PART I: An Introduction
MMORPG* is a huge acronym that stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. Unlike its name the genre began very small. But then most things do. In the seventies a few students at universities the world over began to develop some of the first online games. Initially entitled MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) these games were the domain of the hobbyist. They were special because their world was persistent. Players would always return to the same world they left and every player would share exactly the same resources. The genre was remarkable because the games were bigger than any one player. The focus of this paper is to examine the current state of this "new" genre and to attempt to divine its future in this volatile time.
[*MMOPRG is not the lone acronym used to label these games. MMOG or MMO games (massively multiplayer online game) and MMP game (for just massively multiplayer) are also common terms. Part of this differentiation comes from other sub-genre's emerging within the genre but for the purposes of this article these terms will be used interchangeably.]
PART II: The Big Bang
A brief history of the MMORPG genre.
Often the evolution of video games is referred to by generations. Quake was the generation following Doom, or the Playstation 2 is a generation removed from the original Playstation for instance. These provide a common frame of reference across the entire industry and are often used when discussing MMORPGs. However, the exaggerated development cycles required by games of this magnitude have blurred the lines of the already blurry generations even more. Like a human generation it's essentially impossible to put a discrete date on a generation. Nevertheless the implications are the same. A generation is a level of evolution within a genre. It is a point where one can look at the games of the present and say that they are, at least technically, superior to the games of the past.
The first generation began with the transition from hobby to multi-million dollar business in the mid to late nineties. While a few online companies (Prodigy, Compuserve, The Sierra Network, and later AOL among others) had built pay-to-play MUDs on their services over the years none was a run away success. But change was in the air.
First came Meridian 59, a ground breaking 2.5D MUD. While historically significant Meridian 59 would eventually fade from view (although it is still in operation under a different team than originally developed it). But two games would walk through the door that Meridian 59 opened: Ultima Online (UO) and Everquest (EQ). These two games would take the concept from hobby to prime time and UO and EQ both quickly raked in hundreds of thousands of players all willing to pay a monthly fee.
With profit margins fading on "standard" gaming titles a number of other companies would dive into the genre and it seemed as if they could do no wrong. The "first generation" of the MMORPG would come into full bloom and see titles such as Asheron's Call, Anarchy Online, and Dark Age of Camelot. Virtually every title released did well. It seemed that the MMORPG genre was the "Land of Milk and Honey". Developers rolled up their sleeves and went to work while publishers started fishing for their next title.
And so we drifted into the second generation of the MMORPG: where we are today. But somewhere something went wrong. The cows started to dry up and the bees started to fly away. There's still profit to be made. Final Fantasy XI, Star Wars Galaxies, and City of Heroes have all done quite well. But for every Star Wars many other games have barely broken even or failed financially. Asheron's Call 2, Shadowbane, and the Sims Online all struggle. They continue to exist but show little of the prosperity of the first generation. Worse though are titles including Earth and Beyond and Horizons which have already gone defunct or declared bankruptcy.
And the woes worsen. Other titles, some quite large, have been cancelled outright while still in development. Ultima Online 2 would be the first big cancellation but it would not be the last. Just in the last few months prior to this writing Ultima X, True Fantasy Online, Mythica, Dragon Empires and Warhammer Online have all been cancelled. And these five are just some of the most visible titles that have closed their doors.
The second generation is drawing to a close and the success or failure of a few key titles (World of Warcraft and Everquest II being chief among them) will set the tone for the twilight of the second generation. Many will be waiting and watching very carefully over the next year. Will we see an upsurge and a strong conclusion to the generation? Or will the slide continue?
But not everyone is content to watch and wait. The Third Generation is on the horizon and the first titles of it are already under construction. The earliest any title that could truly be termed third generation will arrive is over a year away and while the end of the second generation will set the stage it will be these titles that will carry it forward.
[For those interested in seeing the exact numbers for the subscriptions there are a number of books available. However the most comprehensive and accessible resource available at the moment has to be the long running works of Bruce Sterling Woodcock available here.]
Part III: A Virtual Meeting of Minds
The Crux of the Argument
We stand at a crossroads for the genre. Will we see a further decline? Will the genre die out before it truly even gets a chance to grow? Or are we just witnessing a stumble on the genre's meteoric journey of success? Likely the answer lies somewhere in-between. But surely someone must have an idea? Surely someone must be qualified to predict the future? The answer is, yes. There are those so qualified and I have sought them out.
