The Future of MMOs
There is currently an AMA (ask me anything) over at Anook which is providing writing prompts for the ongoing Blaugust event. I was asked to share my thoughts about the MMO genre and where it is going by a Stropp who asked the following question: “Where do you think the MMO genre is heading in the next 5 years? The next 10? Beyond that?” I will most certainly try to address this conundrum because it’s one that MMO gamers frequently return to and with good reason. The MMO Genre has change tremendously since the late 90s when Ultima Online took this niche market game and made it popular. Furthermore it would appear that this evolutionary process shows no sign of slowing and change can often cause consternation.
The first and most obvious point regarding where the MMO genre is heading is that it’s primarily driven by economic and business concerns. This is not something that some gamers like to hear. Many still look at the industry through the prism of idealism and ultraism. Although developers themselves are creative individuals and may well want to make a truly great game, the publishers are more focused on making a commercially successful game. Finding the right balance between these two requirements is not easy to achieve. Innovation comes with a degree of risk, where as simply trying to replicate a successful formula can often be the path of least resistance.
For many years games publishers looked enviously the MMO World of Warcraft and sought to produce their own equivalent product. Yet all such triple AAA titles of this nature have failed to recreate the perfect storm of events that have made WoW the unique game that it is. As a result spending hundreds of millions of dollars on such high risk projects has now fallen out of vogue. The industry has evolved to the point where small to medium niche products are deemed to be more economically viable. A moderately sized player base that is loyal and content to support a particular product is preferred to monolithic titles and their associated population churn.
Gaming has in recent years gone through similar changes to the music and television industries. Broad mainstream appeal, a common consensus and flagship products have given way to separate markets, greater choice and bespoke revenue streams. Increasing mainstream appeal has also caused the gaming industry to adapt core gaming mechanics. Time investment is no longer the hurdle that it used to be. New revenue models have also had a tangible impact upon games development. Such evolution has been embraced by some players and eschewed by others. Gaming like many other aspects of popular culture is now subject to the cult of nostalgia from certain quarters, with some fans doggedly looking backwards rather than forwards.
A few other factors worth pondering are as follows. The term MMO itself has become increasingly nebulous in recent years. Perhaps that needs to be addressed and we need to be more specific terms for the variety of multiplayer games that now exist. Another point to consider is that this ongoing discussion is very Western-centric. The MMO market in Asia is a different beast altogether. Finally I recommend reading the following article by Brad McQuaid, a senior developer with Visionary Realms. I broadly concur with his conclusions and feel that his insider knowledge is invaluable to this debate.