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Column #3: The Future

Nathan Knaack Posted:
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The Future of MMORPGs (Page 2 of 2)

The next generation of MMORPGs is going to need to focus on every aspect of PvP, not just combat. They’re going to need to include systems for player vs. player politics, economics, and even recreation. Additionally, once the players become responsible for crafting all of their own items, buildings, vehicles, factions, and quests, we’ll finally have an answer to the impossible equation: How can a few dozen developers satiate a few million players? They can’t, but if the developers create the right tools, then the players can satiate themselves and each other. As popular games like World of Warcraft and Eve Online approach five million subscribers or 30,000 simultaneous players, it’s going to become less and less feasible for development teams to keep up, so a “passing the torch” methodology would definitely help both sides.

In a pointed comparison, there happens to be one trait in particular that both MMORPGs and planet Earth really need to work on if they’re going to survive, and that’s recycling. A society that can’t recycle raw materials is destined to spend the first half of its existence dependant on outsiders and the second half of its existence buried in its own waste. Likewise, an MMORPG that can’t recycle will soon find itself mired in stagnancy and subject to diminishing subscriptions. Previous games have tried to exploit “time/money sink” tactics to keep economics and production flowing, but all that does is lead to hyper-inflation. A much better way to accomplish a balanced economy is to apply attrition to everything, every building, every item, and every resource. If you want to use the best weapon in the game, you need to supply it with the best ammunition and maintenance. If you want to fly the fastest ship, you need the most expensive fuel. If you want to own the largest castle, you pay the most taxes. Note the difference between the above three examples and the notion of “money sink.” Players are not required to use the best weapon, the fastest ship, or the biggest castle in order to play, even become wildly successful, at a proper MMORPG.

I find it amazing that my phone is a camera, my camera is a printer, my printer is a copier, my copier is a fax machine, and my fax machine is a phone, yet with all of the immense capabilities of the internet, my MMORPG doesn’t have voice chat. Even on low-end machines, most MMORPGs run fine with TeamSpeak in the background, so performance isn’t an issue. The vast majority of online gamers have broad band connections, so bandwidth isn’t an issue. A speaker headphone set costs less than one month’s subscription to an MMORPG, so affordability isn’t an issue. What’s the holdup? Why aren’t there any MMORPGs here in the year 2006 that incorporate full voice chat capabilities?

Something I see in just about all of the feature lists for existing and upcoming MMORPGs is a line that sounds something like “dynamic world” or “truly affect the world with your actions.” I could count the games that make good on this claim on one hand, and even those are severely limited. Sorry, but being able to buy a cookie-cutter house and stick it in a roped-off area designated for player housing once I reach level 999,999 doesn’t qualify as “truly affecting the world with my actions.”

The last idea I’ll remind everyone about is permanent death. As the black sheep of MMORPG ideas, the concept of permadeath has been around forever, but has never been correctly implemented for fear of tremendous backlash from the community. There will always be a separation of the fan base between those that agree and disagree, so instead of just picking one or the other, more developers need to figure out ways to allow everyone to co-exist. By that, I mean allow them choices, not restrictions. Just like real life, an MMORPG should be a game of give-and-take. In order to become the greatest hero, and thus earn the highest glory, you must be willing to undertake the most daunting challenges with the direst consequences.

Forget about character levels and classes entirely. Sorry MMORPG developers, but the best medicine usually tastes the worst. Some people will tell you that players like or even need levels to enjoy an RPG, but the fact is that it’s just plain laziness. It’s what’s been done; it’s what’s worked before. How can a player be told that their actions matter, that their uniqueness adds to the game world itself when they’re just another 10th level human warrior? Skill systems exist and they work, as evident in the handful of MMORPGs that have put them into practice. To everyone who might be unsure as to what skills are effective and what they need to compete, a game could simply offer templates, pre-determined arrangements of skills that get newbies off to a good start without inhibiting their choices in the future. These optional starter templates should entirely replace static classes.

Perhaps in a future article, I will delve into the precise blueprint of what I believe a perfect MMORPG would be like, but in the meantime, the above observations, suggestions, and outright criticisms will serve as a guide to future developers who hope to compete in tomorrow’s market. Once again, nothing I listed above came straight from my head into this essay, and was then suddenly called a “brilliant idea” just because I came up with it. These are ideas that have been around for years, some since the very inception of the MMORPG genre. They’re politely asked for during development processes, demanded after release, and offered during exit polls after accounts are cancelled. Sometime in the future, a development studio might just use some or all of these ideas, actually designing an MMORPG that earns subscription fees instead of just tricking people into buying a $50 box.

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Nathan Knaack