Richard Garriott and Brad McQuaid; these two names are arguably the largest names in our genre. And while it would be somewhere between near-fatal naivety and an outright lie to say they did it on their own it is no lie to say that they are founding fathers of the MMP genre.
Personally, they are a striking parallel. Richard Garriott is a veteran of the industry in the truest sense of the word. With well over twenty years of experience Garriott is not just a founder of the MMORPG but also a founder of the RPG genre with the historic Ultima series. With Ultima Online his team would take the Ultima world, make it persistent, and invite the world to come play. And come they did. Now he's left his original company, Origin, behind and is the Executive Producer of the US wing of NCsoft, a company devoted entirely to developing and producing Massively Multiplayer Online games. There he is hard at work on his second entry into the genre: Tabula Rasa.
Brad McQuaid comes from different origins. Brad's sojourn into single-player was short lived but he was also a designer and player in the MUD world that was quietly operating behind the scenes. He and a few others took the ideas of those MUDs and ran with them. They would take the heart of the MUD out of its text based home on university servers, realize it in 3D, and bring it to the masses. The result was a bigger hit than anyone predicted and Everquest was born. Now Brad, too, has left his original company, Verant (now Sony Online Entertainment), behind and has founded Sigil Online. There he's hard at work on his second MMORPG: Vanguard.
The ground rules are simple. Both men were presented with the same eight questions blindly. While both were informed that other industry professionals were participating neither were given names or specifics in an effort to keep their answers absolutely pure. Note that this was done entirely for scientific integrity. I don't believe any of their answers would have changed had they been aware of the entire arrangement. But it's always better to operate with a clean slate as it were.
My role is to play the part of interviewer, translator, and analyst. I will present the questions to both men, list their answers, and then attempt to forge from their responses a coherent divination for the future of the genre. Everything associated with their names below can be directly attributed to them. However, while there will be plenty of direct quotes, I have been forced to paraphrase the two gentlemen frequently for purposes of balance and length. Now, on to the questions:
Part IV: The Insight of the Founding Fathers
Interviews with two industry giants
What are your thoughts about the number of cancellations and the few high profile failures the genre has had in the last year or two? What has gone wrong and what can we learn from it?
"What's interesting about seeing cancellations and failures is how visible they are based upon the fact that this kind of what I'll call industry segment is so new but I actually believe that the issue is that they are more visible not that they are more prevalent."
Richard went on to draw upon his experience as a producer and drew a comparison between non-massively multiplayer games and the similarities and perhaps even benefits the MMP carries over the standard "solo-player packaged goods games". The standard gaming industry releases thousands of games every year and yet only a very, very small percentage of those are actually truly profitable. Therefore it's somewhat amazing that we have not seen more failures and cancellations so far.
The catch comes from players that are innately more tied in with the MMP genre than any other. The combination of a smaller pool of games for fans to follow and a guaranteed online community (since it's a given that you must go online to play) leads directly to this close player base. Because of this every failure is a notable occurrence rather than a forgettable footnote.
The problem for publishers is that doing an MMO is innately riskier. Richard drew the comparison with the other extreme: a simple cell phone or handheld game. The handheld game has very limited memory and, by this nature, it takes only a relatively small, quantifiable amount of effort to fill this available space. Thus cost and time is small. By contrast, an MMO has the largest possible memory footprint. Conceivably (if not realistically) you could have every computer attached to the internet running separate game code. Thus your space is almost infinite in size.
"Therefore when you're creating to that big of a platform you have to be very careful not to create content that is also infinitely large. And that's one of the biggest mistakes that a lot of games undertake is that they try to become too much to too many people. They try to fill that almost infinite space and not only is that not achievable, and means you never come out and spend infinite amounts of money, but also by the games design, frankly, by trying to become something for everybody, you ultimately become nothing for no one."
"Well, it's certainly not good for massively multiplayer games in general - people who might not understand why these games are failing may indict the genre as a whole. I don't think there's any one reason this is happening, but any number of reasons, including (and not in any particular order):
- Insufficient funding; the blame could lie on either the publisher under-funding the project, or the developer being far too optimistic in bidding on the project.
