You already know all about the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) phenomenon: the GDC panels, the rants, the spectacular failures and successes, the addictions, the “Make Love, Not Warcraft” South Park episode, the ubiquitous elves, and especially the profits. Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, though, here’s a brief explanation of why MMOs are important.
World of Warcraft is a rather successful MMO. Its subscription model gives it a trump card against software pirates, and its massive subscriber base guarantees continued revenue for the next few years at least, if current trends are to be trusted. Even World of Warcraft’s older, poorer cousins, such Everquest and Ultima Online, continue to turn profits many years after their initial release.
On the other side of the PC gaming coin, non-subscription retail games face increasingly grim prospects as customers turn to pirated software and parasitic games such as the aforementioned World of Warcraft, which more than one executive has blamed for slow PC game sales. And they appear to have a valid complaint: retail sales of PC games have fallen every year since 2001, while revenue from subscription fees has skyrocketed.
Clearly, the trends show that the future of enthusiast PC gaming lies with games that can hold a player’s interest over long periods of time; at the very least, these games commute PC gaming’s death sentence for a few years, until game consoles can provide the features, depth, flexibility, and convenience that PCs allow.
The thing is…we all expected these games to evolve. We looked at Everquest and its addictiveness and reasoned that surely someone would improve on this formula, creating a breed of entertainment that the entire spectrum of gamers could enjoy. Instead, we have seen a parade of copycats that fails to appeal to a large portion of the potential market, despite far bigger development budgets than any offline games.
What’s the problem? Is it that MMO developers choose to design their games for a niche audience? Or are the designers, who often have little to no experience with traditional video game design, simply incapable of designing anything but a nerd-fest? I can’t answer that, but here are a few questions on the subject I do want to try to answer from the standpoint of a traditional game designer: What exactly is an MMO? Will the current MMO formula hold up over time? What is holding this type of game back from more universal success, and how can it be improved?
If we are to understand why these games have such widespread popularity, it is important to recognize what distinguishing game elements draw players in and keep them hooked.
In defining just what kind of games fall into this category, the term “MMO” is itself not particularly helpful. If my memory serves me correctly, “massively multiplayer” was simply marketing-speak used to promote Everquest when it launched. Being able to interact with thousands of other people was touted as one of the game’s most important features, setting it apart from more diminutively online multiplayer games of the time, such as Diablo.
However, the “massively multiplayer” aspect of subscription games is not what draws people into these games and keeps them hooked, in most cases. Imagine, for instance, that World of Warcraft were set up like Diablo 2 (not a “massively multiplayer” game), where only eight players could play in a single game, and the game was balanced with this restriction in mind. The game would still be quite playable and fun for most of the people who currently subscribe. In fact, in the game’s present form, players rarely interact with more than the same few people every time they log in. If dragons could be killed with only eight players, players’ social circles would be even smaller, making the other thousands of players nigh-irrelevant.
That’s not to say that all these other players are a bad thing; they’re just not the most important thing in this particular type of game. It is quite possible to create a game where interacting with lots of people is the most appealing feature (Second Life and others). However, that category of quasi-games is outside the scope of this discussion.