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The MMORPG industry is ever growing, with many new titles being added to the genre each year. I consider myself to be a veteran MMO player, but I know there are many more people out there, with experience vastly superior to mine.

I want to delve into the last 10 years of the industry and find out what makes it tick, what has changed, and if the framework is still the same, so join me, after the break!

Modern Perception

The way the industry is perceived, currently as a whole, is poor. If I were to loosely describe to some friends a MMO or give an example, like World of Warcraft, the common response I would receive would be, “Don’t you have to pay monthly for those?” Although this is true for some games in the genre, it does not always break down that way. There are three categories.

The play grades:

Pay to Play (P2P) - This is a category where most of the larger titles fit. Here you will find Aion, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Lineage 2 and more. The developers of P2P MMOs pledge to their communities that they’ll provide updates to the game on a regular basis. This being the main reason you P2P, besides paying the bills. This does not always mean content patches but could mean bug fixes, establishing community events or other non-content based additions.

Free to Play (F2P) - There are a wide variety of free to play games on the market that would fall under the category of an MMO, in my experience of F2P MMOs, quality comes at a price. Content updates with F2Ps tend to be few and far, as the developers do not get paid to work on the game, the only source of income for some would be donations. There is only one MMO in this category that I believe defies the often lower quality of F2Ps in the genre. This title is “Guild Wars.”

This clever title is based on a desktop client, like most P2Ps, but instead of making its players pay a monthly fee, it chooses to release expansions on a steady basis. This coupled with additional extras makes it the most powerful MMO in its sub-category.

Micro-transactions – This is a variation that builds upon the F2P concept, yet does not go quite as far as P2P. Often these games initially may look free, while you would have to pay for additions that would only improve your game play. This, however, is not the case. More likely, you will have to pay for a fair share of the micro-transactions just to experience the game as a whole.

It’s not all about the money… or is it?

The recipe for a fairly successful MMO has not changed much over the last 10 years, while in the last five years “thinking outside the box” has decreased even more dramatically. Why you ask? Well, World of Warcraft, the giant in the industry, which has peaked at over 11 million players, have grabbed a tidy sum of attention (and cash!)

For a game developer, there is an obvious advantages to making a P2P MMO as it can sustain the work force for a far longer period than a moderately successful, single player RPG. This has inevitably led to a series of new games entering the industry known as “WoW Clones.” These games keep all of the same traits that WoW has, they are often not built upon or changed with the only difference being their story line. This if often an unsuccessful attempt to match the gaming giant. Even still, all games are down to the personal preference of the player. They choose the story line that fits them best.

Down to the roots

We have to try and remember that it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the recipe has not changed much over the years; after all, if you develop a perfect recipe, why would you completely re-invent the way it works?

After some internet searches, I found what I believe to be the first in the modern MMO generation, Ultima Online. This game was the first of its kind to reach a subscriber base of over 100,000 players, as all modern MMO’s aim to reach at least a few hundred thousand. This was a massive achievement for a game first created back in 1997.

UO has also been plagued with bugs over the years since release. This, coupled with multiple revisions of the game has left it a very controversial subject. Even with these issues in mind we can recognise UO as one of the forefathers of the MMORPG industry. Through its time, Ultima Online has implemented many of the core structures we still see in the genre. UO had a combat system, virtual economy, player housing, a crafting system and more features that we see in newer MMOs.

Beware, a monster lurks deep within

The development team on any MMO must have skin thicker than an elephant (that’s 1 inch, for those who don’t know). One of the strongest characteristics of MMO games is the population who choose to play them, often the most unforgiving bunch who do not forget mistakes of the past.

This is highly evident in the masses of ex-players from Sony Online Entertainment’s Star Wars Galaxies. Many of the people who used to play the game are on 101 different gaming forums, all saying how their beloved game was ruined by the infamous “New Game Enhancements.” For the future of the industry, new developers should take a note from mistakes of deceased MMOs, losing players is devastating.

Many veteran MMO players that I have come across have an extremely bitter taste in their mouths; this only adds pressure to developers, as usually nothing they do seems to be right.

Back to the future

The future could still be bright for the industry; we have examples of released games now that are trying to break the mold. Games such as EVE Online, which take a completely different style to the mainstream of the industry. Due to personal belief, however, the industry needs more games that will mold together old points that have made great games and add a new twist, not just a new story line.

