16 Mar 2016

The Changing Face of MMOs


Sometimes, MMO commentary feels cyclical. Back in 2014, we were musing how Blizzard’s cancellation of Titan signalled an end to the grand MMO genre. Now that Daybreak Games has shoved EverQuest Next out of a similar airlock, the same opinion is doing the rounds (although with a little less doom-mongering this time around). Some existing MMOs are continuing to hold steady, while others (like WildStar) are faltering. Meanwhile, the market feels dominated by semi-persistent quasi-MMOs, and  Eastern imports that have an established record.

This in itself is not surprising. A high-quality MMO with mass-market appeal is incredibly expensive to produce today, with budgets typically breaking $100 million. They’re also incredibly time-consuming to produce, often taking seven years or more. It’s no wonder these games look dated when they finally launch, considering the age of some of the technology.

On top of that, MMO genre veterans are some of the most fickle and divisive fans in existence. We simply can’t decide on what we want. Sandbox or theme park, PvP or PvE, directed or open-ended, instanced or open world. Each possible parameter has its cult of adherents that would willingly put anything that doesn’t measure up to fire and the sword. And woe betide any studio or publisher that slips up, as your transgressions – however minor – will always be brought up.

But here’s the flip-side: MMOs are like a second home to many of us. We sink years into these games, building friendships and lives in these digital realms. When the studio makes a design choice that shatters that world, or a publisher decides to pull the plug, of course you’re going to feel bitter about it. Now repeat that time and again over ten or fifteen years, and it’s no wonder that the genre’s created the personification of cynicism. It gets tiring to put down new roots again and again, and I honestly don’t blame people for wanting the perfect game to do it in.

Brutally, it’s unlikely that we’ll see another grand MMO, at least for now. Bill Murphy has an op-ed over at MMORPG.com, with some great insight into this changing landscape from the developer point-of-view. As Syp points out over at Bio Break, we’re likely in a contracting phase, where publishers avoid investing in the genre. The next wave of MMOs is likely to be from small, independent studios that focus on a particular niche aspect – titles like Crowfall (disclaimer: I backed the Kickstarter), Camelot Unchained and so on. Ardwulf makes a point on this – the advent of Unity 5 is helping studios to do the heavy lifting on the engine front, allowing them to focus on mechanics, systems and settings. The same is true of the Unreal Engine, powering small shooters and survival sandboxes alike. Where the infamous Hero Engine failed, others are picking up the slack.

So, where next? As Syl at MMO Gypsy put it, MMOs are here to stay, although the form that they take might well be different. They’ll certainly be smaller in size and scope, requiring less investment, fewer people and a shorter time to build – much like how EVE Online and Runescape started some fifteen years ago. The kind of games that start out small, but could grow to build a legacy.

I also think that battlegrounds and arenas will vanish as an aspect of MMOs. Over the next year we’ve got Gigantic, Battleborn, Paragon, and Overwatch, all fighting it out to become the next big competitive brawler. With all these offering to scratch a similar itch, is it worth trying to build that inside of an MMO, complete with all the inherent arguments about balance, seasons, and gear issues?

Radically, I think that the future may involve the player taking more control than ever before. Much as we used to run Quake servers in days gone by, and Minecraft servers more recently, I think we’ll start to see MMOs adopt some form of roll-your-own server. Don’t like the rules set in Ark: Survival Evolved? Rent one for a few dollars, and choose your own. It’s not that far-fetched to see this evolve into a hub-and-spoke model, using a central area to congregate with other players, and your own back yard to mess around with as you want.

So there you have it. The future of MMO gaming: tightly controlled and regulated PvP arenas on the one hand; quasi-MMOs that build persistent online experiences to established game types on the other; and fragmented, diverse, small-scale and experimental online experiences in the third, gripping hand. Nothing grand for a good ten years, unless it rises up from the small stuff organically. And huge community involvement, from building your own pocket dimensions, to designing new costumes, weapons, and more besides.

Cynical? Pah. I’m too old to be cynical.


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