- Insufficient beta testing; the 6-9 month beta tests seem to be happening less frequently, being replaced instead by shorter betas, and often 'focused tests' as opposed to the traditional beta where the game is being tested all at once (which I think is important given how complex these games are).
- Lack of passion and true understanding of what makes these games tick.
- A tendency to believe that making a game easier and more 'accessible' is good for retention (when in reality it is more often bad - people want a challenge and they end up enjoying a game that is kept that way).
- A desire to make a paradigm shift in gameplay and risking it on unproven ideas and unstable foundations. This may include designs that are purposely different than existing and successful massively multiplayer games because the designers didn't enjoy (or didn't have the time to enjoy) them."
It's certainly not a death knell for the genre. In fact, it's pretty much business as usual as long as publishers and developers don't panic. Making a game is inherently risky. Making an MMORPG is inherently riskier. But the risk/reward factor is equitable (and may even favor the MMO). Further, like any game, good game design and good game production can help minimize these risks.
I think Brad's points provide a virtual road map for what has to happen for a quality (and thus less risky) game to emerge. Richard's thoughts back this up and speak well from the perspective of the rational publisher. If anything MMOs ratchet up everything about game design. Risk, reward, investment, development time, community involvement - everything is higher stakes.
So it turns out that the MMP genre is not for the weak of heart but conversely it is no fool's gambit either. It is not a money tree but it may be a gold mine. Like any mine, however, if you don't do the right things and try to cut corners you risk the entire thing coming down and burying everyone alive.
The number of MMOGs currently in development is somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred titles. It seems likely that the majority of these will die in production and more still will fail after release. Could this chase publishers away from the genre? Or will this inspire new innovation? Are there other important considerations at work here?
The failures are just a fact of life and while it definitely will scare away some publishers many will stay. This goes back to the "normal statistics" that were touched on before. If there are a hundred titles in development then perhaps ten percent will succeed. The job of the publisher is to pick the ten most likely to succeed from those hundred.
"The problem for publishers is that each one of those products, win or lose, is a much bigger bet. However, the good news is that if you win that lottery you have a much bigger revenue stream to go along with it. And so this is a market that is dangerous to get into if you are either a developer who does not know what you were doing or you're a publisher who doesn't know how you should be investing.
However, if you are one of the people who can optimize the frequency in which you can hit that top ten then I believe that this is both a great creative place to be as well as a great business opportunity."
"As mentioned above, I think higher profile failures and/or expensive failures may chase publishers away. The smaller titles will probably have less impact. It is important that new, successful MMOGs emerge, and I believe they will. Thankfully, most of the publishers capable of funding and hosting an MMOG are not deterred easily. As for new innovation, I think innovating on top of a proven foundation is the wisest approach."
The answers here echo those of the previous question and reflect the growing pains of the genre. It is dangerous. It requires skill. And it's a gamble. But those who possess the proper skills can set themselves up with a great chance to succeed. This is the new paradigm for the genre and was undoubtedly inevitable. The novelty factor is gone but good game designs can still come up big.
Most of the particularly successful MMORPGs share large similarities. Is there room in the genre for games that eschew features that players have come to expect or are many current gameplay conventions a requirement to compete in the marketplace? (Take server wide chat just to pick a large scale example.)
"It depends on the feature or convention. Some, including ones that build community, are retention mechanisms, which are essential given the current monthly subscription based revenue model. Others may be less critical. Again, I think it's very possible to innovate on top of a proven, working MMOG model. And this isn't limited to MMOGs - core features or mechanisms recur in other successful genres like single player RPGs, RTS games, etc. Evolution is always safer than revolution."
"Solo player games have fallen into a pattern of gameplay types. We now have acronyms for them, First-Person Shooter, Real-time strategy, adventure games, puzzle games, and you could come up with a handful of others. And in general most games now fall into those patterns. But every now and then there's one that comes out that is highly successful and doesn't exactly fit that patterns. For example Myst.
And I harken, it took twenty years for package goods to go from the Wild West to this pattern of five or ten primary game types with occasional inspiration outside that area. And even then every now and then a new one is generated."
