Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Future of MMOs

Terranova had a posting by Bruce Damer recently asking if we are entering a New Virtual World Winter. MBP has also (jokingly) predicted the ending of MMOs and Tobolds also has a post up about dealing with game burnout. While I think the MMO market is certainly “stuck” at the moment with The World of Warcraft at the top and the rest fighting for table scraps, I don’t think this is the end of MMOs.

MMO Predictions:
Ok, here’s where I get out the crystal ball. Just so you know: reception on this thing has been hazy lately. In the future MMOs will involve:

- More flexible business models. Micro payments, or something similar, will be allowed in some games. Others may offer what is currently the box software via bit torrent sites, saving them a ton of money by not burning disks for game software, and only have monthly or other periodic payment plans. Some plans will also be pay-by-resource so that a casual gamer with no interest in raiding can play to the max level while hardcore, raiding gamers can pay for the extra raid instance access.

- Elements which have evolved into design standards (character inventories, bag space, UI elements, etc). There’s a tendency in software development that once something is standardized, it can be packaged and made extensible. Perhaps companies will spring up that build components that work between the different software layers in MMOs so large development companies can use the components and spend the rest of their money on other game play elements.

- More interactive and immersive NPC behaviors. EQ2 has voice-acting for NPCs and Oblivion’s AI gives NPCs daily schedules and behaviors which occur whether a player witnesses them or not. Combining these ideas, I think we’ll have more realistic NPC behavior including daily schedules. There would still be shops of NPCs for things like repairs, but NPCs would come and go. The repair headmaster may not be there at noon because he’s off to lunch – you’ll have to get your repairs done by one of the apprentices. Part of a quest may be to actually track down the quest giver. It would also be neat to allow more expanded social options – like being able to bargain with shop keeps and getting discounts if they like you.

- More interactive and immersive worlds. Not just a world free of instancing, though that would be nice, but one where there’s seasons. There are natural disasters and things related to battles occurring in the world. There would be mobs that don’t just wander – some run and hide while others are actively hunting players down.

- Improvements in story telling. In books, stories unfold by telling. In movies and television, stories unfold by showing. In MMOs, stories unfold by doing. Yet most story telling elements in the current crop of MMOs fall back on cut-scenes (showing) or quest text (telling). Improving the encounters to where the player is an active participant in a story and developing artistic techniques to alleviate the need to show or tell the player what role they are playing can help advance the player acting out what their role is in the story. Along with this, will be improvements in quest construction. We need to get away from meaningless kill ten seething thugs, then ten sneering thugs, then ten disgruntled thugs when they’re all bloody thugs in one spot. Streamlining questing and the storytelling that the questing is supposed to accomplish will improve games and make them less grindy, more interesting and more interactive for the participants.

In addition to improving the story-telling in MMOs with voice-acting for the NPCs, improvements in NPC body language and facial expressions can help. The NPC could talk to you in glowing terms but you could tell from their facial expression that they really don’t like you or are hiding something (and what they’re hiding, the player will have to discover themselves – again, by DOING).

Another way to get players involved more is too add branching for stories. Kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, player decisions have ramifications. If you help the king take out the leader of a trade guild, you get in good with the king but the trade guild hates you. If you help the trade guild instead, something else happens. I realize this may require instancing to accomplish. I’d go a step further and like to see general trends on a server have effect in the world. If more players help the king than the trade guild, something happens on the server (the trade guild revolts or helps an enemy kingdom gain a foothold on the king’s territory or something). Developers would have to be careful how they implement the quest lines. Basically, each player needs to feel like they had a hand in creating their world while at the same time not forcing too much conflict between players. Adventures may have to be divided into world adventures where everyone sees the same result and has access to the same parts and player adventures where each player decides their own results.

MMOs probably aren’t going to cease, however they will cease to exist as we know them today.


mbp said...

Hi Khan my "MMORPGs are History" thing was meant as a joke but your linking to it got me worried that people might take is seriously so I have added a disclaimer!.

My real thoughts are a bit more complex but they do add up to a feeling that mmorpgs as we know them may have passed their peak. I have written a slightly more thought out explanation of this here.

The changes you suggest are all excellent but I don't know if they can save the mmorpg business. The market for mmorpgs seems to me to have stagnated with the same player base just chopping and changing between games.

Khan said...

Hehe, fair enough. I added the "jokingly" thing just for clarity.

I dunno. WoW wasn't particularly revolutionary strictly in terms of content. They did, however, raise the bar on the execution and level of detail on the content they included. Many of the things I listed are possible, we just need some brave and industrious MMO company to implement them with the care and skill with which Blizzard created WoW.

Also, WoW was so popular that it actually expanded the MMO market. I think there's probably quite a few more potential players that would LOVE to join an MMO - perhaps those that would more enjoy sci-fi or that want a post-modern MMO like Harry Potter or something with the same level of polish WoW has but something different.

I'm convinced it's possible. The real question is: do any of the current MMO-creating companies have the stones to stand up and try it? Are the pressures on most companies to develop a serviceable MMO quickly so great that only an "indie" MMO company could produce the next big game? Or does one have to be Blizzard to be able to tell the investors to back off because it's not done yet?

I'll pop on over and give your post a read!

~ Khan

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