There is a rumble on the horizon. A shift is in the air. A change in the current generation of MMOGs is coming. This article discusses the future of Massive Multiplayer Online Games and covers the impending shift from the current generation of MMOGs to the next. I am going to focus on fantasy MMOGs since they hold the majority of the market, but this shift can apply to other MMOGs such as EVE, etc.

What defines a next Generation MMOG?

The answer to this question varies based on each gamer, but for me it represents a fundamental shift in not only playability but overall breadth of representing a living breathing world. While small advancements in interface, interaction and presentation can make a great different, a product which truly defines the “next stage” of online gaming requires quite a bit more.

World of Warcraft did evolve MMOGs by refining what was there and presenting it in a fashion that enticed players to play in a way no other game had before. However what’s interesting is many MMOGs have tried to add these “hugely publicized” features which one would think could qualify as “the next evolution” only to be met with a lack of interest. Aion is the perfect example, touting the ability to fly as something which no other game had.

Comparing these facts, it seems the games which are very successful are those which have what all other games have, only better, rather than features no other game has. Is Battlefield 3 really unique and unlike its predecessors?

However successful doesn’t equate to revolutionary or evolutionary. A good example is the large-scale PvP features of Dark Ages of Camelot; systems which set a standard and was unique in the industry, resulting in a very dedicated group of players. However it did not make the game a massive success.

As MMOGs are becoming more complex and featuring much more content than ever before, the time we must invest into learning and engaging within the game world is also expanding. Learning methods, play styles, memorizing locations, the abilities of our characters/ships/etc. all takes time and energy; and we all know how quickly that knowledge can dissipate over just a few months. Playing a MMOG is a serious commitment, and that required commitment is growing as the games grow.

MMOGs are becoming so large and complex now that very few players, hardcore gamers included, rarely play more than just one MMOG; and if they play two, the second one is usually used as a leap from one to another.

Classes

Star Wars the Old Republic Classes

Classes are the bread and butter of all Fantasy MMOGs. Once chosen, they set the framework for our character’s growth and customization. We know what previous and current MMOGs offer, but what about future MMOGs? First let’s cover where we are today. Everquest 2 has 24 classes, WoW has 10 and RIFT has 4, however RIFT has the soul system, which allows customization within each base class (9 souls per core class, three of which can be active at any given time).

While many refer to the traditional classes as the “Holy Trinity” (Tank, DPS, Heal), I’ve always looked at it as the magic four: Tank, DPS, Healer and Support. Every major fantasy MMOG on the market revolves around these core arch-types.

Guild Wars 2 has taken the public stance as the first commercial MMOG to directly address the “standard” with their removal of the healing class, thus making the game more about support which translates to strategy. In theory, this approach creates a method of gameplay enhancement where having additional players allows you to do things better rather than not at all. Of course only BETA will tell if Guild Wars has nailed this next step in evolving the traditional class archtype.

It’s my opinion that RIFT currently has the most flexible class system on the market with its soul swapping mix and match capabilities. While there are still “best builds”, the customization one can play with is quite impressive and another great step in the evolution of character growth and structure. The key is to not make it overly complex to where people get more frustrated or confused than not. In the end, people just want to play and have fun. Oh yes, and dominate.

Unlimited Character Growth

The future of MMOGs is that of unlimited character growth. This doesn’t necessarily mean removal of the level cap as much as it does enhancement of focused character features which have a continued and never ending effect of growth, regardless of how minor that growth may be.

I am not aware of any game that currently has “unlimited growth” except perhaps EVE Online where it’s impossible to train every single skill in the game given the time requirements. EQ2 has their “alternative advancement” system, but a player can max that out.

RIFT recently implemented their Planar Attunement system, which I think was an excellent step in the right direction; but even that system has a maximum value, and when players are finished focusing on the areas they want to focus on per their play style and chosen core class, they end up putting values into enhancements which really don’t strengthen their character.

The key to properly implementing this feature is exponential growth to a controlled medium. When I wrote the algorithms behind the gameplay of DEMISE, the system was designed so a player could technically grow their character nearly forever (the level cap was 999). Very, very few ever hit max level.

Offline Progression

Allowing your character to grow even when you aren’t playing is also a key feature for any evolved MMOG. Initially implemented in EVE Online, when I designed Alganon, the studies system acted as a variation of this feature. I believe more MMOGs must embrace the growth of “something” when a player is not online; this is a passive method that creates a tie to managing a character (or resource) within the virtual gaming world above and beyond standard gameplay. The possibilities of offline progression are nearly endless and can be tied into virtually every medium of progress within the game. Stats, skills, experience, and even the building of structures and crafting resources. Short on time this week? Hire a crafting NPC to create you something for 5x the cost and 4x the wait length. At least you’ll get it when your schedule opens up a bit! I believe players will embrace and expect this sort of mechanism in future MMOGs once the standard is set.