Richard continues by contrasting the origins of the movie industry and how it took several decades before even major issues like movie lengths were codified. Now, almost a century later, movies are very codified. Packaged games are getting there. But MMO games, by contrast, are still very new.
Some of these features exist to lower the barrier of entry. These games can be very foreign to the average person so anything that makes things more difficult or unfamiliar can be a huge setback and can make it harder to bring even established players in other genres over to MMORPGs.
"However, on the flipside of that, players are already going now 'Gee, I wish I could find something else that wasn't just this level up XP grind in a random aesthetic setting.'"
"There will be plenty of trials and tribulations along the road of inventing new genres but I do think that over the next five or ten years you'll see periodic new genres come up, even in MMP. That being said they take so long to make, they're so expensive to make, that those experiments can be very costly. So companies are going to be slow to adopt or careful to undertake how many of these radical innovations they can make in one game."
Again, Brad and Richard say very similar things. I think Brad's quote, "Evolution is always safer than revolution." is going to be the mantra of the MMP space for some time to come and perhaps forever. We will see growth. We will see change. That is an absolute truth. But this change will happen slowly. It's unlikely, given the barrier of entry, that we will see any lateral movements or radical divergences from what works. Evolutionary development over revolutionary.
This isn't particularly different from how the rest of the game industry works. Typically each generation of games is a reaction to the one before it and moves the genre as a whole in one direction or another. The difference is how generations occur. Single player games are both quicker to make and "fire and forget". id Software didn't rework and support Quake for five or more years. Instead they went on to make Quake II and Quake III. But MMOs both take longer and persist. Ultima Online just celebrated its seventh anniversary and its still bringing in good money. Everquest is five years old and currently possesses the second largest subscriber base of all MMOs in the United States.
These two factors create a "stickiness" to the generations and cause them to melt into each other and go a long way towards creating the similarities to human generations that I mentioned in the introduction. Because of this our perception of the separation between MMO games and standard single player titles is broader than their true separation in terms of design and development. Therefore, we can trace the same parallels from single player games and see that these statements hold true but we need to be careful as we do so and make sure we keep everything in perspective.
With a few exceptions players have been largely unable to perform any action that creates change in the game world. Do you see this changing in the next several years? And, further, do you feel that this is a goal worth chasing at all?
"Absolutely. Implementing systems where players are recognized for their achievements and able to make a mark on the world is very challenging in an MMOG. But I definitely think it's possible and that we'll see attempts and successes in the future. We have some great ideas for Vanguard as well as other ideas that will have to wait for expansions or future games (and I'm sure we're not the only ones)."
"Absolutely it's a goal worth chasing and there's a guy you might remember named John Van Caneghem who wrote the Might and Magic series of games now works for us here at NCsoft and that is the number one bullet point on a game he's now developing. So we in general and John very specifically are targeting that exact result.
"However the devil is in the details. I think it is the right goal to put into the game, and it's nice that people have already made attempts at it, but I believe it will be very powerful when people do it well."
Currently there is a contradiction in the MMO genre. This contradiction is that for everything MMOs bring to the table that a single player game cannot provide they lose something that a single player game does well. Why is this?
In a single player game the player is of absolute importance. The world revolves around them. In a massive multiplayer game, by definition, the player is one of many. One of the steps of bridging this gap is allowing true player impact upon the world.
It's a tall order but the fact that both Richard and Brad begin with exactly the same resounding "absolutely" should tell us everything. This will happen and, in fact, is beginning to happen right now.
Both immersion and player reward will grow and this can mean only good things for the genre as developers continue to develop the art and slowly but this contradiction to rest.
A reasonable way to produce dynamic content for, if not individuals, at least small groups or guilds seems an issue that simply more powerful CPUs won't solve. Is there a solution to creating custom content and game experiences? Or does the basic situation, in which each new subscriber adds additional work, create an insurmountable hurdle?
"There are two primary ways that people have attempted to make content, one of which is to handcraft all of the content. That has generally been my personal favorite method. But this flies in the face of the exact problem you're describing.
The other common way to attempt a solution is what I'll call randomly generated content. However I actually think that has not proven over time to be an adequate solution in the sense that I've always felt that randomly generated content feels like randomly generated content and kind of by definition is not particularly compelling."