Though I have proclaimed my fan hood for the game already, I believe Star Wars: The Old Republic is following this pattern. They are taking one of the most successful combat systems, based on “global cool downs,” and instead of changing the great recipe, they are adding spice to another: immersion. All playable and non-playable characters in the game will have a voice, a stark contrast to what we currently see in MMOs, with perhaps, a few lines of dialogue per enemy groups or just bosses and key figures talking.

I believe the future is bright, on the condition that developers look not to destroy the mold but give it some new features. Players also need to try and think more optimistically. With these conditions, we could see a lot of interesting releases from the ever growing industry in the next 10 years.

  1. Whether P2P, F2P or microtransactions, I’m waiting for the next great MMO to come along and rival WoW. It’s time the king passes its torch on. Great Article!

    • avatar Brian

      Steve Krug’s book is a gem, I love the fact that even the way the book is written and layed out is acecssble and highly user friendly.Personally I couldn’t agree with you more. I work in web design and often find it an uphill battle to explain that even within a single marketing demographic you will see multiple user types and multiple user behaviours. We’ve had some headway with doing ethnographic based persona development workshops where we invite the stakeholders, we often generate 10+ personas and the stakeholders see how difficult it is to narrow that field down :) The true turning point though is when we can get them into our usability lab to watch (and this is key) more than one’ usability session. When they actually see 2 users who fit their demographic profile behaving completely differently as they interact with the prototype site it suddenly becomes very real for them. After that they are a bit more reasonable when it comes to our suggestions and site designs :) I know that user testing is become more prevalent in the gaming world but I wonder how often the decision makers, producers, developers etc sit in on these sessions and see how actual users use’ the game. Would this have an impact on the overall game design, or is it too late by this stage for this kind of insight to have an impact?

  2. I started with UO, became very picky after that, and really only settled on WoW, after dabbling in a bunch of them.

    It’s hard to believe that in over a decade, nothing has really trumped it.

  3. Well Ultima Online was the first MMO in the US but the true first graphical MMO was probably some game made in Korea none of us have ever heard of :/. This is a nice read though but it sort of points out a fault I find in many MMO players in the form of the nostalgia goggles. Many MMO players will always compare games to whatever it was they played first and always disparagingly it seems. The “community” is also vastly underplayed in analysis as well. Those are two big reasons I think WoW is the MMO giant right now. It is the first game for most MMO players out there and it has the highest player base and as a result the most active community. (well if you want to call it that …..) Sadly there isn’t much new MMO’s can do to fight that.

  4. avatar Lee

    a late arrival to the mmo scene WoW being my 1st and only effort which i gave up in August. But its grasp is deep within and giving up is not an option and ive encountered nothing close to beating it down.Coupled with Dans Posts every 5 bloody minutes means my return is iminent!. Keep up the good work Danny boy, might see u soon!

  5. avatar Nodd

    I started out playing Meridian 59 which barley qualified as a MMO as there were only a couple of hundred people per server but it did predate UO. After that I played just about every MMO that came out. One thing I’ve noticed is that early games like Ultima Online & EverQuest punished players harshly for making a mistake & dieing. Death penalties have all but disappeared in most newer MMOs. While this may seem like a good thing, in my opinion it takes away much of the thrill of playing. If there’s no downside to screwing up then there’s also little feeling of accomplishment when you don’t.

  6. I’ve only ever played World of Warcraft myself, though I’m willing to give Star Wars: The Old Republic a try.

  7. avatar Idaeus

    very true what you say about people comparing subsequent games they play to their first mmorpg. I can’t help but compare other mmorpgs to wow, it being the first one i played. I’m able to view and play all games with an open mind but I can imagine its very easy to rubbish a game simply because it doesnt fit in with what you are used to

    • avatar Chocky

      I’m not so experienced with MMOs, but is a good story in MMO ilstef really matters with such a great background like in Star Treck, Star Wars, LOTRO and even WOW. Players know this worlds and many of them subscribe to play only because they know what they will recieve. The implementation of the world depends on designers and developers. Writers have already done their part of work, introducing virtual worlds into the minds of future players, and now they may just sit back in armchair drinking wine.Also, quest texts surely should be rich and expressive, but what percentage of players even read them? Outstanding quests with interesting dialogs is a must for a single player games, but MMO assumes there’s a group of players challenging it. They are surely interested in main concepts of the quest, but what is more important to them is to communicate and cooperate to reach the big shining medal (honor, status) at the end.I’m a developer, not a cool designer, even not a mega-writer. :) And my vision of this things may not have any intersections with the real world you live in.

  8. F2P MMORPGS tend to get infested with annoying children.

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