World Events

RIFT has set the standard for events and content releases. If you haven’t played RIFT, you don’t know what you’re missing out on. This is just one more step in creating living breathing worlds as events will evolve beyond their basic start and finish foundation and into more drastic world effecting results. Take a major static event such as opening the gates in WoW (the first major event where everyone on the shard participated in gathering resources to make it happen, and once it was done, the gates opened and it was complete) and compare it to a large zone invasion from RIFT. Now blend the two together in a fashion that results in world changes which are permanent. This is what is coming; events which people not only want to participate in, but feel compelled to participate in and that change the world. And of course we have the events that players have no choice but to participate in. Log on, go to your favorite little town and find out it has been taken over by a legion of demons. Time to clean house! But without even knowing, by slaying the boss, you cut off the supplies for the main army of demons to the north and allowed other players to finally overcome them. This is the future.

RIFT 1.6 World Event

While people jumped on the bandwagon for deformable terrain for FPS games, the real nirvana for MMOGs are deformable worlds that are controlled to the point of not coming unraveled; instead resulting in the creation of something more than was before, and it’s permanent.

Guild Wars 2 is claiming it will feature such “chained events” which will result in worldwide change for all players resulting in different content. The structure, framework and technical requirements for ensuring such features properly function and result in a continued playable world is insurmountable; will they get it the first time around? We’ll see on release! In the meantime, there’s a good write-up on their website about their perspective on things.

In the end, changing the world is not only a huge draw for all future MMOGs, it will become the standard.

World Interaction

Gamers want to feel like they’re changing the world, especially when they grow in strength and power. Single-player games such as Fallout and Skyrim are excellent at representing this, however MMOGs have yet to really give credit to individual players for their accomplishments on a scale that is reflected within the world; and in the rare event that something is “known” it’s usually due to the actions of a hardcore gamer very few can compete with.

As discussed above, games like Guild Wars 2 are evolving the world event systems to create a more dynamic environment, however I do not believe there is a MMOG in the works which is going to take this aspect of world interaction to the next level.

Figuring out how to balance the recognition of world-changing actions from any and all types of characters while keeping the experiences enjoyable, memorable and influencing is a monumental task nobody has yet fully achieved.

There are four parts to this type of interaction: Action, Result, Credit and Announcement. If you save the little village off in the middle of nowhere and nobody else is around, what good is that in a MMOG? You want everyone to know what you’ve done; and not only know what you’ve done, but when others come across that village, for them to know who made the village the way it is.

World announcements and methods of representing results of dynamic events which result in persistent changes are critical. For example, if a player walks into a village, there may be a sign telling the history of the village: who built it, who saved it, from what, how and when. Another design to support this would revolve around ensuring constant events were happening on a regular basis in the world, and those in the world are able to monitor and be notified of these events and their details on a regular expected basis. People who play the game hardcore are rewarded for their efforts through progress, accomplishment and reward, and people who play the game casually are rewarded in a similar fashion for being at the right place at the right time.

The most complex aspect of addressing this evolution is balance. How to create a controlled world which allows for such interactions while adhering to a controllable template is key.

Quests

Since the dawn of MMOGs, quests have been the core driving force of world interaction and character progression. They have also served as the basis of direction, guiding characters throughout the world. However, as online worlds evolve and support more dynamic content the mechanism behind quests will be evolving as well. While future living breathing worlds may feature some form of static quest implementation (from an NPC or item), the majority of quests of an evolutionary MMOG will be of a much more dynamic nature.

However the core purpose of quests as it relates to directing players through the worlds will still need to be intact in order to support the “fun feature”. Developers can accomplish this by creating a set of rules behind the management of dynamic quests which continue this “method of guidance” for players as they move from one point to another during the growth of their avatar.

Take a product like Skyrim, a single-player experience that features a living breathing world that touts having near Infinite Quests. How is it that MMOGs, which feature not only true living breathing worlds with thousands of other players, have not yet established a mechanism supporting a similar experience? Granted Skyrim is a controlled world where developers don’t have to worry about a hundred online players gathering together in order to do something they never intended which could throw the very balance of an entire system off, developers should be striving to create enough of a controlled mechanism with the “multiplayer chaos factor” to create real indefinite playability as it relates to quests.

The good news is this is coming. It’s on the evolutionary path; the question is who will nail it the “right way” first and set the standard for games to come?

