Space simulators and worlds at war: The state of MMO PC games in 2014

Elite: Dangerous 1.0

"MMOs are dead." I feel like that's been a truism for years now—longer even than the fabled massively-multiplayer online games were considered a dominant force in the industry. For many people massively multiplayer online gaming begins and ends with World of Warcraft. Most others would say it's either EverQuest or Star Wars Galaxies or nothing.

But don't tell developers that the MMO isn't viable, because apparently they're not going to listen no matter what you say or how strenuously you say it. Don't quote me on this, but I'm pretty sure 2014 saw the launch of more "important" MMOs than any year in history, plus expansions for a bunch more.

So as we kill off 2014, we take a look back at this year's MMO releases—what they are, and where they are as the year comes to a close.

World of Warcraft

Let's get the gorilla out of the way early. World of Warcraft opened the year looking like the ailing king, drool pooling on its moth-eaten robes. Reporters half-heartedly discussed how subscriber numbers had fallen from a lofty peak of 12 million in 2010 down to about 7 million. Questions of "Will World of Warcraft be forced to go free-to-play?" swirled.

Warlords of Draenor

Then in November World of Warcraft celebrated its ten-year anniversary with the launch of its fifth expansion, Warlords of Draenor, and the entire narrative changed. Besides adding a substantial amount of content to the base game, Warlords oversaw a massive surge in subscriptions—last I saw, the game was back up around 10 million.

The king doesn't look so old after all. And that's good, considering Blizzard is out there saying they expect World of Warcraft to last for twenty years.

The Elder Scrolls Online

"Wait, you're making an Elder Scrolls MMO? That's...not what I want." After two years of tepid hype, The Elder Scrolls Online released back in April and...well, people enjoyed it about as much as everyone expected. Some people absolutely loved it. Most people were ambivalent.

Elder Scrolls Online

The problem? The game doesn't really do justice to either its MMO content nor its Elder Scrolls lore. Instead, you get a pretty tedious and underwhelming mix of the two. And when you do find some amazing, lovingly-crafted questing it's often interrupted by some other idiot player jumping up and down in place at the entrance to the dungeon or staring at a wall or throwing all his items on the ground for no reason.

But there must be people playing Elder Scrolls Online because we're almost a year past release and the game hasn't gone free-to-play yet. Somehow. There are also the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 releases slated to arrive sometime in 2015.

Wildstar

Well, I think as 2014 comes to a close we can officially chalk Wildstar up as "most disappointing" MMO. Seriously, I don't think I've heard people as universally excited about an MMO since Guild Wars 2 or maybe even World of Warcraft's original launch. WildStar was at every trade show, it hit with high-scoring reviews, and then...it disappeared.

WildStar

I mean, not really. You can go play WildStar right now—buy the game, pay for a subscription, et cetera. But the players are abandoning it, and with good reason. WildStar is a pain in the ass to play. Leveling requires grinding. Accessing great content requires grinding. Everything is one long grind.

And while that's par for the course with many MMOs, WildStar's focus on "hardcore" players meant that few newcomers stuck around, and those that did found it even harder to get to any of the good content. I mean, look at this: Only approximately 1.3 percent of players have ever killed a raid boss. Ever.

Also, PvP is still completely broken thanks to a combination of timing-based combat and horrific lag/rubber-banding, and the game is riddled with bugs.

The result? As we close out 2014, WildStar is a shell of its former hype. 2015 prediction? Free-to-play.

Firefall

Do you want to know how intense it is to develop an MMO? Red 5, the developers of Firefall, worked on the game for almost a decade before it released this past summer.

It's a whole mishmash of influences. A little bit of PlanetSide, a little bit of World of Warcraft (like most MMOs), and a whole hell of a lot of Borderlands. Throwing around those names, you've probably gathered that unlike the rest of this list Firefall is a shooter rather than your standard MMORPG.

Firefall

And it has a lot of potential! When everything works right, jetpacking around the environment with friends and shooting big bosses with big guns is pretty damn fun. Borderlands knew it, and Firefall is basically just Borderlands on a massive scale.

The writing's not there though, and that's ultimately what sinks Firefall. It's a whole lot of space with not a lot of interesting stuff to do, and a lot of the quests seem like holdovers from the worst days of MMOs—go here, kill this, repeat.

On the other hand, the barrier to entry for Firefall is the lowest of any new MMO this year: Free. As in, free-to-play, with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails. Want to kill some time? Free will suit you just fine. Want to get the most out of the game or get rid of some of the tedium? You'll end up paying.

But if you're looking for a massive MMOFPS and PlanetSide 2 is a bit too unstructured for you, maybe consider giving Firefall a try.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

I thought I was never going back to The Old Republic. I played it a bit when it came out, realized it wasn't the Knights of the Old Republic follow-up I so desperately wanted out of BioWare, and then I drifted away.

Shadow of Revan

Release a Darth Revan-themed expansion though? Damn it, BioWare, you know how to get my attention. And I hate that you know how to get my attention.

It sounds like The Old Republic doesn't capitalize though. I haven't been able to jump into this one yet due to the holidays and a crippling addiction to Elite: Dangerous (more on that later), but I've heard mediocre things—mostly from my friend Phil Owen, who broke the current state of the game down pretty efficiently over at Kotaku.

