Monday, April 28, 2014

PAX East 2014: Next Generation MMO Trends Panel Recap

The other panel that I went to at PAX East was “Next Generation MMO Games: What’s Next for Multiplayer Trends?” (If you missed the first panel recap on Modernizing Fantasy RPGs, check it out here). Traditionally, Blizzard represents the best of the best of the old guard: the themepark MMO, including raiding, question, and the guided experience. The folks on the panel were from other companies, who are currently innovating in different ways as it’s become incredibly difficult to compete with the incumbent in the themepark MMO space.

The panel consisted of Ian Fisher (Director of Design at Robot Entertainment, Orcs Must Die, Hero Academy), Stephen Frost (Game Design Producer at Carbine, Wildstar), Dave Georgeson (Director of Development for EverQuest Franchise, Landmark), Kjarten Pierre Emilsson (Principal Game Designer at CCP, EVE), as well as Stephen Johnston (President of Guild Launch).
Unlike the Modernizing Fantasy RPGs panel, which was a narrative across the history of RPGs, this panel was presented as a question and answer period, with a moderator asking questions. I’ll admit to not having the time to jot down notes about who said what, unfortunately, but hopefully the responses will still be interesting.

What do you see as the Strongest Evolutionary Force in MMOs now? Over the next 2 years?

Right now MMOs are really lots of smaller games in a single game, with interlocking systems in order for you to care about them (i.e.: crafting is a mini-game, with ties to gathering, which all ties into combat). That will continue to be the case in the future, and expanding to more interlocked systems added on.
Finance is another strong evolutionary force. It takes an enormous amount of money to make an MMO. If you want to be able make games with a smaller team, and smaller investment, we’ll see smaller niche MMOs that do a small number of things in an MMO setting.
User generated content, creating worlds together to play in together like in Landmark and EverQuest Next will be where things go.
More games in the same universe, and interacting with each other in novel ways, being able to affect each other in different games. The emergence of affordable VR technology is interesting as well.
Server sizing is important; letting users and players interact without barriers, and making player communities and how they evolve, enabling them in the future.

What is the most effective business model for a new game launching today and why? Any new business models in the next 5 years?

Different things work for different people; how you monetize your game, and what kind of game you’re making, and how is the economic model tied into it so that you are playing something that is fun, but also fair. It’s a lot like asking what kind of car you should drive. Geography, the game itself, and the players all tie into which model to use.
Free to play really drives quality, as people won’t buy what they don’t like, but also requires volume. It does work for fast gameplay (like League of Legends), whereas a game like EVE with slower gameplay, a subscription model makes sense.
Pre-launch phase of Kickstarter style funding is certainly getting bigger, with getting people excited for the game and actually getting into the game early. MMOs, however, are the biggest, scariest thing to make. A game like Wildstar takes a lot of money, time, failure, iterating to make sure things are good. The problem with Kickstarter is you get your money, and that’s it. If you release it and it sucks, it’s basically, well, sorry about that. Kickstarter isn’t sufficient for an MMO. A lot of the people who give you the money believe $100,000 is a lot of money, and they think, “C’mon, we gave you $100,000, you’re not gonna get the game done?”
Landmark, on the other hand, the Founder Packs and the like doesn’t come even close to funding development. Founders Packs are a gate for people who are super interested in helping them make something better. The people with a trollish nature aren’t going to want to pay $100 to get in. If we were going to talk about a business model for the future, rolling out new features/content and making development interesting could be a good new business model as long as they don’t screw it up the first time.

Player created content has existed in various forms for a long time, but are we seeing a Renaissance?

