Over the past fifteen years we have watched the birth and growth of a genre, as well as witnessed it's many changes over that same duration. The accessibility of new technology has been the leading influence for the growth of PC gaming - specifically in Massive Multiplayer Online games. The games we are playing today are a direct result of that accessibility and those influences.
Yet... the internet didn't used to be such a necessity in the majority of American homes. In fact, during its earliest common use, the internet was a luxury that not every family in America could afford.
Fifteen years later those same residences where people couldn't quite afford a personal computer or access to the internet have changed significantly. Now every member of the household is using handheld a computer (smartphones or tablet) that dwarf the power of personal computers from the late nineties, all of which have wireless access to the internet 24/7 - even if they're taken outside the home.
My, how the landscape has changed.
Technology's impact on the MMO genre
The average American now has access to nearly any piece of non-privatized information that exists in the world, so long as it has a digital copy. Additionally, access to that information is getting faster and faster as networks and infrastructure continue to develop and grow, and as internet service providers continue to stay competitive and offer fair and affordable pricing.
The simple fact is that most Americans today can have it all, and they can have it right now.
Is it surprising then, to see how games have evolved over the last decade and a half? MMOs in particular have seen the most evolution as this new technology has not just invaded our homes, but our very minds. Culturally, America has begun to grow accustomed to getting a direct line to any piece of information they need, whenever they need it. If you take that same mindset and apply it to gaming, it's pretty easy to understand how and why World of Warcraft currently dominates the MMO market.
Other than the grind of leveling, almost every feature that exists in WoW you can access within moments of logging in. There is generally no long-travel required, and there is no time wasted whatsoever. Dungeon queues, flight paths, and flying mounts have nearly obliterated all open-world travel. Everything is instanced - which given the previous implications, is a pretty interesting word choice when you really stop to think about it. For the most part WoW allows instant access to everything you've earned (or payed for).
Why leveling has become a grind
I also find it humorous that I frequently use the term "grinding" when talking about leveling. In the earliest days of MMOs, that very grind was what created the majority of the content. Questing and Leveling wasn't a grind back then - well, honestly it was, but it was a fun grind. It was fun back then because it wasn't getting in the way of what you really wanted to do. Back then, the grind was all their was. Everything else was just player-created social gameplay that didn't produce any tangible in-game rewards.
In contrast, today leveling stands in the way of almost every single exciting feature of modern MMOs. The most enjoyable content has been "gated" behind leveling to create an avenue for monetary support. If you don't believe that is true, then just look at all the old MMOs (now including WoW) that have provided purchasable high-level character boosts. Leveling IS the system of monetization for most MMOs - at least in my opinion.
Here's the reality.
In today's modern era of instant-access information and multiplayer collaboration, players of MMOs can literally tear through content at breakneck speed. Whether anyone is actually enjoying the content at that pace is entirely debatable... but the fact remains, it can and does happen. Once those players have "finished" the content, they no longer need to keep paying developers to play the game, especially if there isn't any dynamic social content to keep them engaged. Hell, for most MMO players, once their friends have left a game, they usually follow immediately after. More often than not all that takes is one key friend to grow bored or disinterested. So where does this lead us?
Into the future, of course.
New MMO concepts that really are "Next-Gen"
I am a firm believer that a new era of MMOs is nearing and the improperly and overly used term "Next-Gen" is about to actually mean something.
Just as an example, for SOE's EverQuest Next, they have chosen to forgo leveling completely. A smart move, as they've obviously noticed how leveling has become more of an uncomfortable gating mechanic than something that most players actually enjoy. Another huge benefit (and there are many) of not utilizing leveling as a content gate is that you eliminate social barriers. I can't count how many times I've picked up a new MMO to game with a friend and been frustrated and annoyed by the fact that I have to grind up through levels just to enjoy meaningful play with them. The ability to purchase character boosts certainly helps, but that also means that I've just flushed at least 50% of the content down the toilet - and paid to do so.
In addition SOE is implementing a brand-new and highly-touted AI system called Storybricks (the product of an independent indie development company of the same name). In a nutshell, Storybricks is a system of actions and reactions that can be encoded to enemies, NPCs, and even entire factions within the world. It also allows developers to issue individual AI units and bigger factions a set of desires and goals that will allow them to operate in the open-world in a very mobile way. Depending on their depth and purpose, they could be given the complete roaming freedom of any player - able to cross the entire world, if need be.
It's quite a dynamic system really, and has the potential to create continuous dynamic content in what would otherwise be just your typical stagnant setting.
Probably the greatest attraction to me about the Storybricks system is how NPCs will have to adjust to changes in the world that players create, since both players and AI will frequently share the same desires and goals when it comes to obtaining in-game resources. It's a very simple concept really, but it changes the shape of an MMO setting entirely when both the players and NPC's are moving around the world, changing their goals, and adapting to both temporary and permanent changes within the world around them.
PNE v PNE
There is a reason that concept is so intriguing. It allows NPCs to function as extensions of player agency. In such a system, players would have the ability to change the world by interacting with and manipulating the environment around them. The same environment that everyone else is interacting with. While that will lead to direct conflict between player interests, now they will get to adapt to semi-predictable AI intrusions without experiencing that direct anxiety-inducing conflict that exists in a true PvP system. Its a clever way to allow the PvE experience to tap into that unique faction vs faction element that exists exclusively in PvP environments. Which should create more realism and more dynamic interaction within the world, and hopefully mitigate the potential for targeted griefing of individuals. It would essentially be Player & Environment vs Player & Environment (or PNEvPNE for a handy acronym).
It's basically a complete merger of what we traditionally understand to be PvE and PvP type rulesets.
Player vs. Player fantacis will rave about games like League of Legends and others in the MOBA genre where a dynamic and ever-changing experience exists. Even within the confines of the exact same map, goals, and mission games always feel totally different and new as the strategic landscape evolves and as players adjust to other players' actions. Conversely, Player vs Environment fanatics will excitedly promote how that environment allows players to feel the most comfortable and rewarded because it doesn't typically bring the highly competitive tension you get from PvP environments that always pit players against one another.
I know I got a bit side-tracked on some of the new "Next-Gen" type mechanics that I see having the potential to become dominant features in the genre, but ultimately I wanted to point out how the times are still changing. MMOs are still adapting to new technology and the wants and needs of players who are also changing with the times. It is a constant process and a place where players and developers will always have to meet in the middle. After all, it's gotten easier and easier to drop a game we don't enjoy anymore and pick up something new; so they're going to have to give us what we want, to some extent.
On the flip side of that, developers are paying much more attention than we are to the evolution of the industry at large. They are constantly trying to stay one step ahead of us (and each other) as the produce new titles or add new content to existing ones. In many respects, they're still sort of driving this ship; we just have a lot more say in how things go than we used to - as players.
The important thing for both parties to remember is that we thrive off of each other. Without players, game-developers wouldn't have jobs. Likewise, without developers, gamers wouldn't have any videogames to play. It's a symbiotic relationship. For an interesing Comic-book analogy: Spiderman (black suit), Venom, and Carnage are all in a symbiotic relationship with their "suit" - one of them a host and the other a parasite. Who do you think is using who, and who's will is driving this MMO industry beast?
I'll leave it up to you to debate who is who when it comes to players and developers, it should make for an interesting comment section to read. Let me know what you think below!