Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Just a thought - The Rise of Non-Linear MMOs

2013 was a shaky year.

Many MMO titles have fallen on and off the radar.
Many F2P MMOs have been shut down due to publisher negligence and greed.
And World of Warcraft continued its tight stranglehold on the entire industry.

But today, it’s becoming more apparent that gamers are getting burnt out on MMOs altogether. Mainly due to years of conditioning brought by World of Warcraft, many titles have been forced to follow its formula down to a T, as well as follow a strict check list for progression, features and amount of control the player has up until the endgame. For any MMO that doesn’t have a massive amount of content like World of Warcraft, it’s a formula that becomes a time bomb for any MMO attempting long term development.

Previously at GDC 2013, Park Seong Joon of Neowiz CRS hosted a lecture regarding the pitfalls of maintaining a modern MMO, with average scenario that happens after an MMO has launched:

Wonky grammar aside: his lecture explains is that most players will burn through the content of a new MMO faster than any development team can crank out new content for it. While I tend to play my MMOs at a more casual pace these days, it’s a routine that I see time and time again, as many gamers seem to be convinced that the endgame is where all the “fun stuff” happens, and with the linearity that most modern MMOs have, they’ll soon realize that the endgame actually has an –end- to it.
What ends up happening in the long run is that post-launch development will take too long to create, so developers will have to focus most of their time and effort on various cash grabs and/or events in order to sustain themselves and their playerbase, rather than expanding on the game.

So how do we help prevent players from leaving an MMO due to exhausted content? One answer that many developers have concluded on is that we need to start looking back towards the past. Back to a time when MMOs were still exploring different possibilities with their gameplay design and how much control the player should have over their gameplay experience. Games like Ultima Online, Ragnarok Online, Runescape Classic, Graal Worlds, Saga of Ryzom, Star Wars Galaxies… While these games still gave players a sense of conveyance on what could do and where they could go, players were (for the most part) free to do what they wanted, when they wanted.  With this, players were less fixated on the endgame destination and more focused on the journey and the social experience that comes with it.

Although what players could do back then was considerably limited due to outdated game design, technology has come a long way. Today’s game developers are far more capable of taking a simple concept and doing so much more with it.

Simply put: MMOs are now leaning towards player made experiences and freedom of choice. A handful of game developers have realized that this is a more sound way to create an MMO, and while the initial costs for development will be fairly high, it will be worth it to have a lot more time to create new content afterwards as players create their own content and experiences, which could easily keep them busy for longer than a month or two. This is why I predict that 2014 will be the end of linear MMOs and will give way to more open-ended, non-linear ones.
There are already a handful of non-linear MMOs available, many that are in development and some of which are set to be released soon. Upcoming releases like ArcheAge, Everquest Next & Everquest Landmark, Black Desert, Life is Feudal, Peria Chronicles, Star Citizen, The Repopulation, Camelot Unchained, Shroud of the Avatar, Pathfinder Online, Gloria Victis, World of Darkness, Albion Online and many more.

Now I’d like to take a moment to point out that I did not list these titles as “sandbox MMOs”, even though many of them categorize themselves as such. The reason I say this is because all MMOs, including theme park ones, are very capable of providing an enjoyable, non-linear experience. The advantage of theme park MMO design is that developers can plan everything more accordingly around the activities and paths that each player decides to take.  Once more: Technology has come a long way, so players can enjoy an open-ended experience in a theme park MMO just like in any sandbox one. 

Take DevCat’s Mabinogi for an example: While it is considered a theme park MMO in every sense of the term and now has more of a straight forward progression path laid out for new players, it has enough content and features to give players enough freedom to experience the game in many different ways. Even during Mabinogi’s early days when there wasn’t a lot of content available, players themselves were happy with exploring the world, crafting items, socializing in town, starting campfires and playing songs for each other, rather than trying to complete the mainstream story quests as fast as possible.

Another upcoming MMO that’s said to be merging the line between linear and non-linear experiences is none other than the highly anticipated WildStar from Carbine Studios. Back in 2012, Jeremy Gaffney of Carbine Studios posted a news update on the official WildStar homepage, stating that both theme park and sandbox elements will be introduced into their game:

In most zones, there is an overall 'theme park' overlay - a main quest line that brings you through the zone, has some clear story to it, and is strongly directed. So you always have a guidepost for where you "need" to go (you can skip it, but most people do it). But in the same area, you can find random quests that are either dynamic (through discoveries, for instance), or some zones have elements like poachers who might get bored, build camps, and then there is a prisoner in the camp with a quest for you.”

“Because those random quests come from a static "pool" they are only semi-sandbox-y. But at some point you get a critical mass of quests that might appear that make the area really feel dynamic. We're experimenting with areas at the higher levels that are almost purely dynamic - we'll see if they feel great or if they still need that high-level theme park direction as we go into beta.”

However in more recent news, Carbine Studios has stated that they will have a strong focus on endgame content as well, so it will be interesting to see if they can balance all these pieces together.

Overall, 2014 has a better chance of being a memorable year for MMOs in general, and I’m certainly going to have a lot of fun sifting through each new arrival to see which one truly hits the mark. Who would have thought years back that the future of MMOs would lie in the past, which will soon be the present…? 

That’s almost mind blowing.

Original article: OnRPG.com


Phenoca said...

Such true.

Khalid Lamki said...

Now I’d like to take a moment to point out that I did not list these titles as “sandbox MMOs”

Not sure how you can list "Ever Quest Next" as non-sandbox? When did either Landmark or Next become a linear theme park MMO?

Khalid Lamki said...

I agree on most things you have written. Glad we will be getting less linear MMOs. When you have played the same content a few times in a row and nothing new comes out and it's just about gaining gear.. new tier etc. It become less social friendly and less about having fun and more towards competitive gaming to the top level and leader boards.

Mikedot said...

Well Khalid, I wasn't specifically saying that EQN/Landmark was a linear theme park, just pointing out that all MMOs could (and should) feature some kind of non-linear gameplay and progression.

Post a Comment