Top 3 MMO Trends

by Tyler Edwards, Aug 29, 2012

It's an exciting time for massively multiplayer games. For a long time, the industry has been marked by a lack of creativity. The dominance of World of Warcraft led countless developers to try to imitate it, leading to an endless spree of clones. But finally, that's starting to change. Fans have grown weary of WoW clones, and the race is on for developers to create an MMO that's unique enough to stand on its own two feet.

Other factors are bringing change to the industry, too. Economics and changing demographics are giving rise to new business models and new ways of thinking.

In this article, we'll highlight some of the major trends currently shaking up the world of MMOs, as well as offer some completely biased opinions on why these trends have risen to prominence.

jedi class


For as long as MMOs have existed, their classes have been divided into two groups: pures and hybrids. Pure classes can only fulfill one of the "holy trinity" of group roles - usually damage. Hybrids can fulfill two or more roles. There has traditionally been a lot of conflict between these two groups, but lately, many games are avoiding the issue altogether by eliminating pure classes.

Star Wars: The Old Republic, Rift, The Secret World, and Guild Wars 2 are all recent, big name MMOs that have used their lack of pure classes as a major selling feature. It doesn't seem a coincidence that both of the classes added to World of Warcraft over its lifespan, the monk and the death knight, are hybrids, either.

So why the hate for pures? Including pure and hybrid classes in the same game will almost inevitably lead to imbalance. There are two ways developers can design a pure/hybrid system, and both leave someone out in the cold.

The first is to implement a "hybrid tax." This means that hybrids trade their versatility for being less effective than pures. This can often lead to them being passed over for pures in serious content. The other is to balance pures and hybrids, but this means there is essentially no reason to ever play a pure over a hybrid. There's nothing to compensate the lack of ability to fulfill more than one role.

Both options leave one group of players feeling like second class citizens. That's not good for fun, and it's not good for business, so most developers are now choosing to only use hybrid classes. The problem could also be solved by making all classes pures, but the versatility of a hybrid is generally more appealing. No need to level an alt if you want to play a different role. Plus, tanks and healers are usually very bad outside of group content, so most people want a damage option.

horde vs alliance

Breaking down the barriers:

MMOs are a social medium. The main thing that separates them from single player games is the ability to play with your friends or meet new friends. They're about bringing people together.

Considering that, it's surprising how much of MMO design has gone into keeping players apart. Players are often divided into factions who can't interact with each other. They're spread out over distinct servers. Groups are limited by size, by what roles they can contain, and more.

Some of this is due to conscious design decisions. Factions are put into play to facilitate player versus player, to stir up rivalry between players, for story reasons, or just because WoW did it so obviously it's the key to success. Other factors keeping players apart are more practical. It's just not technically feasible to cram a few million players onto a single server.

But lately, it seems more developers are waking up to the notion that separating players is not what MMOs are about, and they're bringing down the barriers between their players.

rift factions

Take factions. Many games are now allowing greater interaction between them. In The Secret World, the game's three factions are only segregated in PvP. They're free to chat and group together in any other part of the game. Guild Wars 2, one of the most hotly anticipated games in recent memory, eschews factions altogether. All players are free to play together regardless of race.

Even some traditional factional MMOs are starting to relax the barriers between their factions. Rift players on PvE servers will soon be able to group, chat, and trade regardless of their faction. The venerable World of Warcraft still clings to its iconic Alliance and Horde, but even there, factions are beginning to bleed together. The RealID and BattleTag systems allow chat between friends across factions, and the Pandaren, the new race in the upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion, will be the first playable race available to both factions.

Segregated servers are also beginning to fall by the wayside. This is likely the result of improved technology more than anything, with economy also playing a factor. Free server transfers are often offered these days to help deal with population imbalances, and many people see them as a sign of a dying game; in some cases, they're right. Star Wars: The Old Republic's free transfers were soon followed by the announcement that the game would go free to play. Perhaps it's not a dead game, but it's certainly not the picture of health.

That's not always the case, though. Rift has offered free transfer for months now, and it doesn't seem to be at death's door. Guild Wars 2 has an interesting system where anyone can change servers at any time for no penalty, but they remain tied to a "home" server for purposes such as world versus world PvP. The Secret World has a similar system.

swtor free to play

Free to play:

Not so long ago, "free to play" was a taboo phrase among the MMO community, at least in the West, conjuring thoughts of "pay to win" and badly made Asian grindfests or once successful games struggling to squeeze out a little more cash from players before shutting down.

No more.

In just a few short years, free to play (F2P) has gone from a small niche market with a bad reputation to a massive section of the industry that threatens to wipe out subscription based business models forever.

More and more free games are being produced. Guild Wars 2 has gained a good chunk of its notoriety for its daring lack of a subscription fee. Many games that started out as pay to play have now gone F2P. So many, in fact, that it is now almost a foregone conclusion that all MMOs will eventually transition to F2P - no longer a question of if, but a question of when.

Once, such a transition away from subscription fees was seen as the last gasp of a dying game, and while it is true that it's a step usually taken when a game can no longer support itself with subscriptions alone, many games have much greater success once they become free than they ever did as pay to play games. Lord of the Rings Online reportedly tripled its revenues after going F2P.

Free to play games have not entirely shaken off their poor reputations. Many people are still scared off by their cash shops and the risk of in game success depending on real world money, and others are quick to view a game going F2P as a sign of failure on the developers' part. There's some truth in these concerns, too. Many F2P games are marked by overbearing cash shops where spending money is required to progress, or by halfhearted effort on the part of developers who no longer have the resources or inclination to go the extra mile for their games.

lord of the rings online

But the fact remains that the dominance of F2P is only increasing. F2P games gross more revenue than pay to play games in Asia, Europe, and emerging markets, and nearly fifty percent of the money spent on MMOs in the U.S. goes to free games - which is pretty ironic when you think about it. [Source]

And the popularity of F2P games is still growing.

It's not really that hard to understand why free games have become so popular so quickly. The more cynical among us might attribute it to ignorant gamers being dazzled by the word "free" and not realizing that nothing is truly free.

But there's more to it than that. With subscription games, you're almost obligated to play. If you don't play the game regularly, you're paying for nothing. It's a rigid system that just doesn't make much sense for a source of relaxation like video games. While F2P games might not be truly free, the power is much more in the hands of the player. You can pay exactly as much or as little as you like - at least in theory.

In this writer's opinion, it's that freedom that comes with F2P that has made it such a popular option, and will continue F2P's ascendancy.