EVE Online

Listen, I also don't play EVE. I can't. I've tried, and there's a part of me that loves the idea of flying a spaceship around. Whenever I hear those amazing EVE stories—the massive battles, the corporate subterfuge, et cetera—I think about getting back into it.

And then I get back into it for a bit and...well, it's still just spreadsheets. It's work.

eve online odyssey tagsforsecuritystatus

But—and again, these are not my own observations but from the people that play EVE—apparently the new expansion schedule CCP adopted earlier this year at Fanfest has made a huge difference in the game. Rather than releasing two major expansions per year, CCP now releases one every six weeks (ten per year).

When I talked with executive producer Andie Nordgren at Fanfest this year, she said the new release schedule would mean that "For small and medium stuff, we can just finish it and ship it. We can respond faster, keep the game healthy, make fixes to the UI—they don't have to wait until the next big expansion."

Apparently that's what the game needed. Scouring through the EVE subreddit and discussing EVE with users, I'm seeing actual excitement for the game itself—something that was sorely missing at Fanfest this year, where it seemed like most players were more interested in the metagame than the in-game content.

It's not perfect, and it's not wholly accessible—even the "This is EVE" trailer that garnered attention earlier in December still shows a game that's mostly spreadsheets in space. EVE is leaving 2014 in a better place than it entered though, and that's more than most MMOs can say.

Maybe one day I'll...Nah, who am I kidding?

Editor's note: The author, Hayden Dingman, roommates with a person who works on the CCP account for Lewis PR.  The roommate had no influence on this article and Hayden only included EVE in the roundup after I instructed him to do so—no MMO roundup is complete without mention of EVE, after all. --Brad Chacos, senior editor

Everquest/Landmark/SOE in general

Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) is juggling so many games right now I don't even know where to start. There's MMOFPS PlanetSide 2, which is still free-to-play and still going pretty strong, albeit with a buggy and kind of frustrating engine.

Then there are EverQuest and EverQuest 2, SOE's classics, which celebrated fifteen- and ten-year anniversaries in 2014, respectably. And both released new expansions. And both are going about as well as any classic-MMO-not-named-World-of-Warcraft can go.

But it's clear the company's focus lies on a trio of upcoming products these days: DayZ-alike H1Z1, EverQuest Next, and Landmark.

EverQuest Next

EverQuest Next is but one title in the works over at SOE—and also the one we know the least about.

H1Z1 seems like a perfectly fine survival game, but the main question with that property is whether there's even room for another survival game. What with DayZ and Rust and The Forest and oh wow so many other survival games it's hard to know whether H1Z1 is different enough to stand out.

EverQuest Next is...well, a mystery, mostly. This article I wrote at SOE Live covers about everything we know so far, and it's not much.

SOE's Dave Georgeson claims we know more than we think though. "We're making all the systems that we need for EverQuest Next," said Georgeson at SOE Live, "and we're building them in Landmark." Landmark is SOE's Minecraft-esque side project to EverQuest Next, wherein there's a light RPG that mainly exists for players to build cool things out of the materials they gather. Or build giant Mountain Dew cans, as the case may be.

All three games are a big bag of potential that we might see start to come to fruition in 2015, if we're lucky. Or later, if we're not.

Elite: Dangerous

Okay, so Elite: Dangerous isn't technically branded as an MMO, and some people are still really mad it doesn't have an offline mode.

But it is basically an MMO. Large area to explore? Check. Lots of random people in each area? Check. Teaming up to take on harder objectives? Check. World events slowly spooned out by the developers? Check. If EVE is an MMO, I think we can safely class Elite: Dangerous as one too.

Elite: Dangerous 1.0

It's hard to know how Elite: Dangerous will go though, considering it just launched "for real" mid-December after a nigh-endless procession of alphas, betas, and gammas. Right now, the biggest challenge for Elite is steering new players towards content. It's all well and good to let players go off and explore and find their own path, but there's maybe such a thing as too much freedom? Right now Elite is a fantastic simulator, but not so much a fantastic game if you're just looking to jump in and find your place in the universe.

I'll be keeping an eye on this one in 2015 though. Hell, I've got a flight stick taking up permanent occupancy on my desk right now. And with Star Citizen (maybe) just around the corner, the world of space pseudo-MMOs is going to get pretty crowded before you know it.

Every Other Game (But Mostly Dragon Age)

Let's face it: In 2014, every game became an MMO. Some did so quite literally, with titles like Watch Dogs and The Crew adding in all sorts of weird drop-in-drop-out multiplayer functionality to (ostensibly) single-player games. Sometimes it was great! Sometimes the servers went down and made it impossible to even play the games by myself, which made me want to snap my damn keyboard in half.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Other games remained devoutly singleplayer, but the MMO feedback loop was impossible to miss. The chief offender here was Dragon Age: Inquisition, which touted "120 hours of content" prior to launch. And there probably are 120 hours of content, but a lot of it is meaningless fetch quests of the "Collect 10 MacGuffins" variety. Dragon Age is a great game (one of the ten best this year, in fact), but even World of Warcraft has largely abandoned those boring grinds.

Don't expect that trend to reverse anytime soon though. 2015 will surely shove out even more "always-connected" experiences. Far from dying out, the MMO genre is stronger than ever. It's just cropping up in places where nobody really wants to say "MMO," for fear it's a dirty word.

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