So they ask: What is the future of the massively multiplayer game? And I think: More importantly, how long before that future gets here? I've been waiting for ages. Surely with all that soul searching and "post-mortem analysis" the developers can't be far from that elusive next-gen ideal? Surely someone will spot all the best bits and make a game to end all games?
Won't they? Ach, maybe it's hopeless. How can I really know? How can I predict what games are going to do in a year, let alone a couple of decades? Who could have predicted the rise in professional gaming, or the importance of mods, or the black-market virtual cash cultures, or the thronging game cafés of the Far East, where people can lose their lives in arguments over virtual items?
Ah, yes. Amid all of this unexpected and bewildering new culture lies my answer: The future of massively multiplayer games is gamers. Amid the chaotic genealogies of games there lie some hidden trends, and it's these subtle patterns that give us some clues to the future: A future in which games rely not on them, but on us.
There are two types of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). The first type is essentially just a single-player game stretched to fit this new "online" way of doing things. You'll often hear a complaint about games like World of Warcraft, that they are too focused on soloing or lack decent player cooperation. You get into the game, you hit stuff, you get bigger statistics and head out to hit stuff with even bigger statistics; there's not much more to it than that.
In the case of WoW, this has happened because Blizzard has taken the single player RPG, Diablo, and bolted the template over online technologies. If player vs. player combat is poor, or the capacity for self-creation is limited, then it's because this was a game that took old standards of what makes a game successful and applied them to an entirely new way of interacting. The game is inflexible, focused on the individual and acutely reliant on content provided by the developers to keep us entertained. Sure, Bob is with you, and his dwarf looks funny, but you're not exactly getting anywhere. There's nothing unique here; you are, as one Icelandic games developer memorably said to me, "just queueing to be next on the theme park ride." It's empty, and you can't do much to fill it up.
Of course this model hasn't exactly proven unpopular, and my own six months as a slave to the perpetual monkey-finger collection is a testament to that. The sheer beauty of games like World of Warcraft, combined with an appetite for the familiar from a majority of players, means that their ilk will probably still be around in 2020, and still be raking in the cash. Just a brief glance at the MMOGs scheduled for release over the next five years confirms this thought. We want beautiful worlds given to us neatly packaged, and we're going to get them.
But as time progresses, the ol' Darwin effect kicks in - the second type of game has already begun to appear from the primordial ooze: games like Second Life, A Tale in the Desert and, to a lesser extent, Eve Online and Star Wars Galaxies. All these titles have glimpsed the possibilities of alternative method, although none of them provide a satisfactory example of it. This second kind of game is one where players begin to have to make their own fun, rather than have it provided for them. Some examples of this include the way in which Eve Online players have naturally grouped into unofficial "alliances" and have begun to monopolize areas of their world. Initially there wasn't much to do in game, so player interactions provided the most interesting possibilities. Wars, politics, trade: it all opened up very quickly.
The developer, CCP, suspected that this kind of thing might happen, but really had no idea how to implement it. Why would they? No one has tried open ended gaming on such a scale before. Instead of trying to provide any kind of concrete guild system they've provided a framework for shooty spaceships and a consumer economy and let the players fight it out. Providing players with resources to struggle for meant that they would do just that, and instantly the challenge of taking on human beings with other human allies becomes more interesting than battling crap AI trolls for another pot of gold. In time Eve has seen socioeconomic systems emerge spontaneously. Once the larger dynamics become clear, then extra support can be coded into the game.