Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hang On...Haven't We Been Here Before?

 Yesterday, Massively reported on conversations with two unnamed designers from ArenaNet and with SOE's Dave "Smokejumper" Georgeson. Each emphasized the importance of giving all kinds of players plenty to do at all times. Smokejumper rather chillingly predicted a future where MMO companies who "push the sociological stuff will make really big things that will last for years and years because no one will want to leave them".

Possibly in response to this growing zeitgeist, today Green Armadillo and Keen both have relevant observations. I don't doubt more commentators will weigh in in due course. To me about the only surprise in the idea that MMOs should offer a smorgasbord in place of a set menu is how long it's taken the developers to come right out and say it. From my perspective it's no more than what they've been doing in practice for years.

Is there a gift shop?

Most MMOs I've played for any length of time have had deep, well-constructed, intricately- detailed worlds. A huge amount of time and trouble has clearly been taken over everything from set design and lighting to incidental NPC dialog response. You can (and I frequently do) spend hour after hour just exploring buildings, villages and towns, learning how these imaginary people live.

Large, well-funded MMOs habitually offer a wide, sometimes overwhelming variety of ways to spend your time. In addition to the main course of fighting (solo, duo, group instance, raid, battleground, arena, you name it...) most MMOs offer a good selection of side-dishes, from gathering, crafting, collecting, stories, pets, wardrobes, building, decorating and designing all the way through to embedded collectible card-games and gambling dens.

Never enough, it's never enough...
I would contend that even back in the 1990s, MMOs like Ultima Online and Everquest offered a considerably wider range of possible activities than just leveling up your character and defeating tougher and tougher monsters. Over the last five or six years many MMOs have expanded their catalog of things to do to such an extent that few if any players would ever attempt to consume everything. You'd explode!

The idea that there is insufficient content is ridiculous but it's certainly the case that despite this cornucopia there are still players who feel hungry for more. For them there's always nothing to do. Whether those players are satisfiable, or rather whether attempting to satisfy them is a sound commercial strategy is another matter entirely.

What must be a problem for developers is that the kind of content that takes the longest and costs the most to produce - all those amazingly detailed zones, all that meticulously-written, painstakingly voice-acted dialog - are the very things players skip over, rush past and generally ignore. I suspect relatively few players go around every zone talking to every NPC or spend whole evenings looking at how the furniture has been arranged.
There's always a better party

The Catch-22, though, is that for an MMO to be accorded true AAA status in the eyes of the very same customers who won't really "use" this kind of content, said content still has to be there and be top quality. An expectation of standards has been built up over many years and must be adhered to lest players deem the game lacking or, worse, cheap. Players come to each game with a shopping list of features from all the MMOs they've played before and they had darned well better find all of them, even the ones they never actually use, or by golly they'll be off to someone that knows how to do it properly.

So yes, the future for MMOs is "be everything to everybody all the time". It's a future that's already here and I suspect it's already working about as well as it's ever likely to work. Well, it's working for me, anyway.


  1. Its not really a big revelation, is it - as you say, that future is already here. and we've been complaining about it for a few years now.
    to be fair, we've seen a lot of good come from it, too - so not all of that was justified just like all the doom and gloom right now isn't.

    playstyle variety is a good thing. as for overall theme, I see more and more niche MMOs popping up in the future, so I'm not sure we need worry all games will go the same way. some of the devs seem to lag behind with their perception, so I guess in 2 years they'll talk about niche MMOs too. ;)

    1. Yep, I agree. The last line of the piece above was originally "That's one future. The other future is niche" or something like that. I see a definite splitting of the stream into a mass-market one size fits all model and a boutique made-to-measure alternative.


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