Even though I wasn't around for the progenitors that would eventually lead to things like Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft, it's not hard for me to see in the wake of all those titles the line of ideas and creativity that connects all of them. Hell, you can trace it back to the original release of Dungeons and Dragons if you really wanted to, but let's focus on the future for today.
I'm bringing all this MMO history to the forefront because you cannot know a future without considering the past.
With that in mind, I'm going to preface this with a recommendation that you skim this wholly informative write-up for a little background.
If you prefer, I'll give the quick and dirty rundown of the DikuMUD in one paragraph.
A class-based, solo or group orientated online text RPG that focused on a tank, healer and DPS. DikuMUD was based pretty heavily on Dungeons and Dragons when it came to combat. Advancement worked via experience points gained through combat and reaching a predetermined amount allowed players to level. This unlocked new class abilities. Beyond experience, killing things gave you equipment, which altered your character stats. Eventually, you'd hit a maximum level.
Sound familiar? I've no doubt that it does. These games began being made in 1990, almost twenty years ago. The biggest surprise is that it's taken us nearly that long to create games that are finally evolving well past those initial design tenants.
Titles like Champions Online, Jumpgate Evolution, Cities XL, All Points Bulletin, Fallen Earth, The Agency and even Free Realms are all great examples of design philosophies moving in new and exciting directions. Older titles like PlanetSide and City of Heroes have also broken that classic mold in their own ways.
But with features like class-less characters, city building, level-less progression and first-person combat all swirling around these titles, it seems as though the next generation of MMOs are finally creating new experiences that aren't tied directly to what started it all.
Shoot 'em once, then shoot 'em again
One of the big pushes for non DikuMUD MMOs has been creating the first or third-person shooter MMO. This is where titles like Fallen Earth, The Agency and even Jumpgate Evolution seem to be heading.
The future of these titles is probably pushing hard on the boundaries of what can be accomplished technologically with bigger and more intricate battles. One of my favorite features of Battlefield 2142 were the airship battles known as Titan mode. These were all about defending or attacking each side's massive futuristic ships that were part essentially Aircraft Carriers armed with massive defensive guns. The goal was simple: use missile pads on the ground and attack ships to take out the enemy ships' shields, then raid the ship and plant explosives to detonate its reactor core. It wasn't executed perfectly, but the idea still wiggles my mouse.
So, take these ships off the ground and into space. Then it becomes a massive space battle where some players are attacking/defending capitol ships, while others are infiltrating said ship in order to take down its crew. This would probably have to be a rather large encounter, with a lot going on both the design and tech side.
Maybe we'll see something like this in the next five years, or maybe it'll take a few more. I really do hope it happens, though.