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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
Blizzard's World of Warcraft
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.
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.