Tobold's Blog
Monday, May 10, 2004
The Future of MMORPG

The fun thing of publishing prophecies on a weblog is that you can come back years later, and laugh about how wrong they were. So I polished my crystal ball and looked what the future will bring us in the domain of massive multiplayer online role playing games:

MMORPG will become less buggy. This prediction will probably surprise most veteran MMORPG gamers. Compared with single player games, MMORPG are bugfeasts. But I predict that this bad "industry standard" will become gradually better, until MMORPG have about the same level of buggyness than single player games. This prediction is based on the observation that it is possible to make nearly bug-free MMORPG games. Both Final Fantasy XI and City of Heroes have a very low level of bugs, setting a new example for the others.

What I believe that happened is that at the very end of the 90's lots of executive manager of games companies read the news that Everquest had over 300,000 subscribers paying $10 a month (that later went up to 400,000 subscribers paying $12). That is not only a lot of money, but unlike game sales it is a very steady flow of money, leading to the smoother earnings so beloved by stock analysts. So all these execs called their R&D department and told them to start producing an EQ-beater, and fast. This lead to a lot of games being rushed to the market, and the rush lead to often low quality and lots of bugs.

This gold rush era of MMORPG is nearly over now. The market is flooded with MMORPG, and the less successful ones are starting to disappear. It is now more obvious to the same game company execs that rushing a buggy game into an already crowded market will not be a recipe for success. While EQ could survive with all its bugs, because its customers didn't have much of an alternative, new games can't afford that low level of quality any more. So I believe that SWG was the pinnacle of MMORPG buggyness, and things will become better from now on.

MMORPG will become more innovative. Nobody really knows why Everquest was such a success, least of all its producer Verant. So most games that were designed to beat EQ ended up being EQ clones. Sure, advances in graphics technology meant that many of them were prettier than EQ. And they often fixed failings, or perceived failings, of EQ. But even if they replaced swords and sorcery with laser blasters and science fiction, the basic gameplay was very often far too close to the original. So less people than hoped quit EQ, with all the friends, just to play something rather similar. And few people that already weren't tempted by EQ were tempted by its clones.

Nevertheless some innovation happened. As it is with any bunch of new ideas, some of them simply didn't work. For example nobody managed yet to create a successful space-faring MMORPG. That should be possible, but Earth and Beyond just announced its cancellation for September, EVE Online isn't going well either, and SWG is still grounded. Other ideas did work, but were just small improvements. And as MMORPG can be modified during their life time, Everquest even incorporated many of these minor improvements in patches, making it hard for other games to really differentiate themselves.

The most innovative game I played since EQ is City of Heroes. CoH breaks many of the classic molds of MMORPG games. Game reviewers are enchanted, and the game is well set to become a commercial success. Lets just hope that other game developers take notice what the strengths of CoH are (see below), and not just start producing CoH clones.

MMORPG will become faster paced. The secret of CoH is that it works on a different time-scale than its predecessors. Everquest and its clones can be described as being pseudo turn-based. Combat in EQ is a science, with groups carefully orchestrating moves. Between two hits there are enough seconds to give you time to think. When everything goes right, a full group of 6 people is fighting against only 1 monster at a time. Compared to that, City of Heroes combat is frantic. Instead of battling 1 very powerful monster, a group of 8 is battling up to 20 less powerful monsters at the same time. And those 20 enemies are usually a mixed group with different abilities. Added to that is the fact that you don't have much time to think; you have so many different attacks and abilities, that you end up button mashing in a more or less controlled way.

Now RPG geeks like me certainly see the attraction of pseudo turn-based EQ combat. I generally like turn based games more than I like real time games, both in RPGs and in strategy games. But I'm certainly aware that real time games are a LOT more successful with the mass market and the younger generation. And combat in CoH, wild as it is, is certainly smashing fun.

Another point here is downtime. The general problem in MMORPG is that developers do not want people to advance in levels too quickly, because they fear that people quit the game once they reached the highest level. The makers of Everquest invented the concept of downtime, your character has to rest between combats, or is forced to wait for other things, like a boat arriving. By forcing people to be inactive for certain periods, advancement is slowed to a point where it takes months or even years to reach the top. But players in general hate downtime. I usually have a book next to my keyboard, and managed to read quite a lot of them while "playing" many different MMORPG, which is obviously silly. So City of Heroes more or less eliminated downtime. Rest periods between combats are very, very short, and metros go every 5 seconds, instead of every 20 minutes. You are fighting most of the time in CoH, not sitting. But each fight only gives you a rather small amount of xp, and you need to kill literally hundreds of enemies to gain a level. In the end, it takes you the same amount of hours to reach the next level than it did in EQ, but you were actually playing all of that time instead of resting and reading a book.

I predict that the MMORPG of the future will be fast paced like CoH, with less downtime. That is not only a design decision that will make them more popular with the mass market (where fast First Person Shooters are popular). It is also a consequence of technological advancement. Pseudo turn-based combat dates from the age of 56K modems. More and more people having broadband make faster combat possible. And even for the 56K modem owners, advances in the way games handle data transfer can enable them to keep up.
"The makers of Everquest invented the concept of downtime" This statement is grossly incorrect. The Simutronics game Gemstone ( had a very blatant use of downtime that trumps EQ in age and severity. When you gained XP, say from killing a giant rat, you had to wait for that XP to be absorbed. You also had a limited amount of XP you could pool up at any one time and your rate of absorption was quite low outside of 'nodes' (say part of town). Thus you spent quite a bit of time bumming around town waiting on nothing but XP to sink in. That said though, I thoroughly enjoyed gemstone back in the day.
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