We had our annual PAX Prime Future of Online Games Panel at the show this year. Video is forthcoming as soon as we can get the direct audio feed from the Expo; otherwise we’ll put up what we have (which has some spotty sound off camera). We had these developers from Elder Scrolls, WildStar, Guild Wars 2, Eternal Crusade, and EverQuest Next all sitting next to each other espousing their views on where the genre’s headed and where it should head in the years ahead. There’s a tendency in recent years for designers and fans alike to feel a little downtrodden about the state of innovation and diversity in the industry, but I think this panel was representative of a very welcome trend towards just that. Whether or not we see the results anytime soon, the MMO is changing: both in terms of size and scope, and in terms of gameplay and ideals.
All the Colors of the Rainbow
This is something that Scott Hartsman touched on recently in our first interview with him as CEO of Trion Worlds, but the resounding feeling from the panel was that MMOs will come in many different sizes and shapes in the future. Gone are the days of every single game thinking they need to spend 300mln to ape Warcraft, and instead what we should see are more and more games with a focused goal in mind. Of course you’ll still have big AAA games that try to be everything to everyone, but even Jeremy Gaffney and Paul Sage (WildStar and ESO, respectively) seemed to agree that doing just this is not enough anymore. Both of their games are big budget projects that are aiming to deliver an experience that hits every mark on the MMO Player Checklist, and yet even they realize that if you do this it can’t just be tossed together haphazardlly. Each feature needs to be fully realized and interesting in the game. It all needs to actually work and be fun, or else they’re just pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite fit. And quite frankly, this is a massive undertaking that usually leads to undercooked ideas.
Instead, what we’re likely to see is a wide range of games from indie to AAA licensed IPs, all with varying degrees of focus. The term “MMO” is going to mean a lot more than what we’ve traditionally known it as, as even small experiments like Cube World can evolve to become fully-fledged niche MMOs. Party of the beauty of the next five to ten years will be watching the field of games evolve; see what sticks with players and what doesn’t. And it’s all because the bubble finally burst on chasing WoW, and the publishers are finally realizing that’s not the way to go.
Sand-filled Theme Parks and Themed Sandboxes
Sometimes things change for the better, even Bowie.
This was an obvious big topic at the show, as “Sandbox” is the new buzzword in the MMO industry. It’s the darling, right? Too many copycat games! Too many WoW-clones! We need a sandbox to save the day! Everyone on the panel, even Dave Georgeson of EQNext, agreed that there’s plenty of reasoning behind this desire to revitalize the sandbox MMO. But everyone also agreed that a lot of folks who think they want a fully sandbox game might actually hate what they get if one arrives. There are people who want the freeform world of UO, and people who think they do, but really just want a less restrictive guided experience too. If anything, what we’re going to see are games that blur the lines between what a sandbox is and what a theme park is. “Emergent Gameplay” is the big picture, as opposed to scripted content that players consume at rates no company can keep up with. So don’t be surprised if the sandbox of the future looks less like UO or SWG, and more like a cross between the original EQ and those classic titles.
More than all of this though? Everyone on the panel agreed that the future of MMOs is bright, even if what we’re used to calling an MMO changes greatly over the next few years. The online worlds we love aren’t going anywhere… they’re just changing, and hopefully for the better.
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He believes that there's nothing to fear about change other than you know, the changes. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.