PAX: The Future of MMOs, According to PAX

Guest contributor Brook Willeford, who was at PAX 2007 in Seattle, attended a panel titled The Future of MMOs. Read about it and what was said in the panel after the jump.

Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) had an almost overwhelming array of interesting sights to see and discussions to hear this year, but one of the most interesting was the Q&A discussion with a panel consisting of some of the luminaries of the MMO industry.

Although the discussion was supposed to focus on where the genre is headed, questions ranged far and wide when the audience got going.

The panel was made up of Kevin Maginn – Lead Designer for Pirates of the Burning Sea, Matt Miller – Lead Designer for City of Heroes and City of Villains, Ed Stark – the former Lead Designer for Dungeons & Dragons and now the World Designer for an unannounced MMO, Chris McKibbin – Executive Producer on Gods and Heroes, and Noah Ward – Lead Designer for EVE Online. The discussion was technically moderated by Jason Justice from Ntreev USA, although since the crowd was quite respectful and things moved along quickly, he served more as an additional (if quiet) panel member and a timekeeper than anything else. Each question will be listed individually, followed by an overview of the responses by the panel members.

Q: Why don’t we see more balanced classes instead of hyper-specialists?

Stark started off by referring back to Dungeons & Dragons, linking this trend to that game. He said that when designing D&D, they wanted to give everyone their spotlight, they’re time to shine, so they developed classes that were extremely specialized. He mentioned that he’s not sure whether or not this was a mistake, and wondered if it might be better to give everyone broader capabilities, with just a few areas in which they’re better than everyone else. That way, they would still get their spotlights, but they would also be capable at other specialties.

Maginn chimed in at this point and noted that he likes to design games where you never have to make a choice that you can’t take back at a later date, either by re-specing or by some other method. He noted that there is always a tension between a character having a specific identity (the tanker, the DPSer, etc) and being able to have some competency in most areas.

Q: Why are MMOs slower paced than one player games (particularly FPSes)?

Miller said that this was in part because MMO designers have to worry about how fast someone’s Internet connection is—although hopefully this will become less of a problem as time goes on. They also put skill cool-downs and casting-delays in to ensure that “button-mashers” won’t be able to prosper all that much, to ensure that it takes skill rather than quick reactions to create a powerful character. He mentioned that designers sometimes “solve” the slow pace of MMOs by throwing multiple enemies at players at once, but although this helps, it certainly doesn’t solve the problem.

Q: Why is it so popular to have linear leveling with a distinct endpoint to character development? Why not have spots where your character chooses a new specialty and you become a “novice” again? An international release was mentioned as an example, a game where they player fights on land, air, and sea, and has to master new skills each time.

Stark started off by mentioning that most players want to be able to “master” the game. They don’t want to be told, “Okay, you’ve reached the maximum level, now start over.”

Maginn added that some games out there, like EVE Online, don’t have the grinding that makes linear leveling so annoying at times, and have other ways to achieve mastery of and with your character.

Q: Why isn’t there more organic growth of the world and characters? Why are MMOs so linear and level-based?

Ward immediately mentioned that EVE Online doesn’t have levels, and that characters just increase their skills instead.

Miller noted that a great deal of this tendency comes from trying to hook people who play one player games with a more directed experience. He suggested that maybe there’s a way to have things open up partway through the game and to have the world, storyline, and character become more organic at that point.

Maginn had a return question: “Who creates this content?” He stated that MMO developers would love to have huge worlds with a ton of content that isn’t linear, but that they don’t have the time or money to put all that content in. He said that player-generated content is definitely going to allow MMOs to expand their worlds.

McKibbin added that levels provide a good way to compare characters. Telling someone that “He’s level X” is better than saying “He’s a Warlock with Curse of Agony, Death Coil, and Emberstorm all at 73%.” Levels—and the linear game-play that supports them—creates a shared vocabulary for players to discuss their characters. He did, however, note that as players get more comfortable with the MMO genre, it may be possible, even probable, that levels will disappear.

Q: How will real-life trade in Second Life affect MMOs?

McKibbin said that he thought that the current business model (subscription-based services) is holding back Western MMOs, and that Second Life is breaking the mold.

