In last week’s excellent VR Vs Article, our own Kevin Eva made an observation that has been on the mind of many virtual reality (VR) users. Where are all the MMO titles for VR? The idea of the immersive VR MMORPG has been a mainstay of fictional representations of VR, from Ready Player One to Sword Art Online and the Dot Hack series. So hat are the barriers preventing this fantasy from coming to life?
Firstly, MMOs take a vast amount of work from a vast number of people. It is very rare to find a functioning MMO with a team of less than 100 people. Many companies such as Arena Net (creators of Guild Wars 2), Blizzard (World of Warcraft) or EA/Bioware (Star Wars: The Old Republic) have vastly more than that. This is mostly due to one aspect of that name ‘Massive’. A game world that covers vast areas, populated by thousands of people interacting with hundreds of NPCs and objects and potentially encountering dozens of bugs is going to need a lot of monitoring. This is before we event go into the level of hard work that goes into creating one in the first place.
Creating an MMO is an intimidatingly huge task. Creating the world itself is big enough, but then creating any large videogame world is. What sets MMO titles apart is the extra stuff – class balancing, loot distribution, world persistence, instancing… and here we enter the truly dark and arcane world of server-side coding.
Servers are a necessary thing for any given MMO. You are not just talking about matching ten similarly-levelled people for a few minutes of multiplayer. You are talking about potentially thousands of people, or event more. World of Warcraft, at its height, had over 12 million subscribers. The sheer number of servers needed to store and parse the kind of data needed for a persistent world with that many people is a bit mindboggling.
This does lead us into another issue. Installer base. VR, as of yet, likely does not have a large enough installer base to make a true MMO work. Even if you generously allow for cross-platform play, and you can get Sony to play ball with that, you still crash headlong into two problems.
One, it is notoriously difficult to make money running an MMO. A look at the history of online videogames is littered with the corpses of failed or never-released MO titles, such as CCP Games’ World of Darkness, Hellgate: London or Tabula Rasa. These titles were not made my rank amateurs either, these were experienced developers who had worked on online videogames and even MMO titles before. The traditional subscriber model of MMOs has largely fallen by the way side, with a few notable exceptions, such as Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft and EVE Online. The majority have turned to a free to pay model with microtransactions to make cash, but this can have its own pitfalls, a topic which has been covered extensively elsewhere. With a small installer base of VR, its hard to imagine how either approach would sustain an MMO at this stage.
The other major issue is how risk-averse many big videogame publishers and developers are. With the scale or risk vs reward heavily tilted towards the former in the case of producing an MMO, the big companies who would be the only ones capable of producing such a huge undertaking would shy away from it. Especially considering received wisdom within the videogame industry is that MMOs are a dying breed. However, that was also said about 2D platformers and RTS titles, both of which have seen a resurgence, the latter getting new life from VR, so ‘received wisdom’ can be considered a bit suspect.
Until one of those big companies decides to take a risk, we will have to do without our immersive MMO. Which is a shame since so many are excited for it. It would be preferable if they left out the bit about dying in the virtual world means you die in reality, though.