ION 08: A five year forecast for MMOs

There's always a lot of discussion about what's going to be the next big thing in the MMOs industry. We all love to talk about the future and that's largely because it's a very interesting topic. So we just had to attend the "Online Games in 2013" panel at ION 08. This panel was actually introduced by Peter Freese, the ION Conference Director. It was easily one of the most packed panels I've been to thus far which is saying a lot since all the panels have been pretty well populated already.

The panel consisted of Erik Bethke (GoPets Ltd), Scott Jennings (NCsoft), Bridiget Agabra (Metaverse Roadmap) and Damion Schubert (BioWare). With a group of people like this I was expecting some varied and compelling conversation on the topic of MMOs in 2013. In the end we got just that and a quite a bit more.%Gallery-22888%
Each panelist took the spotlight to give a quick powerpoint-fueled discussion of what their thoughts on the next fives years of online gaming would be like. Although there was a more traditional panel discussion afterwards, so don't fret. These were very rapid-fire and thusly there were only a few key points in each, but some big ones too. Most of the predictions were made during the mini-lectures, but some very interesting topics came up afterwards as well. However, to get an idea of how much can change in five years time lets start by taking a look into five years ago.

Back in 2003 nobody thought that the three million subscribers that Lineage had could ever be topped. There was no Chinese market as far as the west was concerned and Everquest was king in the west with around 450,000 subscriptions. PC sales in retail were in serious decline. At this point, World of Warcraft was in alpha testing or friends and family only. Also, Xbox Live was only a year old and had less than one million subscribers.

Since then all of this has changed, but some things are the same. World of Warcraft has ten million subscribers and many people think such a number will never be broken. The Chinese MMO market is huge now and a very big topic of discussion this year at ION as well. PC sales in retail haven't gotten much better, but digital sales and subscriptions are generating quite a bit of money as far as everyone can tell -- the only problem is there's nobody carefully tracking these numbers yet. The Xbox Live service has passed the ten million subscriber mark and will very likely continue to grow.

So now that we've got a little background to the discussion we can dive into 2013 for online games. Erik Bethke began by stating that 2013 will see an enormous amount of competition, he in fact used the phrase "mind boggling" most appropriately.

One of his big predictions is that WoW will have seen 50 million people playing it by this date. This will have brought in lots of money into the massively multiplayer online scene and thusly generate a lot more games. Erik sees the amount of games being made directly scaling downwards with their budget. So for example we may only see five 100-500 million dollar games a year while we see hundreds of 100k-1m budgeted games per year.

He also predicts that just about everyone will be making online-focused games by this point, even the Japanese who have so far been stubborn to embrace the market. "Transaction costs will go way down." Says Bethke in reference to microstranaction costs. I'm guessing he doesn't mean the cost of items, but the cost of the actual payments via credit cards and such.

Everything will be much more open, according to Erik. Client downloads will be open-sourced and many games -- both large and small -- will need to employ LUA/XML and API scripting.

Also, he thinks that community managers and customer service will become very hard to get -- at least good ones. There's no school for it and no way to really teach it.Unfortunately these positions aren't as valued as they should be by most companies, but will become critical to game success as the market and game communities expand.

Damion Schubert of BioWare Austin (Did we mention he's working on a secret MMO? Yeah, he totally is) then took to the podium. He's also known for his Zen of Design blog, which is well worth reading if you're into game design at all.

He feels like a lot of people are going to be making MMOs for gamers -- or WoW killers. Most them are going to fail according to Damion. We'll see many that have trouble getting out the development door and achieving critical mass. However, there's good news! A lot of casual MMOs are also going to fail. Many MMOs for kids will see similar failure.

Now Damion says he isn't pessimistic and he's not -- this is just how popular media works. There are few winners and lots and lots of losers. This is especially true for virtual communities where many people flock to the hottest title in droves.

Schubert then goes on to say that MMOs are more mainstream than ever. "There was one point last year when there were more WoW subscriptions than Playstation 3 owners." Says Schubert. he goes on to point out that, "MMOs are more mass market than we give them credit for and they're growing." Which leads him into his next subject.

WoW players are getting bored, he says. They're going to start looking for richer experiences or something that WoW isn't giving them. Habbo and Club Penguin players are all growing up and will definitely outgrow those games. So where are they going to pack up and move on to?

Niches are going to be incredibly popular. Damion feels that MMOs don't have to be a blockbuster business. He continues to make his case by saying, "We are really close to the cable TV paradigm." These types of MMOs can be successful over a period of time.

Success will come from innovation, but not weird innovation. A developer is going to have to innovate while making sure their game feels comfortable, which will make the game easy to get into. Combat is here to stay, remarks Damion. It's a highly repeatable, remains fun for a long time and scales upward as a player levels up.

Damion feels strongly about respectful pricing and says that it's very important for success in the future. Players should feel very good about the spending of their money. He also feels that while the casual players are important, it's very important to keep the hardcore players engaged and invested in a game. These heavily devoted players are the basis of the community.

Here's a very, very interesting part. Damion says that being solo-friendly is important, but that being duo-friendly is even more-so. Making it easy for a husband and wife, father and son or even just a couple of friends to play is incredibly important for MMOs in the coming years. I say yes to this, in fact I scream it. While large group play is still very important, the more ways I can play an MMO the better.

