Massively multiplayer games are in a poor state. While there’s still plenty of money to be made, the current crop are having a rough time. WildStar [official site] is barely scraping an income, Black Desert Online [official site] saw a strong start but petered out not long after launch and Guild Wars 2 continues to see a decline in revenues. Even the resilient World of Warcraft [official site], despite buoyant Legion sales, still isn’t willing to divulge subscription numbers; a sign that things aren't eternally rosey.
With a lengthy list of massively multiplayer casualties over the last few years, including Warhammer Online, City of Heroes, World of Darkness and EverQuest Next, it’s fair to say the genre is in need of an intervention.
Between actual MMO failures and the lackluster success of some survivors, there’s a frightening level of consistency that connects them all. While some of the blame inevitably falls at the feet of publishers pushing products out the door too early (notably WildStar and Warhammer Online), most simply promised too much and delivered too little. The end result, in many cases, saw bloated products with little focus and with implementation of ideas and mechanics too poor to justify the price tag or subscription fee.
Swathes of publishers and developers who might once have been interested in creating or releasing an MMO have placed a red cross on the genre’s door as a no-go zone. There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, and it's in games that focus on one aspect of the genre, aiming to innovate or perfect it rather than being a jack of all trades. The two most notable examples are Camelot Unchained [official site] and Crowfall [official site].
The studios behind these projects - City State Entertainment and ArtCraft Entertainment, respectively - are disposing of many tried and tested traditions, carving their own path in the hopes of finding new and fertile ground.
Where most “themepark” MMOs tend to cover all bases by including PvE, PvP, raids, crafting and everything else in between, CSE and ArtCraft cannot do this; they have neither the budgets nor the manpower. Instead, they’ve chosen to play to their strengths and acknowledge that with crowdfunded budgetary limitations, they need to remain steely focused in their approach to design.
Camelot Unchained took to Kickstarter in May 2013 under the stewardship of Dark Age of Camelot designer Mark Jacobs. Promising a spiritual successor to the much-loved Realm versus Realm MMO, it not only blazed a trail for ArtCraft Entertainment and many other small developers to follow, but proved that with a refined vision and a not-too-outlandish set of promises, people were more than willing to part with their money.
To date, Camelot Unchained has amassed more than 4 million dollars from backers, with many having bought into the vision of what’s effectively an old-school, player versus player product. There’s no leveling via player versus enemy, no traditional raids or dungeons (though it does have The Depths) and players rely almost entirely on one another to gain weapons and armour (you’ll find no auction houses here). Even its combat is intentionally against the grain, catering to an audience who want something more than point and click. With the exception of the player perspective and a selection of archetypes, it couldn’t be any further removed from what we’ve all grown accustomed to after the success of World of Warcraft.
As for Crowfall, J Todd Coleman and Gordon Walton (of Shadowbane and Ultima Online fame) took to Kickstarter several years after Camelot Unchained. Not only did they exceed their original goal of $800,000 by almost a million dollars, but they have since gone on to raise over $10 million through their official website.
Blending multiple genres, Crowfall incorporates strategy, politics and survival - all from a traditional third person perspective - and throws them into a melting pot to create a huge open world, PvP-centric MMO. As the developers of Camelot Unchained have done, ArtCraft Entertainment ripped up the rule book when it comes to character advancement, the leveling process and even the location of play. Instead, they’ve designed something unique that would take hundreds of words to describe. They say a motion picture is worth a thousand words, so observe.
Such success on Kickstarter doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on either of these games reviving a flagging genre, or of them even following through on their promise on release. What it does do, however, is set a precedent for experimentation within the genre, showing that there is a player base willing to support something unique. Innovation within MMOs has been in short supply for some time.
World of Warcraft may have found such success because the genre was stagnating and its approach (arguably a highly polished amalgamation of everything before it) revitalised the genre. In many ways, Camelot Unchained and Crowfall are attempting to do the same, but instead of spinning plates across multiple game modes, they’re utilising their resources and industry pedigree to innovate in a much narrower space.
It would be doing both games a huge disservice to suggest that they’re simply offering another PvP MMO. Instead, each studio has started from scratch when it comes to core design decisions. The way players deal with death, how they craft, use abilities, design their homes or even choose their archetype have all been radically altered. Additionally, both studios are ensuring the development of their titles are community led, complete with realistic timelines. Most importantly, each studio is conscious of the fact that they can’t please everyone and so have no intention of trying to.
Risk is inevitable when such radical changes to a traditional formula are made, especially when those changes have the potential to alienate the very players you’re trying to entice. But even if both games fail miserably upon arrival, City State Entertainment and ArtCraft Entertainment should be applauded for attempting to find new ways to allow masses of players to interact and play together online. We could also look to Worlds Adrift, which is putting physics-based exploration and combat, and persistent hand-built locations and crafts at the heart of its design.
MMOs have followed predictable designs for a long time, adding more features and systems to their worlds rather than concentrating on innovation around a particular feature or idea. Things may be about to change for the better.