Evolving MMOs: From Ultima Online to Destiny

MMOs are a remarkably varied and changing genre.

The MMO genre has seen dramatic changes and shifts over the years. When I take a look at the half-dozen or so MMOs that I currently have installed on my harddrive, the options are nearly endless. I could have adventured in first-person throughout the lands of Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls Online, developing my character along different skill paths, switching weapons around for different situations. I could have jumped into a massive firefight against alien hordes in Firefall. I could even design my own quests and dungeons for others to play in a session of Neverwinter. Point being, there are not only dozens of MMOs, but there are well over a dozen different types and subgenres of MMOs. And the reason for so much variety and nuance, is the genre’s evolution over the years.

MMOs have not only shown significant growth and change, but they’ve often done so in the most sweeping and dramatic ways. Shifting from 2D to 3D, first-person to third-person, pay-to-play subscription model, free-to-play model, turn-based combat, action-based combat, first-person shooter, and everything in between. Sometimes these changes happened in the case of just a few years and other times in the case of a single game. The genre has diversified and evolved so much over the years, it’s not only began to permeate other genres across the industry, but in many ways, MMOs today no longer even resembles the games that created the genre in the first place.

Where it All Began

Rewind to 1997 and the launch of Ultima Online, one of the first truly persistent massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, and things were very different than they are today. Instead of having literally hundreds of MMOs competing for the same pool of players, there were only a handful of games to choose from. There weren’t many players for developers to market to either - only a fraction of today’s playerbase even knew what an MMO was at that time.

More MMOs started to roll out in the years to follow. EverQuest broke open the entire genre with the first fully-3D MMO, Asheron’s Call carved out its own niche, Dark Age of Camelot created the formula for large scale open world PvP combat, Runescape proved browser-based MMOs could be successful, and dozens upon dozens of other games started to mirror and iterate on these ideas.

The beauty of the pioneers in any genre is that not only do they have no contemporaries with which to compare themselves, but they also have the wide-open uncharted waters of the industry to explore. These developers didn’t have to worry about whether or not people would leave for free-to-play alternatives. These developers didn’t have to worry about accessibility or making the game more appealing to a wider audience. Since they were paving the paths that the next developers would walk down in the future, there were no other paths impeding their mission. Subscription models made sense for games with continuous costs like an MMO.  

Gamers as consumers were very different then as well. This was a world where people were accustomed to waiting on their dial-up internet connections and extended periods of downtime. High-speed internet connections, quality of life enhancing microtransactions, and the concept of “fast travel” were as mythical as the worlds their avatars existed in. With a lack of expectations comes an abundance of possibilities.

Dawn of the Modern Era

In 2004, in the month of November, everything changed. EverQuest had been on top for years and its direct sequel was finally about to hit the market. EverQuest 2 launched on November 8th, and did very well - as expected. But its primary competitor, World of Warcraft, released just a few days later. Viewed as an underdog at the time, World of Warcraft eventually went on to become the biggest game on the planet.

Now, the big endless MMOs that encouraged players to do what they want, when they want, how they want, are starting to dwindle in popularity. In the fall of 2004, the focus of the genre’s biggest moneymakers shifted. Whereas Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and other MMOs of the late 90s and early 2000s were more similar to sandboxes with player-driven content, EverQuest II and World of Warcraft ushered in a new age of quest-driven adventure and dense areas full of things to do and NPCs to talk to. These new games created a subgenre that’s known as the themepark MMO.

Over a decade later, this Tale of Two Games probably seems like a distant dream to most people. EverQuest 2 had moderate success, never really living up to its hype or the lineage of its predecessor, and eventually transitioned to the now widespread free-to-play game model. World of Warcraft redefined online gaming, became a pop culture phenomenon, a household name, and completely destroyed and rebuilt the MMO landscape from the ground up. Everything you see in most MMOs or online-centric games today probably existed in World of Warcraft at some point.

Despite all these changes and evolutions, perceptions are hard to change. World of Warcraft no longer resembled a tabletop Dungeons & Dragons veteran’s digital fantasies the way Ultima did, but it retained the basement-dweller playerbase stereotype. Even though everyone knew the game and what it was about, the fact that it was an MMO like “EverCrack” meant people made assumptions.

