Talking the past and present of MMOs with Brian 'Psychochild' Green

Meridian 59
If you've been MMO gaming for more than a few years, you might be familiar with Brian "Psychochild" Green. Approaching his 15th year professionally developing in the genre, Brian started out with Meridian 59 and most recently headed up the Storybricks team. But now that he's back to being a free agent, we jumped at the chance to sit down and talk shop.

Follow along after the jump for Brian's thoughts on modern MMOs, how the genre may be enjoying a rebirth, and which game he'd save if given the chance.

Massively: What would you say is the biggest difference between MMOs of 15 years ago and MMOs now?

Brian Green: The obvious answer is size. There are probably more people logged on to World of Warcraft during peak hours today than there were playing all MMO games combined in 1998. It's great that there are more people exploring the worlds we create! But, I think we've also lost a lot of the diversity we saw in older games, especially in terms of Bartle player types. Meridian 59 and Ultima Online both had a lot of hidden information, which encouraged Explorer types to explore game mechanics. Both also had PvP combat, which attracted Killers. Meridian 59 also had customizable chat channels, guild halls, and guild bulletin boards which appealed to Socializers. But for the past several years, we've seen games focus heavily on Achievers, almost to the exclusion of the other player types. We're starting to see a move away from this with EverQuest Next Landmark's building and WildStar's paths system that try to cater to other Bartle play styles.

Not counting games you've been involved with, what would you say is/was your favorite MMO of all time?

Definitely Dungeons & Dragons Online. I've been playing DDO for over three years now, which is longer than I've played any other MMO other than Meridian 59. Of course, I'm a big fan of tabletop D&D and played extensively during university and for some years after. The main thing I love about DDO is the highly customizable character development. I've got some really terrific character builds, including a rather unusual combination of a 10 Rogue/6 Monk/4 Fighter character who is a master of the quarterstaff. I have two other monk-type characters I enjoy playing, and each of the three plays very differently because of multiclassing and specializations. I have the most fun when I'm concocting some new multiclass character that suits my playstyle better than most other games.

I'm also a fan of DDO's free-to-play business model. I like that as a player I'm not required to pay a subscription, and that I can choose to purchase content and have it unlocked for as long as the game is available. I can control how much money I spend, especially those times when the budget is tight. There are some other games I might like to play, but I find it hard to justify maintaining subscription just to drop in on occasion.

Finally, DDO really encourages you to play in static groups if you want to play with friends. So I'm playing with two different groups that both play once a week, which makes the Socializer in me happy. It's great fun to have a weekly session just as I did with the tabletop version back in the day.

Which game would you love to get your hands on and "save" from its current path? What would you do?

I would love to be given the opportunity to dig deep into Guild Wars 2. GW2 is a great game that pushed so many boundaries in its original design, but it feels like there is just so much potential left
unexplored. GW2 is a game I wanted to like, but it didn't stick with me as long as I had hoped. The first thing I'd want to do is dig into the dynamic events. I'd love to explore ways to let them live up to the original concept I remember, where the results of an event would have an effect on the entire zone. As I was playing my third character up to max level, I felt myself missing that sense of dynamism in the world. I'd see the same events I saw several times before, and I knew exactly what was going to happen in most cases. I'd love for the events to have more possible outcomes, but I'd need to balance that to avoid the feeling of "you need a large group to properly solve this event, otherwise you're screwed."

As someone keenly interested in storytelling in interactive media, I'd also love to take a deep look at the living world stories. As a fairly casual GW2 player (after a few months of intense activity), the living story never really captured my interest. And given my casual playstyle, the limited availability of the living world stuff made it hard for me to invest in something that I simply might not have time to play. Exploring ways to tell an interactive story given such a rich world would be very exciting.

MMOs are often given a negative reputation by the larger gaming community. Why do you think that is?

I think it's part of the natural cycle of a type of gameplay. At the beginning, a gameplay genre appeals to a narrow audience, but a breakthrough game brings it to a broad audience. But eventually it's the hardcore who dominate and tend to drive out other gamers as games become more and more specialized to those hardcore. Eventually stagnant gameplay genres tend to reinvent themselves, which brings new interest. Between those phases people are quick to write off the gameplay genre as "tired" or "dead," but they change their tune when there's a popular new game that comes along and does everything "right."

