It’s been three years since I’ve actively played any of the MMOs I used to main. I’ve tried returning to Guild Wars 2 and The Elder Scrolls Online and Black Desert. I’ve tried getting into Final Fantasy 14 and The Old Republic. By the time New World and Lost Ark turned up, I’d grown weary of trying. I’ve changed since the days I was a teenager, first taken with the original Guild Wars in 2005, and unlike so many types of games I continue to enjoy, MMOs just haven’t changed with me.
The traditional thing for me to do would be to watch the genre I loved change and howl about how it was better “back in my day.” But I already lived through the good old days. Or at least some of them—sorry Ultima Online, you were before my time. MMORPGs had a great 2022 as a whole, but I want the giant online experiences of the 2020s to feel as groundbreaking as the ones of the 2000s did and for that, they’re going to need to step out of the shadows of their ancestors. I’m begging MMOs not to stay the way they were.
One of my primary gripes with MMOs is that the way we interact with them hasn’t meaningfully changed in decades. World of Warcraft and Guild Wars can’t go upending entire systems, but even new MMOs still nigh unanimously rely on skill hotbar combat while every other interaction in the world is handled with a single interaction key. F to talk and F to loot and F to place that key quest item in its designated slot. Please, I want to do anything more interesting than pressing F everywhere I go. I’m lucky that Guild Wars 2 at least has jumping puzzles as an activity.
I’ve ended up finding experimentation with interaction outside of MMOs instead, in rallying posses of strangers in Red Dead Online, lassoing my friends, and tense open world PvP trading missions. RDO captured that old MMO spirit for about half a year for me: meeting up nightly with friends to run planned missions, grind, and do our dailies. With its smaller server counts it may not truly have ever been a textbook MMO, but its sandbox of interactions was something I’d been craving in one.
Size is another area I’d love to see MMOs bend their own rules. Do they truly need to be massive to recreate the feeling of a populated online life? Last year I touted Book of Travels as my personal game of the year pick, a self-declared “Tiny Multiplayer Online” RPG. Even with a maximum of seven players on a server, I got those same endearing run-ins with other players in town, negotiating parties via emotes and running off to clear dungeons of ghosts together.
Sky: Children of the Light, still allegedly planned for a PC release but as yet only playable on mobile and consoles, is another MMO-lite that bends the genre’s notions of size and form. It’s nearly as ethereal as Thatgamecompany’s well-known adventure Journey, asking players to communicate through chirps and emotes before joining hands and flying off to solve puzzles. It may be low key, but hell, it has an ascendency system and open world group puzzles and hubs with other players flitting about changing their outfits. That’s an MMO to me.
Fellow PC Gamer writer Morgan had a similarly classic MMO experience trying Foxhole’s 1.0 launch and its weird online military sim war of attrition. Hearing about his proximity chat adventures delivering supplies to the frontline, or spending an entire hour just guarding some damn bridge, nearly enticed me to try a game I’d otherwise have no interest in just for the way it nudges the means of player interactions.
MMOs are still so self-consciously bound to the conventions they believe are needed to attract their defining massive player counts, but I want to see new MMOs keep pushing these weirder formats instead of falling back on number key mashing and my weary WASD fingers.
Time for reset
I don’t want the Guild Wars 2s and World of Warcrafts of the world to change, but I do wish that new MMOs would stop chasing all that old glory and pursue something that attains the spirit, rather than the letter, of what MMOs were in the late aughts.
I don’t want a robust auction house so much as I want a weird game entirely about an online auction house. I don’t need dungeons or raids so much as I need the ritualistic cooperation they inspire. I’ve done my time obsessing over map completion, legendary crafting, and crowd control skills with 5% food buffs. I’m ready for the era of MMOs that are weird and experimental, and not finely-tuned daily task delivery systems.
At their best, MMOs sit at the intersection between daily busywork and socialization. They’re the pickup basketball games of online life, where I’ve made friends sometimes for just an evening and sometimes for a lifetime. Their persistent worlds and immersion are distinct from the habits of logging on for several rounds of a team shooter, and there’s so much left for them to explore outside the bounds of a strict HUD, trading house, and dungeon loot tables.