The Rise of the Indie MMO

By Jeff Francis
rise of the indie mmo

It seems that everything comes in cycles and mmo games are no exception. When computer games were first launched, they were the result of the hard work of just a small team of people, perhaps even a single person. As graphics and sound became more advanced, so did the demands of the gamer and it became virtually impossible for a computer game to be designed solely by a small team. As a result, costs began to skyrocket and players were always looking for The Next Big Thing. As time passed though, many players began to realize that innovative, challenging gameplay was virtually non-existent in a bloated, over-produced world of computer games. Now a revolution is brewing as players begin to flock to indo mmos to slake their gaming thirst. We examine the rise of the indie mmo.

Minecraft screenshot

In the past, players demanded the best graphics and the best sound in their online games. One reason is that developers had been pushing the technological envelope and players had invested heavily in their systems to be able to play the latest and greatest games. However, the shine of these enhancements cannot completely cover unoriginal and lackluster gameplay. Players have now recognized that an mmo does not have to have all the bells and whistles in order to provide stimulating play. Small independent developers have rushed to fill this gaming void and players have responded. The number of indie mmo titles has exploded in the past couple of years and more are on their way.

One of the biggest reasons why indie mmos have risen is that they provide an outlet away from the same old tired formula that the big name mmorpg games have pushed on the public. Minecraft was one of the principal games to really show the way and become a standard bearer of the indie mmo movement. Even more than making waves in the gaming community, Minecraft was profitable. No matter how good an online game is, if it doesn't turn a profit, it'll have little to no impact upon the gaming world. Minecraft has sold an excess of 12 million copies for the PC and it was recently announced that the game had sold one million copies on the PlayStation Network. The ability to create worlds fettered only by the imagination of the player has really lit the spark of the gaming community psyche and this had led to other developers creating games that evolve over time. Players can travel to new worlds in Starbound or adventure in a never-ending landscape in Cube World. While not as graphically intense as the AAA titles, they provide stimulating and evolving gameplay.

Another factor in the rise of the indie mmo is the increasing casual nature of online games. Many gamers have become frustrated with the lack of challenge and indie developers have stepped up to the plate to deliver said challenges. Games that feature a permadeath option such as Salem Online typically send most gamers fleeing in horror. However, players looking for a game that is hard to play are happy to give them a whirl. The greater the difficulty, the greater the satisfaction if you prevail in the end.

The players themselves are a prime reason for the rise of the indie mmo. Through sites such as Kickstarter and Steam, players can provide support to games that interest them. If a developer has a proven track record, he can more easily get funding for his indie mmo form the gaming public. In addition, these sites have provided a great deal of back-and-forth communication between the developers and the players. Upcoming mmos such as Shroud of the Avatar and Star Citizen have been very open with the fans with lots of updates. The upside is that gamers are kept informed and developers benefit as they can gage how well received by the players a particular gameplay system is before devoting resources to developing it.

Salem Online screenshot

The final key to the rise of the indie mmo is that of price. In this troubled economy, every dollar is precious. Too many times, gamers have shelled out fifty to sixty bucks for a game that is extremely lackluster. However, an indie mmo can range from fifteen dollars (Starbound) on up. The biggest indie mmo, Minecraft, retails now for $27, but you could have gotten it cheaper when it was in development. Paying a fraction of a big name title for a game that you'll spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours playing is a big plus for the indie market.

The rise of the indie mmo has been breathtaking and I do not expect it to recede in the near future. Players are becoming more open to playing games what while provide more challenging play, are not as polished graphically and musically as the big boys are. Tools are widely available now for wannabe developers to work on crafting their own game, and players are willing to spend a little bit of money on an indie title that appeals to them. It's a good time to be a gamer.


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