Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) have come a long way since the first virtual worlds came online. The audience is much more sophisticated. People are harder to impress and their expectations for what “quality” means have gone sky-high. Players have seen dozens of games try and not quite succeed, as development teams have pushed themselves relentlessly to make the next thing that can be awesome.
At the same time, building them hasn’t gotten any easier! Just getting a game functional and stable at a massive scale is a tremendous challenge all by itself. There’s no such thing as a “AAA-MMO-toolkit-in-a-box.” On top of that, in order for your game to get more than a cursory look, it needs to be fun, polished, and have enough of the features that people have come to demand before anyone is willing to take you seriously.
Then, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to put that together, there’s also the small matter of having a real story, a compelling world, and reasons that anyone would want to play your game in particular.
Every one of those is a challenge, and they’re all equally important. It’s critical to hit them all.
The true promise of MMOs is that they’re massive online worlds where there’s always something interesting going on, and plenty of people to both cooperate with and team up against. They can be so much more than just theme parks. More than just world simulations. More than the same scripted encounters running on a loop that never ends. More than a predetermined story that happens to occur around other people.
The senses of exploration, wonder, and camaraderie are critical. Creating systems where people always have a new way to play the game is one thing we should be doing. Creating new and interesting reasons to come back and visit old haunts is another. Creating new reasons and ways for players to band together and take on amazing challenges is yet another.
MMOs can be places where the world changes. Where new activities emerge. Where the stories that are told are of players banding together against situations that even the developers didn’t foresee, on top of all of the stories the world has to tell; on top of all the things people have come to expect.
They can be places where people aren’t locked in to strictly defined classes, where developers effectively force you into a small box. They can be places where players get to push the boundaries of not only what their characters can do, but can constantly redefine who they are!
MMO players have had years to evolve. It’s time for MMOs to evolve too.