EVE takes the cake for a true Virtual MMOG Market

Crafting, Economy and Market

Crafting is still fairly standard for all MMOGs. Where EVE is probably the most costly and complex crafting system on the market (building that Titan and those stations requires some SERIOUS commitment), the fantasy MMOGs have kept things fairly simple.

However in order to evolve into a real thriving economy, fantasy MMOGs will need to revamp the way they handle crafting as a whole. EVE is the first game I’m aware of where the crafting system is so well tuned and controlled that it can properly translate to real dollars. While this isn’t necessarily a “goal” of MMOGs, it’s a point of reference that can be used to establish the strength and overall success of creating a proper economy for a product that is designed to persist for a decade or longer (something all MMOGs must strive for now).

Crafting is essential to the economy, and a strong economy is essential to any game wanting to grow, sustain, and survive for years to come.

Work for Hire & Group Crafting

One feature which will help strengthen the virtual economies of fantasy MMOGs is a strong work for hire system where players can post the items they want crafted. While this is fairly easy to implement (essentially an auction house for work orders), the key is to build the economy so that key items are only craftable through players, thus increasing the value of crafting. This is where the complexity of planning comes into place.

EVE already features a system similar to this with purchase orders (if somebody sees a purchase order for items, they can fill it by building the items), and it is very successful.

Group Crafting is another evolutionary feature by which multiple players with focused specializations work together in real time to craft items. Certain “recipes” could require two or more of the same crafting trade, or multiples of mixed crafting trades. Implementation can be simplified by just filling a “need” to the master crafter who verifies the “pot” is filled (with the required materials) and then can then “execute” the craft (thus locking all participants in it), or make it more in-depth by requiring each crafter to act in a specific fashion to successfully begin the act while requiring tasks to be executed during the act. EQ2 has a certain level of player interaction to monitor the crafting while it’s taking place, and it does require some skill, but some find it annoying while others enjoy it. I believe requiring some form of interaction during the crafting cycle is a good thing. The key is to find something which doesn’t irritate players; perhaps a system that cannot “harm” the results, but only allow for the enhancement of the crafted item.

Pair the Work for Hire system with Group Crafting and it creates a dynamic where players must work together to craft specific items which are then used to fill work orders which are posted by other players, creating a chain of interaction and reliance. And add player interaction on top of that tied to item enhancement and a very skillful system would result, something I believe would qualify as an evolutionary advancement in MMOG crafting systems.

Market & Real Money

Ready to spend money? Everquest 2 is ready to take it!

While not all MMOGs are destined to be F2P, the model is here to stay, as is purchasing in-game items for real-world money. Some games will choose to allow aesthetic purchases while others will go full out to support the wallet warriors. We already have a blend of this in today’s current MMOGs, but what does the future hold? So far, we have seen numerous pay to play subscription games convert to F2P and implement a market. When implementing a market system, a game has to decide if they want to simply allow purchases which do not influence other players or compete with them (i.e. visual items, experience potions for growth, etc.) or to allow players to spend money to buy the most powerful items in order to not only compete in the world for the rewards, but against other players as well.

Battlestar Galactica allows this, and the game is doing well. Granted people hate the “wallet warriors”, they seem to have created some sort of balance as support for the game is growing. As one who has been blown to hell numerous times by well-renowned Wallet Warriors, I can say they did not ruin the game for me; one just learned to keep away from them. That and most people simply didn’t put the money into the game that others did. Also, it was fun to see non-wallet warrior gamers team up to kill the wallet warriors – and believe me, they did.

But what about real money for in-game results? We look at the crazy history of WoW and other games banning gold farmers talking about how it “ruins” the balance of the game due to the connection to botting and such. However no matter how hard game companies try, the botters and gold famers haven’t gone away in any capacity, they just figure out how to work around the limitations and rules. Instead of constantly fighting the core mandate of “no money for gold!” companies should instead evolve to support the use of real money in a controlled fashion in all of their MMOGs.

Free Expansions

Free Expansions will become the standard for all major MMOGs, especially for those which utilize real money for players to enhance their experience.

Intelligent NPCs

As computing power increases so will the ability for the NPCs to act more intelligently. This includes more interactive combat, pathing, group and collaborative behavior. The proper execution of collaborative behavior of multiple NPC types will mark a milestone in gaming standards, and the first MMOG that implements a level of strategy among its entities as it relates to combat, movement, and overall behavior, will define the next evolution for NPC AI.

