The Past and the Future of MMOs

MMORPG.com has been hitting it out of the park this week, and there are a pair of articles on their site worth diving deeper on today.

The first article, is their list of the greatest MMO’s of all time.  It is immensely satisfying to find City of Heroes in the number 5 slot on the list.  While it would be easy enough to do a victory dance because of that, the rest of the top 5 are fascinating choices as well.  Three of the top 5 games in the list are either dead (CoH and Star Wars Galaxies), or were running in maintenance mode as a nostalgia project for their players (The original Everquest).  The top 2 spots were for the current industry leaders, Guild Wars 2 and of course World of Warcraft.

It’s clear though that these older models of MMO’s have endured (or are remembered so fondly) because they offered something that modern MMO’s fail to do.  They offered a diversity of game play not found in any other games.  It’s arguable that many of the top 5 on the list stole tropes from each other and had a lot of things about them that were similar, but none of the other MMO’s on the list from 5 to 35 offered anything remotely close to the game play options available in these top 5.

This echos the other piece from MMORPG.com that I wanted to discuss this week, an interview with Dave Georgeson, former head of the Everquest Franchise from what’s now Daybreak Games.  He discussed a lot of what he’s been up to as well as dropped some tantalizing hints about some secret projects he’s working on, but it was his last answer on the state of MMO’s today that I wanted to bring up.

“It’s pretty obvious that the MMO audience size is not currently growing. It’s shrinking. Why? Well…in my opinion, it’s because most of our MMOs haven’t done much to make themselves unique. We use the same game mechanics (leveling, combat, etc.) and then create some loose fiction and differentiating graphics and pretend to ourselves that we’re making a completely new, unique gaming world. But the truth is that usually…we’re not. The game feels “stale” after playing it for a few weeks because the experiences just aren’t unique.”

The 2 games that most differentiate from that mold on that top 5 list above are no longer playable.  Is Dave right that differentiation is the answer?  I’m not sure.  I do know that I miss those games bitterly, and I also know that those games aren’t around not because they weren’t viable profit-makers for the companies that published them, but that they weren’t profitable ENOUGH for those publishers.  Is it because the audience and the publishers didn’t realize the value they had, because the industry is still trying to figure itself out?  Were there other factors that impacted these games and their ability to go forward?  Hard to say, but very much worth discussing.

Georgeson goes on to offer some prescriptions for how he thinks the genre can fix itself.

“If we want the MMO audience to grow, we have to make the games highly rewarding at a session-length basis, as well as provide long-term goals that require human interaction. But also we need to find new ways to tell stories and involve the gamers in the play of the unique world we’re creating. When have you ever felt that your character did anything to affect the virtual world you’re playing within? The answer? Probably never. There are a few rare examples. Eve Online does it. The RvR aspects of Dark Ages of Camelot did it. But the examples in our genre are few and far between. We can, and should, do more if we want MMOs to grow and thrive. We must let the worlds change.”

Session-length high-reward activities.  Long term human interaction goals.  So few modern games are doing this right now.  How did we let them get away from this?  As for his other prescriptions, they sound a lot like the Everquest game he was trying to make.  I’m not so sure that the game he envisioned will ever come to pass at this point.  Regardless, he drops a few hints about what he’s working on and I hope that whatever he ends up doing, it’s in the MMO space.  His vision, drive, and enthusiasm for the genre are things the industry very badly needs more of right now.

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