There's a basic rule of the universe - everything is better when it's a dream. A new car. A new toy. A revolutionary new way of playing games. As a dream, they're magical. They're promise. They're an opportunity yet to be bled dry or squandered. When we get them... they're a thing. It's hard to see the impossible in something right in front of you, which is why we shrug off such marvels as access to the whole of human knowledge and electronic telepathy on a yearly basis, because suddenly this year's modern miracle has a shitty screen and won't connect to a magic watch.
So it is with MMOs. Why did we never see a World of Warcraft killer?
Simple. Because in a very real sense, a World of Warcraft killer was impossible.
When we look at the genre, a few things usually come to mind. If you've never played an MMO - though I'm assuming that by this point you probably have, and have certainly had the chance - it's probably talk of players and worlds and grind. If you have, it's more likely to be thoughts of dungeons and raids and personal quests, and if you're more used to the F2P flavour, boobs by the cartload.
But this is a generational thing, and that's often overlooked. What really sold MMOs back in the day, and by that we're talking the Everquest generation rather than the likes of Meridian 59 or the AOL games - the time they first started hitting it really big and emerge into mainstream consciousness with things like 'Evercrack' - is that they were, in a word, magic. At this point, online gaming was in its infancy. That doesn't mean it didn't exist, obviously. Quake was huge, Doom had been massive, Tribes was a personal favourite of mine... there were many other successes for those of us who played games, even if many of us were still suffering along on 56k modems at the time. Still, it was mostly primitive stuff - basic shooters, deathmatch, a little strategy, and thumbing through copies of Snow Crash and dreaming of a Metaverse future that has still yet to happen.
Ultima Online, Everquest, and a few lucky others offered a glimpse at the future, albeit a future decked out like a Ren Faire with usually very dodgy graphics. More, they offered a glimpse at the impossible. A virtual world with millions upon millions of players? It's hard to imagine now how impossible that seemed - how stories of the Lord British assassination in Ultima Online or the tales of heroism in Everquest sounded at a time when simply downloading a shareware game could take hours. Do you remember your first footsteps into an MMO back then? The realisation that everyone you could see moving was a real person on a quest?
World of Warcraft was a hit for many reasons. Its chunky graphics that still hold up. Its focus on a personal quest. Its generally welcoming attitude and approachability. But what made it the game that it was was being the first to bring the magic of MMOs to the wider world. Only the hardcore even knew what a raid group was at the time, and fewer cared about dungeons. Everyone though could admire the wonder of that world and that experience - the taste of the impossible, the realisation that things had changed. There's a reason that a few years ago people were seriously talking of Azeroth as the new country club - it was a revelation for so many, separate from any mechanics.
But the trouble with magic is that the same trick rarely works more than once. As much as games that followed might have introduced people to other worlds, culturally, the genie was out of the bottle. Suddenly, worlds full of people became just a thing that computers can do, no more inherently exciting or surprising than a lens flare effect or the ability to create real-world locations.
Remember when that was a huge deal?
And so, inevitably, MMOs declined. Not necessarily in terms of raw playerbase, but in cultural importance. At the same time, technology marched ahead. The subscription fees that seemed so important in the late 90s, because obviously all those servers cost money, started to feel distinctly quaint in a world where every tech company was throwing servers and bandwidth around like they and it were free. Each new world was simply the next in line, catering for an increasingly nomadic audience that thought it was on the lookout for the net big thing, but was secretly looking for that magic hit. It's not as if the raw mechanics of these games have ever been particularly compelling without it, or without the psychological treadmill effects of techniques like variable ratio reinforcement - the key to raids, which keeps you playing by never promising you a reward for success and thus making the precious dopamine squirt of success all the sweeter and more exciting.
For those who stayed though, the original magic faded. What was underneath it? Not nothing, of course. Solid games, beautiful worlds. World of Warcraft remains a thing of beauty and design excellence, with Warlords of Draenor some of Blizzard's best work to date. But still, games.
As for the new generation - well, they'd not grown up in the same technological world. A few may have heard tales of the dark days, possibly with parents humming The Modem Noise until ordered to stop on pain of having shrimp sewn into the curtains, but 'always on' and an internet full of people was no longer a novelty. From small BBSs and primitive chat services like ICQ to the likes of Reddit and Digg and Facebook, the idea of meeting and interacting with people in virtual worlds was expected rather than a novelty. Those virtual worlds just tended to be more metaphorical, resembling networks and Apple stores rather than Ren Faires. Though still with many gratuitous boobs of course.
In this time, some hard truths were also learned about networking, that while once the prospect of a million new friends was tempting, in reality having a handful that actually meant something was always going to win. Cue a generational shift from games offering millions to those that pinned their hopes on just four, or five, or at least private worlds in World of Warcraft's often overlooked true successor - Minecraft. Really, it serves the same purpose and audience, only with the advantage of allowing everyone to make their own world rather than simply splashing around in someone else's fantasy.
That player base also became more of a liability than a strength. Being ignored by thousands of people is hardly an improvement, and nor usually is having the experience diluted by trolls and idiots. The world simply became filled with paper-dolls rather than people, with their direct impact having to be cut to next to nothing to prevent a handful from ruining the world for everyone else. The natural descent into entropy has worked well for a few games, notably Rust and DayZ, both as a mirror for the good people to be reflected in and to add a sense of danger. It's not the experience that holds millions upon millions in its clutches in the long-term though, or PvP servers would be the norm in the genre rather than PvE. As for attempts to boost player importance with the carrot of control and power? It was tempting once, but no longer, not now that everyone knows only the biggest guilds are in with a chance of acquiring a measure of it. Who cares if some other geek is Emperor?
What other MMOs have had anything like World of Warcraft's sense of magic? Really, I'd say you're looking at two - Eve Online (which predates WoW of course, though its legend started to grow at roughly the same time outside its core community), for its fascinating but impenetrable galaxy of player choice. Also, more recently, Planetside 2 springs to mind. Its scale of warfare was jaw-dropping, even though it itself seemed to drop from conversation almost as soon as it was released. Still, it stands as a good demonstration of the current state of play - that actually intimate experiences trump theoretical epics any day. Even GTA Online, popular as it is, has had nothing of its single-player source game's cultural impact, though it has of course done rather better than APB. Admittedly, dead and rotting crustaceans have more fans than APB did on release.
(What of Second Life? Well, it had a shot, but its complexity and cost and clunkiness worked against it from the start. Only in theory could someone jump in and start building - to create anything took commitment and was the mark of an advanced user willing to invest in their work. In Minecraft, building a cool house on your first evening was the gateway drug. All else followed, with satisfaction and control at every stage - something it will be interesting to see Everquest Next handle)
Of course, MMOs can still be and are successful, as Blizzard will attest, and many F2P games will either enthusiastically or reluctantly agree. I'd say that Final Fantasy XIV is a good example of how it can work, as there'll be many, many players of those games who have never touched an MMO before and it does such a great job of introducing the mechanics and advantages of group play that I suspect a whole new audience has been shown the magic that hit the rest of us back between 1999 and 2005. Deservedly too; it's surprisingly great.
Still, there's a reason why it seems that everyone's making MOBAs now instead. Again, it's not that Dota especially is new, but that for most of us outside the Starcraft/Warcraft community, it's a whole new thing, and a whole new kind of magic. For now, at least, it's no wonder games like Guild Wars 2 are borrowing a few of their tricks instead of vice versa. Who knows how long they'll stay on top? MMOs were unshakable money machines too, once. Still, it doesn't matter. Whatever rises and falls, there'll always be magic left somewhere, and games that know how to surprise as much as they entertain.