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Huebner says although certain current properties qualify as "social phenomena," none are mass market. "There is something about the nature of the experience that is holding it back. Star Wars, as a brand, is as mass appeal as one could hope for; but Galaxies didn't bring a vast new audience to MMOGs. Certainly, the age range of gamers is broadening; there are parents playing World of Warcraft, but how many grandparents? Genders are certainly not equally represented."
Second Life, Linden Lab's virtual world, isn't a game in the conventional sense. Huebner doesn't call it one, although he does say, "The ways in which the virtual world presents itself, and mechanisms for interacting with that world, are very game-like. ... [However,] Second Life doesn't offer up a neatly packaged theme or plot, so we've never been able to fall back on the kinds of built-in audiences that gravitate toward sci-fi, fantasy or licensed titles. Our target audience is those who are restless, self-motivated, creative and tenacious."
While hardcore online gamers often possess these qualities, so do many others. Goslin thinks "the big difference between casual and hardcore gamers is the amount of time they are willing to invest. To attract the former, you have to get them engaged faster, because their time is limited. Once they're playing, however, the game needs to be challenging, deep and fun, if you want them to continue. If you succeed in creating a game that's challenging, deep and fun for a casual player, it will likely also be fun for a hardcore gamer."
Similarly, Huebner believes virtual worlds and other non-games can appeal to hardcore gamers, although in different ways. In the case of Second Life, he cites "deeper interaction, more robust relationships, fewer social and creative restraints, and the ability to contribute to the building of a world, rather than simply its consumption."
In the creation-consumption vein, the future of MMOGs will also include new ways to monetize them. Most of the major Western publishers are sticking with box sales plus monthly subscriptions, but from a business point of view, this single-minded approach is self-limiting: A lot of people aren't comfortable paying $15 a month for a game. But it's only a matter of time until someone makes a lot of money - and opens the demographic floodgate - without charging players a monthly fee.
The future of the genre will be defined by the decisions developers make now. MMOGs used to be created by the hardcore, for the hardcore, but as the audience continues broadening toward the middle, the hardcore will represent a shrinking proportion of players. Like digital pioneers, the hardcore will see the fertile lands they discovered filled by the less intrepid from all walks of life, and those new souls will only push the old guard forward, past the horizon. Who knows what they'll find?
Richard Aihoshi blurred the line between work and play in another way. Several years ago, his hobby, computer games, turned into a career writing about them, primarily the massively multiplayer and roleplaying genres. An online poker player for about a year, he claims to be ahead overall but admits he makes far too little even to dream about playing for a living.