According to the community, what defines an MMORPG goes beyond just an online fictional world filled with countless players. Prolific player-driven economies is just one way that the games rely on their massive player bases, but fierce competition between guilds and factions sometimes results in griefing and other forms of ruthless toxicity. But in the end, the online space lends itself to communities of players all sharing a single interest. While the most straightforward examples are well known to be World of Warcraft and the classic MapleStory, others like Destiny 2 and Sea of Thieves don’t necessarily fall within the traditional MMO experience, but this trend can be observed more and more often in recent years.
This is because the restrictions of what classifies as an MMORPG have been loosening to encompass other playstyles, including those that aren’t intense with combat. Now, Palia and Book of Travels are two chief examples that diminish one of the most iconic elements in the MMORPG genre -- combat -- and replace it with a comfortable atmosphere that is just as immersive but trades its competitive characteristics for relaxing ones following the new fad of “cozy games.”
Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and the Rise of Cozy Games
Animal Crossing and the games that inspired Stardew Valley are nothing new and have been around for more than two decades, though the casual format was widely considered to be made for kids. But it's only in more recent years that the world is seeing a surge in popularity over these genres, lifestyle simulators, virtually creating a new genre that people refer to as "cozy games."
The lack of profound combat seems to be key when defining cozy games, but it plays into the bigger theme that the gameplay should be less stressful so as to highlight other gameplay elements like exploration, cooking, and social interaction. Now, they can be found in any online storefront; Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley are far from the only examples. Slime Rancher, in which gamers collect Slimes from the wild and farm their poop, released a successful Early Access version in 2016. The goals players are working towards are finding new species of Slimes, unlocking new areas, and crafting inventions. And the dual farming and exploration title was popular enough among players to warrant a sequel due out in 2022, but it doesn't stop there. A recent indie game takes one of the most tedious and mundane tasks a person could do -- unpacking -- and turns it into the video game Unpacking. However, for some, it can be hard to imagine why games with fewer stakes and no action can remain so enticing.
But their popularity has been proven true by the fact that Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley have inspired many other low-stress games, from a slew of farming simulators such as Kynseed, Coral Island, and Yokai Inn to titles with a similar atmosphere like the fishing sim Moonglow Bay. But along with Breath of the Wild, they also inspired Palia, an upcoming MMORPG.
Book of Travels, Palia, and Changing Tides
Now, this new "cozy" genre has started to creep into the world of MMOs. Palia was first announced earlier this year by former Blizzard and Riot devs in a new team called Singularity 6, and the art style should look very familiar to long-time fans of their games. Like most MMORPGs, Palia does have combat, however, it's not the highlight of the game. Rather, it's being marketed as a community simulator, meant to be fun in a relaxing way for groups of friends rather than exciting in a gripping way through encounters and dungeon crawling. In this way, Palia will not feature any kind of player-on-player combat but instead, PvE combat will take a similar shape as it does in Stardew Valley.
The goal of this, the devs explained during the initial announcement, was to mitigate griefing and stressful competition between players. After it became known for bringing friends and family members together during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Palia will follow Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ footsteps in its social mechanics. However, it was very limited in scope, forcing players to produce their own group activities like pitfall seed games and treasure hunts. While players will not be bogged down to a specific server in Palia, server sizes will likely be smaller than traditional MMOs. The focus will conversely take shape in the form of community building such as crafting, farming, and socializing, taking after Stardew Valley. Guilds won't be centered around war or competition, players can get comfortable in highly customizable households, and they can even romance some NPCs. Guilds will instead be known as Neighborhoods, drawing back to Palia’s togetherness aspect. When players aren’t in their neighborhood, exploration will take inspiration from Breath of the Wild, which also means an attractive cooking element will debut.
Shortly after its reveal, Twitch streamer Asmongold, who is known for being active in World of Warcraft and now Final Fantasy 14, was initially skeptical that this type of gameplay would be successful as it's not exciting in the traditional sense, missing out on many of the aspects that have drawn players to MMOs. However, he later acknowledged that Palia will likely entice a largely different group of gamers, those who enjoy the games it was inspired by and find joy from light-tempered experiences rather than exhilarating ones.
Though it’s also a relaxing MMO like Palia, Book of Travels’ focus is on exploration and atmosphere rather than crafting and community development, taking a little more after Breath of the Wild but with a storybook art and social interaction. It sets players in a small world inhabited by a few others where the goal isn't to fight, but to travel and trade. Without any overarching goals, players are left to wander and experience Braided Shore however they please. They don't have a quest book that keeps track of every mission they stumble upon, big or small, but players are free to write down the gossip, the stories of a place two towns over, and folks who need help with something by pinning a brief note to their map. There are some small survival elements as well; for example, players should eat food every so often or their stamina will deplete more quickly, and there’s certainly danger to be found in the dark depths of some woods. Guided by the winds of the north, south, east, or west, players can learn spells as part of the skillsets, which also include meditative tea brewing, a concept similar to potions.
However, it would be somewhat inaccurate to refer to Book of Travels as an MMO. Rather, it’s marketed as a TMO, or tiny multiplayer online game. Because it’s only in Early Access, the player base is likely a bit skimpier than it would be at a full launch, however, players can still stumble across a few others on their own journeys every now and again, and folks are free to travel in parties if they so choose. Book of Travels will let them move from map to map seamlessly as a group. Whereas most MMOs require or encourage players to experience the game in parties or guilds, Book of Travels can be traversed completely solo. But the loneliness of its quiet surroundings only supports its quiet resolve, resulting in a hypnotic environment perfect for getting away, not unlike Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ islands.
With such simple mechanics that are so elegantly done, Book of Travels' gameplay lends itself to a relaxed yet meaningful experience. With no clear tasks, quest markers, or waypoints, the world becomes more immersive than when games tell you to "go here" and "do this." The lack of intervening UI itself is a mechanic, forcing the player into freedom. This is emblematic of why so many players choose to spend their time on cozy titles than action-packed ones. Gaming is often used as a form of escapism for many, so if players are using the entertainment to unwind after a long day, forget about their current obligations for a few moments, or get away from the problems of their home life, some find more success in that through the comfort of these sugar-coated worlds than the stress of fighting off hordes or beating the game's most difficult bosses.