Damion gives a short blurb about low system requirements and how the future big MMOs will definitely have them. He also mentions that the most evocative games will have at least one big "massive" feature about them as the core of these games is ultimately about large communities of people playing together at one time or another.

Finally -- and this is the big one, I think -- developers need to start making unapologetic MMOs. Developers need to embrace and express their love for the genre instead of always saying how they hate X or Y about them -- how they're going to fix them. "Be in love with the possibility of the massive genre." begs Damion. He points out the fact that FPS developers don't go on about how their games are too violent and that maybe they should remove the guns from them. It's such a good -- yet obvious -- point. You don't see Blizzard or CCP apologizing for the core MMO features in their games because that's what made them successful.

Bridget Agabra (Metaverse) took her turn next and while a lot of what she discussed went a bit over my head I did grab some key points. The big thing is her research into the convergence of the digital and real worlds. Everything is beginning to get incredibly invasive for some people. However, the younger generation have been growing up with it for a while now. They're constantly text messaging and using social networking websites at very young ages.

Another important aspect is converging technologies. There are some really cool devices at different national locations that allow visitors to learn about history, but it doesn't stop there. After they've learned about this history, that knowledge can be instantly turned into a kind of game where they have to use their newfound history to win the game. It's all very cool stuff and made me wonder if MMOs could one day be something that some people constantly play through real world devices that somehow interact with the digital game world.

Scott Jennings (NCsoft, he also runs this blog where he posts funny/entertaining things) was up next. His presentation starts off with the mantra that the easiest way to predict the future is to learn from the past. He equates the MMO market to Hollywood, saying, "We're making movies, only they're interactive."

Jennings goes on to say that since everyone thinks that WoW owns the market it's been raining cats and dogs in their world. Nobody wants to take risks because they're convinced they have to make a game like Blizzard's bulging behemoth.

It's at this point that Scott paints a somewhat dark picture for developers, but not so much for players. That picture is that GTA IV is the future of MMOs -- or at least its budget and team member count are. GTA IV took 100 million dollar and around 1,000 people to create. Interestingly, this is a bit more conservative money-wise than Erik's 100-500 million prediction. Still, the amount of people is simply staggering. There is hope, however.

According to Scott, there will be various types of MMOs by 2013. Some costing a lot and some costing very little. The ones that cost very little will be the "trendy Indie movie" MMOs that will individually have very few players. Most people will see this games as failures since they probably won't achieve blockbuster status, notes Jennings.

Then you've got the whole web 2.0 buzz word, which kind of plays into concepts like Metaplace. Games made by the players, essentially. These games will individually have very few players, but as a collective whole the player-created games will consist of millions of players. Jennings goes on to say that this is where some of the most innovative titles and creators could come from. I'm inclined to agree, but I do wonder if they'll be able to make the leap into the larger pools of MMO development water.

He closes up by saying that microtransactions aren't coming to the west soon, they're already here. In fact the City of Heroes wedding pack was quite the hit, recently. The problem has been that western developers haven't done them right yet. If developers don't get it right or don't bother then the players are just going to do it themselves.

Now time for questions! Will console games go online like PC games have been?

Damion is of the opinion that console games are far too art and content heavy to fit solely on HDDs (Hard Disk Drives). This is generally the problem, there's really no system with a standardized HDD and open enough platform. The Playstation 3 is a possibility, but the problem is its low user base.

Third party applications becoming standardized comes up as a subject, to which Bridget asks a wonderful questions: Is anyone doing integrated raid management well? We know voice has become very standard with MMOs anymore after the rise of TeamSpeak and Ventrilo, but it's very hard to predict what third party applications will come out over the next five years and which of the plausible ones could conceivably become standards in online games.

On the subject of free-to-play, Damion says the biggest challenge is players questioning every game change because of the model. "Are the devs making this quest harder so players will just go buy the flaming sword instead?" Is the example given. For the combat-orientated this is a hugely sticky issue.

Erik agrees with Damion on this, saying that players are paranoid for a reason. Scott then chimes in with, "It's not paranoia if we are out to get you." in what seems like a partially joking tone. In a show of clarity Erik says, subscriptions are a simple model to understand, but there are literally thousands of item-based models. So do you sell equipment, clothing, parts of the UI or what?

The truth of the matter is that developers will have a lot of obstacles to overcome, one of them being to make sure players feel safe with microtransactions. Making a game transaction-based means that the game economy suddenly matters on a whole new level. If items are lost in the database then players are going to be far more upset. Erik refers to his earlier point that lowering the cost of transactions is important as it will reduce the friction seen with item-based models. He also says that as people begin to see full rights to their virtual items, they'll put more effort into those worlds.

On the last big subject, the panelists talk about player rights within their worlds. Scott says he wouldn't want someone to come into his living room and mess everything up. If someone did that to his place, he'd throw them out and rightfully so. Erik then steps in and points out that these are "for profit" communities. "This is not your living room." says Bethke, bluntly.

The number one reason people leave games are basically f*ckwads. While this comment generated laughter from the audience, it also made them all nod in agreement. Erik Bethke points out that if players were given the right social structure and tools, then they might be able to clean up the f*ckwads themselves. Scott Jennings offers the epiphany that, "We really are in the feudal ages with MMOs." Which is very much true. I'm of the opinion that both methodologies are going to see use and that they both have their place.%Gallery-22888%
This article was originally published on Massively.