Visual and presentation leaps
There's no doubt that in five years time, massively games will look a whole lot better than they do right now. Although don't expect the most popular game to necessarily have the shiniest graphics. If there is anything we've learned from the success of World of Warcraft, it's that art direction and pure visual character are incredibly more important than polygon count, normal mapping and DX10 shaders. Oh and it doesn't hurt when your system requirements allow tons of different computer specs to play your game easily.
What is far more likely are improved animations, user interface advancements and maybe even a shift to professional voice work -- permitted that companies are making enough money to produce such a thing. In essence, we'll see a lot of work towards graphical improvements that will run efficiently on a wide spread of computers in the year 2013. Don't be surprised if Blizzard is the company that happens to be making these kinds of leaps -- the strongest visual aspects of WoW happens to be it's tight animations and ever-updated user interface. Oh lets not forget the music and art direction -- both of which look and sound amazing on just about any computer.
Although by this time, we'll probably have seen some MMOs come out running on the CryENGINE2 as well as the Unreal Engine 4. Whether or not these games are hugely popular really depends on how well developers are able to tune them to run on the widest breadth of machines. Accessibility has always -- and will always -- be key to creating a large install base. Still, I'm always for niche massively games that take a slightly more bleeding edge approach -- which could be pretty amazing after five more years of graphic advances.
One of the coolest things about Warhammer Online is the fact that if you kill 20, 200 or even 2,000 High Elves, the game -- and subsequently its quest NPCs -- remember it. This is because the server technology -- at least to my limited server-tech knowledge -- is better than, well, other servers in MMOs. This will hopefully get better as time goes on. Hey, maybe it'll even get to the point where we don't have server crashes and long weekly downtime! Yeah, probably not.
However, it should at least get to a point where servers can do some pretty cool stuff. For example, in a sci-fi MMO in-game newscasts could become common occurrences. A developer could internally create machinima-style news casts using specially crafted NPC characters. These NPCs would either be voiced by people on the development team or by paid voice actors -- plus it would be something that could pop up in those spiffy new interfaces. This type of thing would be best served on a specific type of server -- one which could also see some changes in five years.
That type of server would be a singular shard with a high capacity, such as the one EVE Online utilizes. Just imagine what could be done with a virtual world capable of containing -- with some difficulty, most likely -- more than 100,000 players. Developers could possibly create a whole new kind of social experiment -- an MMMOG, or mega massively mutliplayer online game. Sure it could end up not being very fun, but there's also the chance for something entirely awe inspiring to be born. I'm not entirely sure what kind of genre could best take advantage of 100,000 people on one server, but I'm thinking a space-based game would probably still be the best option for such a huge amount of players.
What kinds of specific features will catch on in the next five years? Well, I have a feeling that we'll start seeing further evolution of Warhammer Online's Tome of Knowledge. This is something that you can already see in older games like Lord of the Rings Online, with it's Title and Deed book. So it wouldn't be all too surprising to see more iterations of something similar to these interactive info-hubs.
Another issue many developers have been actively attempting to tackle is the problem of getting players to care about the story in a massively game. Everyone is familiar with the static text boxes -- which given some voice work are a tad more compelling -- however some zazz is definitely still missing.
I'm a big fan of the Bioware approach to giving players a cinematic experience -- although I can see why not all players would enjoy being thrown suddenly into a camera-controlled dialog scene. The trick lies in giving players something to do while the conversation is going on -- interactivity is key. Whether the solution is letting players somehow actively participate with conversations in a meaningful way, or by some other undiscovered method is largely unknown at this point. Although I'm sure we'll see some experimenting with this soon enough.
Then there's the direction combat is starting to take in Massively games. Age of Conan is the first major game to heavily depart from the blueprint -- although Tabula Rasa gets points here as well. In five years, the current standard of combat could very well have come to be considered as incredibly outdated -- especially with online shooters starting to slowly take on the qualities of the massively genre. The Ubisoft purchase of the Tom Clancy name, followed by the announcement of a Tom Clancy MMO should be proof enough that combat will probably look quite different after the next five years have passed.
So if you happen to somehow be reading this column in 2013, I hope you're satisfied with the progress our beloved genre has taken. It would be a shame if many of these predictions hadn't come true in any shape or form -- as that would be a sign that things have stagnated quite badly.