About Last Night ...

About Last Night ...
The Future of Massively Multiplayer Isn't You

Richard Aihoshi | 20 Mar 2007 12:02
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The future of massively multiplayer isn't you. Or me. Or anyone else who's a serious fan of the genre as we hardcore gamers know it. Don't get me wrong. We're part of the future, but we're not the future. Not if the genre is to grow enough to approach mainstream status.

Why is this, you ask? How can someone who has logged thousands of hours in dozens of online worlds possibly think like this? Well, it's pretty straightforward. There simply aren't enough people willing to spend the time playing day after day, week after week, month after month, to sustain rapid, ongoing growth in just the hardcore segment. Sure, our ranks are increasing, but not nearly quickly enough to support the kind of broader audience expansion I foresee over the coming years.

This means massively multiplayer gaming will have to attract other types of users, not just more like those of us who are already familiar with World of Warcraft and EverQuest.

Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan and other games that build upon popular brands will certainly expand the market, but these newcomers will still only tap into a miniscule proportion of the greater potential audience, which is anyone with a PC and an internet connection. Many of them are "casual" gamers, ranging from those who buy a game or two a year, to those who just play free ones. And no, the vast majority won't make the jump to MMOGs targeted directly at hardcore players.

Mike Goslin is Vice President of the Walt Disney Internet Group's Virtual Reality Studio. He was one of the principals on Toontown Online and is presently focused on Pirates of the Caribbean Online, which is approaching launch. Both of these MMOGs target non-traditional audience segments, children and teens respectively. He's clearly a believer. "I agree with the premise. The only thing that I would add is that we can [either] wait for the audience for games to diversify and have this audience begin to demand more diverse games, or we can create more diverse games and accelerate the process."

While the game industry is moving in the direction of the mass market, Disney has been there for many years. Its VR Studio was initially set up to create interactive virtual reality attractions for the company's theme parks, which draw, well, pretty much everyone. Their operations went online as far back as 1999, when Disney first started thinking about Toontown. "We had the idea that we could use our theme park skills to create a similar experience for the home by developing MMOGs," Goslin says. "It seemed natural to us to continue developing for the broad theme park audience that we already knew, and we thought it would enable us to do something different from the other games in the genre."

I asked whether the current crop of online worlds has reached its potential, in terms of audience. Goslin says Disney's "point of view is that a 'mass market' is both large and diverse. I don't believe there are many MMOGs out there that appeal broadly to kids and parents, male and female, and young and old." As for how to attract such groups, he's clear in saying "we need a much wider variety of gameplay, themes, settings and stories available in the marketplace, and these games need to be much, much easier to pick up and start playing."

Daniel Huebner, who works on Linden Labs' Second Life, agrees. In his opinion, "the fierce competition in MMOG development has created a plethora of niche themes, but far less differentiation in the experience itself." He also sees the potential to capture a much larger user base, though it's unrealized. "The worlds offered online are rich and fascinating, and the presence of actual, living human beings with whom someone might interact gives these worlds the potential to be far more compelling and immersive than traditional media - but the experience is still too constrained."

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