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The Soapbox: MMOs are to kids what MUDs are to us


I love MUDs. When I go through a several-hour long MUD session, I feel as if I took part in a greater story, and most of the fun was not based on stats or gear. MUDs let me escape into a world because they are about story first. I think I'm pretty rare, though. I can't find many other writers who seem to write about MUDs unless they are referencing them like some sort of relic from the past. The truth is that MUDs are still being loved, played, and enjoyed by thousands. Covering MUDs is as important as covering any other MMO. They're still part of the bigger picture.

I'm sure many of you reading this now could not care less about MUDs. You might have played one years ago, but generally they are seen as the cute elderly citizens of MMOdom. That's cool if that's how you feel, but now think about this: The new generation, kids between 13 and 20 years old, will look at many of our large PCs and 20 gig MMOs the same way modern gamers look at MUDs.

Angry Birds on the iPad
It's not hard to find lists or charts that show how tablets and smartphones are making sure that the mobile market is outpacing anything that the PC previously offered. Sure, standard MMOs can offer "superstars" like World of Warcraft that once reached 12 million players worldwide and since flattened out. Angry Birds has sold around 12 million copies from the Apple store alone and in much less time. I know, I know, apples to oranges, but the point is that when you look at a typical gamer, that player has a favorite platform or two. I tend to rely on my gaming PC for heavier games and my browser for most everything else. I'm in love with my Nexus 7 3G tablet, but mainly because I use it to write about Android games for work.

Just picture a typical teenager right now: What do you think she relies on? Yes, many tweens have access to as many different devices as adults, but what's most likely to appear as a source of gaming entertainment for the youngsters? Is a 14-year-old more likely to have a gaming PC, a cheaper boxed PC, a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone?

Seeing the ever-growing popularity of tablets -- even PC tablets -- has me a bit puzzled. Does this mean that large "world" games like Star Wars: The Old Republic or other client-based MMOs are doomed simply because they typically require a sit-down, expensive device that most young players see as, well, old? I'm not sure; the price of those PCs is dropping. I got a pretty killer PC from Dell for a much smaller price I would have the year or two before. Laptop prices are falling as well. But, giants like Dell have talked about the fading PC market for a while and are starting to push tablets. They cite reasons like "lengthening replacement cycles" and "increasing substitution of smartphones and tablets for PCs."

PC sales chart
The funny thing is that all of these differences I am talking about, the differences between tablets and PCs or even consoles, are about how we interface with the devices of our choice. Images are made on a screen; we control what happens. MUDs are usually controlled by typing out commands like "go North" or "attack Orc" while PC MMOs are typically controlled with a keyboard and mouse. This isn't about genre; this is about control schemes.

How we physically interact with MMOs might seem like a trivial difference, but in my opinion it's one of the most important features of gaming. Even though MUDs provide some of the most in-depth character creation and wonderfully complex systems for combat and development, the fact that they are based on text and are controlled by typing simply turns off many modern players and is at the very least seen as something from the past. Interaction is especially important to disabled players, of which there are tens of millions.

"You might have a preference for massive screens and amazing graphics, but the connectivity between tablets and our larger screens (like a television) is just a matter of a simple HDMI cable."

When I look around my house I see several -- at least nine -- ways to connect to the internet and play games. I had to buy a more powerful gaming PC to stream games with, not to only play games on. I access just as many MMOs through my tablet as I do anywhere else. My wife is glued to her laptop but especially her iPad. Tablets have grown in popularity so quickly because they have the ability to quickly and seamlessly become part of everything we do. If you were a 14-year-old and had a light, cheap device and access to literally millions of free games and an ever-growing list of actual MMOs, would you still prefer to sit in one spot to play on a PC?

Desktops were for many years the only devices that could run games that looked amazing. Tablets easily have that power now. Smartphones are just smaller tablets that also have the ability to make phone calls. You might have a preference for massive screens and amazing graphics, but the connectivity between tablets and our larger screens (like televisions) is just a matter of a simple HDMI cable. Some tablets offers resolutions greater than your PC monitor.

What does all of this mean for the PC MMO market? In my opinion, it means that one day the teenagers of today or even the hardcore PC fans like yours truly will look back on the mouse and keyboard as silly relics of the past. I look at the tape drive of my Commodore 64 the same way. It's a natural chain of events.

How we interact with devices is so important that it can change markets and wipe out decades-old companies. Touch is natural. It's intuitive. It's so easy that my grandmother was able to figure out my Nexus 7 while she would would normally just glare at a PC. It's also very possible that touch-screen PCs will help the PC continue into the future. Already many new laptops are coming equipped with a touchscreen. Once people get used to a touchscreen, they have a hard time going back.

Now, what does all of this mean for how MMOs are designed? In the short term, the MMOs that come on our tablets and smartphones will be smaller worlds and less grand. The designers and publishers will make the mistake of thinking that tablet users will not tolerate hours-long gaming sessions. Soon, though, the developers will understand that the always-on and portability aspects of tablets can change how dedicated players can become. These new players can sign in anywhere and at anytime. The possibility for player retention goes up. Graphics get better and better. Want to play on your larger monitor? Just beam your game from your tablet to your screen.

Don't worry. For those of us who still enjoy massive, three-dimensional worlds, there will be a way to enjoy them for many years, just as there are ways to enjoy MUDs for the last few decades. Just don't be surprised when your son or grandson looks at your massive gaming mouse and says, "What is that?"

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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