubbing the most important parts of business. Sure, it wasn't the worst year ever, but once you're into "bad" the distinction becomes pretty meaningless, doesn't it?

Fortunately for fans of the genre and its effects upon games as a whole, 2015 was a much happier time. True, there weren't as many big-name releases, and there was one big and unhappy loser, but that was mixed amidst several other high-profile projects that keep rolling along nicely without a problem. So, let's take a look at the state of the genre in 2015 while also eyeing how it's affecting games as a whole.

2015's biggest winners

Let's start out with the positives. Sure, there were losses, but why focus on that? No, far better to focus first and foremost on the three games that really managed to knock it out of the park through the year.

1. Final Fantasy XIV

The 2013 relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV impressed people, but the question on everyone's mouth was whether or not the game could make it another year. 2014 saw a steady and appreciated string of updates that had everyone wondering whether or not the game could successfully manage an expansion. This year is when it's just become impossible to ignore the fact that the game is a pretty noteworthy success. It's fun, it's popular, and it pumps out content at a pace that most games can only dream about.

Seriously, the game's last patch added an entire RTS game just as a bit of side content. Completely optional. How crazy is that?

One of the last MMOs that requires a subscription and certainly the only one in the past few years to launch as subscription-only and stick with that model, the game is proving to be a great success story all around. Sure, there are nitpicks to be had and issues to be addressed, but leaving it off of your list as a big name means you're missing out on a game that just seems to be getting more successful with each passing year.

2. Star Wars: The Old Republic

It wouldn't be fair to call Star Wars: The Old Republic's most recent expansion a relaunch. It would, however, be fair to call it a refocus. The expansion retuned the entire game to be more heavily focused on story progress, making decisions and experiencing an epic in the manner of, well, Star Wars. And it's even taken a bit of liberty with the fact that it's now part of the non-canonical extended universe and thus can fudge things a bit.

Of course, people have complained that the renewed focus loses a bit of the "massively multiplayer" part from the game's status as an MMORPG. That's not a great thing. Still, it does mean that the developers have stepped back and tried to deliver an experience based first and foremost around what the game is best at delivering. That's worth celebrating, and fans on a whole seem to agree.

3. Guild Wars 2

It took a long time to get here, but Guild Wars 2 turned heads at the start of the year when it announced its first expansion pack. Rather than bumping the level cap, the expansion added in new forms of alternative advancement alongside raiding, new exploration, and gliding. That came along with the announcement that the core game is now free for everyone forever - you can play the pre-expansion content as long as you want without ever needing to spend a dime.

It's not all rainbows and butterflies, of course, and the change in focus has left some players feeling as if the original nature of the game has changed fundamentally or certain playstyles have been left behind. That doesn't diminish what has been accomplished with the game, just the same.

2015's biggest losers

Of course, it wasn't all sunshine and roses. Yes, some games kept kind of coughing along in the wake of 2014, and some of them looked poised for revival... then promptly fell facefirst in the mud. A shame all around.

1. World of Warcraft

What a difference a year makes. People were excited about Warlords of Draenor when it came out at the tail end of last year, and if you had just started leveling through the content, it looked good. Unfortunately, Garrisons provided a terrible alternative to content in the form of Facebook-style management minigames and far too much work for far too little satisfying play.

Bad enough in and of itself, but the expansion's storyline and content updates abruptly ended in late June with several promised elements of the expansion being thrown to the wolves. While the game's next expansion was announced in August, players are already expecting another year without content... and considering that was what happened before the current expansion, player morale is in the dumpster. The game reported falling to its lowest subscriber numbers since midway through the vanilla years, then said it would no longer report on subscriber numbers.

Here's hoping for Legion, then. The game could use a success next year.

2. The Sony Online Entertainment/Daybreak Games catalog

This year's big surprise for online gaming fans was the veteran online branch of Sony breaking ties with its parent and going independent as Daybreak Games. How is that a loss? Well, it meant that people accustomed to Sony Online Entertainment suddenly found all of the rules rapidly changing, with several staff departures and a general air of abject confusion.

Anticipated title EverQuest Next went through the entire year without any substantial news other than its biggest developer getting laid off. EverQuest II went through rapid content model shifts. H1Z1 players experienced a roller coaster of resets, updates, and alterations. It was a hard year to be a fan, because it was hard to know what was staying online or shutting down from week to week.

3. ArcheAge

If you listened to ArcheAge's fans before its localization, you were told about a game that allowed you to do almost anything with insane amounts of freedom in character, crafting, and housing. The game launched last year, but this year was the year for it to deliver on its promises... and it most certainly didn't. For many people, the game was functionally not far from other titles like World of Warcraft except that it also included plots of land that you couldn't get without being part of a massive land rush fighting over inches of virtual dirt.

Server merges did nothing positive for that perception, as players went right back to scrambling for land. On top of that, the management of the game by Trion (its local publisher) and XLGAMES (its developer) has been roundly criticized, with players blaming either one as the real source of the game's problems. It's still running and likely will do so for some time, but its chance of being a big influence on the MMO sphere has evaporated.

The future?

That's where we are now. But there are trends, patterns, and things to watch in 2016, and they start with something big and obvious...

1. MMO in all of the things

Xenoblade Chronicles X is very clearly a single-player game. It just features  lots of online connectivity, guilds, player groups, MMO-like leveling and gameplay structures... you get the idea. The walls that we have built between single-player and multiplayer cooperative games are evaporating on a slow and steady basis, and as time goes by and consoles just get more frequently connected, this trend is not reversing itself. Keep your eyes peeled in 2016 for new ways in which all the pieces fit together.

2. Crowdfunded games get big

There's a lot of money still flowing into Star Citizen's coffers, and the game itself only exists in its most embryonic state. High-profile MMO developers have big projects that are advancing and/or releasing in 2016 like Crowfall, Shroud of the Avatar, and Camelot Unchained. We've seen a big crowdfunding explosion, but we have yet to see a successful MMO based on the platform; 2016 will be where it starts to become clear that Kickstarting these titles either works or was just a fad.

3. The future of WildStar

This is hardly the only titles that's changed business model this year, but boy, is it ever a big change. When this title launched, it was suddenly something everyone was super excited to play... followed by a dizzying fall when people started to reach its brutally tough, demoralizing endgame that made vanilla World of Warcraft look like frolicking in a petting zoo. It remains to be seen if the switch in business models and the changes to endgame and content distribution can bring hopeful players back to the metaphorical yard.

4. A post-WoW world

I'm not saying that WoW is in danger of shutting down. But it is steadily losing its domination over the MMO field, and that alone is going to change the landscape pretty significantly. Will another game become the big champion of the genre? Will we go through years with no clear biggest MMO? Will WoW rally and pull itself back to its former glory? Because any of the above - or a possibility not yet considered - is going to have a big impact on a genre that has been thoroughly affected by one title for a decade.

So, here's to 2015 in review, to 2016 in the future, and to this genre as a whole. I don't know what 2016 will bring, exactly, but I do know it's going to be an interesting ride.

Published Dec. 15th 2015

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