Friday, March 25, 2011

PAX East 2011: The Future of Online Gaming

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are that one genre where innovation and creativity take center stage. While platformers, shooters, and other genres can continually be released with a different coat of paint and still be successful, MMORPGs that take the same route can easily fall by the way-side. In a market dominated by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, what changes or additions can be made to the genre that feel natural and progressive, rather than merely change for the sake of change?

That was the topic of discussion for a group of MMO industry leaders at PAX East 2011 in a panel titled, “The Future of Online Gaming.” The panel was moderated by Garret Fuller of and included Craig Alexander, Vice President of Product Development for Turbine, Scott Hartsman, Executive Producer for Trion Worlds, Curt Schilling, Founder of 38 Studios, Colin Johanson, Lead Content Designer for ArenaNet, James Ohlen, Creative Director for BioWare, Brian Knox, Senior Producer for En Masse Entertainment, and Jeremy Gaffney, Executive Producer for Carbine Studios of NCSoft.

Before Fuller opened up questions to the audience, each of the panelists took a few minutes to answer the question, where do you see online games going in the next 10 years? Johanson believes MMOs will begin to evolve to an open world where players explore and find content, rather than a linear experience that leads them to it. Ohlen sees MMOs putting the RPG back into the game, where the player’s choices can change the path they take and content they encounter. Knox and Hartsman both agreed that MMOs will open up to more genres instead of just RPGs, including real-time strategy and first-person shooters. Gaffney argues that you’ll see a big push for user-generated content. Alexander thinks games will become less of a product and more of a service. He likens it to the term asynchronous play, meaning game experience will happen all the time on all platforms. Schilling thinks we have yet to hit the masses. He cites Facebook as having the biggest impact on online games. While the western market may consider millions of subscribers a success, Asian markets are seeing subscribers in the hundreds of millions mark.

The first question asked was if free-to-play games can have a life of their own next to paid subscription games. Alexander answered yes, citing Turbine’s efforts with the conversion of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online from paid subscriptions to the free-to-play model, and have enjoyed even greater success because of it. Schilling added that a person’s most valuable commodity isn’t in their wallet, but the time they spend playing whatever game they choose. Without naming World of Warcraft, the next audience member asked if it was fair to compare MMOs being released today to games that were released six years ago that had features and systems added to them in that time. Hartsman responds that it might not be fair, but it’s expected. Depending on your release, whether it’s a boxed copy sitting on a shelf, or a download that can be iterated on, you need to meet expectation. Gaffney stated the idea that good games succeed, and part of the appeal of the MMO industry is that they don’t care about the initial sale; they care about someone staying for a long time and enjoying the game.

One attendee asked about player behavior in MMOs and how developers adjust accordingly. Alexander said it’s an on-going process and they make changes as necessary, but no matter how much internal QA is done, you can’t get it right until its in an live environment. Schilling annotated on that by comparing MMOs to Disneyland, saying, “Ultimately, the bad players, we don’t want you in our games.” He explained that if someone is in the Disneyland park ruining the experience of other guests, those people are removed. Hartsman backed up Schilling, stating that in just the two weeks since release, they have already removed over a 1000 people from Rift. The next question asked about player retention and what are some ways developers have found to keep players coming back to the same game. Hartsman said that it’s a two part process, shipping a game complete enough that players want to see more, and then following through and delivering that content. Ohlen suggested that there were two major types of MMO players, those that want to complete everything a single character, and those that like to start new characters to experience something new and different. Johanson reinforced that idea of games as a service rather than a product and that shipping a title is only the beginning of the process. He added that once your game is out there, it’s then about cultivating the game to the ebb and flow of its players. Schilling reinforced the idea that end-game is where retention is primary. He said that tailoring your content to players who hit level cap should be take priority, and it should arrive in a timely fashion.

The next question asked about creating big and epic player events. In early World of Warcraft, raid content took a group of 40 players to defeat. In Everquest raids sizes were at a maximum of 72. Will we ever see content that requires such high number of players again? Hartsman opened by plugging his own game Rift, stating there was an event at level 8 that 700 players could take part it. Knox chimed in that while large player content is cool, each player needs to feel like they made a difference, otherwise they end up feeling useless. Johansen answered the question from a technical aspect. He reminded that not every player has a supercomputer, and that developers need to keep things like framerate and bandwidth in mind when designing content. Alexander argued that the idea of scalable content could combat the issue. Instead of players massing together to take on static content, the content could scale depending how many players are grouped together. Schilling concluded by saying that a lot of times, players ask for things they don’t really want. While it might sound cool on paper, it doesn’t work out to be fun when fully realized.

The panel was also asked about player feedback through the use of forums, and how often is that given serious weight. Gaffney said that statistics are the best way to get feedback about a feature or system. A low number of players read the forums, and a lower number actually use them. Knox said that one of your best resources is good community manager, “A really good community manager is key. When you find a good one, you hold onto them,” he added. It should also be mentioned that Knox’s community manager is also his wife. Ohlen said that BioWare is relying a lot of metrics. Being able to track what players actually do in game and how they handle content is good to have when comparing to feedback on the forums. Hartsman agreed that forums are no longer your go to place for player feedback. He said that the best place to find out what’s working and what’s not in your game is listening to server chat. If something is broken, that’s the first place you’ll hear about it. He added that being able to get feedback in different ways is best, and you shouldn’t rely solely on forums.

Among the last few topics discussed were balancing PvE players with PvP players and vice versa, as well as user-generated content. The panel tended to agree that one of the best things Blizzard introduced with their expansions for World of Warcraft is the ability to reset everyone to the same level in terms of power and gear. As far as user-generated content, they noted that it’s a challenge to create a system that highlights quality content. While it may be cool to give the tools to create their own content to a budding young gamer designer, you also give those tools to someone who will create giant flying penises in your game. A trend outside the MMO genre is to incorporate user-generated content into titles, such as Little Big Planet, and there’s opportunity to bring that type of player into the an MMO where they can create their own virtual world. They also pointed out that it seems to be part of a cycle of MMOs, where in the beginning they started out with the sandbox idea and then moved to the theme park, and user-generated content is slowly creeping back into prominence.

After hearing the designers and developers talk about their ideas of what the future might hold, it draws the question of why haven’t these ideas come into fruition yet. Is it because the technology isn’t available yet, or because the audience isn’t ready for such ideas? The issue of bandwidth caps and networking problems still affecting several people in just North America could definatley be liable, but the MMO market hasn’t shifted significantly in the last few years. A good idea to some could be too radical for the masses, leading already solidified companies and games to strengthen their hold over what is arguably a finite market.

If you want to listen to the whole panel, you can download episode 65 of MMOVoices here. Thanks to Jeremy Goodson for recording.

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