LEIPZIG, GERMANY--One of a handful of sessions occurring immediately after Peter Molyneux's keynote speech at this year's Games Convention Developers Conference was a roundtable discussion titled The Future of MMO. Speakers on the panel included Mythic Entertainment's Eugene Evans, Cipsoft's Stephan Vogler, Webzen's Cindy Armstrong (formerly of Sony Online Entertainment), and Sigil Games' Zakk Karlsson (also formerly of SOE).
Among other things, the topics up for discussion included the integration of PC and console gamers in massively multiplayer online games, MMO business models, dealing with professional gold farmers, and user-generated content.
Before getting into any of that, though, the panelists attempted to settle on a definition of what an MMO game is, as well as who typically plays them. Interestingly, the definition of MMO games they came up with had nothing to do with the number of players supported, but was simply that the game takes place in a persistent world and has been monetized in a way that requires players to spend money on the game after they've purchased it.
And who are the players? Traditionally they're aged between 18 and 35 and play enough hours each week to be considered hardcore, but one panelist claimed that the players of his game are significantly younger, while another cited a report stating that--at least in some MMO games--the majority of players who are over 40 years old are female.
When the discussion shifted to the subject of MMO players in the future, the consensus seemed to be that more females and younger players are likely to get into the genre, while players in the existing demographic continue to play as they get older.
One of the ways that some MMO companies are considering getting younger players into their games is to make them available for consoles, and it was the mention of this strategy that provoked perhaps the liveliest discussion of the session.
Karlsson, for example, stated in no uncertain terms that his Final Fantasy XI experience has been "gimped" because, as a PC player, he is forced to play alongside PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 users and, as a result, put up with console-style interfaces and less mature players.
Evans talked about Mythic's behind-closed-doors showing of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning running on an Xbox 360 earlier this year, saying that the game would require a very different interface to work on a console. Armstrong suggested a game in which the integration of PC and console players would be optional or restricted to certain instanced areas as a possible solution, although when she asked the audience of around 120 for a show of hands supporting the idea, only one went up. PC gamers, it seems, don't like to share their gameworlds with console players unless doing so gives them some kind of advantage, as you'd expect in a first-person shooter or real-time strategy game where the mouse is king.
When the subject of subscriptions was raised, all of the panelists agreed that the payment model is here to stay, simply because teams of people are required to keep MMO games running after they launch. There were plenty of suggestions for variations on the subscription model, though, including a cable-TV-style model where players can pay extra for premium services--a system similar to that employed by many companies in Korea, where players pay for in-game items rather than for a subscription--and even a pay-to-play model for sports games that was compared to pay-per-view TV.
That discussion segued nicely into one about players using real-world money to pay for in-game items, which the majority of the panel was against, since it not only gives players with the most money an advantage, but can also make maintaining a healthy in-game economy very difficult. The Magic: The Gathering collectible card game was cited as an example of a well-working system where money gives players an advantage but doesn't guarantee success, but the conversation turned to "gold farmers" before Magic was really discussed.
Professional gold farmers, who are paid to collect rare items and currency in-game so that they can be sold to other players for real money, are a thorn in the side of all MMO developers, it would seem. Tracking down and banning the farmers appears to be the most popular course of action, and one that Blizzard has enjoyed some success with of late, but the panel also discussed the challenges that they face when a game's balance is thrown off by a sudden increase in available currency or rare items as a result of farmers. Whether or not companies will find a way to get rid of gold farmers once and for all remains to be seen, but you can bet that the battle is far from over.
Turning their attention to the title of the roundtable discussion, the speakers shared a number of ideas for the future of MMO games, some of which were quite exciting to consider. The idea of being able to use a cell phone or PDA to trade items or to level up skills via minigames, for example, would be great for players in need of an MMO fix while away from their computer. The prospect of users being able to generate their own MMO content, while unlikely to happen anytime soon, also sounds appealing, particularly for budding game designers and players who are looking for new challenges after beating the same dungeon for the hundredth time.
One thing is certain: MMO games are here to stay, and there are plenty of companies out there right now who are thinking about ingenious ways to develop and publish the next World of Warcraft.