As I have said in previous posts, I honestly believe that the future of MMOs is likely to be a hybrid of the current MMO style and a twitch type combat system, a la Huxley, Hellgate London and to a degree Planetside and now SOE’s The Agency. The problem with bringing in a twitch based system to an MMO arena is it skews the playing field. Why?
It is a fact that as we get older, our reflexes slow and there is little that we can do about it. During my occasional forrays into BF2 and CS:S, I regularly get my ass handed to me in sling, so more and more I tend to play sniper classes, as the range gives me that little bit of edge back.
In traditional MMOs, progression very much equates to time invested, in twitch games it is very much down to reflexes and dexterity. So how do you create a game, that caters for both the young and the old without disenfranchising one or the other ?
The key lies in offering 2 different lines of advancement. One line being reflex based, out and out gung-ho, head to head combat, the other lies in stealth, planning and puzzle solving. For example if it were a martial arts based MMO, you could choose to play a Samurai or Shaolin Monk - all out, hand to hand or close quarter combat. Or you could choose to play a Ninja or Lin Kuei, planning your attacks and carrying them out using diversions and stealth. By offering the gamer alternative choices of obtaining the same goal, the playing field becomes more even.
Combine this with other choices for players, support roles as a team member - supplies, healing, engineer etc or as a solo player - saboteur, sniper, transport (most of these will translate easilly to SciFi, Fantasy, Oriental etc) and the pure twitch element’s requirement is somewhat deminished. Even in a PvP environment the ranged or stealth player could hold their own, using traps (invisible to otherplayers), smoke screens and diversions to gain advantage, whereas the pure twitch player has the element of fast reflexes and greater melee type damage. Take this one step further and you could have a duo say of a Samurai and a Magician - but the magician has the art of disguise. The Samurai appears frail under the magicians illusion, whilst the magician himself is invisible or becomes a mount - an attractive target in any PvP environment. A ninja goes for the one shot kill against what he thinks is a frail trader, only to be confronted by a Samurai with 15,000hp ! In any real battle, it is only the very strongest and toughest that flaunt their presence publicly - tanks mainly, everyone else uses camoflage, stealth, speed, strategy and planning or superior firepower to win their battles. So it should be in MMOs, ganking a mob may be well and fine, if you have the numbers and strength to do it, but trapping and poisoning it may also work just as well, but with much fewer players!
Another area that is sadly lacking in many modern MMOs is puzzle solving. The problem is, with spoiler sites being so prevalent, static puzzles are without challenge. What Devs need to do is incorporate dynamic or random puzzles, that challenge the player. Puzzle solving is not age dependant and therefore is equally challenging to both the older and younger players. Lara Croft - Tombraider is a classic example of how puzzles can work well in a game, unfortunately though, most of these type of puzzles are static and not dynamic.
Overall the model for many of the current MMOs is pretty similar, if you understand the mechanics of one, it isnt hard to translate that to any of the others the only thing that really differs are the levels of risk/reward. I know that there are a few variants emerging from the traditional MMO model, the most succesful of thes ebeing Eve, but even in that game progression still equates to time invested.
I think the problem is currently that too many investors saw the success of World of Warcraft with its huge subscriber base and expect any new investments to follow the WoW model. Well sadly I think that is a dead-end road. WoW was succesful for a lot of reasons, its mechanic being only one of many. That alone is not sufficient to create a sucessful MMO. The Warcraft IP has a long and succesful pedigree that it traded on, Blizzard had a huge established playerbase in Battlenet, I could go on, but wont. In my opinion the game as an MMO is mediocre, but the game as a game (a medium of entertainment) is absolute genius.
So what of the future? Well we have seen the death and near-death of several MMOs this year, Gods and Heroes. Car Wars, Vanguard and I predict we will see many more, as investors blindly expect developers to follow a model that is not only flawed but was unique to Blizzard and truth be told cannot be recreated, we will see another tranche of mediocre MMOs that are set to fail, even before they launch.
Only when someone with enough vision and understanding of the Massive Gaming Demographic (which is currently 18 - 35 years old, I believe) decides to move away from the EQ1 / UO / DAoC / EQ2 / WoW model and starts again from scratch will we truly see a true 3rd generation MMO with the potential to capture the hearts and minds of millions of players again.