Miller added that new ways to get money to the developers will always be popular, which drew laughter from the audience. He added that micro-payments might be the next big thing as far as payment plans go.

Stark added a note of caution when he warned that you have to be careful with new payment schemes, because you want to make sure that the person with the biggest pocketbook doesn’t have a major advantage over other players.

Maginn took a bit of a shot at World of Warcraft when he noted that he sees the need to purchase in-game currency with real-world currency as something a development team could eliminate if they wanted to.

Q: Can anything beat World of Warcraft? (“…Short of terrorists hitting Blizzard’s HQ with a nuke” added the audience member who asked this question.)

To general laughter and applause, Miller said “World of Starcraft.” He then went on to say that the success of World of Warcraft is absolutely unprecedented, but that there are a lot of people out there trying to design “WoW-killers,” but that smaller MMOs are going to be the ones to succeed.

Maginn agreed with this outlook, and noted that these smaller MMOs are great for players, because they offer an opportunity for a player to find exactly the game that they’re looking for.

Stark stated that going after “the big boy” is going for the wrong goal, but on the other hand, if you’re not trying to design a best-seller, you’re selling your game short.

McKibbin chose to end discussion on the question with a straight-forward, “No.”

Q: Will the steady increase in instancing continue? Doesn’t this take the character out of the “wide world?”

Stark began by stating that instancing, and the heavy use of it will indeed continue, but that instances will continue to get bigger, and to include more players at once, blurring the line between an “instance” and “the wide world.”

Maginn noted that instancing is a tool to prevent frustration (when your group has haunted the spawn point of a boss-level monster, and when it spawns, some other group swoops in, kills it, and takes the loot, it gets mighty frustrating) and that it helps with bandwidth. He too was very up-front about the fact that it will continue.

Miller suggested the possibility of “instanced servers” rather than instances within a server. Every player on the server would be in the same game-world, with no sub-instances, but the number of players on the server itself would be limited.

Q: Will MMOs follow the transition that tabletop RPGs took away from grinding to fostering emotion? (The audience member asking the question referenced the move from level-based systems like D&D to world-based systems like World of Darkness or Shadowrun.)

Miller stated in no uncertain terms that level grinding is a crutch, but as much as the developers would love to, they can’t have a Gamemaster for every player.

Maginn added that MUSHes can provide that personal, emotional impact for every player, because they’re small, but that right now, MMOs can’t do it, because of their much larger size.

Stark mentioned that although the transition could be helped by developers including more GMing tools, he thought that MMOs need to expand beyond what is possible in tabletop RPGs by using AI and scripting to create the emotion, rather than relying on a personally-tailored GMed experience.

Q: Do you see players affecting the MMO world as a whole now or in the future? Especially in an in-game political realm rather than a military one.

McKibbin and Ward answered without hesitation: “Yes.”

Stark added that some games have done it, just not as well as they’d like.

Maginn agreed and stated that Pirates of the Burning Seas is trying to allow for just that sort of political maneuvering, but that their biggest challenge in doing so is to provide incentives (beyond bragging rights) for players to chase the higher echelon political positions like governor of an island.

Q: Is Second Life an MMO? Can MMOs take some form besides RPGs?

Stark started off the discussion on this question with a very straightforward pair of answers: “No, and yes.” He added that it’s a mistake to automatically add “RPG” to the end of “MMO.” McKibbin disagreed with Stark, saying that Second Life was an MMO, but that it wasn’t an MMOG. He noted that while MMOs certainly can be something besides an RPG, developers just haven’t gone in that direction yet. They’re starting to get a level of competency in designing MMORPGs, and so now there should be room and ability to innovate. Maginn agreed with McKibbin on his read of Second Life, noting that Wikipedia is technically an MMO (an online system to which many people contribute). Stark chimed back in to note that Second Life is a Beta Test for extensive player-created content in an MMO. And thus far, there are definitely some dangers pointed out by the Beta Test, namely the “Time to D**k” factor, the amount of time that a new player has before they are exposed to some representation of human genitalia (usually male). This time can be disturbingly short in Second Life, which can drive some players away.

Q: What other payment models besides subscriptions are available?