Raiding no longer required

Everquest was the first game to really establish raiding. Since then all MMOGs (for the most part) have fallen into the same footsteps as their predecessors. You must raid to get the best gear in the game. This requires a serious commitment of time, energy, and patience.

But people are growing tired of required raiding as many gamers cannot set aside 2-4 hours of uninterrupted time in order to play the “high level content”. Plus it just gets repetitive and boring. For this reason MMOGs will have to evolve to include methods of allowing their players to experience and benefit from the “end game content” which allows the acquisition of the best items without requiring raiding.

While raids will always be around, future MMOGs will address this by a hybrid economic system of tokens or some other achievement which can be acquired in a controlled fashion and connected to acquiring the most powerful items in the game.

RIFTs new chronicles give us a taste of this; granted the plaques one gets from them can only purchase gear that is halfway to end-game, I believe this development mentality will evolve into what we need.

Mobile Integration

World of Warcraft Armory Android App

MMOGs are still in their infancy as it relates to integrating with outside and mobile hardware. World of Warcraft has released two apps, the mobile armory (which is an information repository without direct game interaction) and the Remote Auction House, which allows players to view, manage and even post auctions based on items in their character’s inventory. They can also receive notifications when their items are purchased. For access, a player must sign up for a $2.99 per month fee. Many WoW players enjoy and use this app, but it’s only a small step in the larger picture of mobile integration.

Trion is scheduled to deliver their RIFT 1.6 mobile app soon, which will allow guild chat stream and world event notifications. They are also implementing a little “game” where you can “scratch off textures” for a chance of winning prizes you can then send to your character. However there is still no direct game interaction, so they are simply taking the first step of “mobile representation” rather than “mobile integration”.

However as RIFT is a very event-focused game, I believe their app will act as a good first step for players as it will allow the monitoring of core game components.

To truly evolve a MMOG’s integration with mobile hardware will require some serious enhancement above and beyond simple auction house management, monitoring and notification. Companies must pursue the creation of applications which allow direct interaction with their game without giving rise to security or detrimental influential issues. This could take the form of allowing players to participate in group crafting through their mobile device, or allow players to define the offline “character growth” settings through their mobile device, or allow players to manage their auction house items and communicate in-guild.

There is some great room for innovation in this space, and I look forward to 2012, which I believe will be the year companies start creating truly interactive mobile applications to support their products.

Environments

Seasons. I believe static representation of weather for “zones” (save those based on climate location) will become a thing of the past as companies begin to integrate true seasons into their gaming worlds. Aion is the only game I know of which has plans of implementing this in their upcoming 3.0 release (as seen in this video beginning at 3:06  and talked about here), but they have not set a standard nor has the implementation of this feature become a standard for the industry.

While I believe the fantasy-nature of MMOGs will support static environments for a long time to come, once a successful MMOG properly integrates dynamic environmental changes based on weather, there’s little doubt players will expect it in all future games of a similar nature,

MMOG Statistics

Subscription Capture from MMOData (11.20.2011)

There are some interesting things happening in the MMOG subscription world. World of Warcraft has lost 1.7 subscribers in the last 3 quarters and 800,000 over the last 3 months, claiming  most of the subscriptions were lost in China. However, for the first time in 14 years, there is a lull and possible decline in online subscriptions, as seen in the total subscriptions from the website mmodata.net. I want to be very specific that data presented by mmodata is highly interpretive and is most definitely not completely accurate, however I believe it’s accurate enough to show the MMOG industry is encountering a lull; but is this really a MMOG issue or an issue with online gaming as a whole? Games like Battlefield 3 and Borderlands are most definitely not MMOGs, but more and more players are playing them, which means those players are not using that time to play MMOGs.

Some games, such as Warhammer online, are simply dying. This is sad, but a fundamental reality. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than logging into a MMOG world and finding it dead; a game company’s worst nightmare.

The players are what make a MMOG a living breathing experience; if that wasn’t the case, all games would be like Skyrim.

With games like Battlefield 3, Skyrim and Minecraft taking so many gamers time away from MMOGs, the question remains: when they’re done with these state of the art awesome games, is the MMOG world enticing enough to bring them back? Especially as a gamer can only really play one game at a time (no, multiboxers, we don’t count you).

The future standard for games that are not specifically designed to be single-player (such as Skyrim) is to be “online”, and soon we will see a blur between what is considered a MMOG and an “online game” as the two blend into one form that simply consists of different features, some tied to persistence, and others to community.

Recent Releases and upcoming games

There are some very important recent releases and upcoming games which should be discussed in detail as they are helping evolve the gaming industry in one fashion or another.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

While Skyrim is not a MMOG it is such a monumental product that it will undoubtedly result in setting numerous standards and expectations by players. Remember, a gamer doesn’t care if they see or experience something in a single-player game – if it’s awesome, they want to see it in other things they play, including MMOGs.

