MMORPGs have been changing over the last decade. Once synonymous with games like World of Warcraft, this culture conjured up images of obsessive, hoarding behaviour and addiction, where shocking stories of gamers neglecting everyday life for a virtual one became commonplace.
But whether we know it or not, big blockbuster games and games developers have been taking principles and gaming ethos from MMORPGs and taking mainstream. Over the last few years, it’s become more and more familiar for games developers to encourage and foster gaming communities as the fundamental part of game play.
As MMORPG games become sexier – huge, expensive games like Bungie’s Destiny are taking over the market. Refusing to actually describe itself as an MMORPG, Bungie calls Destiny the first ever “Shared World Shooter”. But more games are stealing principles from MMORPGs, it begs the question – what does the future look like for this specific gaming genre? And what are the challenges that developers and players face?
01. Developers face increasing harassment and continuous abuse from players resulting in damaged communication channels
According to Morgan Jaffit in a recent article on Polygon, “abuse is the cost of doing business.” Many players now deem it acceptable and reasonable to send abuse and threaten developers. The online abuse ranges from hostile tweeting, all the way to doxxing, where abusers publish identifying information (such as names, addresses, details of family members) about developers.
The discourse between players and developers is rapidly deteriorating because of a small number of very vocal but unmoderated harassers. As Jaffit says, “Vitriol has become a necessary part of the equation. They see developers as the enemy, and abuse as the only tool to keep them in line.”
Let alone even considering the level of harassment faced by female developers, the people creating games are constantly under attack. Open discourse between developers and players is expected, as many games companies try to navigate insightful feedback from players with unfiltered and hostile criticism.
MMORPGs have constant updates to game play, including expansion packs, seasonal or festival events and scheduled gameplay – all of this updates the game’s content. Each update and change brings fresh opportunity for harassers to feel justified in sending abuse.
What’s clear is that this is creating an overwhelming need for moderated conversations between players and creators – before the gaming industry loses talented developers and innovative creators. What this new moderated channel of communication looks like could have quite significant impact on the main reason for open discourse: efficiently responding to player needs.
But ultimately, it also begs the question: whose responsibility it is to moderate these conversations?
02. The power of familiarity vs the fleeting nature of novelty
When it comes to MMORPGs there is a core game playing experience that players keep coming back to, year after year. After investing their time to personalise game playing experience, it starts to slide into ritualistic gaming. Players do repetitive tasks that they’re familiar with, for example playing the same dungeons over and over again or grinding to hoard materials. Brands like World of Warcraft are facilitating this ritualistic core game play experience.
On the other side of the coin are over-hyped tentpole moments with blockbuster games – all designed to encourage new game players to join the gaming community, and provide a break in the monotony for loyal players. However, over time, these “expansion packs” become repetitive too. They expand the world itself, but don’t expand the game playing experience. They often don’t offer anything other than a wider area to explore, and the same game playing experience, just with a different skin. Players end up returning to core familiar game play experiences (e.g. doing dungeons with friends) that they find the most fun, and stick to it.
The challenge for MMORPGs is how to build on these core game playing experiences to offer varied game playing experiences while still retaining the ritualistic core.
03. The futility of mass empty worlds vs curated shared experiences
After the release of games like Skyrim, beautiful and huge open worlds became incredibly desirable for game play experiences as players immersed themselves within unique exploratory narratives.
However, when translating to MMORPGs, open worlds feel futile as they facilitate isolated game play – a gaming experiences completely contradictory to the whole multiplayer ethos. These areas are significantly emptier compared to the main social spaces and main quest / story narrative spaces. Players can find themselves getting lost in the parts of the world that’s often neglected, compared to more popular spaces. There’s not a lot to be gained by players for exploring these, and the rewards just aren’t there.
The future for MMORPGs, is a curated shared world experience. A world that’s open, but one that still feels full. Destiny is a great example of a successful “shared world” – Destiny’s servers limit the amount of players in the social space, with Destiny 1 allowing up to 16 players, while Destiny 2 allows 26. Still a huge number away from World of Warcraft, where some cities in the game can hold up to hundreds of players at any one moment.
What Destiny’s shared world however does, is create the feeling of lots of people in a smaller space. The world is less open, and more limited, but having less people in smaller, more interesting spaces makes it still feel like an excellent balance of busy and exciting, whilst also rewarding exploration.
04. The end of the grind, player fatigue on in game purchasing and heavy regulation of loot chests will mean that the nature of acquisition will be more meritocratic than ever
Building games around getting players to invest in actually spending time playing the game, vs. getting them to part with their money to avoid “grinding”, or to level up quicker, seems almost archaic with the way current gaming trends have been going.
But play is looking to return in a big way. Taking the very classic and very successful “Halo” franchise as an example – there’s a reason why players keep returning to play the same missions over and over again. Simply put, it’s actually playing the game that’s kept them hooked.
MMORPGs often rely on player acquisition of points, materials, resources, weapons etc. to succeed through the levels and the game’s quest narratives. Most offer opportunities for time-strapped players to purchase their way through the games – “Pay £10 to buy 100 crystals which will buy you the gun you need from a vendor to give to the wizard to complete that mission, so you don’t need to kill 1000 pigs for 8 hours in the isolated forest.”
But designing game play that’s fairer, more engaging and more rewarding brings us back to the classic “game flow” principle. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi posited in the 70s, that a person’s skill and difficulty of a task interact to result in different cognitive and emotional states. When applied to gaming, when tasks are too easy and the skill of the player is too high people become bored. When the task is challenging, and the skill of the player is too low, they will become anxious. But where both are proportional – players reach a “flow” and the game is engaging.
Halo is a great example of a game that allows its players to achieve “flow”. It’s one of the reasons why players keep coming back to it.
05. Moving away from linear storytelling and ending “end game” content
Most big budget games often have the same structures and basic storytelling – you work your way through a series of small challenges (i.e. killing small bosses) leading up to a big challenge (i.e. killing a big boss) to finally the end game challenges (i.e. killing the ultimate boss). The experience based progression system all contribute to a linear path where there is a big end waiting for you.
You often gain these in game “experience” through point hoarding, microtransactions, travelling through skill trees and weapons and cosmetics. Once you’ve collected everything, and done everything, you simply join the club of elite players.
But with successful games like Divinity: Original Sin 2 rejecting these basic building blocks, in favour of an anarchic game playing experience, shows that the future is about disruption. DOS2 wasn’t designed or ever intended to be completed, making it a different beast entirely.
If games aren’t about completing them, then they allow players to truly immerse and experience the world. Role playing becomes less about progression, winning, or levelling up – and more about experiencing the world and immersion in character.
Ultimately the future of MMORPG gaming is a game that grows as players grow, evolving its game play experience based on a deep understanding of their audience’s needs. This is where research and understanding gamer profiles through ethnographic context can really allow game creators to be proactive with leading and innovating the next iteration of their games rather than being reactive to player outcry.