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PAX East 2011: The future of MMOs from the mouths of the developers


The PAX East panel that almost made me late for the Star Wars: The Old Republic Meet 'n' Greet was a panel hosted by and featuring some of the heavy hitters in MMO development for this year. I am certainly glad I did not skip this one. This was the chance for the fans to hear what the future of MMOs will bring from the people who are making them.

Let me give you a rundown of the panel members -- and tell me you don't just stand in awe of these guys: (from left to right) Curt Schilling, the founder of 38 Studios; Craig Alexander, the VP of Product Development for Turbine; Jeremy Gaffney, Executive Producer at Carbine Studios; Scott Hartsman, Executive Producer for Trion Worlds; Brian Knox, Senior Producer for En Masse Entertainment; James Ohlen, Creative Director for BioWare; and Colin Johanson, Lead Content Designer for ArenaNet.

The opening question really set the stage for the panel. It let us know where the minds of these producers and executives are. The question was simple: Where do you see online games going in the next 10 years? Follow after the cut to find out their thought provoking answers.

Colin Johanson -- working on Guild Wars 2
I would say that the trend we see in the games that have come out recently is we're going less and less from linear content to more and more into open worlds and MMOs being a world more than anything else. I think each developer in his own right is making worlds right now and a gamespace for you to play in. I think you're going to see more content built towards that, where you're just out exploring and enjoying the world. I think worlds as a development tool is what you're going to see more of in the next 10 years.

James Ohlen -- working on Star Wars: The Old Republic
Well, I'm going to have to take a contrary opinion to [Colin]. I have been with BioWare for a long time, so I'm kind of a little bit biased on the story end. I really do believe though that MMORPGs are RPGs at heart. If you look at MMORPGs as roleplaying games over the years, they have been more and more focused on story. And story is being made better and more immersive and more cinematic. You have seen a lot of improvements in RPGs. In MMORPGs, you haven't been seeing as many improvements, but I think you are in the next decade, or at least, I hope we are because that's the kind of game I want to play, not because I'm working on Star Wars: The Old Republic right now and that's what it's all about. I hope that's what we do see in 10 years, and it's probably going to happen.

Brian Knox -- working on TERA
So, I will go contrary. [Laughs] I think there is going to be more focus on the MMO part and less on the RPG part and expanding the MMO genre to action titles to FPSs to RTSs -- making sure that all genres are there. They're all going to come together, and they are going to start to blend -- really pushing the technology forward. We're not making games in 1999 anymore -- not even in 2005 anymore. We are no longer limited by latency or some of the issues that plagued us in the past. Technology is really going to push it forward in the next 10 years.

Scott Hartsman -- working on RIFT
[To Knox] See? Now I can't argue with you because you said damn near said everything I was going to say, so I'm going to make something different up! [To the audience] I think no matter what kinds of games end up popping up, they are all going to end up being online. The word "online game" is going to cease to exist. The word is going to be "game." Everyone is going to have the internet, and it's going to be incredibly fast, and it's going to be on all the time. People are going to make all kinds of content. They are going to make worlds; they are going to make RPGs; they are going to make everything. I think the focus is going to be on new and interesting ways for everybody in this room to interact with each other. How are the players going to interact?

Jeremy Gaffney -- working on an unnamed MMO
I'm going to break from the pack and actually agree with [Scott]. I really think you're going to see a lot of variety in the next 10 years. You're still going to see the big boys with their huge budgets trying to make a blockbuster and spending a ton of money on it. You're still going to see the little guys who end up succeeding despite the big boys. What you're also going to see is more dynamic worlds. You're going to see a lot more user-generated content. That's going to be a big push that's going to take over as a way to fighting those ginormous costs that these games take to make. You're really going to see it in new platforms. You're going to see the genres you're used to, fantasy and that sort of stuff. In the existing platforms, you're going to see more branching out into the different genres than you're used to. That's a trend that's happened in a lot of the other games spaces. MMOs are slow because they take so long to make, but it's going to head down that same path.

Craig Alexander -- working on Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online
Very similar to the others in the group, I believe that MMOs going to dominate all categories of gaming as we move from games as a product -- a discrete unit, whether it be downloadable or retail -- to games as a service. That's a tremendous opportunity for us as developers because it will open up a diversity of all sorts of platforms, gameplay styles, genres, business models, etc. The good news is that we're all excited about the half dozen or so MMOs being released this year, but something's going on in Asia -- particularly China -- that has seen accelerated growth that's dwarfing anything that's happening here. In fact, in the last 12 months, there have been about 400 MMOs released in China. That's over one a day. If we can imagine what's happening, it's like the group said. The RTS genre, the sports genre, casual games, etc., are moving to the games-as-a-service approach. Ultimately, gameplay is going to be a 24/7 experience. It won't be just about logging into a particular platform and playing games. A term we use is "asynchronous play," where the game experience will occur all the time on all platforms. It presents a tremendous opportunity for creativity and immersing yourself in these big worlds where ultimately you'll have a game that allows for development budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The reason is because they will be built over a long period of time.

Curt Schilling -- working on an unnamed MMO
Every one of us would tell you that that's a loaded question because none of us could tell you what's going to happen in the next six months much less the next 10 years. I know from a studio development standpoint, it's a quarterly thing -- a monthly thing. This genre's changing so fast. I don't know how it's going to happen, but I do know it is going to happen: Facebook is going to have a massive impact on the MMO space. We talk about MMO in the western hemisphere as games... Trion just passed a million accounts which is amazing. [Applause] But we have not had a huge capacity in multiplayer games in the western hemisphere. You want to talk massive? I'm talking 50, 60, 70, 100 million users. They are seeing that in the Far East. Someone out here is going to figure out how. I think it's happened at 38 Studios, but I might be biased. That's the Holy Grail. When you talk games with budgets north of a hundred million dollars -- which these triple-A MMOs are costing -- that's the home run you're after: to make a game that appeals to a true mass market. Social networking as a whole is going to have a huge impact on how the user experience is created for online play.

Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 11-13, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR or Guild Wars 2 or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

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