Friday, February 01, 2008
Features of MMORPGs in 2020
It is the year 2020. Since World of Warcraft first passed the $1 billion annual revenue per year barrier in 2007 a lot of investment has been attracted to the business of MMORPGs. There are now several MMORPGs with several million players each and over $1 billion of annual revenues. MMOs have become big business. In view of the phantastic profits that are possible, development costs have gone up, and the production crew of a MMORPG now rivals a Hollywood film crew in size and budget. The latest release proudly markets their $500 million development cost, and is sure to become the next big thing. So what features will these games of 2020 have, and in which way will they be improved over the games from the start of the century?
1) Combat: Due to advances in technology both from graphics animations and data transfer, MMORPG combat has become more interactive. The old system of autoattack coupled with special attacks on hotkeys is gone. Players now need to watch what the computer controlled monster is doing and react accordingly. Earlier experiments to have this interactivity be based on split-second twitchy reactions have failed, as only a small audience of male teenagers were able to master that sort of gameplay. So now taking an intelligent decision and activating the right tactical response to what the mob is doing has become more important than being able to click in milliseconds. Combat hasn't become any faster than back in the days of WoW, but it has become more interactive and interesting. Most importantly scrolling combat texts have gone the way of the dodo, you need to react to whatever animation the mob is displaying, not to a text warning. As a positive side effect bot programmers have been unable to keep up with that technology, and bots performing combat are now a thing of the past.
2) Quests: Storytelling has much improved in the MMORPGs of 2020. Again text is a thing of the past, since developers realized that nobody wanted to read badly written two-paragraph stories as background for their quests. Quest backgrounds and objectives are now told in cutscenes, little films using game graphics, with a narrator telling you what to do. Game companies even hired film directors and huge artist teams to produce these quest intros. Instead of being told that orcs plundered a village and asked to kill 10 orcs and bring a stack of food back, you are now shown scenes of the plundering, with the cutscene giving visual hints in which direction the orcs went afterwards and where you now might find them. You *still* need to kill 10 orcs and bring back the stack of food though, it'll take another 20 years before somebody comes up with a better idea.
3) Character development: The level cap of the games of 2020 is relatively low, you'll just need about 200 hours to reach it. From then on it is horizontal development. Players still collect gear, but not things that makes them stronger overall, but specialized gear to fight specialized opponents. Expansions don't raise the level cap any more; modern game developers point at the strong decline in World of Warcraft players where after one expansion per year raised the level cap by 10 to now 200 there are huge and unbridgeable gaps between veterans and new players.
4) PvP: PvP is still very popular, but all forms of non-consentual PvP and negative consequences have been removed. The worst that can happen to you now is that you don't win. There are various forms of PvP: battlegrounds, arenas, duels, fighting over the control of keeps and other in-game objectives. But at their core games are mostly PvE, and PvP has become one of many possible activities at the now so low level cap. MMORPG historians point to Guild Wars as having invented this system.
5) Crafting: MMORPG developers in 2020 have realized that many players want a wide selection of options to play games inside the game, not just combat. In a development pioneered near the beginning of the century by Puzzle Pirates, every different craft is now a different mini-game. The games are skill-based puzzles, easy enough to play but not trivial to master. The times where you could buy gold from a gold farmer, buy lots of stacks of raw materials from the auction house, and master a craft in an afternoon have gone. Many people just craft for fun, as developers realized that crafting as a money sink didn't make sense, and as long crafting an item took as much time as getting things from combat, it should be profitable to do so. Some dedicated players built up great reputations as master crafters, really mastering the puzzle games, and some even claim that being a master crafter is being more leet than people who only do combat well.
6) Business models: Business models are still being experimented with. Monthly fees are now considered to be a sign that a game is targeting a hardcore audience. Many games use game cards which effectively have users pay a few cents per hour actually played. This has turned out to attract a far broader player base, without significantly reducing the average income per user. As people now only pay when they play, casual players are less reluctant to open accounts, and hardcore players now often have game cards for several different games. Micro transactions are often used in combination with those hourly fees, offering a wide selection of options to improve the look of your character, as well as scrolls giving temporary buffs to stats. The existence of such scroll buffs that double gold earned in game has lead to third party RMT mostly dying out.
7) Social interactions: The broadening of the appeal of MMORPGs to a much wider audience was only possible by them becoming the new places to hang out. Social interaction between players has been much improved. Guild features have exploded, encouraging players to work together for the greater benefit of their team in a more permanent way than winning some encounter on some evening. Player-built cities are at the core of this system, with various crafters and adventurers all adding to the splendor of their guild's city. Finding groups has been much improved, and making new friends online is now much easier. And you don't need to lose contact with your friends when you log out, game chat is now accessible from both web-based and mobile platforms. The MMORPGs of 2020 are a mix of the old MMORPGs and the old social spaces like Habbo Hotel or Club Penguin.
I'm looking forward to the games of 2020 and hope to be around to compare these predictions to the reality then.