Richard goes on to describe two new solutions that are being experimented with. The first is the PvP solution where players can own, contest, and control parts of the game world. Lineage and Shadowbane are both good examples. If done well players have a constantly changing game of combat and politics and the world evolves in a way that is directly related to the community. The problem is that this is limited in scope. It only covers player vs. player conflict (note the word "conflict" not "combat") and doesn't address the many other behaviors and types of content that can and is being provided to players.
The second is the 'John Van Caneghem Solution' "where his method is much more to build a living breathing world where even if it's primarily Player vs. Environment the environment grows and develops and has a logic to its strategy much the same way players do. John's strategy is to let the AI have a master plan and let it react to its own successes and failures. In doing that you create a world that is both dynamic for players and self generates content that is relevant to (the world)."
Brad was reluctant to give away the ideas which Sigil is using to build their new game Vanguard; this is understandable since Vanguard is still quite a long ways out. But he would say this: "It's surmountable, though it will take time to develop and perfect."
What we see here is the idea of making not just an everlasting world but also an eternal game. Any system that allows the players themselves to generate content takes some of the burden off the development team. This is extremely important as the development team is, by necessity, smaller than the player base and thus it is impossible to hand craft content for everyone.
This ties in very closely to the previous question. The more the players can truly affect the world the more good things they can do to generate the content in much the same way that players generate the world of a strategy game simply by playing it.
The hurdle comes from implementation. In theory you could just say, "Go nuts" to the player base and let them at your game to design handcrafted quests, items, locations, etc. But this is obviously a terrible idea. For the game to persist a careful balance needs to be maintained or else the entire game world and the personal investment of your players can crash and burn. Further, it's an unfortunate but irrefutable fact that some players would abuse the privilege, make others miserable, and fill your game with garbage. So, instead, the goal of the development team is to create balanced, fun, and relevant games within the structure of the overall game and then let the players go at it within the bounds of these tools.
There is a trend for players to demand to know every last number and calculation in the game so they can maximize their character builds and player efficiency. Is a reliance on numbers hurting the genre? Would it be better to conceal more from the player? Or is this actually a benefit?
"It definitely runs against what I believe is the essence of "roleplaying". The problem we have with these MMPs is that since the game itself cannot give high quality storytelling for years of time to millions of people all concurrently they have this horrible habit in my mind of deteriorating into slot machines. Where people hang around and optimize their play behavior to maximize the results from the slot machine.
I don't think this is what is most compelling about the genre. I don't think this is what is compelling about games in general and I as a designer am working to try to break that mold but I can't tell you that I have the magical solution to lead us out of the dark ages of repetitive behavior within MMPs."
"I think you can have a great game where all the numbers, statistics and formulae are published or derived, but I also think the game can even be better where there is mystery that remains about the game. The trick is to find a balance where the game is not too cryptic but also still intriguing. And that balance can't be achieved for everyone, because some players like to know more about the nuts and bolts of a game than others."
There has been a trend towards this type of number heavy (or as Richard puts it "slot machine") gameplay that has increased greatly with the passage of time within the genre. However it was never the original goals of these games to create a play experience that supported this methodology in the first place. However certain segments of the community have grown to desire and depend upon these numbers. This, in itself, isn't necessarily bad. As long as these gamers are only impacting their own play experience than limiting how or why they play is only hurting the game. So why would this be an issue at all?
Well the problem is that many current games are providing everything to their players in hopes that it will benefit them when actually it is much to their own detriment. There is a mistake in logic being made here: new developers are looking at the way the founding titles function today in building their games. It is true in these games that the players have managed to demystify just about every element of gameplay. But they key word is "players" here and what developers are missing is that it took years for the games to arrive in the state they are. By making it easy for the player to know the details of mechanics behind everything developers are removing a major stage of exploration of their world. A stage that can provide a form of content for literally years and they are shifting focus onto those numbers.
The biggest hits of today originally kept their cards close to their chest and shifted focus towards the gameplay itself. So while this is just one factor among thousands the anecdotal evidence states that providing all of these numbers is actually more limiting than concealing them.
Brad perfectly spells out the state of today's industry. You can have a successful game and show the numbers. But you're better off striking a balance between total openness and total obfuscation. Richard, conversely, looks long term. The numbers were never the goal in the first place, they are simply a necessary evil. And so the sooner game designs can downplay the numbers, whether they're visible of not, the better the genre as a whole will be.
