Free for All: MMOs will never be the same again

Zentia screenshot
Most of the arguments I make in this article come down to basic science. Once something is created, it can only be copied. The original is just what it is. Some of the MMOs that started me off on this journey across hundreds of worlds are closed now, but many still remain open and active. I can go back to those older games and enjoy them, but in most cases I go back and find that I'm glad I moved on. I have changed, and so has the internet and how I access it. All of these things factor into my changing opinion and the fact that MMOs as I remember them will probably always remain relics of the past.

Don't worry; I'm not here to tell you how incredible older titles like were. Those were some good times, but it's depressing to think that I would constantly be stuck in the past, never moving forward. Still, it's nice to think that those titles might be copied but never replaced. After all, gamers have moved on and so has design. As both should.

Lord of the Rings Online screenshot
I enjoyed those older games because I had no choice. Just as many of us will look back on the "old" days of "impressive" 1080p video and giggle as we scan our images into mobile holo-phones, I also look back on games like Ultima Online and City of Heroes as something that I enjoyed but was eager to move on from when something new showed up. Now I look at new games like Firefall or Planetside 2 and will move on from them one day. This is, I think, what you are supposed to do in gaming and in life.

I notice the trends that go on in the movie and music business. Every year there is a new crop of young and naive entertainment consumers who have never heard of the boy bands and horror movies from 15 years ago. One day they might understand the history of cinema or will grasp music from the past, but until that point they will be sold the same schlock and repeated designs that were sold to their parents until they wised up. It's not really harmful stuff. The opposite, really. Without those mainstream repeats, there can never be underground music or independent art that pushes back.

Will those of us who were already grown when the internet became mainstream one day marvel at our children as they play an MMO? We will look down and say, "Holy crap, that looks just like Ultima Online!" just to have our smart-alec tween say back, "It's called Star Heroes, Dad, now get out of my space-room!" Maybe. While that sounds like a nice fantasy, the truth is that future repeats of old designs are still just repeated designs. Copies. Clones.

What will MMOs do in the future to stand out from the past?

Anarchy Online screenshot
As I have maintained for a while now, the main enemy of the MMO is the social network. (Right behind that is poor design.) I'm not Facebook-bashing here; there were social networks before Facebook and social networks will exist after Facebook, and anyone who reads my columns knows just how much I love social gaming and the internet. MMOs might not be such fans, however.

The ability that only MMOs (and MUDs before them) really gave us before, the ability to communicate with strangers in real time while actually doing something together, is no longer unique to MMOs. Now I can communicate and share my game with complete strangers across any number of websites, networks, or groups. My nephew is able to share songs and books with his friends instantly, all while fighting aliens with the same people on Xbox live, posting his status on Facebook, and adding his two cents to a tech group on GooglePlus. Life is becoming the game, we are becoming the avatars, and the gameplay is spread across the entire internet. And on top of that, most of it is free.

"Tomorrow's gamer will spend a few minutes in the game because she is too busy exploring everything that social networks and the internet have to offer, a massive, social game in itself."

How can an MMO compete? I think most of the MMO designs that we enjoy now, like the ability to join a group in a three-dimensional world to take down a dragon, will be absorbed into the greater experience. Dedicated players who have the time to grind out missions are already becoming a thing of the past. Our lives move much more quickly now. Spend three hours in one game? No way. Tomorrow's gamer will spend a few minutes in the game because she is too busy exploring everything that social networks and the internet have to offer, a massive, social game in itself. I have young relatives who have dinged 5,000 "friends" on Facebook.

This is not just some attempt to justify my love of ever-changing virtual landscapes and for exploration that seems to never end. I truly believe that old designs like raiding, roleplay, and questing will become victims of time because that's what things from the past do. They can be resurrected later or enjoyed as a copy, but the way they existed before and the sheer joy they brought to people then is something that will forever be the stuff of nostalgia. That's just science.

This might all sound very glum, but it should sound encouraging. While these old worlds eventually end, new ideas have to fill the void. Tricking people by repeating designs works for only so long; brand-new games and ideas will eventually take over. It can be a sluggish process at best, but it's a sure one, and to me that's exciting. While I'm confident that we will see many of our favorites games of the past last into the future in some form, it's likely that they will exist in the shadows of far greater products. Innovation is a sure thing if we support it instead of worrying so much about the old worlds.

I'm excited because I can't wait to see what the classics do in the future, but of course I'm more excited for what interesting games come out of the next generation of gamers who are used to the always-on world of social networking and instant sharing. Even if the future is a wreck, it will be an entertaining one.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.