This year was the first year that PAX has made it over to the east coast, kicking off the inaugural PAX East show at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Gaming fanatics on the east coast have been longing for a show to call their own, and outside of the New York Comic Con, we didn't really have much. Not to miss out on the occasion, MMORPG.com was on hand to cover the event and we even had our own panel. Our panel was scheduled for Day 3 (Sunday), and focused on the future of the MMO gaming scene. Our very own Garrett Fuller moderated the panel, which included notable guests such as Paul Barnett of BioWare/Mythic, Turbine's Craig Alexander, Sanrio Digital's Bob Ferrari, and baseball legend turned MMO developer Curt Schilling of 38 Studios.
Day 3 of any show can always be iffy for panel turnout, but an hour before the event we were more than relieved to see that the line to the Naga Theater where the panel would take place had already begun to snake around the floor a good bit. Turnout was great and we filled the entire theater. The panel began with some brief introductions from Garrett and the panelists and then, much to the crowd's (pleasant) surprise, we turned the panel right over to Q&A.
Kicking things off was a question on sports MMOs, "Why don't they exist?" Curt jumped in on this one, and instead offered his take on why fantasy MMOs exist, explaining that "fantasy, for me, is like an inherent part of everbody's DNA," and that everyone can essentially identify with it, perhaps not so much to throwing a baseball or hitting a hockey puck. Paul bit on this as well, detailing one of the concepts he's seen for a sports MMO, one based in a zombie apocalypse Olympics, where the athletes can only survive through the use of steroids. On a slightly more serious note, Paul discusses the ridiculousness he's witnessed in FIFA Online over in Korea, where players' abilities consist of injuring their opponents or causing poor weather conditions before a match, wondering then how anyone couldn't be excited for the future of sports MMOs.
One of the following questions really got our panelists a bit excited: What's going on with the crossover situation in MMOs? The hot topic of MMOs and social networking sites as well as the introduction of iPhone and other smartphone applications had all the panelists eager to weigh in. Bob applauded the question, answering that things like Facebook applications serve as an extension of community, and while they don't allow the player to get the full experience, Bob explains that it's easy to see how such applications make sense.
Craig added to this, making mention of Lord of the Rings Online's iPhone app, which allows players to keep track of server status, review equipment, and also notes their extensive community site. Craig reveals that they've observed play patterns reverse with the different times of day. In the evening, the actual game is at its peak of activity. However, during the day, their applications and community site trump the game itself as LOTRO players login at work to get part of their fix when they can't actually be in the game.
Achieving this kind of crossover experience was integral in the formation of 38 Studios, Curt explains that it's advantageous for them to have these features from the outset, as they are looking to establish a product where gamers really care about the IP and want to be engaged with the game whenever and wherever they are.
The age old question, a question that is often a controversial topic here at MMORPG.com was also brought up at the panel: What exactly defines what is and isn't an MMO? Curt isn't so sure it should be us asking them this question, but instead it should be them asking us this. What features and how many players does it take to constitute an MMO for you? Is it 16, 32, 3000? According to Curt, this is something that should be decided by the consumer.
Craig admitted he's struggled with the term for many years, but he offered an outline of the features a typical MMO should possess, breaking them into four foundations: persistence, thousands of players, advancement, and customizable avatars.
Bob argued that it's "a matter of depth," and that there are many virtual worlds that are in existence, but that they lack the depth that your traditional MMOs would possess, so there is that important distinction.
Paul poked fun at the question, comparing it to fans of a particular music group or artist when they are still obscure, and lamenting that they've sold out once they have achieved commercial success. Or to fans who read nothing but Frank Miller's Batman, adding that they still have to deal with "crap Batman" because crap Batman still makes a lot of money.
Garrett picked up on how we deal with this issue here at MMORPG.com all the time. It's always a struggle in trying to define an MMO as the lines continue to blur, and Garrett refers to the fact our readers will grill us for what they sometimes feel are questionable additions to our coverage or game list. This goes back to what Curt said, as it appears to be truly a personal topic, which will ultimately define itself based on what we make successful as consumers.
Another hot topic that was touched on was the pricing models of MMOs. Like the previous question, the Free to Play vs. Subscription based business model is something MMO fans are really passionate about. Bob argued that the subscription model has always been a barrier to entry; many gamers wondered why they should pay $49.99 for a box and then $15 a month to continue. The advent of the F2P model has really helped bring in many players that have never played before, as now players can try the game for free, and then have a number of options from there, touching on the hybrid F2P/Subscription model Dungeons & Dragons Online currently employs.
Craig was a natural fit for this question as DDO started out as your traditional subscription MMO, only to enjoy a huge resurgence once the game re-launched as the aforementioned hybrid F2P/P2P model it makes use of now. The general statistics are pretty impressive by themselves, but what really stood out is the fact that the F2P switchover actually helped drive up subscription numbers.
Curt disagrees with the basic premise that there is such a thing as a "Free to Play" game, instead he explains that they are only "Free to Start." To Curt, it certainly makes sense from a business perspective, after all, "would you want $15 a month from 150,000 consumers, or would you rather have access to three million credit cards?" However, Curt argues it's a slippery slope and you have to know what you're doing when you design the game, as a game can be entirely ruined by an improperly executed business model. Bob added that Free to Play games are more akin to "Free to Pay" games, and that they are essentially like malls, "You don't pay to go into a mall, but once you're in there, you're coming out with bags."
Again, Paul pokes some fun at this issue, recounting the days when we paid by the minute for these types of games, and noting that we eventually went to an all-you-can eat buffet model of $15 a month. Now we're seeing the appearance of a "Vegas system," with Free to Play games, "where some people spend some money, and some people spend a lot of money." In the end, Paul feels that we'll see MMOs with business models that come in different flavors, some will be free to play, some will cost you a minimal fee, and some where "if you've got the money, and you can give it now, you can indeed buy an enormous spaceship with a big pink hat."
Following up on the F2P vs. P2P question is the sticky issue of whether what is available for purchase should be restricted to convenience items or whether players should be able to essentially buy their way through a game. Curt argues the Western MMO gamer point of view, that gamers like to be able to look at a guy decked out in Tier 9 in World of Warcraft and know he earned it. Paul disagrees, offering an example to disprove Curt's point with Tiger Woods Online. EA offered the ability for players to basically unlock everything in the game for a price, but they would be forced to wear embarrassing bunny ears on their head to denote that they took the shortcut. Instead of dissuading players from the purchase, they received feedback stating that players would gladly pay twice the amount to be rid of the bunny ears.
Feedback on the panel has been really great so far, and we are definitely looking forward to any future opportunities to bring you similarly focused panels, however, next time we'll be sure to bring a proper camera and tripod!