With all the talk of Elder Scrolls Online, and all the MMOs that are out there on the market, I thought I'd take a minute to look at what some of the big players, and the small ones, are doing to set themselves apart. We'll be taking a look at several games from the past and present, and even take a look into the not-so-distant future. Some of what you'll be reading is conjecture, some of it is opinion, some of this will be fact. I won't really be separating them and defining them, as all of them will be thrown together to make what forms the ultimate fate that I see happening. Let's jump into this, shall we?
So we all know that EverQuest (EQ) essentially paved the way for the modern fantasy MMO - at least if you're older than 15, you should know that. We all, regardless of age, probably know that World of Warcraft (WoW) is the current standard model for most MMOs. So that's the past, and there's a lot of folks following that path. WoW still uses the dice roll mechanic of the average Dungeons and Dragons system, and most games use that. This is a basic mechanic that isn't easy to get away from, just based on the requirements for a "real-time" battle system we won't see many turn a blind eye to it just yet.
The biggest thing I'd like to see changed is the need for what has been coined as the MMO Holy Trinity (the Tank/Heals/DPS group make up). This is something that has been around for a while, but never truly made any sense.
Consider for a moment that you are one of the bosses, let's say that you're a giant squid-thing for fun. So there you are, minding your own business, when out of nowhere five "heros" come sauntering in to your lair. They taunt you and tell you about they just killed all your friends, obviously this enrages you so you attack them. The first person in is a "tank" class, say a warrior. So you focus on him, then three of his friends come in and start pummelling you with damaging attacks. There's a mage and some rogue and this cocky hunter that isn't all that usefull but everyone always brings along because they've known him for so long (as it always is, lol). Then you look over and notice that there's some cleric healing the warrior, but you just focus on the steel wall while the squishier folks do the damage and the light-wieght keeps them all alive. Now where, exactly, does this make sense at all?!
Well, the answer is obvious, it doesn't. The tank generates what we've come to call "threat", or "hate", or "aggro" (short for aggression). However, the tank isn't really the most threatening person there. It's probably the mage or the healer, depending on how much healing the group needs. So what's being done to fight this? There are a few options, the current one in production is in Guild Wars (GW) 2. They actually don't have healers. This is a new thing from their last release where you had a healing class. Also, they've stopped calling them classes, but that's a minor thing. In GW2 you have professions, and your skillsets change based on the weapons you use.
You're still restricted to a certain armor class, but they make sense. You're also a little restricted in your weapon choices, most of which make sense. If you have a thief character then you can use a variety of weapon combinations. Every weapon that can be used in the main hand or the off hand has two sets of skills (main hand skills and off hand skills). If you move it from one to the other, it activiates that set of skills. You can mix and match a bit as well. So if you want to use two pistols you can, but if you want to use a pistol and a dagger it is completely viable. In fact, you can come to some really interesting skill choices if you mix and match right.
At any rate, back to the no healer thing. You have race/profession skills that you gain as well, and among those are healing abilities. This way you are expected to be self-sufficient. Different classes have abilites that help other players (small buffs, an AoE heal of sorts), but for the most part you're expected to take care of your own. This doesn't discourage group play, however. In fact, in some ways it makes it easier. You're able to run into a group of other players already playing in an Event (which I'll describe a little further down), and without joining their group gain comparable loot and experience. Also, if you're on a ranger/hunter class and there's a mage throwing down a fire wall, you can shoot arrows through it and make fire arrows. So if you run with a group of different classes, you end up making some interesting combo abilites
That's just one game, though, and only one possible path to change. What if instead of changing the choices the players have, we changed the AI to force the players into smarter choices? I won't rehash the whole thing, but instead just link you the article written by someone else - it describes this style of AI that makes these things possible. In short, EQ is coming out with a new game called EverQuest Next (free to play) and the companies they have chosen to work on their AI systems may lead to some interesting possibilities. You can read that article, in full, here. Linked within that article are secondary articles that explain some of the aspects in a little more detail, if you were so inclined to check those out as well.
The issue of new content is an ever-growing problem in the online gaming community. How do you keep thousands, or even millions, of players interested in your game long-term? The normal answer so far has been to release an expansion every one and a half to two years, along with several patches and content updates in bewteen - things like new dungeons or world events, maybe a new questline or two. However, this method is a little costly, or at least can be in the long run.
This issue has been addressed in a few different ways. In GW2 they're using something called Events to constantly have different content going on. They don't have the classic quest system that we're used to from the days of EQ and WoW, or even the first GW. With the classic quest chains you might walk into a town and have somebody give you a quest to go and kill a bunch of orcs that stole something. Well with Events you will see, in the open world, the orcs come storming into town. This will trigger a live quest to stop the orc invasion, if you succeed that's the end of it. If you don't make it and they run off before you can stop them, then a new Event will begin for you to go to their camp and retrieve whatever they stole - while wiping them out, of course. Things like this happen all over the world constantly, with bigger group events spawning as well (think a more manageable version of the old World Dragons from WoW).