A gross oversimplification to be sure, but if you had to name one factor that you feel is absolutely critical to a game experiencing long term success what would it be?
"An immersive world, pride resulting from character development, and a strong focus on community building and interdependence - all of these are critical and strong retention mechanisms, and player retention is the key to long term success. Any one of these factors without the other makes for a much weaker game."
"I think the one most critical factor for an MMP to have long term success is to have the proper metering of short term and long term rewards.
What I mean by that is when you're in an environment and let's say your goal is to defeat the evil wizard. It'll be great when you get there and defeat the evil wizard but that might not come for a while so its important to think about 'What is my reward to for getting from here to the end of this corridor.' Whether that's jumping over a chasm, opening a chest, interacting with some object, or seeing a beautiful object. However, once I've done those things those can quickly become passe because I've seen the beautiful object once, it will no longer be a reward next time I see it. So find the right way to meter the long term goals with short term punctuations. Minor successes over short term, major successes/rewards over the long term. That metering I think is the most important of success in an MMP."
This is the designer "Rorschach Test" and through it we can see some of the differences in approach between these two designers. Brad speaks of character and personal growth and investment. Make the player proud of their persona (and immersion is part of this investment) and help them form meaningful relationships with the players around them and it's easy to be hooked.
There is something fundamentally rewarding about growth to the human psyche and games like this draw very well upon that. There is a small bit of joy there that designers have found a way to tap into. This occurs across all genres and, indeed, across all media. It's easy to see in games like Diablo and exists in places such as the franchise modes of many sports games. But it goes beyond and ties directly into the success of things like Tamagochi, Pokemon, Magic: the Gathering, and even, at a stretch, things like fantasy football. This is important for the MMP developer to keep in mind because no genre, at perhaps no other form of entertainment at all, taps this human response more than the MMOG. Strike the right risk/reward balance and players will spend years nurturing both their online identities and themselves. Everquest is tied very closely to this phenomenon and I suspect that Brad's next game, Vanguard, will do much the same.
Richard, given his one chance, opts to speak more in terms of player rewards and narrative. And, really, is this surprising coming from the creator of the Ultima series? Story has always been near to Richard's heart it would seem and a valiant goal to chase as well if one looks at the success of story driven games. Beyond Ultima how about Half-Life or perhaps some Final Fantasy anyone?
The difference between an MMP and Final Fantasy, however, is where Richard directs most of his attention. One of the big pitfalls here is creating a game that is, essentially, a single player game planned to stretch out over years. As it is many players fail to complete the majority of single player games and thus spreading things thin is not going to work. Why would people remain playing a longer version of a game they're already ready to put down? Story may be compelling but it does not directly tie into retention. Instead one must figure out a way to provide rewarding moments to the player regularly while all the while building towards long term climaxes. Too many games get half the equation and either build only towards the climax or provide no climaxes at all. In either case you're letting your players down.
So despite their differences, Brad and Richard are thinking very much along the same lines. Their goal is this plan for the future without forgetting the present. Designing for now is difficult. Designing for now and on into the future is a magnitude more difficult. But this is precisely what a designer for an MMORPG must do on every level. Every decision must consider both time frames for player retention is the name of the game.
How one goes about this, however, depends on the game and the designer. The only right answers are proven by the bottom line and previous successes have shown that games with significantly different approaches can be successful. I suspect that, despite both games driving towards the same goals and despite both games sharing elements of the above you'll find that Brad's Vanguard and Richard's Tabula Rasa will be very different games when they come to market.
Do you have any predictions that you'd care to share on what the next five or ten years may bring the genre?
"Probably nothing too prophetic, but I do feel confident about the genre despite some struggles that have occurred. I think once the technology behind PCs and the Internet was there to make a commercial MMOG possible that there was no going back. While people love passive forms of entertainment (reading, watching TV, seeing a movie), the opportunity to participate and contribute to virtual worlds in which people can experience and do things they can't in the real world is appealing to most everyone. I predict that interactive entertainment will become as big as passive forms of entertainment in the next decade or so."
