Oh my, are we there already? It was only yesterday it seems that I was wondering what the brave new world of MMO's was going to turn out like. Of course, back then I was playing Everquest and was working in the industry on networking related things, so it could also be classed as "research", but I sure didnt expect things to go the way they have.
Today I was looking for indie MMO's, as its an area of interest of mine (indie games and networked games).
I came across the link to a site called gamebunny and drilled down into the link:
That is, a list of MMO's showing at E3. Do you spot a trend here?
Now I'm by no means saying that there aren't other MMO's out there in the world. Thankfully there ARE alternatives, things like Habbo Hotel, even online webbrower games like Dofus. But it just makes me wince when I see all of the games on that site and the one that stirs my curiosity the most is "Hello Kitty Online".
There is some magic formula obviously, because these are all as cookie cutter as you like. Take some characters, dress the women in scanty clothes and the men in body armour, add some random mythical/animalistic creatures to bash on for a few months, add a dash of icon-infested magic and there you go!
The amazing thing is the costs involved in all of this. I mean, someone somewhere dipped into his corporate purse and handed over upwards of 20 million dollars for these things. Of course he probably doesnt know that he's got more chance of winning a lottery than succeeding with his cookie cutter game. It's no wonder people see games as a poor investment if this is what they spend thier investment funds on.
Of course you can always say "look at World of Warcraft" as a defense, but cmon, WOW is a creation of a company with a big profile, with a unique style and at a time when there wasnt much by way of competition. All of these cookie cutter games would be far wiser to look at say Anarchy Online for thier examples. Are funcom rolling in billions? Hmmm, guess not.
Luckily for me, I'm not even in the game here. I'm working on small-scale online games (whats the term instead of MMOG = massively multiplayer online game, perhaps MIMOG = medium multiplayer online game). Frankly, I think the ROI in mini-multiplayer is far better. We can live with a couple of servers, dont have to churn over tens of thousands of accounts each month, dont have to worry about massive influxes of people after huge press events etc.
My absolute favourite online game right now is Albatross18 (www.albatross18.com). It used to be called Pangya, but I think this is the european/american version of that game. Its an online session-based golf game, with a micropayment model. You basically play for free, but upgrading your character costs $$$. This model is great for smaller games, because who can complain about a FREE game right? (ok, not so true, but its a great defense), plus you can make spiffy new character enhancing items and people will WANT them. You can even throttle your funds by releasing new items, I've heard of some games doing that (There is one which name escapes me, where the company uses real money for purchases and which releases new content when it needs more funds!).
We also kind of saw that happen with Worms 2 when it got sold to Koreans, they incorporated the micropayment model and it did really well. Well enough that I hear Team17 are doing the same thing with a XBLA version of worms.
Which brings me nicely onto XBLA and console MMOG's.
I am absolutely convinced that at some point in the next 2 years, we will start seeing console based MMOG's coming out. I'm also convinced that outside of the huge WOW style games, the most successful of those games will be free-to-play with a micropayment model. They will also, likely, have to be session/party based. That is, they will be instantiated sessions, with between 4 and perhaps 16 players.
Why would they be like that? Well, technical limitations aside, your average buddy list isnt going to be that big. You play online games to play with your buddies. You play online games either for the socialising, or for the effect on the persistant world. So if you remove the possibility of having hundreds of people in one area, which CAN happen in MMO's, then why would you not just go instantiated sessions instead? Think of them as sort of instantiated dungeons, although they dont have to be that.
Now of course I believe what I say here. But can I back it up? Erm, no, sadly, I simply dont have access to XBLA and a 360 devkit. XNA is on the horizon, but it wont get me anywhere near a networked game within the next year or year and a half. So? Well, it means I need to prototype those kind of experiences on PC, with a mind to console experiences too. I'm entirely happy to do that.
Our current games in production are definitely not following this path though. Really just because they are quicker to produce and use a shader codebase. Its taken so long to get that codebase together and to really understand it, that it will be hard to break away from, but I feel that its necassary to step outside of our comfort zone right now, while the opportunity is fresh.