Justice spoke up here, noting that there are several free-to-play games out there that use a micro-payment system to earn money. Miller noted that publishers like subscription-based payment models, because it means a steady and predictable flow of cash each month.

Q: Any thoughts on the future of society-based games rather than character-based games?

Maginn began by noting that Pirates of the Burning Sea will have an economic society driven by the players, as does EVE Online. He added that it’s important to have reasons for players to put together guilds and groups of crafters if you want any sort of economic society to be viable; you need to have gameplay underlying your economic system.

Q: Are developers trying to move away from grinding?

Stark began by noting that he isn’t a fan of time sinks, and that he prefers “fun play time.” He explained that by “fun play time,” he meant that if a player likes the game and the time sink, it isn’t really still grinding, is it? Players of First-Person Shooters (Counterstrike was used as the example, but most any multiplayer FPS will do) can play the same map or mission over and over again without it becoming boring or being called grinding, because they enjoy it. He added that Counterstrike provides an interesting model that MMO developers could look at when attempting to make grinding more entertaining.

Interestingly enough, Stark’s point, while cogent, pre-supposes that grinding is and will remain an integral part of the MMO experience.

Miller noted that when designing an MMO, he looks at “moment-to-moment” gaming. What is the player doing each moment, and what’s moving them along to the next moment.

Maginn closed discussion on the point by stating that designing a grind is easy, and that designing fun gameplay is hard and costs money.

Q: Do you think that MMOs in the future will self-select their audiences? Will there be any way to prevent a hobbit named “Hoohaw” in Lord of the Rings Online, for instance?

Miller said that while developers would love to let only “real fans” into their games, to keep the experience as perfect as possible, it’s not really economically viable. They’d have to charge significantly higher subscription fees to play on exclusive servers. He didn’t even get into the difficulties of deciding who is to be allowed to join these exclusive servers. Maginn noted that a game will select its players to some degree. Fans of Lord of the Rings, for instance, will play Lord of the Rings Online, while fans of other genres will play games associated with those genres. He did add, however, that no developer or publisher is going to turn down cash by kicking someone off just for choosing a name that’s not thematically correct. Of course, if that cash is keeping other cash from coming in (players who are being extremely disruptive), they’re generally more than happy to ban the problem player.

Stark mentioned that the community will also self-police itself to some extent. For instance, players can join guilds of “real roleplayers” and the like. He admitted, however, that there will always be idiot newbies with stupid names.

Q: How are things going for women in gaming?

Stark immediately answered, “About as well as they’re going to do until we get more women designing the games.” McKibbin noted that while gender isn’t usually a factor in single-player games, because you’re just interacting with AI, it’s extremely important in MMOs, because you’re interacting with real people.

Maginn warned that it’s a big mistake for developers to create content specifically for women (save the tight-bodied prince instead of save the busty princess for example), because it’s often offensive, especially if being written by a male designer. He stated that instead, designers should create content that works no matter what the character or player’s gender is.

Q: Can we get more non-RPG MMOs?

Stark answered by saying that developers as a whole are still working on that. Many companies are looking at skill-based games rather than level-based games. He said that the MMO industry could do well by creating some hybrids with other genres (MMO-FPS, MMO-RTS, MMO-Puzzle, etc).

Q: Can we involve parents more?

Maginn noted that a game he worked on that Flying Lab never released (another developer eventually did, although Maginn didn’t mention either game or developer) looked at parents as their customers and kids as their players. Kids were playing the game, but they couldn’t make any decisions that involved real-life money—those had to be made by their parents. This scheme made it so the parents were the ones interacting with the company, providing them with a degree of oversight as to what their children were doing.

Q: Are micro-payments better, or are subscriptions?

Ward spoke up to mention that a lot of developers and publishers are watching micro-payments, but that games have to be designed from the ground up with micro-payments in mind in order to incorporate them effectively.

McKibbin added that subscriptions are a barrier to many potential players. After all, how many $15 subscriptions can a single gamer afford or rationalize having at once? Micro-payments allow players to consume content at their own rate, rather than at a rate determined by the developers.

Miller re-iterated the point that publishers like the steady infusion of cash that subscriptions provide. He suggested that maybe a lower subscription price combined with micro-payments might be okay with some publishers, but that they really do love their subscriptions.