Crytic Studios and Perfect World (makers of Star Trek Online, Neverwinter Online, Torchlight, etc.) have taken a more "dungeon master" approach to the content question. They still add things of their own, but they don't have to focus so hard on it. With things like the Foundry in Neverwinter Online, you as the player have the ability to make a small dungeon, or an entire quest chain. It's completely up to you how much work you put into it. I've seen some pretty amazing things come out of the Foundry. To take it a step further, not only can you tweak and test and perfect it so anyone can play and rate it, but you can submit it to Cryptic to take a look at. If they approve it, it has a chance to make it into the Foundry Daily Quest rotation. That means people will have a chance to play one of three Foundry quests each day for extra rewards, and one of them could be yours. You lose the ability to tweak it once it's in the daily rotations, but you and your quest will have been immortalized into the game. This is a small step towards great things for player-made content.
Other games are taking a full-on sandbox approach to the content updates. EQ Next is one such game. They are in beta at the moment, with their first installment of EQN coming out this winter (2013) called Landmark. In Landmark you and your friends can litterally build anything within the world. Think Minecraft with better graphics, and on crack! It promisses to be an amazing experience, and the best part is, your content could make it into the game! So let's say you and your friends make a huge fortress, spend countless hours on it, submit it to the EQN staff, and they accept it. Next thing you know, you download EQN upon release and you see your fortress in the game, how cool would that be?!
Star Citizen, a new space-sim MMO currently in developement by famed Chris Roberts, is boasting an intuitive semi-sandbox method to content. They'll keep adding new star systems and ships and mechanics, but the world is living and breathing around you. The economy fuels the quests, the quests fuel the supply and demand, the supply and demand fuel the economy. It's a great triangle that promises to add a certain amount of intrigue to how each person will play the game. Do you drive prices up on certain things by blockading trade routes? If you do then there may be a quest for some gun-running pirates to bypass you. Or better yet, there may be a military quest to break your blockade. It's this ebb and flow that mimics real life to just the right degree.
It's innevitable, it's going to happen. Every MMO on the market will end up with microtransactions. Even WoW is putting a cash shop into the game. It'll happen in the Asian market first, but there are plans to do away completely with their "Pet Store", the current web-based shop for the digital items like pets and mounts. I expect this isn't a shock to most who know much about the industry as a whole, but for those of you who don't know . . . expect to see it everywhere. The good new is, pay to win items seem to get seen less and less, but we all a need to cool hat, right?
With that in mind, whether or not you have a subscription fee, the game you're playing will have neat things to buy for extra money. Except not all of it has to cost you real money. In Star citizen the cash shop uses a currency called UEC (United Earth Credits), which you can buy for cash. Or you can earn them doing mission, dogfighting, achieving various goals, etc. So if you put the time into the game you can earn everything, including the cash shop items.
Other games, like those by Cryptic/Perfect Worlds and like GW2, boast a currency exchange. Wherein you could buy their cash shop currency for real money, or you could earn an in-game currency and exchange it on a live market (fluctuating values based on supply and demand) for the purchased currency. This means you can earn things, yet again, completely in-house.
EQN is doing something rather amazing, and is honestly just the obvious next step in gaming and player-made content. They have introduced something called the Player Studio. In the Player Studio you can download basic geometry from the game and create an item. You get to name it, describe it, rationalize it's purpose and place in the game's canon and lore, then submit it to the company. If it passes their inspections, they'll spruce it up and sell it on the cash shop. Here's the cool part, though; you get real cash returns on sales of your item(s)! They'll keep most of it, I'm sure, but you get rewarded for the awesomeness you helped add to the game.
Is the future of gaming any one of these things, or all of them, or none of them? I can't say on a professinoal level. I can say, however, that player-created content has been a big thing in the single-player market for years. More than that, it's been picking up steam of late in the online market. More companies seem to be appreciating it's potential. Just think of a market where the game devs only have to do the polish work on 50-80% of the content we see added into the game? This would free up developement dollars and allow them to use that elsewhere (like not charging me monthly, lol), or be able to spread out their major content updates.
We may not see full-on expansions for three to four years instead of the normal max of two, because they'll be spending longer on their content while we play with the player-created stuff. Better AI would force players to not power through the end-game stuff like seems to be the norm. WoW sometimes has three or four "end-game" raids per expansion, this is out of control! However, if the AI is smarter, that means the fights won't be copy and paste and dance the same steps. When you wipe and come back with a new tactic, the boss will have a new tactic! Intuitive Utility AI is something the players of old have been asking for, and now we're seeing it as a real possibility. I for one, am excited about the future of MMOs, as long as it's in the hands of games like EQN, GW2 and Star Citizen.