MMOs exploded this year, but not in the ways you'd expect

Close-up of two Final Fantasy: Endwalker characters
(Image credit: Tyler C. / Square Enix)

MMOs thrive off of millions of players giving them a try, getting hooked, and populating their massive worlds. The most popular one this year is Final Fantasy 14, and you can't even buy it right now. Final Fantasy 14 destroyed expectations, surpassing World of Warcraft as the biggest fantasy MMO in the world. It became so popular over the summer, before its major Endwalker expansion was out, that not even its own developers saw it coming.

The global semiconductor shortage has its grip on everything from graphics cards to cars, but it's also the reason Final Fantasy 14's servers can't hold all of the players trying to log in and play. Square Enix and the game's director, Naoki Yoshida, have published post after post apologizing for the long queue times, detailing what it can do about them and, frustratingly, what it can't do about them.

What's happening with Final Fantasy 14 right now is excruciatingly 2021. MMOs have always been the type of game that pushed contemporary tech to its limits, and this year the tech can't meet the demand. The coronavirus has halted the entire world and Eorzea too. The developer said the resurgence of the virus in Japan has kept it from travelling overseas to physically turn on more servers. As a result, every player trying to log in for the game's momentous expansion has been met with hours-long queue times and an assortment of errors.

If 2021 has anything universally definitive to say about the MMO, it's that the genre is as healthy as ever.

Despite the issues, the apparent honesty from Square Enix is the root of what longtime Final Fantasy 14 fans, and what many have deemed "refugees," use to champion the game over its direct competitor, World of Warcraft. Blizzard's MMO has trended in this direction for a while, continuously disappointing many of its players with misguided features and baffling story developments. World of Warcraft's latest expansion, Shadowlands, failed to resolve the widespread ire caused by Battle for Azeroth. Combined with Activision Blizzard's widespread sexual harassment and discrimination accusations, a large number of players fled the game this year.

In a lot of ways, you could have predicted Final Fantasy 14's rise and World of Warcraft's fall by following both game's trajectories in the past few years. I'm not sure anyone could have guessed New World would grab so much attention and hold it for the last four months. Our own Fraser Brown called the game confused, grindy, and weak for solo play in his review. These criticisms haven't stopped it from maintaining over 100,000 concurrent players on Steam, and even more continue to watch others play it on Twitch. Amazon's first MMO, amongst a series of server issues, bugs, and exploits, cemented its place as one of 2021's biggest debuts not only for MMOs but for games in general.

new world

(Image credit: Amazon)

And you can't forget about Destiny 2. The shooter MMO took the year to prepare for early 2022's The Witch Queen expansion, addressing things like crossplay, seasonal storytelling, and cosmetic systems. Destiny 2 did a lot of work to clean up its existing content to better meet what its hungry players want, even if this didn't alleviate those soured by the controversial decision to eject entire planets out of the game with last year's Beyond Light expansion.

Elsewhere are ongoing games like Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Crowfall, and, if we're being generous with definitions, Genshin Impact. MMOs and games that bend the format are always running, updating, and arguing why now is the best time to give them a shot. MMOs have reached a level of maturity that you can almost assuredly find a home in one that aligns with your thematic tastes and mechanical desires. At this point, it's rare for MMOs to die out completely and much more common for them to nestle into dedicated subreddits, Discord servers, and forums. If 2021 has anything universally definitive to say about the MMO, it's that the genre is as healthy as ever. 

Final Fantasy 14 is the place to be

Final Fantasy 14 Endwalker launch day close-up of Viera with large crowd of players behind

(Image credit: Tyler C. / Square Enix)

Final Fantasy 14's rapid success, especially in the wake of World of Warcraft's deterioration, is a sharp example of how player reception and retention define MMOs more so than other live service games that primarily focus on singleplayer experiences. These are living games that demand a stable pool of players to fuel their group-based events. If Final Fantasy 14 hadn't spent eight years building an intricate story and a community of supportive players, this year would have looked a lot different.