Maginn drew a laugh when he closed the subject by noting that when he got started with online gaming, he was paying $6 an hour, and that $15 a month is extremely cheap compared to that.

Q: Why are fantasy MMOs so popular? Why are there so few MMOs in other genres?

This question brought a laugh from the panel, who all turned to Stark and proclaimed, “It’s Ed’s fault,” which spread the laughter into the audience. Stark even admitted that the popularity of fantasy MMOs is in some way his fault, or at least, the fault of Dungeons & Dragons (and the Lord of the Rings). He noted that D&D provided a shared language and archetypes that everyone knew. You tell someone that you’re playing an “elf,” and they have some idea what you’re talking about. With any other genre, you have to extensively explain things, but not with fantasy.

Miller noted that they wanted something like “races” in City of Heroes, and they came up with the idea of “origins.” Unfortunately, everyone’s idea of a “chemical-accident hero” or a “mutant hero” was different, quite neatly demonstrating the problem, and so the idea was scrapped.

Maginn put forward the idea that the fantasy genre also really fits the style of most MMOs. He pointed out that fantasy is all about small groups of heroes going out into the wide world and killing things on their quest to do what they have to do. It’s what’s easiest to design in an MMO.

Q: Is the market getting flooded with games? With subscriptions running $15 a month or more, how many games can a gamer play at once?

Ed Stark put forward the idea that time is more of a concern than money for most gamers. He noted that there are always ways to get money, but there’s only a finite amount of time to play games. Miller added that the dollar-to-time ratio for MMOs is great. AAA single-player games are around $60, and they have around 20 hours of content, which is around $3 an hour. To match that, you only have to play your $15-a-month MMO 5 hours each month to match the dollar-to-time ratio of a top-of-the-line single-player game.

Maginn noted that even if you only have the time and money for a single MMO, there are so many small MMOs out there, that there is a game that meets all of your requirements out there, you just have to find it.

Q: Can niche games succeed?

Justice chimed in here to note that the smaller the game, the greater the devotion of its fanbase. This means that smaller games can often succeed due to the efforts and thanks to the collaboration of that fanatical fanbase.

Maginn mentioned DragonRealms as a game with a (relatively) tiny player-base, but with exceptionally devoted fans.

Q: Why do people always talk about their games outside of the game? Aren’t developers missing a chance to provide them a place in-game to talk about their game?

Stark stated that just about every MMO out there has a place to brag, boast, or talk about your accomplishments, successes, and trials in the game itself. Players just talk about the game outside of it because they can’t be playing all the time, but they’re still interested in it.

Q: With spoilers and walkthroughs, how do you keep things fresh for players?

Maginn stated that developers and designers can’t prevent you from spoiling content, but many people don’t want it to be spoiled, they want the experience to be fresh. Stark agreed, but added that part of the problem is designers who make puzzles that you have to figure out, rather than “skill them out,” and that is part of the problem. With a problem that you need skill (rather than rote knowledge) to overcome, a walkthrough won’t help nearly as much.

Miller put in that the dream of just about every developer is to have so much content that everyone has a different and unique experience, but that no developer has the time or cash to provide that.

Maginn added that user-created content is and will be the key there. Not just skins, levels, and other graphic, script, or code content, but stories. For instance, if your PvP group has an epic battle with another group, that’s something that the developers never scripted (probably) and won’t be the same for anyone else, ever. He said that players creating their own stories and challenges is one of the best ways out there to avoid the loss of excitement and wonder that comes from reading a walkthrough or a spoiler.

As those of you who have made it this far through the article can probably tell, the emphasis on most of the panelists’ answers was two-fold:

First, developers are finally getting a handle on the current manifestation of MMOs, and so many of them are starting to branch out and look at new ways to expand the genre.

Secondly, due to time, money, and space constraints, user-generated content is the future of MMO development. Whether it’s beautiful new ships for Pirates of the Burning Sea, player-driven corporate takeovers in EVE Online, new skills or areas created by eager players for an unknown boutique MMO, or guilds creating stories to drive their gameplay in World of Warcraft, it’s big, and will only be getting bigger.

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