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The Think Tank: What change do you fear in the future of MMOs?

Shawn Schuster

MMO vets have a reputation. No, I don't mean the basement thing, I mean we're often seen as being afraid of change. Back in our day, we had to wait an hour for a raid boss to spawn, and we liked it!

But ironically, the free-to-play push has turned MMO gamers against anything said to be releasing with a sub, as seen with the recent backlash against The Elder Scrolls Online.

So I polled the Massively staff members for their opinions on the changes we see in our favorite genre. Is there anything they're particularly afraid to see as they glare into the crystal ball?

I think what I dread most is erosion of the line between real-life identities and online personae. I can totally understand the desire to have accountability for player actions -- which is why I'm 100% behind having players connected to a universal handle. But I think as MMO gaming becomes more mainstream and more connected to social media, there's been sort of a weird move toward downplaying escapism. I tend to side-eye marketing that tries to portray MMO gaming as a cool lifestyle choice and make it seem less geeky or whatever because to be 100% honest, I'm here to play Internet Pretend World Simulator, and it feels as if a lot of developers have gotten self-conscious about providing that.
I fear the change from MMOs as actual, self-contained online worlds to more MOBA-styled, instanced action-factories. I'd like to also be clear that I actually enjoy and write about pseudo MMOs or games that are only marginally defined as MMOs. I just fear the problem that many developers have with creating online worlds without spending massive amounts of money. If developers don't find a way to make these worlds without going broke, they'll continue to shift to models that are cheaper to make. Luckily there's always the indie market that continues to find new ways to create these living worlds without spending tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.
I've already cringed through the change from MMOs-as-nerdy-virtual-worlds to MMOs-as-mainstream-combat-lobbies, so I can't think of anything more annoying that could happen to the genre from a personal perspective. It's all cyclical anyway, as we're seeing now.

In broader terms, society's continued use of the "fear of change" rhetoric frightens me because it is in fact rhetoric. And it's rhetoric put forth by people who seek to take away rather than to give. They attempt to paint their opponents as old, out-of-touch curmudgeons who can't accept that "change is good, bro!" Except change isn't necessarily good. It's entirely subjective.
I fear a loss of variety for the industry as a whole. I fear subscription-only games fading away, so that those who can't stand F2P in any form end up driven away from the hobby. I fear a series of dramatic failures causing the crowdfunding bubble to burst. I fear the industry-wide sandbox revival falling flat, causing developers to give up and go back to nothing but safe themeparks forever. I fear Asian imports drying up. I fear everything turning into MOBAs. I fear another out-of-the-blue shutdown like City of Heroes. I fear an end to MMOs branching out into non-traditional genres. I fear everything going exclusively browser-based, console-based, phone/tablet-based, or even desktop PC standalone client-based.

Anything that could limit the scope of what the term MMO can mean terrifies me, even if it doesn't directly affect anything I like.
The change I fear most for the future of MMOs is the same change I fear for the broader games industry: the ever-increasing focus of publishers on making all of their money back in the first week of launch or before via pre-orders and early access. We're seeing bigger hype trains, less accountability, and more taking advantage of true fans willing to pony up money for games sight unseen. This issue took the mainstage in 2013; titles like Battlefield 4, Neverwinter, and SimCity made piles of money despite being barely ready for launch. Did the publishers suffer from the backlash? Maybe. Will gamers stop pre-ordering? No.

If the future of games is one of immense marketing blitzes, broken products, and poor follow-up on the part of the developer, it's not a future I'm excited to be a part of.
I'm mostly afraid of what is already happening -- that is, monetization creeping up in ways that negatively affect gaming experience. This is particularly true for sandbox games where progression isn't an expectation and people can skip ahead of their competitors with a few well-placed $US. MMOs as a genre have done everything I didn't want them to do, including sacrificing/removing/dumbing down gameplay for the masses and more allowing non-gamer producers to make decisions about a game's direction.

As Beau said, there's always the smaller indie stuff, and it's really only a matter of time before MMO production gets inexpensive enough that anyone with a dream can do it.

What do you get when you throw the Massively writers' opinions together in one big pot to stew? You get The Think Tank, a column dedicated to ruminating on the MMO genre. We range from hardcore PvPers to sandbox lovers to the carest of the carebears, so expect some disagreement! Join Senior Editor Shawn Schuster and the team for a new edition right here every other Thursday.

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