MMOs like FF14 and WoW won’t thrive unless they respect lessons taught by other games
MMORPGs have been around for more than two decades. They rose to prominence with EverQuest at the turn of the century and then exploded into popularity in the early 2000s with World of Warcraft. The few years that followed were deemed by many gamers to be the Golden Age of MMOs, and it birthed many other games that sought to replicate WoW’s success, like Runescape, MapleStory, and more.
While more MMOs have maintained decently-sized player bases in modern years, including WoW on its seventh expansion with Battle for Azeroth, Final Fantasy XIV, and The Elder Scrolls Online, their popularity is only a fraction of what those earlier MMOs boasted in that Golden Age. For example, WoW apexed 10 million active monthly subscribers 11 years ago in 2008, while TESO revealed recently that it hit just over that number of players in total since beginning in 2014. In other words, WoW had almost the same amount of players in one month of its heyday that TESO has achieved in its entire five years of existence. By today’s metrics, that’s measured as a success, too. Times have changed, and for MMO fans, they’ve changed for the worse.
But what keeps new players from signing up for modern MMOs? What keeps older players from returning? Modern MMOs feature many of the same mechanics and features from the older games, and in many cases, they look and play way better than they did back then as they’ve been updated with stronger technology. The answer to those questions changes depending on who you ask, but one thing is clear—vast multiplayer worlds filled with stories, adventure, choices, and freedom are not the future of gaming. Or, at least, they aren’t as they stand right now. That doesn’t mean that can’t change, though.
Become more accessible
So what can be done? To me, the answer is obvious. Games of this era are accessible. They’re more accessible than any other point in the history of gaming. You’ll have one title up on PC and every single console, cross-play compatible with mobile devices, free games, cheap games, and games that are updated every week to feel completely new. It’s always fresh, exciting, and easy to jump into without feeling like you need to play every day and experience every update and change to not fall behind. For better or worse, that’s what people want, and it’s why games like Fortnite succeed.
I can hear the audible sighs and groans from here just because I mentioned Fortnite. Don’t worry, I don’t like the game either, but I can respect what it does well. If you’re one of the people who groaned at the thought of Fortnite, let me try something else that might be more your speed. The Witcher 3. Destiny 2. Those are both more serious, critically-acclaimed games that have gone through painstaking processes to be accessible and easy to jump into, just more recently in Destiny’s case.
In The Witcher 3, devs at CD Projekt Red gave players the choice to do something very different (at the time). It gave you the option of jumping right into expansion content, being Blood & Wine or Hearts of Stone. You were able to create a new game that would automatically scale up to the point necessary to experience that content, and you could start right there, being able to skip the story and gameplay of the main game if you chose to do so.
Destiny 2 recently did something similar, albeit four years later. With the release of Shadowkeep, players were given all-new gear to put them on-par with the new update. In other words, they could skip all the game’s regular content and hop right into the shiny new stuff.
Both WoW and FF14 don’t do this, but if they want to survive, they need to. Like The Witcher 3 or Destiny 2, these are both sprawling open worlds filled with years of playable content, but on a much grander and more dramatic scale than either Witcher or Destiny. That just makes it all the more necessary, though.
Grinding to the good part
In Final Fantasy, for instance, the latest expansion, Shadowbringers, has been heralded as one of the best MMO expansions of all time. It’s been nominated for several Game of the Year awards already, too. But what almost every Final Fantasy player will tell you is that the game’s early content, A Realm Reborn in particular, is definitely not that good. On the contrary, many people just say it’s outright bad, filled with fetch quests and bad story writing. How many new players do you think have been turned off by the prospect of having to wade through hours and hours of bad content just to get to the good part? Do you think that’s their fault? No, of course not.
And in World of Warcraft, how many new players do you think are turned off from the idea of having to sludge through Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria, or Warlords of Draenor content just to get to Battle for Azeroth? Okay, bad example. What about Legion, people liked that one, right? Sure, they can skip all of that for the measly price of a $60 level boost, after they’ve already spent that same amount on the newest expansion. How many kids, teenagers, or even young adults do you suppose have $120 lying around to dump on this game, and how many have the time to grind levels to get around it? Probably not many.
Sure, you can get a single free boost by ordering a new expansion, but if they want to try out something fresh and new with a new character, they face the same dilemma all over again. When I wanted to swap to an all-alchemy build in The Witcher 3 with a new playthrough, I didn’t have to deal with that.
That’s not very accessible, and it hamstrings the potential of the game. But Blizzard and Square Enix have continued to shy away from making the necessary changes, presumably because they think it will impact profits in some way.
Square Enix’s case is just as confusing. At least in WoW's case, you get a single free boost after you drop $60 on that new expansion. But in FF14, you have to dump extra money on top of that, even for a single-use pass through all the sub-par content. It's $25 to get to level 70, and another $25 to pass through pre-expansion story content. In other words, that's $20 for the main game, $40 for Shadowbringers, $25 for the level boost, and $25 for the story skip, totaling a $110 investment to automatically play the fresh content if that's what you want to play.
So what does the studio gain by forcing new players to pass through a pay wall to play objectively less good content? Is it a pride thing? They want to force new players through older content because they don’t believe it’s possibly as bad as people say? If that’s the case, the argument is even weaker, because you should always leave that up to the player.
If it’s good content, you have to believe that players will want to experience it, but they shouldn’t be forced to.
Update Oct. 23 2:15pm PT: Changed details to accurately reflect FF14's boosting policy. Shoutout to @Skar Mufasa in the comments for catching the error.