Look at FPSes as an example: They started off pretty simple, then you had a big breakthrough title in DOOM. With DOOM, many computer gamers became FPS players. After that, the games started being built for the hardcore fans of the gameplay genre, but they became difficult for the less dedicated players to keep up with. Quake 2 is perhaps the example here, where the fast action thrilled hardcore FPS fans but left a lot of other people in the dust. Then you had a huge change with the narrative-driven Half-Life, then even later you saw the rise of console FPSes that brought in new fans. Currently Titanfall is highly anticipated, combining some elements of MOBAs with the aspects of other FPS games.

MMOs have hit a lull. We saw the dominance of DIKU-derived gameplay in just about ever game since EverQuest, and every new MMO tried to copy that model to try to copy that success. But eventually that type of gameplay feels stale and people want something new. Given that MMOs tend to stay relevant much longer than single-player games, we've seen a slower evolution of gameplay than FPSes have. But in late EQ and the middle years of WoW, we saw a focus on raiding that was beyond the reach of many people. Now we see MMOs that focus so much on the single-player aspect of the game that the social aspects don't feel quite so important. So MMOs have lost some of their appeal, and we need to find the next "big thing" to get people excited again.

Do you think 2014 and 2015 will see a resurgence in MMO popularity?

I certainly hope so! I think we've seen games that are trying to break away from the DIKU-focused gameplay. For example, Camelot Unchained is focusing its gameplay on PvP/RvR type gameplay. EverQuest Next Landmark and Trove are looking at ways for companies to try new ideas without having to invest half a decade into a game in total secrecy, and both are looking into new forms of gameplay that include building as well as questing. I think the future release of EverQuest Next will have a lot of features that will blow die-hard MMO players away and open up exciting new types of gameplay. The Elder Scrolls Online is also bringing a beloved single-player game franchise to the MMO genre as well, with gameplay that feels more like the single-player games than existing MMOs.

My hope is that all these new games will make people question what an MMO must be and consider that new features might bring a lot more fun. I hope we see some massive successes so that there is more interest in funding a wider variety of games going forward.

What do you see for the longterm future of the MMO genre?

Change is inevitable. It's a question of whether that change is adapting to the future or that change is MMOs withering and becoming a truly niche interest. I'd want to believe it's the first option. As I said, my personal hope is that we see new forms of MMOs. I remember when I was active in text MUD development, people were excited about the idea of taking tabletop gaming and putting it into computerized format. We've seen some steps in that direction, from the Neverwinter Nights Aurora toolset to living stories in MMO worlds to player created content in games like Star Trek Online and EverQuest Next Landmark.

But I think the future is larger than this. The reason tabletop gaming was interesting to multiplayer online game fans is that we wanted new forms of gameplay. The act of playing a game and collaboratively telling a story is a tremendous amount of fun. We didn't just want the computer to simulate die rolls to tell us how good we are at combat; we wanted to see interaction with characters and create an interesting story that isn't entirely written by someone else.

It's this concept of new forms of gameplay that made me so excited about the original vision for Storybricks. I envisioned ways to use the advanced AI we were working on to create entirely new forms of gameplay. I wanted to become friends with a character in town and for that to have meaning beyond some flag set on my character. I wanted to be a diplomat and carefully balance my relationships to get what I needed when I wanted. I wanted to go on a quest to earn the Queen's
favor, which was more than just a pop up window giving me stock text and some temporary reward at the end of that quest. I want to be a hero because others recognize my heroic actions, not because the pre-written script says I'm a hero after the last step in the epic quest.

I think there are plenty of other forms of gameplay that we could enjoy in MMOs. Now we just have to figure out how to make these new forms of gameplay in a way that works within the business of the game industry.

What about the future of Psychochild? With your recent departure from the Storybricks team, what's next?

People often underestimate how difficult it is to be a game developer, especially an independent developer. Running your own small company and working for startups can take a toll on a person. I'm looking beyond the boundaries I have in the past, looking for a way to grow myself as a professional as well as push forward games, particularly MMOs, as a whole. I'm in talks with different developers right now for new opportunities, looking for ways I can use my skillset to the best advantage. I haven't settled on anything yet, so I'm still looking for the right opportunity. I feel I might have to take some intermediate steps before I can realize those long-term goals I listed above. Beyond that, I expect that I'll still write on my blog as long as I'm able to come up with interesting topics to cover. I read a lot of MMO blogs, so you might see me comment here and there. I'll certainly be playing MMOs because I'm still an enthusiastic fan after all these years!

Thanks for the opportunity to chat!

Thank you!

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This article was originally published on Massively.