Industry experts at the forefront of MMO discuss the genre's past, present and future
It’s an interesting time in the story of MMOs. The proliferation of new platforms and publishing methods that have been altering the industry at large have, after a period in which the genre seemed to remain untouchable, started to have an effect on online multiplayer games.
CCP’s Dust 514, Mojang’s Minecraft and Wargaming.net’s World of Tanks are all examples of new and exciting ways to approach the market, which once verged on stagnation in the face of endless clones of World of Warcraft, RuneScape and EVE Online.
There is still a threat of ideas drying up, however.
“You have to innovate, innovate, innovate and listen to your community if you hope to create future breakthrough content,” agrees Jagex CEO Mark Gerhard.
“This is where the small start-up studios excel as they don’t have the big budgets required to reproduce the marketing-leading content, so they are forced to innovate. The successful ones release content quick and iterate often, pursuing only what works.
“Content has become ubiquitous and therefore so has choice. It shows with player spending habits and more importantly the amount of time they are prepared to spend evaluating your content before moving onto the next. Core gamers will reward innovation and compelling content with their time and money, as will the masses.”
Meanwhile, Adam Taylor – industry analyst for game agency Adotomi – muses on the necessity for a different level of quality to break in to the crowded MMO sector.
“There is always room for ideas,” he says. The difference between the eastern and Western MMO markets is something that is starting to be felt internationally as well, and Taylor is keen to point out that it must be considered when appraising the potential of a new title.
“I think it’s harder to crack the eastern market right now than the West. There’s a huge number of MMOs in Asia, half of which no one has even heard of elsewhere,” he says.
“It’s a mature market as well, and it seems that the flow is mostly from the east to the West, not the other way around.
"There have been some successes – half of World of Warcraft’s subscriber base is in Asia – but in general the West is still the starting place for most studios, especially given the different tastes of the respective audiences.”
Matt Daly, the social media director with MMO tech firm BigWorld, sees a significant potential for cross-market appeal, however.
“One of our newest licensees, Globex Studios, is mixing veteran Western development, design and business development talent in with a Chinese team, to appeal to both markets with a staggered approach,” he says.
“The same is happening with Realm of the Titans, which has just recently hit its closed beta in the West, while it has been a success in full-release in Asia – albeit ‘full release’ has its own distinct meaning in the East.
"We’ve been in Asia for a long time, and we see more Western interest in the Asian games market at every annual Chinajoy.
“Of course, the Chinese gold-rush mentality pervades many more sectors than games, but every industry teaches its start-ups the same lessons; in Asia, it’s important to have a flexible attitude regarding your product’s final instantiation, and very important to make friends.”
Online community management software firm Crisp Thinking brings up the point that a shift within the sector from simple multiplayer to overall community focus has really altered what is and what isn’t lucrative.
“In the past, the MMO industry has been very much led by the multiplayer model. However, the community side is now becoming a commodity,” says CEO and founder Adam Hildreth.
“MMO publishers are learning and adopting the practices of large non-MMO communities which have been around for many years.”
As for what this shift will mean for the future of the MMO market, Hildreth has some pretty fascinating ideas.
“There will be a lot faster integration of games and product launches from the same platform. Social integration will also increase,” he says.
“Single sign-on will become the norm, anonymity will become less and less, and players will be able to take advantage of cross-game integration. For example, trading, but also be required to face cross-border responsibilities. Your actions in one game, will affect your leeway in others.”
Richard Leinfellner, CEO of the international outsourcing giant Babel Media, sees current pioneers within the MMO space as being worthy of more attention.
“Much of the mainstream PR is on big publisher MMO’s, however there are others like Minecraft and World of Tanks who have significant followings,” he says.
“In a way this space is where real pioneers are, rather than the companies trying to extend the life of their current cash cows. I expect significant growth to come from outside the mainstream.
“Especially with word of mouth and social networking becoming the driving force for an audience who does not even read mainstream press.”
Gerhard agrees, and uses a recent example to back up the point.
“It is clear to see the early success of the iOS was down to the innovative plethora of content available on it,” he says. “Although some might argue it’s just because the platforms look shiny.”
And because of that creativity Gerhard sees the future of MMOs being very bright.
“MMOs are here to stay and their popularity is set to grow and grow,” he says.
“More and more games will move not just from single player to multiplayer, but as MMO technology becomes available to all we will see those already in the entry multiplayer space move to MMO.
“I expect in the future MMOs won’t just offer entertainment experiences but will become an integral part of your life.”
Adotomi’s Taylor notes that the social gaming craze, if properly approached, can also be a significant industry boon.
“MMOs are the real social gaming experience. This term, ‘social gaming’ has been hijacked and really refers to games played on Facebook and should properly be termed ‘social network gaming’,” he says.
“This is the great thing about MMOs – true social gaming. In MMOs you can have a true co-operative social gaming experience with other individuals – work towards a shared goal, develop meaningful relationships – ironically, you can’t have that on Facebook.
“Facebook allows you to notify others of achievements and manage relationships. For example, you can organise a protest on Facebook, but you can have one in an MMO, like Eve Online did a few weeks back.”
Babel’s Leinfellner explains that he has already seen a shift in the development community towards the kind of world which Taylor and Gerhard describe.
“The transition to digital online is a challenge for our clients and we do all we can to support them to move away from old style inflexible delivery solutions,” he says.
“Most challenges are caused by big companies moving slowly. Even if the management knows the new destination, internal inflexible departments often resist change even when its crucial for survival.
“However it’s quite exciting given than two or three years ago less than five per cent of our business was digital.
"Now it’s more than 30 per cent, the pace is amazing and some of the new players on the block don’t have the baggage of the older more established ones so manage to get much faster results. As we focus on delivering very cost effective Just-in-Time, it really suits this new economy.”
BigWorld’s Daly sees agility of access and a wider use of existing technologies as vital for MMOs as the audience expands in both numbers and experience.
“Streaming download solutions like BitRaider – which is integrated into BigWorld’s offering and leveraged by a couple of our clients – represent a next-step in the battle to reduce user attrition as the result of client download,” he says.
“The industry is learning its lessons and applying things from the casual, mobile and browser based sectors, where the key is agility and under-encumbrance. The developers of rich 3D worlds, like kids at the other side of the sandbox suddenly tired of their old plastic dinosaurs, want to play with the new toys.”
Crisp Thinking’s Hildreth enforces the position, railing against the culture of long development periods that he considers long since outdated.
“Currently, MMOs are too complicated: to learn, to develop and to download,” he says.
“Success in the Western MMO market could be increased if releases of games are brought more quickly to market. Having an MMO in development for six years really is no longer an option.
“The MMO should be tested with real life players at a must faster pace. MMO developers need to adopt agile development, not pay lip service to it.”
The overall feeling about the future of the MMO is a positive one, however. Mark Gerhard, who knows a thing or two about the genre, sums up both his respect for the sector and his faith in what it will produce in the years to come.
“Studios should focus first and foremost on making fun games and the profit will follow,” says the Jagex boss.
“Just setting out with a mission to make money and trying to wrap some sort of game around will always be doomed to fail.
“Don’t start anything unless you are really passionate about it.”