Endwalker, the hefty expansion that aims to wrap up the story that started in 2013's A Realm Reborn, strings together much of the game's history into a cataclysmic event. Eorzea and its many Warriors of Light have battled a lot of foes, but none of them have threatened the entire universe all at once.

For experienced Final Fantasy 14 players, Endwalker is an opportunity to remember the game's far-reaching storyline and huge set of characters. Much of the story has you revisiting old foes, old friends, and old places. Like 2019's Shadowbringers expansion, Endwalker unfolds some of the game's biggest mysteries. It's a sendoff for an era of Final Fantasy 14 and a warming acknowledgement of the players that kept the game alive after its rough first iteration. It's a celebration of a world that many have called home for years now.

It's also a destination—and maybe a future home—for so many players looking to finally understand, or at least be a part of it. It's hard to recommend playing through its early hours. They're slow, uneventful, and fairly dry without the context in later expansions. But once you get past that and find either a part of the story you like or an activity you like, you're in for good.

I wasn't sold on the game until I hit Heavensward, which blends a lot of the political stakes you'd get from something like Game of Thrones with the scope of a JRPG. Last year, I got really into smashing rocks as a Miner in the game's pseudo-open world crafting-and-gathering area. And of course I'm into the fashion of Final Fantasy 14—which really just means dressing up my bunny girl as Nier: Automata's 2B.

Everyone has their own reason for wanting to try the game and why they keep coming back. That's what makes MMOs so alluring, and it's why 2021, especially with the immense popularity of Twitch streaming, has been a strong year for MMOs. It's so easy to gather everyone into one place, and MMOs have been doing it for years.

Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker

(Image credit: Square Enix)
MMOs in 2022

MMOs on the horizon:

- Ashes of Creation - A fantasy MMO that sees players directly influencing the cities and economy, not unlike New World.

- Lost Ark - A Diablo-like MMO, this could be a sleeper hit. I played some of the beta, and  while the story seems laughable, the combat might have something going on, especially in group play. 

- Chrono Odyssey - The trailer doesn't say much, but it seems to be an action-based MMO that runs on Unreal 4.

Final Fantasy 14 and New World's rocketing success is the greatest sign that the MMO genre endures and adapts as so many games borrow parts of it. The rise of live service games, and especially inhabitable worlds like Fortnite, owe so much to MMOs. It's 2021, and most people understand what raids and dungeons are. That wasn't the case during World of Warcraft's height, when it boasted 12 million players in 2010.

With so much going on in these past few years, it's understandable that people want one game to respect their time, give them a lot of influence on what they want to do, and to be able to share all of that with their friends and family. That game wasn't World of Warcraft this year, with a trend of upsetting its most dedicated players and Activision Blizzard making it hard to convince anyone to play it as news of its toxic workplace culture keeps pouring out. In its place, Final Fantasy 14 and New World stepped in, and they showed us the kind of game people want right now.

As a longtime player, I know that MMOs and their players always shift and stir. A lull in content might stagnate a community, and a new release might yank everyone in its direction. But when you commit this much time to something, you're always ready to go back, either through the hooks of nostalgia or sheen of new things to do. Games like Final Fantasy 14: Endwalker and New World have cemented their place into the MMO canon. Though they both might be snapshots of a particular time, they're no less important, if only to understand why MMOs are a vast and important genre.

Associate Editor

Tyler has covered games, games culture, and hardware for over a decade before joining PC Gamer as Associate Editor. He's done in-depth reporting on communities and games as well as criticism for sites like Polygon, Wired, and Waypoint. He's interested in the weird and the fascinating when it comes to games, spending time probing for stories and talking to the people involved. Tyler loves sinking into games like Final Fantasy 14, Overwatch, and Dark Souls to see what makes them tick and pluck out the parts worth talking about. His goal is to talk about games the way they are: broken, beautiful, and bizarre.