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Five Proofs of MMO Evolution

Jon Wood Posted:
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Champions Online, Star Trek Online, Earthrise, Fallen Earth, APB, The Secret World, Jumpgate Evolution, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Global Agenda and others make the graduating classes of the next few years promising for players who want something new from their MMO.

This change has been a long time in the coming. In the Beyond Men in Tights talks, there was a lot of discussion of the reasons that the fantasy genre has been dominant for so long. These reasons, as I understand them, are fairly easy to see: There’s the fact that fantasy has been at the roots of RPGs since pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons defined the genre in 1974. Next, there’s the fact that early MMOs found success with the fantasy setting and World of Warcraft’s industry dominance make the fantasy genre appear to be a sound financial investment, and when you’re talking about investing multiple millions of dollars into a video game, deviating from “what works” can be a risky proposition. Finally, because of the history behind it, the fantasy genre is easily recognizable to players. Elves are tall and arrogant, dwarves love their beer and Halflings make excellent rogues. These facts are just accepted and assumed, there is no need to try to familiarize players with the general concepts of the game’s universe and run the risk of losing their immersion (and by extension their subscription dollars).

Over time, sci-fi MMOs have come one by one and chipped away at the idea that the only good MMO is a fantasy MMO. And in broader pop culture, science-fiction has been reborn, with the success of TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and movies like the Star Trek reboot. Throw in the success of games like EVE Online which, while not comparable to the 600lb gorilla in terms of numbers, has helped to prove that the days of fantasy’s unchallenged run at the top may be over.

#2 – Experimentation with alternate business plans

When there's money to be made, someone will see it.

One sure way to tell that something is changing is when someone finds a new way to charge money for it. I remember when the Internet first came out, I had to pay for my time online by buying hours. By the time broadband hit the scene, we were all paying monthly for our service. Cell phones used to be charged for by the minute as well, but then along came a slew of affordable unlimited plans. This happened in both cases because both the technology and the ways in which people were using it, changed and in order to best monetize their products, the cable and phone companies changed as well.

There was a time, not so long ago, that if you wanted to play what many North American players consider a AAA MMO, you would be paying a monthly fee, no ifs ands or buts. Today, that near constant is being challenged by games like Dungeons and Dragons Online, Runes of Magic, The Chronicles of Spellborn, and others that have either been created on an item shop model or have moved to it.

Sure, it’s the exact opposite of what happened with the Internet and cell phones, but the point is that it takes corporations time to figure out how best to monetize their products. As these products mature, the industry will find a wider range of models that bring more people into the fold, which then allows for bigger and better games.

This may not be one of the more popular turns in the evolution of the MMORPG genre, but there’s no denying that it’s happening, at least on a smaller scale.

For many long time MMO players, the idea of all MMOs moving strictly to an item shop based revenue stream is likely going to be an unpopular one. Fortunately, we are in the initial stages of this particular evolutionary step here in North America and it will, in the end, be the customers who dictate the future of monetization in North American MMOs. It will be interesting to see where the next generation of games will come down.

#1 – Gameplay innovation

What does this image have to do with innovation?

Innovative is often a word that people use to describe that next evolutionary step that they are waiting for. “I want to play a game that is innovative,” is a fairly common thing to hear when people talk about the industry’s perceived stagnation.

The thing is that innovation is happening with every new release, it just isn’t all-encompassing innovation. Instead, what we have is innovation that is slowly but surely contributing to the overall evolution of MMOs. Every time any game tries a new mechanic, no matter how small, someone notices. If that mechanic does well, it will find itself in more and more MMOs. It not, it will probably live and die with the game that spawned it.

Innovation though, good or bad, is everywhere: Age of Conan’s combat system, Warhammer Online’s public quest and grouping system, monster play in Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Spellborn’s skill deck, the Mission Architect system in City of Heroes, etc. Some of these, like Public Quests in Warhammer, have already become a staple of the next generation of MMOs, with variations in Champions Online, DC Universe and a host of other upcoming projects.

Warp-Up

As in evolution, it is hard to see the changes as they happen. With each release, each new generation of game, the genre grows organically. Look back to Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot or the original EverQuest as they were when they launched, and compare them in all honesty to the current crop of games (or even themselves) if you doubt the power of evolution.

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Jon Wood