Wildstar handles this by putting it in its own instance, but other people can visit. It keeps it out of the way, but other people can come visit and get benefits out of your content. It doesn’t affect the outside world as that has issues, but it can still remain social.
Emergent simulation from player content is extremely powerful. Graphics are now prohibitively expensive to continue improving, so we’ll see more people look to AI and player generated content, including social content. Minecraft, DayZ, EVE are all good examples where player-generated content is very much the game and it works well.
Landmark has proven that what players can do with tools is astounding. Giving them tools will produce amazing results. But it’s not just building things, it’s also dungeon layouts, AI, scripting, and so on. This is the future, creating a new platform, where the players are designing.
Content in EVE is very much social content, which is the way people play. It’s a like a chemical reaction that is self-sustained, and EVE created an environment that can maintain this reaction going on forever. The reaction needs to feed on energy, though, or it will die out. The energy in the reaction is the emotions of the player: things like betrayal, or caring for other players. These kinds of social dynamics can lasts for months, or years, and keep this whole thing interesting and living.

How are MOBAs changing the landscape of MMOs?

Wildstar has a lot of skill shot based combat (MOBA like). TERA, Neverwinter also exhibit this. It’s not just tab-target, hit the guy, win. MOBAs have influenced combat a bit.
All games feed into other games. You have things where MBOAs will get into MMO. If there is one thing MOBAs have proven is that it’s okay to be deep, complex, and hard to get in to. We’ve learned is that there is a market out there. We spent so many years trying to market to the lowest common denominator player, but no matter how easy I make it to play, mom still doesn’t want to play Age of Empires, so why are we spending so much money trying to get them to play?
Side quote: “I think the terminology is ‘filthy casuals’.” “Did you just call my mom a filthy casual?”
There’s still a market for casual players, but we shouldn’t be afraid to market to a community who likes that complexity. Heck, if it wasn’t for that community like in League of Legends, how would you learn to play? Or even Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress. And that’s okay.
MOBAs leveled up people’s expectation of pace and skill levels in the industry. Like WoW, LoL and DOTA brought a large number of new players into gaming and the genre, opening up more opportunities for games in all genres.
MOBAs are like an externalized single shard (server) game, fame is the emotion driving the high end, and in eSports people are trying to take down the top position, not just in a single instance of the game, but globally. You could think of this as an activity you could do in an MMO, like watching a sports event.
It would be nice if MOBAs could have more community. MMOs create a lot more downtime where people learn about one another. Maybe that downtime is not frantic fun, but it’s where you build relationships.

What is the biggest challenge facing MMOs in the next 5 years?

Funding is the biggest issue. These things are multi-hundreds of millions of dollars to make. Going to investors and saying, “This will take six to eight years, hopefully it’ll be good, and hopefully people will continually pay us money to keep making it.” It’s a really hard pitch to make. Instead we’ll see people make sub-sections of games (i.e.: dungeons, housing, trade skills) which should be independent games with connections, rather than dropping the entire thing on the players at once. If these games don’t sell well, they’ll start dying out.
It’s getting harder to get noticed with more games out there, and have low barriers to entry so people will jump around a lot. The challenge is making a good game that’s an interesting enough game to keep people around and keep people coming back.
MMOs have the unusual challenge of building games for ten to twenty year lifespans, and keeping people entertained for long, long periods of time. EverQuest just hit its 15th birthday, and that’s a really long time to have a community for any game. It really means you have to have something really special to keep people’s attention.
Kids these days have been immersed in a virtual reality, and have been living there for a long time. Even though it’s not a 3D immersive one, it’s certainly a virtual reality they’re using on an everyday basis. Trying to understand how that generation thinks, and how they use different ways of communication and devices, how do you create an experience that can translate to that reality? Do you need to spread the game across the various means they use to communicate? Walking around with an avatar is not adapted to that kind of context, so how do you give these players agency in these kinds of worlds?

What do you imagine as the future for MMOs?