Dust 514

While DUST doesn’t appear on its own to be overly innovative (no offense DUST team, making reference to a sci-fi FPS core), what makes this product special as it relates to what I am discussing here is the connection to the EVE Online universe. To have a living breathing space-based universe that adds a FPS product where people in the two “game systems” can work together to accomplish goals which are reflected in the same gaming system.

Granted we still have yet to see how the actual integration works with the universe of EVE, what CCP is trying to accomplish is definitely evolutionary.

Guild Wars 2

ArenaNet is going out of their way to make GW2 an evolutionary MMOG, first through redefining class functionality and second through dynamic world events. The game looks beautiful and they are taking their time to refine the product to make it as strong of a competitor as possible. I believe this game has the highest potential of being considered a “next generation” Fantasy MMOG.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (SWTOR)

Currently in BETA, Star Wars the Old Republic by Bioware is slated for release December 20, 2011. Player feedback is mixed as the general consensus seems to be players are excited to play in the “Star Wars” world yet there doesn’t seem to be any representation of innovative or revolutionary features. While the consensus is that SWTOR doesn’t really bring anything new to the MMOG genre, one cannot underestimate a company like Bioware, who creates fantastic products. I for one wish SWTOR the greatest success.

Enticing Commitment and Excitement

With our society so connected to online content including Facebook and Twitter, merely building an awesome game and releasing it isn’t enough. You must get the players buy-in, not only to the world, but what the world is going to grow into. This is critical. Players need to be convinced if they join a new gaming world that they will be involved in it for months or years to come. This requires some serious foresight on what to commit to the player base for future expansions, features and growth.

Summary

As gaming has become a social norm and the most recent products are leading edge in both visuals and playability, the enticement to pull gamers into MMOG worlds is becoming more challenging, especially as players are becoming more defiant of a monthly subscription fee and the F2P model inherently carries with it a “cheap” representation to more sophisticated gamers; but then again, the “gamer norm” isn’t sophisticated anymore; it’s everyone. Regardless, the fundamental core of gaming in online worlds carries a level of common acceptance for all gamers, and working within this “grey area” is critical for any upcoming and future MMOGs as they figure out how to evolve the standards we have all grown so accustomed to (and in many cases tired of).

The cost of building a commercial MMOG can range anywhere from $10,000,000 to $50,000,000 or more. Design, Financial Control, Team, Technology, Development, Management, Milestones, Testing, Release, Support, Hardware Infrastructure, Deployment, Distribution, and Merchant Management are just a few of the required essentials. And that’s to develop a MMOG which competes within a known and accepted structure. To implement truly innovative features requires additional risk and investment; acts which very few companies are willing and able to take in today’s volatile market.

The good news is there is a natural driving force of product development which entices innovation and evolution, a standard process which has taken us from Pong and PLATO to Battlefield 3 and EVE Online over a period of 30 years. However, one must look back at the release of the biggest MMOG in history, World of Warcraft and realize we are celebrating the 7th anniversary of the game. And in those seven years, what really innovative and evolutionary strides have been taken?

A perfect example is Aion, a visually beautiful game which isn’t even a true persistent world MMOG; a product which is implementing “Housing” in its upcoming 3.0 release. Everquest 2 has had this feature since 2004, and Ultima Online had it in 1997. How is this progress? Granted they appear to be implementing seasonal environments, the counter-effect of these already established features found in many other games in a duplicate or similar fashion is not refreshing, it’s stagnant.

The key is to create a world players want to be a part of for years to come. In order to convince them of that, a product has to offer more than the competition, or be cost effective to the point of being the best “fun” for free (at least as players interpret it).

What the future holds is unknown; there are great strides being made in the graphical and technical fields, however I do believe the MMOG industry has gotten a bit stagnant as the most popular games in the world now are online non-persistent worlds where players can quickly jump in, have fun, and jump out. Providing the same fun factor in a persistent experience of growth and reward is critical to our future MMOGs; all while embracing new and evolutionary adjustments to the solid systems we have all come to love and rely on, but are also tired of.

Here’s to the future of online gaming. May 2012 and beyond bring us the first wave of next generation persistent world MMOGs!

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About The Author

Mr. Allen has an extensive background in technology spanning 20 years including software architecture, design and development, project management and leadership. He specializes in corporate planning, productivity and collaboration, and is the creator of the games Mordor, Demise, Horizons, and Alganon.

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