What Future Lies Ahead

But even the kings of the mountain have to fall off eventually. World of Warcraft subscriptions are at historic lows, and the Warlords of Draenor expansion was poorly received once the hype of its launch wore off. Garrisons ended up making the grind even less bearable, assets were recycled across areas, and leveling in the new content was a chore. In just a few short months, it stopped receiving updates and felt as if it was abandoned. For all the things WoW has been able to do over the years, it seems that innovation is finally starting to run dry.

At Blizzcon, when the latest expansion, Legion, was announced, it appeared as if Blizzard was returning to the feel of the older expansions. More importantly, the aesthetics and themes of Warcraft as a property were finally back. The intensity and tonal change was exciting for players. New capital cities were unfinished and players had no reason not to use the previous cities. Garrisons were little more than instanced areas in faraway lands, rather than being able to be placed anywhere in the world - which is what the developers originally promised at Blizzcon. Despite this promise, you couldn’t even choose the zone to place it in. For these and several other reasons, Warlords of Draenor quickly became one of the most disappointing expansions in the game’s over-a-decade long history.

Now if you look at the most popular MMOs on the market other than World of Warcraft today, you’ll find a few common themes among them - despite being so drastically different in many ways. Guild Wars 2, one of the primary competitors, is a free-to-play/buy-to-play game hybrid, meaning there’s no subscription fee at all. You get the base game for free and simply pay for the expansions. Star Wars: The Old Republic, the MMO from Bioware in a galaxy far, far away is a mostly free-to-play experience as well. Destiny is a buy-to-play first-person shooter that’s only on consoles. The Elder Scrolls Online is a buy-to-play fantasy MMO on PC and console.

Sounds pretty drastically different, right? In Guild Wars 2, there aren’t even quests anymore. All the combat is fast-paced, like a third-person action RPG, such as Dragon Age or The Witcher. Just now in its most recent expansion, the game received its first proper large-scale raid and features over a dozen different small-team dungeons and other instanced content. Fractals are like mini-raids on steroids, designed to be completed in rapid succession at extremely high difficulties. Then the progression system allows for each class to equip two weapon sets at a time, switching on the fly, and developing a specific build that fits their chosen play style, rather than only the established meta build for each class. The holy trinity of DPS-Tank-Healer is non-existent in Guild Wars 2.

The Old Republic on the other hand is almost not even an MMO at all-- many of the single-player story elements barely encourage you to actually see other humans while playing. Each class has its own personal story full of branching decisions and detailed conversations. You can even romance NPCs like you would in a single-player Bioware game!

And Destiny? I wouldn’t be surprised if many people who play that game have no idea what the acronym MMORPG even stands for, let alone what grinding or dinging are. Open world zones allow you to play on your own, completing missions and fulfilling bounties, but you’ll see other players popping in and out of areas. This helps give the illusion of a persistent world, even though it’s really an almost entirely instanced experience. Additionally, the structured raids and strikes require dedicated groups of other people to play with - making it even more like a traditional MMO. Not to mention the Crucible’s dedicated PvP shootouts. Instead of waiting for additional sequels or a decade’s worth of iterations, all three of these games (and many others, for that matter) are changing themselves from the ground up in just a year or two’s time. And not in terms of relaunching like Final Fantasy XIV, but iterative patches and expansions while the games are live and available to the public. This not only blurs the line between when a game is truly “released” or “finished” but it also completely redefines the way we interpret the evolution of the genre.

The Only Constant is Change

From Ultima to Everquest and from World of Warcraft to Destiny, the only thing that stays the same is the inevitability of change. Some people still play Ultima Online despite it all, but you’d be hard-pressed to find players that could actually enjoy the MMOs of yesteryear today. Today’s MMOs are about instant gratification and a sense of continual growth and improvement and its players have grown and changed to adapt to that style of play. The slow-burning trod that many of the older MMOs encouraged or required was a different design for a different time. Just like the market itself, MMOs have had to evolve over time.

Next time you patch and log into your MMO of choice, think about how different it is today than it was when it launched. Think about the first MMO you played and how different the genre is today than when you first found your way into another world. In the past 20 years, MMOs have evolved so far beyond their own genre restrictions that most of them lack the ability to be classified.

David Jagneaux is a freelance writer and full-time nerd that has an unhealthy obsession with buying games during Steam sales that he never actually plays. Twitter: @David_Jagneaux.