VR stuff is really intriguing. Where will that take us? There are a bunch of MMO concepts making it into other games, so we’ll see mutt-genres in the future.
On the other hand, games may not be that different. Games we logged into 10 years ago look pretty much like how games we log into today. Things have changed some things are better, but games haven’t fundamentally changed in the past 10 years. Content may be very different, with more simulation and more undefined sandbox, where players have most of the impact on game state.
We’ll be wearing mylar armbands, space goggles, augmented reality and be playing MMOs that way. You won’t stop playing PC games, you’ll just play them everywhere.
Hopefully there’ll be changes in the way you play, even if the tech doesn’t change. Want to make worlds that are more meaningful than real life. The impossibility of reaching towards a goal like a virtual world where you are doing meaningful things in your virtual world. Today, you go to a bar to socialize. Tomorrow, maybe you log into your virtual world, and maybe someone will give you something in that world that has actual value.
The interface is the piece that hasn’t changed in 30 years: keyboard and mouse. Why are we still pressing those buttons and clicking that mouse. The Oculus is interesting that may change the interface in the next 10 years.

Question and Answer Period

Compared to big companies, Indies can get away with less, because they’re focused on the fun. If you want to make something, try to make something no one else has made, so you don’t deal with expectations. If you’re trying to make something that someone else has made, it’s really difficult because expectations are extremely high.

How much thought is there about how much a person’s life is going to be required to play this game?
Fun is the most important part, if it’s so much fun you want to play all the time, it’s a win. As a game designer you want to make sure people can have fun in 20 minute increments, and leave it to the player as to how many chunks they want to consume.

Gone is the sense of wonder in games. Nowadays by the time a game is released there’s strategy guides, maps, tips, etc. Is there anyway to get that back?
For EQN and Landmark, we got tired of making static themepark worlds. There’s a lot of really good ones out there, but we wanted to make something different. Player created content is appealing because they’re building dungeons, and PvP areas, and areas to explore, and even if you as a player aren’t creating that content, you still get that sense of wonder because it’s all new and you aren’t getting guides for that.

A reoccurring issue in a lot of MMOs is that there’s two phases of the game: the leveling and the end-game. It ends up creating 3 problems: You have people who try to get through leveling as fast as possible to get to the end-game. You have folks who pick a class, and they may love that class at end-game, but getting through it levelling is meh. Then you have the people who love a class though leveling, but when they get to end-game, they can’t do crap. Moving forward in MMOs, do you think leveling will stop being a thing? Or is there really value in the leveling experience and how do you create that value?
Leveling is helpful because it teaches the player a lot of different and interesting things. The designer’s job is to make it not painful, but fun. You have to have something to do for everyone to play at the end, or people leave.
Player interaction and community is important, and the end-game is just what you do during that interaction time.
There doesn’t have to be two games. The objective in an MMO is to make it fun all the time. Leveling is a fine mechanic, but unfortunately it creates a race mentality where they have to get to the end and win, but then they lose because it’s not the game they wanted, or there are people there who are complete uber gods and it’s impossible to compete with them. Leveling is not required, but you have to have an open mind.
Eve is interesting in that things you do on day 2 is still useful in some capacity 6 years later. You can fly entry-level ships, and they have a role in later events, even if you’re flying a battlecruiser later.

When you make a new game, where do you expect players to come from? Migrating from other MMOs, or RPG players?
All over the place, basically. Because it’s a massive game with so many different things, you have to have all sorts of stuff. But if you don’t like MMOs, you still probably won’t like Wildstar, for example.
A lot of crossover between MMOs, with mass migrations between MMOs. All depends on the people you play with.
It used to be our demographic was males aged 18 to 25. Then we got older, the MMO demographic got older, wiser, international. When you’re interacting with someone online, you don’t know where they live, what their race is, what their religion is (unless they tell you), in general you’re judging people by their actions, not who they are or where they’re from. Today, when asked what our demographic is, we don’t have one. It’s everyone.

It was extremely interesting to hear these industry veterans talk about where they think things are headed, and I really appreciated the diversity of MMO-types the designers represented (themepark, experiential, sandbox), as it gave us some pretty different answers.
#PAX, #GameDesign, #GoodDesign

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