"The world is changing. People are eating through content at an alarming rate. I don't believe that the content ecosystem that's in games today -- including our own -- is sustainable. With free-to-play, we're seeing this trend towards what we're calling 'emergent gameplay'."
That's how John Smedley opened his talk at GDC Online, titled "Free-to-play: Driving the Future of MMOs."
Using Google Trends search volume graphs as a metric, Smedley traced the progress of the online games market from World of Warcraft's peak in 2005, to the current era, where World of Warcraft is still the big dog but free-to-play games League of Legends, DOTA 2, DC Universe Online, and Team Fortress 2 are within striking range.
"I don't think you'll see games hit the heights that World of Warcraft hit [in 2005]," Smedley said, "Look at that peak. I think we're starting to see a fractioning of the userbase that WoW built, where some of those players are moving over to free-to-play games. Why? Obviously one answer is that it's free, but I think we need to look deeper than that."
He continued, "When you work on something as large as WoW, it's important to release content over time, and they've done a great job with that. But when you've got a game that's seven-years old, people look for something else to do. Free-to-play means that people can try your game, and then go try something else, and try something else, and then Mists of Pandaria comes out, and pulls people back into your game and they eat that content up. This is very different from 2004."
SOE's own free-to-play transition caused significant growth in its subscription-based MMOs. DC Universe Online, EverQuest II, and EverQuest all went free-to-play; DCUO saw a 1000 percent increase in concurrent players and a 700 percent increase in daily revenue, EverQuest II saw a 40 percent increase in daily logins and a 300 percent increase in new players, and the original EverQuest saw a 150 percent increase in daily logins, a 125 percent boost in item sales, and a 250 percent increase in registrations.
MMOs and their content problems
MMO developers are simultaneously having problems competing for player eyeballs and building game content fast enough to keep players around, said Smedley. "We're bombarded by content, and a lot of that content is eating the time we used to spend playing subscription games. Now I spend some of that time on Reddit ... if you look at WoW, by the time Mists of Pandaria was released, there were spoiler posts on each quest. We spend all this money and time to produce this content, and people consume it faster because they've got game sites and Reddit to help each other."
In order to continue developing MMOs, developers are going to have to adapt to a new games ecosystem that doesn't rely solely on developers to build new content for players to consume "For us, the key to this is sustainable ecosystems," Smedley said, "The ecosystem of games has changed rapidly; the new ecosystem has eSports, livecasting, users that make items to sell (and make money from it) -- all of this is user-based marketing, and the foundation of it is emergent gameplay."
Smedley offered three examples of emergent gameplay: SOE's own FreeRealms and EverQuest II, as well as Mojang's Minecraft. "I don't know about you guys, but I sure as heck didn't see Minecraft coming. It hit like a bolt of lightning. It showed how hungry people are for sandboxes -- for building stuff. In FreeRealms, we offered the ability to make their own houses, and we've done the same thing in EverQuest II that lets users rate each others' houses. The rating stuff aspect can be just as much of the emergent gameplay as the building -- think about rating things on Amazon.com."
Getting players to make (and sell) your MMO
Instead of trying to build MMO content faster than your players can play through it, SOE is trying to open its games up so the users can help build game content and promote it -- and maybe make a few bucks along the way.
Smedley pointed to the player-created items in Valve's Steam Workshop: "The user-created items in this are amazing -- and that's gameplay too. It's not just playing the game, it's being part of the game and the community, and making stuff for it. Players get to feel like they're contributing to the game, and they're profiting from it! This is the future -- letting your players make the game, and be part of the direction and future of the game."
Smedley also noted several different online channels for players to give your games more exposure -- livecasting and eSports competitions on Twitch.TV, user-created wikis on Wikia and Crave, and unofficial community spaces on Reddit -- as examples of how players could engage with your games outside the game itself, and thereby market your games for you.
"This is a trend to take notice of, because a year from now it's going to look a lot bigger," he said. "For us, we recognized this trend, so we built a Twitch.TV client into PlanetSide 2. ... Your game doesn't have to be an eSport, but it has to be entertaining to watch."
Smedley concluded his talk by pointing out how PlanetSide 2's development has been targeted towards this new games ecosystem: "PlanetSide 2 has been the culmination, for us, of focusing on emergent gameplay. We have thousands of players coordinating through voice and chat channels. Strategy matters because they want to know the best way to play, so we let users upload loadouts in PlanetSide 2. Then, dominance -- we wanted to make players feel like they could own other people, dominate continents, and brag to their friends."