Since I started playing MMORPGs, back in the pre-Luclin days of EQ1, the face of the MMORPG gamer has changed. Somehow the culture of an instaclick (or MTV) generation has spilled over into the fantasy world of MMORPGs changing not only the tone and feel of MMORPGs but also the way in which the community interacts and plays, let me explain.
Late 90s early 2000, EQ1 was probably at the apogee of its success and World of Warcraft was not around. I think that it is fair to generalise and say that MMORPGs were principly the domain of geeks, beardies, and the generation who spent their youths playing table-top (like D&D) and that your average teenager was more interested in hs Sony Playstation than the shattered lands of Norath. this said there was one online gaming service that seemed to capture a large number of young and dare I say immature gamers - BattleNet. Something happened early 2000 with Battlenet which resulted in hundreds of our younger bretheren to go in search of a new home - many of them found one - in Everquest.
Suddenly an environment which had generally been quite a respectful and slightly reserved (no KSing, no training, respect for high level players and nurturing of newbies) turned into a screaming kindergarten. Hundreds of beggars suddenly appeared all over Norath, sitting outside city gates and banks begging for plat off anyone who looked like they might be wealthy. These new ‘upstarts’ had no respect for long held, but unwritten rules of the MMORPG world - KSing was OK, camps were there to be raided and taken and the OOC chat around areal like LOIO was decidedly potty mouthed and decidedly juvenile. EQ back then was a slow grind, you couldnt get a lvl 60 toon in 4 weeks, you were lucky if you could do one in 6 months, but these kiddies wanted endgame NOW!! and they would find any method, exploit or person to help them do it Hence was born the ‘B-Net Kiddies’ - continually whining and pleading for someone to PL (power level) them and refusing to play if they couldnt find a ‘chanter to give them a fix of KEI (infact many of them found it almost impossible to play without KEI.
I think that this new generation were to spell the death of MMORPGs as we had previosuly known them, they didnt want corpse runs, loss of gear, complex quests or long grinds - they wanted instaclick gratification. These people wanted fast leveling, lots of phat-lewt, glitterythings and being uber - instantly and somebody was sitting in the wings watching all of this and taking note. They already had an appropriate IP, they had the userbase in Battlenet all they needed was a shiny product to deliver to their MacDonalds fuelled, instant messenger, text driven hoarde and they had it, it was called World of Warcraft and the company behind it was called was Blizzard Entertainment.
From this point onwards the face of MMORPG gaming had changed forever. The IP wasnt particularly new, infact very much sameole sameole, high fantasy massive persistant worlds. What had changed was the way it was delivered, in 2 ways.
Firstly the game was very very highly polished when it was delivered, no more buggy quests, daily patches and all of the other problems that the previous generation of MMORPG gamer had come to expect and live with. This game was pretty much perfect by the time it hit beta - infact the beta was little more than server load tests.
Secondly the grind had been removed. Levelling was fast, loot dropped a plenty and the endgame had the choice of either raiding or faction v faction type pvp.
The other clever move is the game did not require an uber-rig to play on. You could even play it on a fairly mediocre laptop. This is important for 2 reasons, it opened up the whole Asian market (who play mainly in internet cafes) and the average child / youth who very often have hand-me-down pcs, which are normally a generation old, could also play.
The one last trick that Blizzard had up their sleeve, which the like of SoE have persistantly missed (maybe in their arrogance that gaming ends beyond the shores of North America) is European Advertisement. Europe is one of the fastest growing DSL markets, with at least as many potential subscribers as North America and Blizzard had noticed this.
The upshot is ‘old school’ mmorpg gaming is dead - as Brad McQuaid found out to his cost, with Vanguard Saga of Heroes. Many of the old EQ1 gamers have grown up, have families, jobs and mortgage commitments. We cannot afford the 18 hour camps waiting for Stormfeather to pop, or the 5 hour corpse runs when your raid wiped in PoF, those days are gone. The new generation are too impatient to play ‘old farts’ games. These kids have been brought up on twitch games and consoles, they want it fast and furious and must it look cool. This new generation have the attention span of a goldfish, if there isn’t something new happeneing every nanosecond, then it is consigned to the bin of dead games and they move on to the next shiny.
So what is the future of MMORPG gaming? Probably something between a FPS and an MMORPG. Huxley I think has set the standard, but is yet to catch on in a big way. SoE’s new IP ‘The Agency’ holds some promise - but only time will tell. Brent made an interesting point on his VirginWorlds podcast a few weeks ago - why are more MMORPGs not like Tomb Raider with truly interactive 3D environments? Probably because current technology will not allow it in a MMORPG environment. Whatever it is, it is not going to be the slow and cumbersome games that we have been to date - unfortunately it is more than likely many of the older gamers may not have the reflexes to participate in the same way that we do in todays clutch of MMORPGs - and that maybe a fatal oversight for many companies. As although the kids may make up a large percentage of the market, it is the older gamers who are often parents of the ADDH generation who pay the bills and pass on their hardware for them to play on. Exclude this market and they may restrict the supply of hardware and gaming to their gaming offspring. Currently I dont need twitch reflexes and a Razer Diamondback (although I do use one) for me to have a well equiped character in EQ2. A few friends and a little time farming harvestables gets me plenty of nice gear. But if I had to have 0.1ns reflexes to avoid a mob killing me, then I think that I would just walk away from the game and so too would many of my generation.
It is a fine line that the future MMORPG game producers have to walk, keeping the older gamers hooked, whilst bringing the new generation in and giving them both what they want whilst keeping the playing field level. It is going to be a tough call and one which I , happily, wont have to make.