"I was a very happy solo player game maker for twenty years and feel after twenty years I'd just begun to just scratch the surface on interactive storytelling with one player moving through the spaces. And so by no means do I think I was an accomplished expert. I'm not sure there were any or aren't any accomplished experts at interactive storytelling. However in every solo player Ultima I know myself and many players I've talked to would have loved to take their friends along on those adventures.
And one of the great things about MMPs is that, hey, you can take your friends and neighbors. They can come along with you. However and so far this first and second generation of MMPs that multiplayer "bring your friends" feature has come at a great cost in my mind. Which is that they are all basically free-for-alls. There are no "Quest of the Avatar" type storytelling in these multiplayer environments.
In fact in a solo player game your life is very special, you are far from average. You become The Hero who saves The Whole World. And in fact every person who buys the game and finishes it becomes that hero blissfully unaware that all their neighbors think the same thing. In an MMP, since you can see your neighbors, no one gets to be the one person who can save the world. And even if we did do that then it would only be cool for that one person and the other 99% of your population would, if anything, be demoralized by it. So your life on average in an MMP is very average. You know, generally speaking, about half the people in a game are higher level than you and, if you play for awhile, half the people are lower level.
And so I think that a lot has been lost going to this first couple generations of MMPs. And so what I'm trying to do with Tabula Rasa is I'm trying to create a game where even though you can go in with your friends and you can meet new friends that your story arc through the game makes you and your friends feel very special. Like you, your friends, your group, are the pivotal people who change the course of history. Where you and your friends again get a very special existence and feel like you'd accomplished great things like you'd done previously in solo player games."
Richard went on to explain that this turns out to be very challenging and many things they've tried have failed in testing already and have had to be redone. But he does believe it is a worthy goal and a solvable goal and he hopes that bridging that single player gap will be one of the big movements in the genre over the next five or ten years.
PART V: In Summary
A layman's divination into the future
Ultima Online and Everquest are very different games.
Tabula Rasa and Vanguard promise to also be very different.
Brad McQuaid and Richard Garriott have disagreed on many aspects of design for years.
Thus it seemed natural that they'd have significantly different views and visions of the genre and its future. This was virtually the thesis of my article, in spirit if not in word. And I was wrong. They may have different styles of design but when it comes to the genre they both love their vision is unified.
And so, through these last pages, a path has been painted for us. Their agreement on the industry at the macro scale is very significant. It is this agreement that I believe makes this vision of the future significant, compelling, and quite likely. Two proven experts who have often disagreed both agree on all the points that mater. So what is the state of the MMORPG genre? Can we now answer the questions posed at the beginning of this article? Can we now, at least in a broad way, predict the future? To that I give a resounding "yes". And here it is, the state of the genre:
1) The current state of the industry was inevitable and there is no need to worry. MMO games are here to stay. While the genre's failures are more visible than the games of other genres they are no more severe or threatening. Just as the FPS and RPG genres would continue even past the failures of a Doom or a Final Fantasy the MMO genre will continue on. In fact the future continues to look quite bright for the genre as a whole.
2) The rewards and potential of the MMO genre are balanced by its risks. There is no genre that is more rewarding but also no genre with a higher cost to produce games for (in capitol, manpower, support, and time). Therefore inexperienced designers and publishers had best beware. This is not to say new developers cannot emerge but simply a cautionary tale. New developers must tread very, very carefully if they wish to succeed in this area.
3) A revolution is very unlikely. The cost of these games makes experiments very risky. The safest path to success for all but the biggest developers will be through evolutions of the models that have been proven to work.
4) The games themselves must continue to be games. Yes, "slot machine" style experiences have done well but this is fading as new options become available. Further, the current market is only the tip of the possible customer base. An MMO game must be built to retain customers but it also must be compelling. All of the new large scale features that are coming are pointing towards better play experiences (dynamic content, player alterable worlds, the closing of the "single player gap", etc) and it is this better gameplay is what will retain players in the future, not a dependence upon repetitive addiction.
About the Author
Rick Luebbers is a former web designer and a published writer. Currently he studies Level Design at The Guildhall @ SMU
The Massive Growing Pains series will explore the growth and evolution of the MMO game through interviews with its leaders and pioneers in effort to bring an academic approach to the issues facing the industry's biggest "new" genre.