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A Decade of Divination...

Tim Dale

My first writings here at Massively were a look back at the last ten years of MMO gaming, much of which I'd taken some small part in, and a comparison of how early MMOs had been then, against how they seem to have shaped up today. I expect if I was going to grow out of these things it would have already happened by now, so am fully expecting to be playing an MMO of some description in 2019.

Much of the year 2019 is already known to us, and detailed extensively in the documentaries 'Bladerunner', 'The Running Man' and 'Akira', but what will MMOs be like, a decade from now? Join me as I charge up the flux capacitors, spin the big brass and crystal whirley thing with no obvious purpose and hop in my little blue box in a bid to divine...the future!

Gaming in 2019 will be, as today, driven by the underlying technology at the disposal of the developer. The application of Moore's Law to a current mid-range gaming spec PC results in a fearsome beast, sporting a 64-core 4GHz processor set, 128 Gigabytes of RAM, 40 Terabyte hard disk as standard. It'll probably be Quantum too! That is assuming that the PC will even exist in a recognisable form at all, and perhaps in ten years, computer games will become the sole province of some hybrid descendant of the traditional games console, the PC and the DVD player; the universal home entertainment centre, some Xbox 1440, Wii Extreme or Playstation 5 of the future.

Internet 2019 will have changed considerably as well. Current estimates put internet access at a quarter of the worlds population. Extrapolating again suggests this may rise to as much as half, bringing a far greater number of potential players to online gaming from regions beyond the current established 'internet' world. While data transfer may always be limited by the speed of light, bandwidth is likely to increase greatly as key pathways across the internet are continually upgraded, and the more remote tendrils uprated as well; fibre-optic cabling becomes standard and copper wire is phased out entirely. More bandwidth allows for more game-related information to be passed more freely back and forth, which is just as well, given the likely and steady increase in the install package for the typical computer game. Game clients, patches, and mere during-play traffic are all likely to increase in line with the hardware, above.

Graphics will be way up, of course, but perhaps not as much as might be thought. The challenge of the Uncanny Valley is a difficult one to beat and while graphical quality will likely match in real-time that used in pre-rendered film and television CGI today, creating believable 'photorealistic' people, animals and monsters is likely to take longer than 2019 to crack. While art direction is likely to remain leaning toward the stylised, the technical refinements will continue to advance; shadow complexity, flora density, cloud volume, texture depth, sheer number of things on screen at once, all things that have traditionally punished slower PCs will cease to do so as more raw processing power appears on our graphics cards.

"Real sword thrusts? Gesture driven spell casting?"

The way we interact with games is already changing today, with motion sensing controllers and the recent demonstration of Microsoft's Natal system, which dispenses with a controller entirely, hints at a possible future where our characters are driven by us in far more precise and intricate ways than today. Much of MMO gameplay today is designed as an abstraction, to short cut actions which have always been far too complex to use as captured inputs in the past, but in 2019, who knows? Real sword thrusts? Gesture driven spell casting? Such things will be possible, but whether they will be wanted is another matter altogether. This suggests a different kind of gameplay experience where the row of small cooldown timers becomes outmoded and makes way for something more recognisable today as the first-person shooter. Attempts at more hands-on MMOs have been tried in the past, PlanetSide, Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa for example, and not widely regarded as successful, but I doubt such experiemental online gaming attempts will cease altogether. By 2019, perhaps that missing something will be pinned down and the age of auto-attack will be over?

The technology behind the online gaming server will almost certainly advance in line with that owned by the home user, and this exponentially greater power will allow for hugely larger concurrencies, player densities and a great deal less lag than we see today. EVE Online is already pioneering the way here and boasts fleet battles of thousands of particiapant, all in the same bit of space. In 2019, this kind of density will be a common occurrance, rather than rare one-off. The sharded worlds of the server list will become unnecessary from a technical perspective, and if a game is split in to separate servers at all, it will be for social reasons, for reasons of community.

The nature of these online communities is harder to predict. What will we be doing with all these super-fast machines and stunningly detailed worlds? In the words of Bioware Mythic's Paul Barnett; "The concept of there being MMOs is probably dead." He goes on to elaborate that in the future, all games will be online games of some description and even today, I find it increasingly hard to say exactly what an MMO really is. In 2019, it will be hard to find a game that doesn't have some element of online play, persistent or not.

Soloing will undoubtedly still be alive and well, as the human need for the occasional bit of 'alone time' will still be there, but the option of adventuring with others will never be far away, in any game. Past performance suggests that traditional 'free for all' PvP will remain a niche kind of gameplay style, but that consensual PvP as optional side activity will continue to thrive and perhaps we will see many different kinds of PvP gameplay emerging. Raiding as we know it today will continue to be a source of anecdote and vague aspiration, but for the majority of tomorrow's gamers, the more immediate and causal experience may be the bigger draw, as the console and the PC game styles converge, bringing the MMO into the fold in the process.

"It is likely that in 2019, few online games will be able to justify charging a monthly fee."

It is likely that in 2019, few online games will be able to justify charging a monthly fee. Even today, there seems to be a movement toward the Free To Play model, with Eberron Unlimited around the corner, and the apparent successes of Free Realms and Runes of Magic. The more titles launch with no subscription, the harder the remaining subscription titles must work to seem superior. This process is unlikely to be made any easier when the eventual but inevitable cross platform inclusion of console gamers into forthcoming MMOs is complete; console gamers are unused to paying by the month for their games. By 2019, this battle may have been over for a while.

And as for specific titles? Well, having been to 2019 in person, I can confidently report that EverQuest has just given away free copies of its 34th expansion, 'The Toenails of Zek' to every current player to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Star Wars: The Old Republic never quite recovered from what they now call the 'New New Game Experience' and World of Warcraft continues to flounder along as 7th biggest online game in the world, still listing badly after an ill-advised World of Warcraft 2 launch torpedoed its population, proving that the 'WoW-Killer' was indeed, Blizzard. On the plus side, World of Starcraft continues to hold in third place in most lists, behind Free Realms in an inexplicable second place. Nothing can stop the relentless juggernaut that is the Twilight MMO however and in many countries, play time is mandatory by law, which just goes to show what an unexpected place the year 2019 really is...

Are you also Time Travelers? If so, can you corroborate my findings above?

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